PHOENIX — A severe level of disappointment was not supposed to attach itself to the 81st game of the Suns’ season.
By the time they reached Monday’s date with the Grizzlies, a 97-91 defeat should have been accepted for its enhancement of their draft positioning.
But this third consecutive loss dropped Phoenix to a still-impossible-to-dismiss 47-34 record, officially ending a run for the playoffs nobody outside the Suns’ locker room saw coming.
As the realization settled over this bunker of uncommon belief, Goran Dragic — the humble face of a quickly rehabilitated franchise — dodged piles of discarded uniform parts as he limped in from the training room.
His change of direction still compromised by the unsightly left ankle he rolled last Wednesday in New Orleans, Dragic paused to lob an orange, high-top Adidas sneaker out of his path.
Finally coming to rest at his stall, the weight of being unable to finish on his terms — especially after carrying this team the first two months of 2014 — seemed to overwhelm him all at once.
"It’s really tough to say something positive right now," he said. "When you’re so close to the playoffs, you always want a little bit more."
And for Dragic, the catalyst for so much of the Suns’ season-long exhilaration, being unable to perform at typical levels was more painful than the ankle.
"It’s tough," he said, preparing to merge the physical and emotional. "It’s hard to cut, to run … every shot is different.”
Although he managed to knock in 6 of 14 field goal attempts and finished with 14 points, Dragic whiffed on all five shots from behind the 3-point line. Without that pop on the floor provided by two healthy wheels, "The Dragon" hasn’t hit a 3 since the injury.
"It would have felt worse, if I hadn’t played," he said. "I needed to be out there with my team."
The level of this commitment isn’t lost on Suns coach Jeff Hornacek, the architect of the on-court aspects of a rapid cultural rewind.
"Those are the type of players you love to coach and you love to have on your team," Hornacek said. "Guys that will go out there … the guy’s ankle, he could be making it worse, but he’s going, ‘well, if I’m going down, I’m going down kicking and trying.’
"He’s a great player and those are the guys that when they fight through injuries, they still play as hard as they can … and that’s Goran."
The fight was joined by everyone who hit the floor for Phoenix across a season that offered plenty of opportunity for the Suns to fold into what had been expected of them.
"Everybody thought we’d keep fading," Hornacek said.
The greatest challenge, of course, occurred when Eric Bledsoe was lost for over two months just as the Suns were hitting their accelerated stride.
By the time Bledsoe returned, Dragic and his teammates had kept the team within striking distance of its first playoff ticket since 2010. With the all-point-guard starting backcourt whole again, Phoenix quickly regained its status as a matchup nightmare for most teams.
But with Memphis strongman Zach Randolph offering an amazingly weak link in the otherwise stellar Grizzlies defense, the Suns attempted to survive an elimination game by running offense through their power forwards.
"Markieff and Frye had it going," Bledsoe, referring to Markieff Morris (a team-high 21 points) and Channing Frye (14), said when asked about not putting up bigger numbers in a big game. "I’m not a selfish player."
So, with the Memphis defense geared to limit Bledsoe (13 points on 6-of-16 shooting) and Dragic to 11 fewer combined points than the duo averages, the Suns were unable to play to their strengths and stay in the playoff chase through game No. 82.
"We just got to take all the positives," Bledsoe said, "the positives of this whole season. Now, everybody got a little bit of experience going into next year, what it takes to take it to the next level. Everybody hadn’t been in this situation before.
"Next year, we’ve got to lock in even more.”
For Suns fans concerned about Bledsoe’s upcoming visit to restricted free agency, the "we" certainly seems encouraging.
With the 24-year-old working alongside Dragic into the future, there may not be another grim disappointment after game 82.
"We built some good chemistry with this team," Dragic said. "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."