Suns' playoff chances might hinge on health of bruised and battered Goran Dragic

PHOENIX — The large, navy blue towel draped over his face should have been a telltale sign.

It was there not so much to hide the agony of defeat, his team’s third straight and seventh in its last 10 games, but rather to temporarily ease the physical pain.

Phoenix Suns guard Goran Dragic didn’t just end up on the wrong side of Wednesday night’s outcome, he wore the bumps and bruises that came along with it well after the final buzzer sounded.

It’s par for the course at this point in the 82-game schedule. Come March and April, it’s as much a battle of attrition as it is a battle for playoff positioning.

But this was a little bit unique, even for the Slovenian.

Dragic has collided head-first with a teammate, required 13 stitches above his left eye, sprained ankles and been hit countless times in just about every imaginable body part through 64 games, and yet he never resembled the beaten down floor general that occupied his locker space following the Suns’ 110-101 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

His latest affliction, a shot to his already-ailing left side while setting a pick on Anderson Varejao in the first half, seemed to take a toll not felt from the aforementioned list of maladies.

The usually affable 27-year-old was reduced to a much different sort of character. He didn’t even have the heart to sugarcoat his uncomfortable reality.

“Yes, [this is the worst pain I've felt this late in a season],” said Dragic, who also had his midsection wrapped in ice packs. “Everything hurts. I’m going to fight through it. It’s not like this is the first time it’s happened.”

It’s certainly not the first time, but it also probably won’t be the last.

While Dragic didn’t let his battered body get in the way of his 30th 20-plus point performance of 2013-14 Wednesday night, it’s a great mystery as to whether he can survive what’s been to date the hallmark season of his career.

Averaging a career-high 34.8 minutes per game is one thing, doing so while also leading an overachieving squad full of unproven talent every step of the way is quite another.

Add in the fact that he had to so primarily alone over the last 33 games due to the backcourt absence of Eric Bledsoe, and it’s no wonder he sat motionless minutes after Phoenix’s nine-point loss at US Airways Center — looking more like a defeated prize fighter than a starting point guard.

“I mean it would probably be easier if Eric didn’t get hurt,” said Dragic, who is averaging 23.1 points and 6.3 assists in his last 20 games. “I’m just going to go home and get a long, long sleep. I’m going to try and hold my baby and get some energy from him. I’m just going to try and take care of my body, and hopefully I’ll come back with energy.

“I would definitely say it hurts more when you lose. All the punches you get, I think it hurts even more. If you’re winning, those things go away.”

With 18 games to go and the final few playoff spots in the Western Conference still up for grabs, the two become inversely related.

Phoenix can’t win without Goran Dragic, so it must find a way to protect its budding star — whether that means a slight minute reduction or simply using him off the ball more with Bledsoe or Ish Smith running the point.

Plain and simple, all of the Suns’ current shortcomings — be it their defensive struggles, lack of frontcourt production or inconsistent effort on the glass — become moot points if the sixth-year guard isn’t on the court down the stretch.

If everything hurts now for Dragic, imagine the pain and frustration he’ll feel if he’s forced to sit outside the party for yet another spring.

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