The Suns had reasonable control over their volatile playoff-related destiny when they began Saturday’s work shift in Dallas.
By punch-out time, they would need assistance from unexpected and unreliable peers to keep this season’s postseason dream alive.
In the finale of what became a Texas two-step off a cliff on back-to-back nights, the Suns were beaten 101-98 by the Mavericks.
While Dallas (49-32) was clinching a playoff spot, Phoenix — which started the evening as the Western Conference’s ninth seed — dropped another half-game behind eighth-seeded Memphis (47-32).
Even if they manage to clobber the Grizzlies on Monday in Phoenix, Memphis has locked down the head-to-head tiebreaker, meaning it would have to lose one of its other two remaining games to give the Suns life.
The Grizzlies will play the miserable Lakers on Sunday in Los Angeles and end the regular season against the Mavericks on Wednesday. With a playoff position secured and Dirk Nowitzki hobbled, don’t expect Dallas — which has the tiebreaker over both teams — to give Memphis its best shot.
Should the Suns (47-33) win on Monday, they also would need their own victory over the Kings in Sacramento two nights later. Or the Suns could advance if the Grizzlies loses all three of their closing games.
The situation would be a lot more manageable had the Suns not fallen apart after taking a 21-point first-quarter lead Friday in San Antonio or coughed up a 13-point third-quarter edge in Dallas.
For the second consecutive night, their predicament began about the same time Saturday.
"I think that third-quarter stretch," Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said in regard to Saturday’s turning point. "They (Mavs) scored eight straight; they made a couple 3s and got a couple stops …"
And the momentum established by Phoenix was a goner.
Although the Suns’ panicky fourth-quarter performance found them down by eight with slightly under 2:25 remaining, they did reclaim some of their season-long pluck, closing to within a point at 99-98 with 52.7 seconds left to play.
After Vince Carter bricked a 3-point attempt, Suns guard Eric Bledsoe — whose just-missed free throw on the back-end of a two-shot trip prevented him from scoring 30 points on both nights in Texas — grabbed the rebound and kicked the ball down to Gerald Green.
One night removed from scoring 27 points while starting in place of an injured Goran Dragic, Green had been a point of emphasis for the Dallas defense. Having managed only nine points by this conjecture, Green rushed an off-balance, short-baseline jumper that missed.
"It’s a shot Gerald makes a lot," said Hornacek, who stopped short of criticizing his player for not being more selective. "He just didn’t make that one."
Subsequent intentional-foul situations put Mavericks hero Monta Ellis on the line twice. Ellis (a season-high 37 points), who keyed Dallas’ second-half uprising, made only half of those four attempts, giving Phoenix two opportunities to recover.
The first was taken by Bledsoe, whose 29 points included only four missed shots on 15 field-goal attempts. But the last wayward shot was an off-balance layup that was swatted out of harm’s way by Dallas big man Branden Wright.
The second began as a sideline out-of-bounds possession with 9.4 seconds left and required a 3-pointer from the Suns to force overtime.
But after the ball found its way to Dragic, the hobbled Dragon passed it to Markieff Morris, whose contested 3 from the wing wasn’t close.
Unable to do anything about Friday’s loss in San Antonio, Dragic’s competitive spirit couldn’t overcome the lack of explosiveness associated with the ankle he sprained Wednesday in New Orleans.
After keeping the Suns in playoff contention for so long, Dragic could muster only 13 points against the Mavs, missing 12 of 18 shots.
"Goran’s a competitor," Hornacek said. "I played him 40 minutes on an ankle he could barely push off of. I think that affected a lot of his shots."
For the second night in a row, Bledsoe attempted to make up the difference. But the young point guard also duplicated the seven turnovers he stacked in San Antonio.
That included four in an opening quarter that — thanks to a 4-of-4 run by Channing Frye from beyond the 3-point line — started pretty well before ending on a stretch of terrible ball-screen defense and a 27-26 Dallas lead.
Bledsoe rallied in the second quarter, however, driving and shooting the Suns to a 57-46 halftime advantage.
With the Mavs now playing close attention to Frye, Dragic not up to his considerable speed and the bench contributing only 25 points for the game, the Suns didn’t have enough additional punch to keep that destiny in their pocket.