Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Just 48 minutes of basketball was all that it took to end a season that was not predicated on defying the doubters.
No one expected the Phoenix Suns to be in this position. No. One. Even the most avid Suns fan could have never predicted that the season finale at the U.S. Airways Center would mean the difference between making the Western Conference Playoffs and sitting at home watching them take place.
They came closer than anyone expected, but just too short. Losing by a final of 97-91, the Memphis Grizzlies locked themselves into the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference ahead of the Playoffs, which open on Saturday.
It was a miserable time for the team to go ice cold from behind the arc. Shooting just 5-for-26 (19.2%) on the evening, had just one or two extra looks gone through the hoop, the outcome of the game may have been drastically changed. That is sadly the nature of the game.
Coming out listless in the first quarter, the Suns only managed to put up 14 points against the Grizzlies. By no means are the Memphis Grizzlies your typical #8 seed; they played without their center Marc Gasol for a majority of the season and are still considered one of the league’s elite defensive squads. Chipping away and pulling the lead down to four as the teams went into the break gave reason for optimism for those in attendance.
Playing on virtually one leg, the tenacity of Goran Dragic cannot be measured. Being constantly over-looked the entire season, he was not even selected to the All-Star team, despite his MVP-level play. While he did everything in his power to will his team to victory tonight, it was just not quite enough, as he finished with an inspiring 14 points, six rebounds, five assists and four steals.
His backcourt mate that every NBA “expert” deemed as a bad fit, Eric Bledsoe, also was a bit underwhelming when it mattered most. Throw season averages out the window; when it’s time to win one basketball game, you cannot rely on statistics. Displaying his ability to dominate a game all season long, Bledsoe was the likely candidate to step up and command the spotlight, but he never could quite get in a groove against the suffocating Memphis defense. He only finished with 13 points, which is a tough way to go out after such a long road back from injury.
Picking up the slack in the scoring department was the likely Sixth Man of the Year, Markieff Morris. Almost facetiously, I tweeted out (@HeatWavedFS) during the climax of the game, “Mike Miller vs. Markieff Morris for a playoff berth!,” but it truly was. Putting his entire arsenal on display, Morris showed the voters that were likely tuned in that his off the bench spark is something that propelled the Suns to the heights they’ve been able to reach.
Speaking of Mike Miller, where in the world did that come from? Nearly two years ago in the 2012 NBA Finals, Miller moved around the court with the agility of a newly omitted patient at a retirement home. Finding his bearings, Miller dropped 21 points off the bench, along with going 5-for-6 from three, causing Suns fans to scratch their head as to how a former sharpshooting journeyman could be the one to sink their playoff hopes.
As the game wound down, the building was in a frenzy. No one quite seemed to care that Zach Randolph had been virtually unguardable down on the block, finishing the night with 32 points and nine rebounds. (The Suns lack of a legitimate interior defender has to be the number one priority in the off-season. Randolph was laughing off the likes of Miles Plumlee and Channing Frye.) Taking a moment to let all the enthusiasm and passion that emitted from the stands soak in, it was easy to tell that no matter the outcome, the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns were folk heroes.
With 1:07 remaining, the most underrated big shot taker in the game today, Mike Conley Jr., buried a 26-footer that would relinquish the Suns lead for good. In the waning seconds, Eric Bledsoe had himself a wide-open layup and could not bank it home, signifying that it was just not meant to be on this night for Phoenix.
In the ultimate show of respect, after the game had concluded, the Grizzlies ambled over to the Suns sideline and there were hugs and love taps galore. Sure, Memphis had just clinched on their court, but their first order of business was not to jump all over one another and celebrate, it was to congratulate the Suns on the phenomenal season they had.
Somewhere deep down, it burns knowing that the NBA is mulling over a 16-team playoff proposal that includes placing the 16 best records in the Playoffs regardless of conference affiliation. This new draft may come a year too late for Phoenix, as they go out with 47 (or 48) wins while the Eastern Conference laughs its way to the bank.
Believe it or not, there is still one game left to be played. On Wednesday night, the team travels to Sacramento to take on the DeMarcus Cousins-less Sacramento Kings. On account of being assessed his 16th technical foul of the season, Cousins must sit out a game, which just so happens to be the season finale. The game will tip-off at 7:30 P.M. from Sacramento as the Suns look to end the year on a bittersweet note.