1. Last Team Out: Exiting Suns Keep Impressing
PHOENIX -- The Phoenix Suns are headed for the lottery and the Memphis Grizzlies the playoffs, just as we all thought when the season began.
Yet while Memphis breathed a collective sigh of relief after clinching its fourth straight playoff berth with a 97-91 victory Monday in Phoenix, it's the Suns who celebrated a season that surpassed all preseason expectations before coming to a plodding end against a Grizzlies squad they could not beat all season.
"It's always fun to do opposite of what other people are saying," Suns guard Goran Dragic said. "It was really fun to prove them wrong."
That the Suns were able to prove their critics wrong in a season that ended without a playoff berth speaks to how poor the Suns were expected to be. After a 2012-13 season in which Phoenix sputtered to the worst record in the Western Conference, the team traded veterans Marcin Gortat, Jared Dudley and Luis Scola and used the fifth overall pick in the draft on raw center Alex Len, who did not make an impact this season.
It's only fair that the Suns would be expected to be even worse with an unproven squad led by Steve Nash's former backup (Dragic), Chris Paul's former backup (Eric Bledsoe) and a cast of characters who had yet to get a chance to prove themselves in the NBA.
Starting in Summer League, when new head coach Jeff Hornacek's Summer Suns played harder than everybody else on their way to the championship game, a new attitude began to develop in Phoenix as the Suns sought to move past the Nash era by playing a similar fast-paced style predicated on outrunning their opposition.
They started a pair of point guards, Dragic and Bledsoe, who could push the ball and attack from any angle during a possession. Unconventional? Sure. Effective? Definitely.
Even when Bledsoe injured his knee on Dec. 30 and missed the next 33 games, different Suns continued to step up, as Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee, Markieff Morris, P.J. Tucker and both Dragic and Bledsoe can all make legitimate cases for the Most Improved Player Award.
"I think that's the biggest takeaway for our team is that these guys competed, coming in here and having a team that was only supposed to win 19 games," Hornacek said. "What we wanted to do is get them to play hard and play together as a team, and then we'll build from there. So we've accomplished that."
Of course, as the wins piled up, expectations came along with them. Entering the last week of the season, the Suns could sniff the playoffs, with a one-game lead on the Grizzlies with four to play, yet veteran teams like San Antonio, Dallas and finally Memphis taught the Suns a lesson in what essentially boiled down to a three-team tournament for two playoff spots that the Suns lost.
"Once we figured out we're a good team, we expected ourselves to make the playoffs," Channing Frye said. "We set the bar pretty high, and we just came up a little short this year. We just can't beat those seven or eight teams [ahead of us]. It's a tough conference."
Indeed the Suns went 1-6 against Dallas and Memphis this season, and that's why they will be the odd team out of a conference that deserved nine playoff teams. Still, with a win on Wednesday in Sacramento, the Suns will join the 2007-08 Golden State Warriors as the only teams to miss the playoffs with 48 wins since the league expanded to 16 playoff teams in 1983-84.
Yet they still got a taste of playoff basketball anyway. The Suns got swept in what amounted to a three-game playoff series against three different playoff teams, as they blew a 21-point lead to the vaunted Spurs on Friday, a 13-point lead behind a barrage of 3-pointers and a heavy dose of Monta Ellis on Saturday in Dallas, and on Monday they could not handle Zach Randolph.
First, Randolph nearly outscored the Suns in the first quarter with 13 points to Phoenix's 14. He proceeded to score 32 points, his most prolific output since torching the Suns for 38 in December 2012, with none bigger than his steal of an errant Dragic pass that he took coast to coast for a layup to put the Grizzlies up 95-91 with 47 seconds remaining.
"I think tonight he got off to a great start, and anytime guys like that get off to a great start, the rim seems like an ocean," Frye said.
So the Grizzlies will march on to the playoffs for a franchise-record fourth straight season while the Suns watch the action at home for a fourth straight campaign, the organization's longest playoff drought since missing five consecutive postseasons from 1970-75.
