The Suns have been struggling on their first long road trip of the 2016-17 season. They’re currently 1-4 since the trip started, and all but one of those (at Golden State) should have been winnable. The trip started in Golden State and continued to Denver, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, and yesterday, Washington D.C. Surprisingly enough, that one win came against the Pacers (granted, Paul George didn’t play in that game). Most of this trip has been surrounded by players missing games. For Phoenix, Tyson Chandler has only played in one game of this road trip and hasn’t played in consecutive games since Nov. 4th and 6th following the death of his mother and T.J. Warren left the Suns’ win against the Pacers after only 9 minutes and missed the next two contests against the Sixers and Wizards while dealing with an illness. The absence of these two has clearly affected the team, with Warren being third on the team in scoring and seventh in the NBA in steals per game and Chandler averaging 12.3 rebounds per game. Chandler’s absence was felt most perhaps when Joel Embiid established a new career-high 26 points on Saturday night.
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The hole left in the paint by Chandler’s absence and missing the defensive presence of Warren allowed Philadelphia to shoot over 52% from the field and nearly 50% from beyond the arc. The Sixers were able to take advantage of various defensive lapses by the Suns that allowed Embiid to sink three wide open 3-pointers. Having Warren and Chandler back in the lineup will be helpful not just in the short term.
Establishing continuity is key in helping a team succeed, just look at the Spurs (and up until this past offseason, the Thunder). When players get used to playing with one another and develop chemistry together a team can become dangerous. It seems all but a foregone conclusion that the Suns will look to keep Eric Bledsoe, Devin Booker, Brandon Knight, and Warren together moving forward – and the more games this group gets together, the better. General manager Ryan McDonough has denounced rumors that Knight is on the trading block, despite how deep the team’s bench may be. While many around the league would expect Knight to be available, the security of having a quality point guard coming off the bench to lead the second unit appears to be more valuable than any assets Phoenix could obtain in a deal. Keep in mind, the Suns bench contributed an NBA-best 78 bench points in a 20 point win against the Pacers last Friday.
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Looking ahead to Wednesday’s game in Orlando, Phoenix looks to end this road trip on a high note. Having Chandler and Warren each return or sit out could tell the tale of how the game ultimately turns out. Chandler’s presence inside will be helpful against a Magic frontcourt that knows how to get to the paint and get rebounds. Fortunately, wing defender Victor Oladipo has been relocated to Oklahoma City, which could make for more easy offensive opportunities for the guard-heavy Suns. Phoenix could still manage a win if Chandler or Warren still require more time off as long as they can hold onto the basketball and stay out of foul trouble. Their loss Monday night to the Wizards was due in part to Bradley Beal’s career-high 42 points, but that stat would look less daunting if he hadn’t been sent to the free throw line 11 times, nine times converting from the charity stripe. Phoenix let Washington get to the line 34 times while only getting there 15 times themselves. The teams had identical field goal percentages, and Bledsoe and Booker made up for Warren’s absence by combining for 51 points. Aside from foul trouble, the Suns’ 21 turnovers left the game out of their reach. Despite these glaring flaws, the Suns only lost by five.
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As long as Phoenix can protect the ball and foul less, they can easily come out on top against Orlando Wednesday night. Potentially having Warren and Chandler back in the lineup will be helpful too, but the Suns have to avoid making easy mistakes with or without them.
The race for the 8th seed never seemed like must-see basketball, but the Suns are aiming to prove otherwise. Today they find themselves on the outside looking in with the same record as the current 8 seed Grizzlies. This just goes to show how close the Suns really are. While going 7-3 in their last 10 games, including a terrific outing against the playoff-bound Trail Blazers, the young Suns are facing the reality of how tough the Western Conference really is. To put things in perspective – if Phoenix took their current 45-31 mark to the Eastern Conference, they’d be the number 3 seed and about ten games up on the 8th and final seed.
Now of course it is notable to mention that Phoenix would be the 3rd seed in the East, but the solid play of both the Mavericks and the Grizzlies is just as notable. The Memphis Grizzlies have won 11 straight games at home and are 6-4 in their last 10 and the Dallas Mavericks are winners of their last two – which includes a quality win against the Clippers and a Blake Griffin triple-double.The Suns still have six games left to clinch a playoff birth, and in the NBA that’s plenty of time.
Phoenix has a very difficult schedule to close out the regular season, with a game against the Thunder tomorrow and a trip to San Antonio to take on the Spurs next Friday. Although their upcoming schedule is difficult, they still have a road game against the mathematically eliminated Pelicans and a home game against the Kings. For the Suns to make the playoffs, they will need to capitalize on those two games against noncontenders because among their final six games are crucial matchups against Dallas and Memphis.
The Suns will hope to see more games like their last win against the Trail Blazers where they outscored Portland 30-13 in the fourth quarter. Miles Plumlee and Markieff Morris each had over ten rebounds in the victory (16 and 11, respectively). Two very huge pieces to the victory were Eric Bledsoe and Gerald Green. Bledsoe finished with 30 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists, and Green finished with 32 points and 5 rebounds off the bench.
Down the stretch look for production from every player mentioned above and of course Goran Dragic as Jeff Hornacek coaches this young bunch to a potential playoff birth in his first season in Phoenix. Whether or not the Suns end up in the playoffs, Hornacek certainly looks like as good a candidate as any for Coach of the Year.