PHOENIX – Jeff Hornacek answered his pregame questions as if the Suns would become one of the best teams in NBA history without a postseason berth. Contextually, he was answering a specific question, but the admission of his team not being in control of its own destiny made one thing clear.
It already stung.
“If you would have said at the beginning of the year that we had a chance to control our own destiny coming down to the last week, you would have probably been pretty happy about that,” Hornacek said before the must-win game against the Memphis Grizzlies. “The tough part is, once these guys got there they expected to try and win one of those games, two tough games — one at San Antonio and one at Dallas.”
It stung even before Phoenix fell at home on Monday, 97-91, to the Memphis Grizzlies. For the first time since a five-year stretch in 1970-75, the Suns are lottery-bound for the fourth year in a row.
The U.S. Airways Center crowd seemed to have accepted the Suns’ fate. The fans seemed less on-edge about the moment and more settled in, ready to enjoy the last home game of a memorable season dug out of a trash heap.
So give the Suns credit one more time, even with the odds against them and even after a loss to the Grizzlies that included 22 lead changes and eight ties, almost all of which came in the second half.
Feel bad you picked them to win 15 games or 20 or 25 or 35 or 40 or 45.
The Suns sit at 47 wins and could add one more to that total, but their postseason fate is decided by what-ifs that give the franchise four of the six-best non-playoff teams in NBA history in terms of win totals.
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A dreadful start for the Suns saw the Grizzlies take a 24-12 lead late in the first quarter as Zach Randolph abused them. The second quarter was Mike Miller’s turn to torch the Suns, but it was more a discredit to the Phoenix defense than anything he was doing. Miller’s weakside floating led to Marcus Morris unnecessarily helping a few times, and then Gerald Green got caught losing Miller – as in, his eyes weren’t on Miller – working off the ball.
Phoenix woke up eventually, but as it had against Dallas and San Antonio, the Suns’ inexperience, or really Memphis’ experience, played the biggest factor.
“They make runs, they can really score the ball,” said Memphis coach Dave Joerger. “They put so much pressure on you. They biggest thing is we didn’t get way down. Every time we felt like we weren’t playing well — we’d have a couple of hiccups or turnovers and we turned the ball over way too many times — the most they got ahead was by three points.”
It’s not only if the Suns would have beaten Memphis just once out of four times.
True, the grueling pace that only gave Phoenix a chance with 23 points off 19 turnovers made up for a 5-for-26 three-point shooting evening and stagnant, halfcourt offense. And yes, the Suns couldn’t stop Zach Randolph from scoring 32 points — less their fault — and dominating in the paint. They also couldn’t keep Miller from stroking in a season-high 21 points on 8-for-11 shooting — that was more the Suns’ fault.
Phoenix finally cut into a nervous crowd with less than a minute to play in the first half, when a forced turnover led to a Frye transition dunk that brought the Suns within six.
The second half was a classic back-and-forth with the Suns needing the quick push up the court to break the stangle-hold of the Grizzlies’ halfcourt defense, and then Memphis needing to beat Phoenix in the paint with Randolph and Marc Gasol.
Hornacek admitted his Suns couldn’t execute in the halfcourt well enough. As Memphis knew what it was doing, Phoenix second-guessed itself.
“When you’re together for a long time, it’s kind of a sixth sense of where everything is, just the flow of everything,” the Suns coach said.
But maybe the more frustrating story of the night was what might have been the thing to doom the Suns in the postseason had they made it there. Phoenix continually left Miller open despite the Grizzlies never having more than two three-point shooters on the court at a time. Playing smart, as it was against Dallas and San Antonio in the Suns’ last two games, didn’t come easily for Phoenix.
Memphis knew when and where to swing the ball, while Phoenix played unsure basketball. Now, too soon in their minds, they’ll have time to reflect. The season has essentially come to an end, but the Suns see brightness coming another day.
“It’s really tough to say something positive right now,” said Dragic, who made it through the year battered as anyone. “When you’re so close to the playoffs, you always want some little bit more.”
How does Eric Bledsoe handle the moment?
After Goran Dragic went 6-for-18 against the Dallas Mavericks, Bledsoe was the point guard to struggle on Monday. He went 6-for-16 from the floor for 13 points and five assists but never could crack the code against Memphis’ well-known and elite pick-and-roll defense.
How much damage do Memphis’ bigs cause on the boards?
It wasn’t necessarily on the boards where the Memphis big men slugged the Suns in their chests early on. Zach Randolph scored 13 points in the first quarter against Channing Frye and then Markieff Morris and was rolling then-forth, but it said something that the Suns were outrebounded by 12 — then again, Memphis shot 52 percent overall and Phoenix went 5-for-29 from three-point range, so the opportunities were certainly more in the Grizzlies’ favor.
Dragic led the Suns with six rebounds.
Do the Suns get the fan support they rightfully deserve when it matters most?
It was just the fourth sellout of the year but the crowd wasn’t in the game from the beginning. Phoenix’s play to start the game didn’t quite warrant excitement, and the energy in the arena was more nervous than hopeful.
There was a spark in the second half, but there were still spells of anxiety in the stands.
Michael Schwartz wrote a eulogy for the 2013-14 Suns for the Daily Dime.