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Suns clinging on to life in race for No. 8 seed, focused on ‘stretch run’

Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges, left, and forward Kelly Oubre Jr. (3) react to a foul called on Oubre in the first half during an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

The Phoenix Suns have a few things going for them to build up some optimism and make a case that their hope for a playoff spot is not over.

For one, this is the most available their roster has been all season due to previous injuries and Deandre Ayton’s suspension. That was, until later on Tuesday when Kelly Oubre Jr. was ruled out for Wednesday’s game against the Clippers due to a knee injury. Further details were not available as to the extent of Oubre’s injury or details on it.

Secondly, their new starting lineup is killing teams. Looking at every five-man lineup across the league with at least 200 minutes, the unit with Mikal Bridges at power forward is outscoring teams by a league-best 20.2 points per 100 possessions, per NBA Stats. That includes a stout 101.4 defensive rating, nearly 10 points better than their 110.6 mark as a team this season.

Lastly, the timing of those two factors meshing together comes at a time in the season where there still is, uh, time left to make up ground in the race for the Western Conference’s last playoff spot.

The Suns are 4.5 games back of the Memphis Grizzlies, who sit 2.5 games ahead of any other team for the eighth seed, but signs are they are trending downward.

Memphis (28-29) made moves at the trade deadline, and that included acquiring Justise Winslow in exchange for Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill. Both of those veteran wings played well in their combined 38.2 minutes per game and no one coming in is replacing those minutes because Winslow has been out with a back injury for nearly two months. That injury, by the way, is one where there hasn’t been much buzz out of Memphis if Winslow even plays this year.

In turn, the Grizzlies have replaced those roles with more Kyle Anderson time and drum roll please … Josh Jackson. And they will be without promising second-year forward Jaren Jackson Jr. for at least two weeks due to a knee injury. So, naturally, they’ve lost three straight and got walloped by the Clippers on Sunday.

That leaves the door open enough for a team like Portland (26-32), New Orleans (25-32), San Antonio (24-32) or Phoenix (24-34).

The Pelicans are obviously the biggest threat with the return of Zion Williamson while the Trail Blazers and Spurs continue to stagnate as they did in the first half of the season. Since Williamson’s debut in late January, the Pelicans are tied for sixth in net rating at 5.9, which is bad news for the rest of the teams in this race.

Regardless, the Suns have life. They importantly won two out of three on a tough road trip following the All-Star break, including perhaps the win of the season in Utah that was the third game in four days. Now, they come home for a six-game homestand, a 12-day period they must get some results from.

“That’s what this stretch run is for us,” general manager James Jones told 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station’s Burns & Gambo. “It’s trying to stack wins and stay competitive and stay in the race. That’s always been our goal, to be a playoff team. And I think our guys know if we can continue to string together some wins and play good basketball, we’ll give ourselves a chance to play meaningful games.”

While the Suns going at worst 3-3 in these games has to be the goal, it’s more about the team finding their form and rhythm to get ready for the actual “stretch run” Jones talks about.

That’s 18 more games to close out the season after that, 12 of which are on the road. And while some challenging teams and sections are present, like a six-game road trip that includes Philadelphia and Miami in back-to-back days, so are opportunities against bad teams. Intertwined in is another game against Portland after they get them during the homestand, two games against Minnesota, another two versus Cleveland, one at home with Chicago and a very important meeting in New Orleans for the fourth-to-last game of the season.

Sometimes the recipe for a run like the Suns want to make isn’t there. But it is for now.


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