PHOENIX — Part of the growing up process for the Phoenix Suns was winning over fans after three lottery-bound seasons prior, the last of which was a historically bad year.
Another part was learning something about themselves.
“That we can play with anybody,” point guard Goran Dragic said without hesitation when asked what he learned this year.
“We had a lot of great moments and a lot of strength, and just to come to the season and everybody was saying we’re not going to play good, that tells us something about how this team is and how we came along and played tough basketball.”
Coach Jeff Hornacek took a longer while to take the podium following the Monday night, 97-91 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. He was busy giving a speech to his team.
“This team tonight, they were in the Western Conference finals last year,” Hornacek said of the Grizzlies. “They’re one of the top teams when Marc Gasol plays. Our guys battled, they did the best they could.”
Hornacek said his players proved a lot to their coaches, the fans and the organization this season. More importantly, they proved much to themselves.
But maybe most importantly, the Suns proved something to their NBA peers.
“A lot of compliments from older guys in the league like, ‘Man, you guys just look like you have a good time playing with each other,'” said Suns forward Channing Frye.
Look no further than the Memphis Grizzlies, who secured a postseason bid after last year falling to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. Memphis overcame a 10-15 start in 2013-14, learned how to win under first-year coach Dave Joerger and overcame multiple injuries, the one to Gasol being the most significant hinderance in reaching the postseason.
After the game on Monday, the Grizzlies bench made sure to console the Suns afterward in U.S. Airways Center, acting like the big brother sending his little brother off to college. They know full well that Phoenix could put up a better fight next time they meet.
Memphis knew this wasn’t a fluke of a situation, where the Suns’ battle for the final playoff spot came down to the last week of the year.
“It was real intense,” Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph said. “The game went back and forth.
“Nobody expected them to do what they did this season. Coach Hornacek did a great job and those young guys over there, you’ve got to take your hat off to them,” he added. “They had a great season. Bledsoe, he’s a stud. Dragic and all the other guys are great young players.”
The Suns miss out on the postseason with either 47 or 48 wins. It was either inexperience in what were essentially playoff games that did them in, or a few bad losses to bad teams.
“When I look back, you saw game against Lakers … you have to take care of business at home, away against those teams that are not so successful,” Dragic said. “I know tomorrow it’s going to be better. Everybody did their job, everybody was fighting throughout the whole season. I’m proud of every player in the locker room.”
Who’s in the locker room next year and beyond remains to be seen, but with league-wide respect, the season doesn’t only mark progress within. It means Phoenix has done a fine marketing job throughout the NBA. Randolph, who was briefly mentioned as a Suns trade target this season, was quick to compliment the culture, after all.
That’s as important a reason as any for Phoenix to feel good moving into the summer.