The Memphis Grizzlies clinched their fourth straight playoff berth on Monday night, earning a 97-91 road win over the Phoenix Suns that locked up the final available postseason spot in this year's historically competitive Western Conference.
Zach Randolph was a monster early (13 points in the first quarter) and late (eight points in the final frame) as he drew all sorts of defensive attention and just cast it aside. The Grizzlies' bellwether power forward scored a season-high 32 points on 15-for-25 shooting to go with nine rebounds, two assists and a steal in 39 minutes of bruising work.
The steal came with less than a minute remaining in the fourth quarter, as Suns guard Goran Dragic leapt and looked to pass only to find his path blocked by Memphis center Marc Gasol. Dragic tossed the ball toward Suns floor-spacer Channing Frye at the top of the key, where Randolph intercepted it and lit out on a fast break — OK, fine: "fast" "break" — before finishing with an up-and-under post move (naturally) to split two Phoenix defenders and bank in a layup that gave the Grizz a four-point lead with 47.4 seconds remaining. (Evidently, Z-Bo's point guard skills extend beyond behind-the-back bounce alley-oops.)
Some closing-minutes free-throw woes aside, point guard Mike Conley (14 points, seven assists, three rebounds, no turnovers in 38 minutes) was huge in the fourth quarter, scoring 10 points and dishing three assists in the final 12 minutes, including a momentum-shifting 3-pointer that made it 93-91 Memphis with 1:08 to go; Randolph's steal came on the ensuing Suns possession. The Grizzlies also got a fantastic outing from sharpshooting swingman Mike Miller, who also scored a season-high 21 points on 8-for-11 shooting, including a scorching 5-for-6 mark from 3-point land, in 30 pivotal minutes off Dave Joerger's bench.
(Speaking of "off the bench," Coach Joerger: You might want to consider rolling with Miller and Tony Allen — who added eight points, six rebounds, two assists and a steal in 21 minutes — on the wing a little more come the playoffs, and with Tayshaun Prince and Courtney Lee — who combined for four points on 1-for-8 shooting, with two assists and five turnovers — a little less. Also, that guy with the name "NAYMIN" tattooed on his throat? That's James Johnson. He's got the kind of "doesn't really make perimeter shots" flavor you've come to love in Tayshaun, but with way more offensive activity and the good brand of defensive chaos-bringing. Give him another chance. Please.)
Gasol chipped in 18 points, eight rebounds and three assists in the win, Memphis' fourth in a row, which improved the Grizzlies to 49-32 — the same record as the seventh-seeded Dallas Mavericks, whom the Grizz just so happen to face on Wednesday night in both teams' season finales. Whichever team wins on Wednesday will finish the season with 50 wins and get the No. 7 seed, avoiding the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. Their prize for winning? A meeting with either the Oklahoma City Thunder or Los Angeles Clippers. (Um, congratulations? I guess?)
Facing down matchups with the Spurs, Thunder or Clippers isn't exactly any coach's idea of a fun time. But, y'know, it beats the alternative.
Monday's loss officially ends the Suns' pursuit of a playoff spot. After blowing a 21-point lead in Friday's loss to the Spurs and losing to the Mavericks on Saturday on a final-minute Brandan Wright block, Phoenix had to earn a win over the Grizz to stay alive and give itself a chance to make the playoffs by beating a Sacramento Kings team that will be without suspended star center DeMarcus Cousins on Wednesday. But after a season in which they rejected every opportunity to fold, to fall back behind the pack, to conform to the preseason expectation that they'd be one of the worst teams in the NBA, the Suns just didn't have enough left to get across the finish line on Monday.
Memphis throttled Phoenix's offense early, with the Suns looking a step slow and a few degrees off-center while playing at the Grizzlies' preferred snail's pace. Dragic seemed hampered by his sprained left ankle, as he and running buddy Eric Bledsoe combined for just six points on eight shots and only one assist in a first quarter that saw Phoenix shoot just 6 for 18 from the floor and trail the Grizzlies by 10. The Suns joined the party in the second by forcing Memphis miscues and getting their speed demons out in the open floor, scoring 13 points on seven Grizzlies turnovers in the second quarter to head into halftime down only four.
Phoenix kept up the defensive intensity after intermission, and the frontcourt contributors that been such pleasant surprises for the Suns all season — Indiana Pacers castaway Miles Plumlee, comeback success story Channing Frye and Sixth Man of the Year hopeful Markieff Morris — combined for 36 second-half points as the two teams engaged in a nip-and-tuck battle that saw 15 separate lead changes in the fourth quarter alone.
