Less than a week ago, it appeared the regular-season finale would be critical to the Phoenix Suns. Instead, after losing to the two teams they were battling for a playoff spot, it means virtually nothing.
A surprising, playoff-contending season comes to a disappointing close for Phoenix on Wednesday night when it visits the Sacramento Kings, whose latest woeful campaign will end minus suspended star DeMarcus Cousins.
Entering Friday's matchup with San Antonio, the Suns had won three straight and nine of 11 to climb into seventh in the Western Conference. They had two games in hand on eighth-place Dallas and stood one game ahead of ninth-place Memphis, and those were their next two opponents after visiting the Spurs.
However, Phoenix blew a 21-point lead to lose that night and wasted a 13-point advantage the following day in a 101-98 defeat to the Mavericks. That let Dallas wrap up a playoff spot, and the Grizzlies clinched the last available berth with a 97-91 win in Phoenix on Monday.
"I was hoping to make the playoffs and try to upset somebody. In the end, maybe we didn't have so much experience in some games," said Goran Dragic, who totaled 27 points on 12-of-32 shooting with a sore ankle the last two games after missing the San Antonio loss.
Phoenix (47-34) has won 22 more games than it did last season and is the fifth team in league history to win 47 but miss the playoffs.
"They had a great year, they proved a lot to us as coaches, the organization and probably a lot to themselves," first-year coach Jeff Hornacek said. "... That's a great sign and a great foundation that we put together going forward."
Hornacek is a Coach of the Year favorite, Dragic is a Most Improved Player candidate and Markieff Morris could win Sixth Man of the Year. That trio and newcomer Eric Bledsoe, whose absence from 39 games may have cost them a playoff spot, seemingly gives the Suns a bright future.
"Nobody expected us to play so good," Dragic said. "We built some good chemistry with this team."
While Phoenix improved significantly after posting the West's worst record last season, the Kings (28-53) will end up third-worst for the second straight time as their playoff drought reaches eight years. However, they've matched their win total from last season and would notch their best record since finishing 38-44 in 2007-08 if they beat the Suns.
That will be tough without Cousins, whose automatic one-game suspension for getting his 16th technical foul of the season was upheld by the NBA on Monday. Cousins was whistled for it late in Sunday's 106-103 win over Minnesota, his first technical since Feb. 25 to end the longest stretch of his career without one.
"I feel for him," coach Mike Malone said. "He has made a concerted effort to handle his emotions and not get that last tech."
Cousins had 35 points and 15 rebounds for his 53rd double-double - third-most in the league - as Sacramento snapped a five-game skid.
Isaiah Thomas returned after missing 10 games with a thigh bruise. While he's set to become a free agent after averaging a career-high 20.6 points, mid-season acquisition Rudy Gay has a $19.3 million player option. Gay (back strain) has missed three of the past four games.
The Kings have won two of three matchups with Phoenix this season as Thomas averaged 23.7 points.