Suns in serious jeopardy of play-in tournament fate entering last month of season

Mar 19, 2024, 3:45 PM | Updated: 7:33 pm

Phoenix Suns head coach Frank Vogel looks on during the second quarter against the Boston Celtics  ...

Phoenix Suns head coach Frank Vogel looks on during the second quarter against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden on March 14, 2024 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — You wouldn’t have guessed it by watching them over the last two games but the Phoenix Suns are in a precarious position.

With a month to go in the regular season, they have failed to create separation from a potential play-in tournament fate while being mostly healthy since the All-Star break. At a record of 39-29 and positioned eighth in the standings, there is a very good chance it is out of their full control now. It’ll take some combination of them winning enough games while simultaneously having other squads lose enough games.

“We’re in the playoffs before the playoffs,” Suns head coach Frank Vogel said Tuesday. “All of us want to get into the top-six. We are confident that if we are in a play-in game we will win but there’s too many variables with a one-game situation like that.”

With 14 fixtures to go, coming away with double-digit wins doesn’t seem in the cards given the basketball we’ve watched both recently and all season, plus the grueling schedule left.

Phoenix ends the year with a hellacious 10-game stretch. The last three contests of a five-game road trip are in Denver, Oklahoma City and New Orleans before three at Footprint Center hosting Cleveland, Minnesota and New Orleans. Four on the road wrap it up against the Clippers twice before going to Sacramento and Minnesota.

All of those teams currently hold a playoff spot.

What sets the stage beforehand is a crucial four-game stretch Phoenix should go 4-0 over and might need to.

A back-to-back at home featuring the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday and Atlanta Hawks on Thursday kicks it off. Philly is 9-13 since Joel Embiid went down and the Hawks have been consistently below average all year. Then its two games across three days in San Antonio taking on the Spurs.

The Suns are 0-4 against those teams this season.

There is a real sense of gravity that should be weighing down on the Suns’ shoulders in each game. That is what made the lackadaisical nature of Phoenix’s performances in Charlotte and Milwaukee so surprising. Whatever is at the root of it is what will likely make them a play-in tournament team.

That was evident in Sunday’s loss to the Bucks without Giannis Antetokounmpo, a game on ABC. Phoenix’s defensive effort was as low as its been all year, with the denial of 3-point shooters in a woeful state, especially after Milwaukee started making a few.

“We definitely can’t lay eggs like that,” Suns guard Bradley Beal said Tuesday. “We’ve gotta come out with a lot better focus and a lot more sense of urgency than what we’ve been having. That’s been way, way unacceptable and we all know that. … It starts with us three and our attention to detail and our focus.”

The Suns reviewed this film at practice on Tuesday.

“Guard the 3-point line. By a mile our top emphasis with our film session,” Vogel said. “Did a lot of drill work just to double down on the urgency that’s expected of me with regard to getting better defending the 3.”

Vogel and Beal both highlighted the spread look of a center as a shooter giving the Suns problems in Boston as well, something Vogel noted Phoenix has defensive schemes for but lacked the execution.

“Awareness,” Vogel said. “A lot of over-helping, a lot of short closeouts.”

Beal pointed out the best way to prevent those shots from going in.

“We have to avoid those things. … We can control a lot of the 3s that they’re attempting,” he said. “Just not even getting looks up, I think that helps us.”

We are past the point of a specific weakness like this one improving to help the Suns grow into a contender. They’ve got to do it now just to win basketball games and stay out of the play-in.

If there was a call that had to be made right now, exactly four weeks from the beginning of the play-in tournament, it would be that three teams are competing for the last automatic spot in the Western Conference.

From late January to early February, the Sacramento Kings (39-28) won six of seven but followed it up with an average 10-9 mark in their last 19 games. They don’t pose as much of a threat to at the same time make a run or dip down the standings.

For a more volatile side, that’s the Dallas Mavericks (40-29), who are 14-6 over their previous 20. And their remaining games are favorable. They get to take on Sacramento twice in the same week, and ditto for the Golden State Warriors (35-32). The only contender Dallas faces is Oklahoma City in the last game of the regular season. This all makes the Mavericks the prohibitive favorite to snatch that sixth position.

There are a few long shots left, with validity that will either solidify or dissipate in two weeks.

The Los Angeles Clippers (42-25) are 8-10 since Feb. 7. They were seemingly in a branched-off top-four of the standings before this slide, and because the New Orleans Pelicans (42-26) are 13-5 over that span as well, L.A. could slip. Entering action on Tuesday, it was at 25 losses, one less than New Orleans, three less than Sacramento and four less than Dallas and Phoenix. One more skid over these next half-dozen games could make things interesting, especially if another team below the Clippers gets hot besides New Orleans.

On the flip side, the Los Angeles Lakers (37-32) seem locked in for the play-in game of Nos. 9 and 10 seeds. Their very good stretches have been leveled out by very bad ones over the course of the year. Golden State, also with 32 losses, are just about cemented into that fixture as well.

But could the latter make a run? The Warriors are 14-7 over its last 21 outings, and a major difference too is they have the lightest schedule of any of these teams. Their remaining top-six competition from either conference is Minnesota, Orlando and New Orleans. That’s it. A pair of critical matchups versus the Mavericks and another singular one against the Lakers stand out.

Point being, it’s scoreboard-watching season. That would have been difficult to fathom six months ago or even three, but we’re here. This is now the Suns’ reality.

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