Eric Bledsoe’s return brings hope

Eric Bledsoe is coming back at the perfect time. Sure the Suns would have loved to have their star guard return sooner, but was a recovering Bledsoe really going to help the Suns fair better in their last four games? I think not. A win over the Thunder was a better haul from those four matchups than most expected the Suns to get. And now those games are behind the team, and it’s time to look forward.

Phoenix currently sits in ninth with Minnesota 4.5 games behind and Memphis a half game ahead. Bledsoe has targeted Wednesday at home to the Cleveland Cavaliers as his return game. That matchup is the first in a stretch of 11 winnable games for the Suns. Between now and the end of the month, Phoenix will not face a single Western Conference playoff contender. They will play seven teams with losing records, and nine of their 11 opponents are in the East. Tempering the excitement about this stretch is the fact that seven of the 11 games are on the road. Phoenix will also have two tough road back-to-backs, Toronto-to-Brooklyn and Minnesota-to-Atlanta.

When I handicapped the playoff race at the All-Star break, I identified 14 games over .500 as the Suns’ target for making the postseason. That would put them at 48-34 for the year. Even in the exceedingly tough West, the Suns would be near locks to make the playoffs with 48 wins. If the Suns can go 8-3 the rest of this month that will put their record at 44-30, meaning they’d only need to go 4-4 in their brutal close to the season in April. 8-3 is a tall order for the Suns in their next 11, but it’s doable. Phoenix has gotten that hot for stretches this year. If I were a betting man, I’d say the Suns have one more winning streak left in the tank.

Though Bledsoe has said he intends to comeback “full throttle”, there will be an inevitable adjustment period while he recovers his legs, and the team adjusts to his presence in the lineup. Gerald Green has really excelled in Bledsoe’s presence, and it’s unclear how he will respond if or when he returns to a reserve role. It’s also unclear if Coach Jeff Hornacek intends to return Bledsoe to the starting lineup or bring him off the bench for the entire stretch run.

Despite the uncertainty that will accompany Bledsoe’s return, he is the oasis in the desert for Phoenix. The Suns are running out of gas. Tonight’s loss to the Clippers is proof. Though they battled back admirably, the Suns are definitely missing something. They need Bledsoe’s strength, energy, and toughness to lift them up and keep them in the playoff hunt. So no matter what temporary obstacles may arrive as the Suns reintegrate him, the benefits of having Bledsoe far outweigh any risks.

This stretch will ultimately define the Suns’ season. For as unexpectedly great as Phoenix has been this year, missing the playoffs will mean all of their well-deserved hype was for not. If the Suns finish in ninth, they’ll ultimately be remembered as one of the rare 45 or 46 win teams that missed the playoffs, not the endearing, surprising, and tough young team that delighted the league and its fans all season. The blessing for Phoenix is that they’ll get to fight for their playoff lives with their full compliment of players.

It’s going to be a very entertaining 19-game battle.

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