Yet unlike after their previous three playoff misses -- the first two with the franchise still hanging on to the Nash era, the last with a team lacking talent and cohesion -- this time it's not hard to envision a quick return to prominence in the desert, especially with six first-round picks coming Phoenix's way in the next two drafts.
"I think we're headed in the right direction," Dragic said. "When you're so close to the playoffs, you always want a little bit more. At the end, maybe we didn't have so much experience in some games. Overall it was a great season, fun year for us."
Michael Schwartz is founder of Valley of the Suns, part of the TrueHoop Network.
2. Around the Association
MVP: Zach Randolph had favorable matchups all night against the Suns, and he cruised to a 15-for-25 shooting night and season high of 32 points while grabbing nine rebounds.
X factor: For some reason, the Suns thought Mike Miller open looks were a good idea. The Memphis swingman also went for a season high, knocking down 5 of 6 3-pointers en route to 21 points.
That was ... back and forth: The game settling the final Western Conference playoff spot had 22 lead changes and six ties in the second half after Phoenix climbed back following a slow start.
MVP: Trevor Ariza has been sick with the flu for the past two weeks, but while the virus was attempting to regain a foothold among the ruins of his immune system, Ariza found relief by scoring 25 points (on 10-for-13 shooting) and disrupting an already out-of-sync Heat offense.
That was ... a laugher. There's resting your starters for the playoffs, and then there's this. LeBron James and Chris Bosh sat this one out, and Dwyane Wade (nine points) played only 18 minutes. The Wizards, with the sixth seed in the East on the line, took no prisoners.
X factor: Washington tallied 36 total assists on 46 made baskets. John Wall was the perfect avatar for this favorable brand of selfless basketball: Washington's star point guard had only four points but distributed the ball with purpose nonetheless, totaling 13 assists.
MVP: Al Jefferson went 11-for-17 from the field, scored 27 points and had 15 rebounds for another double-double. He carried the Bobcats in a game they probably should have lost.
Defining moment: The prayer floater Chris Douglas-Roberts threw up at the end for the game winner was nuts. There was no way the shot should have gone in, but it did.
That was ... strange: The Hawks didn't play Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver or DeMarre Carroll and yet they still controlled most of the game. The Bobcats didn't come back until they started playing their second unit with Al Jefferson. A strange game in which nothing really seemed to play out like a normal NBA game.
MVP: Michael Carter-Williams. The rookie of the year favorite strengthened his case for the award Monday night by filling up the box score on both ends of the floor. Carter-Williams posted 21 points, 14 rebounds, six assists, four steals and two blocks in the win.
X factor: Bench scoring. Tony Wroten had 20 points off the pine for Philadelphia as the Sixers' second unit outplayed Boston's short-handed bench all night, outscoring the group 54-13 overall.
That was ... surprising. It's a rare that a team with just 18 victories all season wins a season series, but that's exactly what happened Monday night. The win gave Philadelphia the series over Boston by a 3-1 edge.
MVP: At this point, it's a surprise when Joakim Noah (18 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists) doesn't get a triple-double. He has four triple-doubles on the season and so many more close calls, like Monday night against Orlando.
X factor: With D.J. Augustin away from the team because of personal reasons, Jimmer Fredette filled in as the backup point guard and acquitted himself nicely in his first extended minutes with the Bulls. He had 17 points.
That was ... another road loss: With the loss, the Magic finished with a road record of 4-37 -- worst in franchise history. It's not surprising to see a young team struggle on the road, but even then, that's an eye-opening statistic.
MVP: One hour before the game started, Monty Williams said that he didn't think Tyreke Evans would play tonight. Not only did Evans play, but he dropped a career-high 41 points to go with nine rebounds, eight assists, three steals and only one turnover. An MVP performance against the likely MVP.
LVP: Russell Westbrook rested tonight, and though he usually fills in admirably, Reggie Jackson was a no-show in the game, going 1-for-7 from the field with four points and three assists. Durant and Ibaka needed a third scoring threat in the starting lineup to take the pressure off them.
