Mere days remain in the current NBA season, and the Western Conference playoff race is tighter than ever, which is why it's unfortunate that the Phoenix Suns split a pair of games over the weekend.
It felt like there were two different teams wearing PHX's purple and orange uniforms during the 72 hours: On Friday, the Suns' scoring shortcomings doomed them to a 96-91 road loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, while an offensive explosion helped them overtake the Houston Rockets last night 116-106.
Suffice it to say, this isn't the sort of Jekyll and Hyde basketball that Phoenix should be producing with only two do-or-die games left until playoff time, demonstrating how Robin Lopez's MIA. status could keep his team from going deep into the postseason.
RoLo definitely could've provided some much-needed defensive stops during the second half against Oklahoma City. Despite the fact that Phoenix had won 11 of their last 12 going into Friday night's contest and started things off with a 13-4 run and ended the first quarter 32-31.
The Thunder roared back with some banging on the boards and plenty of aggressive play in the paint by Kevin Durant (35 points), whom the Suns couldn't seem to contain. What they could do, however, was give up a combined 19 turnovers during the game (resulting in 17 points by OKC) and provide a paltry 12 points during the third period.
A 9-0 run by Leandro Barbosa and Goran Dragic to start the last quarter brought Phoenix to within three points, but Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire failed to snuff out key shots from Jeff Greene and Serge Ibaka in the final minutes. That's not to say that Big STAT wasn't on his game, as he played with his usual intensity and coughed up 24 points during the evening. (If only his teammates could've matched his energy.)
Stoudemire's continued his energetic play last night, and it was one of the deciding factors in the victory over Houston. Much like they did against Oklahoma City, the Suns gave up the lead in Sunday's game, only this time it came during the third quarter instead of earlier on. Phoenix was leading 62-57 at halftime and by as many as 14 deep into the third until Luis Scola (30 points) and his Rockets teammates fired off a 14-1 run to get to within two. It then felt like déjà vu all over again as the Suns allowed Scola to drive into the paint for two and then stood around as Chase Budinger swiped a pass from Nash for a layup that made things 87-85 to start the fourth.
The lead then switched a number of times before Houston rocketed ahead 100-98 with three minutes and change left. The Suns were staring in the face of back-to-back losses at quite possibly the worst time of the entire season. If ever there was a time to step up, it was now. And that's just what they did.
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Amar'e (who muscled his way to 35 points and 14 rebounds) lept through the air to keep the ball from going out of bounds, only to provide a monster dunk a few seconds later to tie things up. Nash was then bumped by Scola, got the ball at half court, and proceeded to sink a three-pointer. And then Channing Frye nailed two treys of his own, followed by one from Jason Richardson. The deluge of long-range buckets was capped when Phoenix discovered they could play defense again, stopping the Rockets from scoring and putting the game in the deep freeze.
And now it comes down to the final two games of the season. Figuring out all the complicated factors and tiebreakers involved in the playoff picture is harder than Chinese algebra, but here's what it all boils down to in regards to Planet Orange: Phoenix is currently guaranteed no worse than the fifth seed, but if they can beat both the Denver Nuggets tomorrow night and the Utah Jazz on Wednesday, at least a third-place finish is guaranteed. There's also a chance the Suns could earn the second spot in the West if the above happens, but the Dallas Mavericks would also have to lose both of their remaining games.
First up is Phoenix's battle with Denver during their final regular season game at US Airways Center tomorrow night. The Nuggets may have lost to the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday, but they'll still be a tough foe to tame. Carmelo Anthony leads most of the conference in scoring with 28.3 points per game, and his teammates Chauncey Billups, Nene Hilario, and J.R. Smith aren't slouches when it comes to making buckets. The Suns lead the season series 2-1, which pretty much makes the game a must win. It's also being broadcast on TNT, so hopefully Nash and company can lay that particular curse to the grave as well.
Tip-off is at 7:30 p.m. Radio: KTAR 620-AM. More info: www.suns.com.