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Suns Hanging Around in West Playoff Race

After losing three of four games earlier in March, the Phoenix Suns’ season was on life support. The Suns sat at 34-33, four games back in the loss column of both the Oklahoma City Thunder and New Orleans Pelicans. Phoenix’s normally high-powered offense was stuck in a rut, averaging 82 points in the three losses.

But don’t dig the grave for the Suns just yet, as they’ve won four straight games to stay alive in the Western Conference. The last two wins came on a tough back-to-back against the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks, and another came against New Orleans. And thanks to the Pelicans’ recent slide (three straight losses and four losses in five games), the Suns have actually moved ahead of New Orleans in the standings by a half-game. (tied in the loss column)

Injuries have helped bring down the Pelicans during this slide, with Anthony Davis missing two more games, Omer Asik missing two games, Tyreke Evans missing the last game, and both Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson still out for an extended period of time. As great as Davis is, he can’t do it all by himself, especially if he’s not getting enough touches in crunch time.

New Orleans has a pretty tough closing schedule, with games against Houston (x2), Portland, Golden State, Memphis, Phoenix and San Antonio. If the Pelicans can’t get healthy, it’s tough to see them making a legitimate push for that last playoff spot, although don’t count out Davis’s brilliance.

Meanwhile, the Suns have gotten a bit healthier with the return of starting center Alex Len from an ankle injury. Len was big in the win over the Mavericks on Sunday, posting 10 points, six rebounds and three blocks in 26 minutes. He was also a team-high +15. Having Len around helps strengthen the bench, as it allows Brandan Wright to feast more on second units. Wright has been playing well, averaging 12.5 points and 7.8 rebounds while shooting 68.8 percent over the last four games.

While Len has returned from his ankle injury, Phoenix is still awaiting the return of Brandon Knight from his own ankle problems. Knight hasn’t played since March 9, but he should be able to return later this week. The return of the guard will hopefully help the offense, which has still remained a bit inconsistent even during the four-game winning streak. Knight and Eric Bledsoe should be quite the dynamic duo in the backcourt, although they haven’t found a rhythm together yet.

But while the offense isn’t clicking on all cylinders, it’s the much-maligned defense that has really stepped up. The Suns are giving up just 90.7 points per 100 possessions during their winning streak, per NBA.com, and that mark is a respectable 97.2 over the entire month of March. Prior to March, that defensive rating was a poor 104.1.

Mixed in this recent stretch was a shut down of James Harden in the win over Houston. Harden scored just 16 points on 5-of-19 shooting overall and 1-of-8 from three, and he also turned it over five times. P.J. Tucker did a great job as the primary defender, but the team defense was excellent, as noted by SB Nation’s Mike Prada:

Of course, as well as the Suns are playing now, they’re still 2½ games behind the Thunder for the last playoff spot, and three back in the loss column. Also, the closing schedule is a murderer’s row. It goes like this: Kings, Blazers, Thunder, @ Blazers, @ Warriors, Jazz, @ Hawks, @ Mavericks, @ Pelicans, @ Spurs, Clippers.

Yikes.

Even so, credit the Suns for keeping themselves alive in this playoff race. It’s still a long shot for Phoenix to make the playoffs, but with both Oklahoma City and New Orleans dealing with key injuries, it’s not completely out of the question. The Thunder face a tough gauntlet of games coming up as well (From March 25-April 7: @ Spurs, @ Jazz, @ Suns, Mavericks, @ Grizzlies, Rockets, Spurs), so perhaps the Suns can make a move up the standings.

 



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