At 18-14, the Phoenix Suns currently sit two games ahead of the New Orleans Pelicans and three games ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder for sole possession of the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference.
It’s a strangely, highly coveted playoff spot. “You just bested a bunch of other fringe playoff teams, your reward is being first-round fodder for the best team in the NBA’s best conference!”
But after falling one game shy of the postseason last year, it makes sense that Jeff Hornacek‘s young team is all in for the playoffs this season. Bringing in Isaiah Thomas while locking in Eric Bledsoe, Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris and P.J. Tucker to summer deals was all about keeping the team’s core intact for a playoff push.
But with Anthony Davis (a.k.a the monster underneath the rest of the NBA’s bed) and the soon-to-be healthy Thunder hot on the Suns’ heels, even this current six-game win streak shouldn’t make anyone in Phoenix feel safe.
It’s also the reason why the next month is so critical for this playoff hopeful team.
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Breaking this down requires a look at the top of the standings AND at the teams just trailing the Suns. All seven teams ahead of Phoenix in the standings were playoff teams last season. The two teams that were expected to regress based on their lack of offseason activity — the Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies — are in the top four and haven’t shown any signs of slowing.
The Grizzlies have lost four of their last five games, but a healthy Zach Randolph return will quickly amend that. The Rockets have dropped two straight, but an adjustment period is to be expected with new arrivals in Josh Smith and Corey Brewer.
The Dallas Mavericks just added Rajon Rondo. The Golden State Warriors are title contenders with Andrew Bogut, but they’re still a playoff team even with him sidelined. The Portland Trail Blazers have improved their one weak spot by adding to their bench depth.
The Los Angeles Clippers have underwhelmed, but they’re still three games ahead of the Suns in the standings. That leaves the seventh ranked San Antonio Spurs — only one game ahead of Phoenix in the standings — as the most likely candidate to drop out of the top eight.
Yeah, right. Like the defending champs who aren’t even fully healthy yet are going to do that.
If and when Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker and Patty Mills return to being 100 percent, the Spurs will make their way up the standings in pursuit of a repeat. That means the Suns either have to finish with a better record than one of those seven stellar teams, or they have to hold off the teams hot on their tail for the No. 8 seed.
The Pelicans are closer to Phoenix than OKC, but they seem like the easiest opponent to hold off. On the nights when Anthony Davis doesn’t go off, the Pellies have virtually no shot in hell of beating a good team. Those nights are the rare exception, but it’s hard to ask a player — even one of the Brow’s caliber — to carry a team to the promised land by himself.
Ever since Russell Westbrook returned, the Thunder have been Phoenix’s biggest threat to making the postseason. Westbrook is averaging an absurd 30.8 points, 7.8 assists and 5.9 rebounds per game in his last 10 games, and seems hell-bent on single-handedly carrying Oklahoma City back into the playoff picture.
The scary news is OKC has won 10 of its last 14 games, even with Kevin Durant missing six of them. Once KD returns, and even if he doesn’t, there’s virtually zero chance of the Thunder failing to qualify for the playoffs. That three-game deficit isn’t insurmountable with one month left in the season, let alone four. In other words, the Suns’ next two games are almost must-wins for a team that wants to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
Tonight, Phoenix plays the Pelicans on the road before traveling to Oklahoma City to take on the Thunder. That’s right, folks. For this road back-to-back, the Suns are not only putting their six-game win streak on the line, but they’re also playing with fire if the very two teams trailing them in the standings add a head-to-head win to their resume.
This is the first of three meetings between the Suns and Pellies on the season, so dropping this one wouldn’t be a HUGE deal. But losing this one would require the Suns to best New Orleans twice in the last few weeks of the season, a tall task even for a playoff-desperate team.
As for the Thunder, this will be the second of four times Phoenix plays OKC, with the first time being a disastrous 24-point throttling on the road. Dropping this New Year’s Eve game would likewise require the Suns to win the next two matchups to just break even in the head-to-head category.
After these two brutal road games, the Suns play two at home, go on a four-game road trip, and then will “enjoy” an eight-game home stand. The problem is six of those eight games come against playoff teams — the Cleveland Cavaliers, Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, Washington Wizards and Chicago Bulls — before playing the Warriors on the road to close out January.
To sum things up, the Suns have a brutal upcoming month that could make-or-break the season. The point guard hydra is clicking and Alex Len is thriving as a starter, but the Thunder expect Durant to return Wednesday — just in time for Phoenix.
No one should doubt that the Suns deserve to be one of 16 playoff teams come May and June. But in the brutal Western Conference, only eight talented teams make the cut. If the Suns want to be one of them, finding a way to win these next two games while in the middle of this win streak would be taking a gigantically helpful step toward making that dream a reality.