Like a flame snuffed out in a sudden wind, the Phoenix Suns’ playoff hopes ended last night at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies.
This had all the hallmarks of a heavyweight boxing match after a slow first quarter. For every punch one team threw, their opponents came swinging right back.
For every Marc Gasol shot, Goran Dragic threaded his way to the rim.
Every time the Grizzlies tried to make a break for the horizon, there stood players once considered cast offs, misfits and draft busts ready to give chase.
Whenever Zach Randolph bullied his way inside, there came Markieff Morris, making shots inside and out, to keep the Suns breathing.
It came down to the final four minutes with the game finely balanced. Both teams were trading blow for blow with everybody having a chance to leave their mark on the game.
Marc Gasol opened the final, climatic scene with a quintessential Gasol turnaround.
Enter the misfits.
Channing Frye and Miles Plumlee would score either side of a Mike Miller three as again Phoenix made Memphis fight for every inch of ground, every single breath, like they have done all season long since being written off as a surefire lottery team.
Gasol came back down the floor after watching Plumlee sink an unlikely midrange jump-shot to barrel his way through the young center to restore Memphis’ lead.
After a brief timeout, Bledsoe found his range, connecting on a jump-shot as the balance of power teetered this way and that, the capacity crowd utterly captivated by the spectacle unfolding before them.
With the game and the season on the line, it came down to Mike Conley. Either side of another unlikely Plumlee score, this one a tipped-in offensive board, the quiet assassin burned the Suns for two consecutive scores of his own.
The second, a three-pointer from a couple of paces behind the line, left the US Airways Center distinctly flat, like a party after the cops show up. The clock looked close to striking twelve on Phoenix’ Cinderella story.
The bell began to toll when, under pressure, Goran Dragic coughed the ball up to Randolph near half-court. The hulking veteran rumbled his way down the floor on the slowest fast-break of the season. He backed down and spun his way into what proved the dagger shot of the night.
With less than 50 seconds left, Phoenix had to foul but the pervading sense in the arena was that of a chance missed.
If Mike Conley’s back-to-back misses at the line allowed the embers of hope to briefly relight, Dragic’s airballed three on the next possession dumped an ocean on the last light of the Suns season.
Conley and Gasol would make three of four free-throws sandwiching an awful Bledsoe miss right at the rim, but the game was up. The clock had struck midnight and Cinderella had to leave the ball.
On will roll Memphis, who now faces a seed-deciding game Wednesday night against Dallas. The winner will take the seventh seed and a first-round series with Oklahoma City Thunder. The loser must take on the no fun allowed San Antonio Spurs.
As for Phoenix, this felt like the really bad ending to one of the great underdog stories in years. Written off as a team of rejected, scorned or otherwise flawed players, they rallied together around a young coach to create an attitude utterly unique.
They did not feature a go-to scorer in the vain of Durant or LeBron, not even in the cut-price version such as Monta Ellis or DeMar DeRozan. Not this team. They relied on versatile and electric young players capable of going the extra distance for a rebound, capable of making the extra pass to find the right shot and make it.
Jeff Hornacek won’t win Coach of the Year. Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe will miss out on the All-NBA teams like they missed the All-Star team. Markieff Morris might sneak the Sixth Man of the Year award.
That wouldn’t even cover the likes of Gerald Green, once consigned to the box marked ‘athletic wing player who can dunk well’, he elevated his game, becoming a deadly scorer on the perimeter and using that athleticism to find opportunities off the dribble.
It also wouldn’t explain the greatness that was Miles Plumlee or the Morris brothers, all of whom broke through their perceived ceilings to alter everyone’s perception. Channing Frye converted himself into a human flamethrower at times as he became as close to a go-to three-point shooter the Suns had.
The future in Phoenix is solar. They have the electric backcourt tandem, both signed to brilliant contracts. They have both Morris’ twins locked down.
They also have boatloads of draft picks available to them and if there is any justice in basketball their pick will leap up into the top three in the lottery as some sort of recompense for the entertainment they provided along the way.
Thank you, Phoenix Suns, for challenging the label we so quickly bestowed upon you. Thank you for showing that, regardless of what box you are put in or how limited others may believe you to be, it is always possible to surprise.
Obviously it would be unfair to not mention how equally deserving the Memphis Grizzlies are of their playoff berth. They were also considered down and out with myriad injuries suffered to several core players.
Marc Gasol missed a large portion of the season and despite themselves they kept within distance of the playoffs and never lost sight of their goal.
Once he returned, Memphis became a different team, becoming one of the best in the league post-Christmas, combining a ferocious defense, an impenetrable fortress as a home-court and an offense that comes close to resembling a machine at times such is it’s efficiency.
Memphis currently resides in the eighth seed with Dallas just ahead. Should the Grizzlies beat the Mavericks when the two face on Wednesday, Memphis can leapfrog them into the seventh seed.
Judging on recent history, facing the Thunder is definitely preferable to the likely robot-like evisceration these teams would experience at the hands of the remorseless Spurs.