But with the season on the line, the two-headed monster that had driven so much of Phoenix's surprising success — Dragic (who finished with 14 points on 14 shots, six rebounds, five steals, four assists and four turnovers) and Bledsoe (13 points on 16 shots, five assists, three rebounds, two steals and two turnovers) — couldn't get over the hump. Bledsoe missed four of his five shots in the fourth quarter, while Dragic's lone attempt — a 3-pointer from the left corner that could have cut Memphis' lead to one with 25 seconds remaining — sailed harmlessly over the far side of the rim before being corralled by Gasol.
It was the wrong kind of dagger, the right shot from the right place for the right guy that met with the wrong result. An airballed 3-pointer by a should've-been All-Star and might-be All-NBA selection was the wrong end for this Suns team, but you don't always get to write the last line.
"It's really tough to say something positive right now," Dragic said after the game, according to Bob Baum of The Associated Press. "Nobody expected us to play so good. We built some good chemistry with this team. A lot of new faces, a lot of young guys, new coaching staff, new GM, so I think we're headed in the right direction."
When you take a step back from it, Dragic's assessment is 100 percent right, and not just about the "nobody expected us to play so good" part. (We sure as hell didn't.) When you consider the off-court work done by Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby and first-year general manager Ryan McDonough to develop the infrastructure of a winner — hitting a home run in hiring Jeff Hornacek as the Suns' head coach, clearing out the salary-cap sheet by jettisoning the money owed to the likes of Jared Dudley, Caron Butler, Michael Beasley and Marcin Gortat, importing a bounty of picks that could see Phoenix making as many as four selections in the first round of the 2014 NBA draft, stocking the roster with young, inexpensive talent that can and should continue to improve under Hornacek's tutelage, etc. — it's not too hard to squint your eyes and see this year's out-of-nowhere success and just-a-bit-shy finish as the start of some monumental construction in Arizona.
Then again, though, there's the other thing Dragic said: "When you are so close to the playoffs, you always want some little bit more." You want that little bit more now because you have no idea what comes next.
Maybe Bledsoe gets an offer in restricted free agency rich enough to make the Suns balk at matching it. Maybe they do match it, and his surgically repaired knee becomes a chronic problem. Maybe Gerald Green's never this good again. Maybe the bright young things in that Phoenix locker room — Plumlee, or the Morris twins, or 2013 first-rounders Alex Len and Archie Goodwin — stagnate rather than continue to blossom. Maybe McDonough doesn't hit in the '14 draft, or effectively flip those picks for the right assets to push Phoenix from 47- or 48-win territory up into the mid-50s and title contention.
Maybe the strain of keeping up this pace, maintaining this workload, and carrying this level of offensive responsibility for starter's minutes for 82 games grinds Dragic into the dust before too long. Or maybe things don't go wrong, but the state of the Western Conference continues to be so brutal that just getting back to this point proves unbelievably challenging. NBA teams don't always follow the neat sort of linear progression that you'd like them to ... even if you'd really like them to.
So instead of spending any more time focusing on what may or may not come to pass for the Suns, let's take a moment to celebrate what did — a remarkable 22-win (and, perhaps, counting) increase, a 3-pointer-and-fast-break-fueled rise to a top-10 level of offensive efficiency, and some phenomenally watchable basketball that hardly anybody predicted, which made it all the more vital and worth watching. From my friend Bethlehem Shoals for GQ:
What the Suns did this year, other than put together a winning campaign that no one saw coming, was deliver a wake-up call to NBA observers: You don’t know everything, you don’t have to know everything, and sometimes, it’s a blast to sit back and just let the game take you places. To call the Suns unpredictable or unexpected misses the point. They were a reminder that basketball isn’t an attempt to pin down absolute truth, but to watch a game — or a season — play out in all its half-chaotic grandeur.
[...] In today’s rigorous climate, where even casual fans are expected to watch every game and monitor every relevant player and team, the Suns were grist for fantasy ball. There had to be a reason to bother. And that was all it could be.
As it turned out, the Suns forced us to take the time.
I'm tempted to say that, with Monday's elimination, that time has now passed, at least for the moment. But I'm guessing I'll wind up checking in on Phoenix's Wednesday game against the Kings for at least a few minutes. I'm not sure I'm ready to say goodbye to these Suns yet. I'm damn sure that I'll miss them come this weekend.
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- Goran Dragic