That was ... a pillow fight: Austin Rivers and Nick Collison got ejected early in the second quarter for "fighting," but if that was a fight, then thumb wrestling is a brawl. The two men pushed each other a bit and bumped chests, but neither deserved to be ejected for the incident.
MVP: Dwight Howard was a force against San Antonio, putting up a monster double-double and providing Houston with a consistent post presence on both ends of the floor. He finished with 20 points and 17 rebounds in only 31 minutes of action.
X factor: Houston's starting frontcourt of Dwight Howard, Terrence Jones and Chandler Parsons was the difference in this contest. The trio did everything for Houston, combining for 61 points and 35 rebounds while holding San Antonio's counterparts to only 24 total points.
LVP: Tony Parker. Granted Parker saw only 26 minutes of action in the contest, but Parker, who is a catalyst for much of the Spurs' offensive attack, finished with only one assist. He needs to drop some dimes, and get everyone involved, for the Spurs to be successful.
MVP: Nick Young finished with 41 points in 23 shots, going 6-for-11 from 3-point range in a season-best performance. To quote Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni: "Nick is fun. He's been good this year."
X factor: The Jazz's bench made no impact on the game, getting outscored by their Los Angeles counterparts 57-10. Utah's broadcast team was forced to pick Jeremy Evans' 3-point performance as the Sub of the Game.
That was ... bittersweet: While it's not a proud moment for the Utah Jazz franchise, their loss tonight secures their position at the bottom of the Western Conference -- critical for draft lottery seeding.
MVP: Stephen Curry. After scoring 22 of his 32 points in the first half Curry got his teammates involved in the second. He finished with a game-high 14 assists.
X factor: Draymond Green. For the first time in his career Green made four 3s, en route to a career-high 20 points to go along with 12 rebounds and five assists.
That was ... The Warriors' first 50-win season in 20 years and only the fifth time they've hit that mark in franchise history. Also, the victory clinched Golden State the sixth seed.
MVP: Greivis Vasquez, who came to Toronto in the Rudy Gay trade, scored 25 points and dished seven assists for the Raptors, sinking 5 of 7 3-pointers along the way.
That was ... a cause for celebration: Not even Vince Carter or Chris Bosh could carry the Raps this high. The Raptors set a franchise record with their 48th win, eclipsing the 47 games won in both the 2006-07 and 2000-01 seasons.
That was ... a cause for celebration?: Release the pingpong balls! The loss guaranteed that the Bucks (15-66) will finish with the worst record in the NBA. Milwaukee came in trailing Philadelphia by two games in the standings.
3. Monday's Best
Tyreke Evans, Pelicans: What sore right knee? Evans scored a career-high 41 points to go with nine rebounds, eight assists and three steals, and the Pelicans snapped an eight-game skid by topping the playoff-bound Thunder 101-89. Evans made 14 of 26 shots.
4. Monday's Worst
Shane Battier, Heat: There wasn't 3 in Battier's 3-and-D game in this one. He missed all five of his shots from deep, helping ensure the Heat absorbed a 114-93 loss to the Wizards. That loss clinched the East No. 1 seed for Indiana.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"When you want to put together a veteran team, you better pack a little more ice. You better have a few more people on the staff, because you're going to have a lot of guys in and out."
-- Dwyane Wade, on the need for healing expertise for his well-worn Heat teammates
8. Z-Bo, That's Who
9. Stat Check
The Warriors defeated the Timberwolves, 130-120, for their 50th win of the season, the first time that they have reached that plateau since Don Nelson's 1993-94 team, led by Chris Webber, Chris Mullin and Latrell Sprewell, produced that total. That had been the second-longest current streak of seasons by an NBA team without a 50-win season; Washington last reached the half-century mark in 1978-79.
Stephen Curry led the Warriors effort on Monday night with 32 points and 15 assists. It was his third consecutive game scoring 30-or-more points, the first time as a pro that he has done that. Moreover, it was the fourth time this season that Curry has had a game with 30 points and 15 assists (all other NBA players combined have only four such games this season). The last NBA player with as many as four games of 30 points and 15 assists in one season was John Stockton, who had four such games with the Jazz in the 1989-90 season.
10. Top 3 Plays