PHOENIX — For most of the season, Suns coach Jeff Hornacek emphasized a three-games-at-a-time approach. In the end, it was a three-game stretch that buried his team.
The Suns’ 97-91 loss to the Grizzlies on Monday night provided the disappointing punctuation to a surprise season and capped a revealing three-game losing streak that eliminated Phoenix from playoff contention.
"These last three games were like playoff games," Hornacek said. "It’s little things here or there that make the difference. A lot of that comes with experience, going through it. We learned that lesson with these last three games."
The Suns entered Monday’s game, the last of the regular season at US Airways Center, clinging to life after losses to the Spurs and Mavericks over the weekend. To reach the postseason, the Suns needed to win their final two games and the Grizzlies had to lose their final game.
Against the veteran Grizzlies, who had beaten them three times already this season, the Suns fell just short, fighting tooth and nail to the end — the lead changed 15 times in the fourth quarter — but ultimately showing their inexperience in crucial moments.
"These teams are experienced teams," Hornacek said. "They’ve got veteran guys that have been through this. They know exactly what to do. They get the ball where they need it to go and guys make shots under pressure."
Added point guard Goran Dragic: "In the end, you can’t say that we didn’t battle. We just didn’t have that experience."
Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph scored a season-high 32 points to lead all scorers while Mike Miller scored 21 points and Marc Gasol added 18. As much of a challenge as that veteran trio proved to be, it was Mike Conley who essentially put Phoenix away.
With just over a minute left and the Grizzlies down one, Conley hit a huge 3-pointer to silence a sellout crowd. Dragic turned the ball over on the ensuing possession, and Randolph put the Grizzlies ahead by four with a breakaway layup.
As much as the brutal three-game stretch revealed about a Suns team with little playoff experience among its players, the season seemed to speak volumes about the team’s future. But a bright future, especially after some predicted the Suns wouldn’t even reach 20 wins this year, was a tough pill to swallow Monday night.
"It’s really tough to say something positive right now," Dragic said. "When you’re so close to the playoffs, you always want a little bit more."
Dragic might have been the difference against the Grizzlies. Playing on an ankle that kept him out against San Antonio and couldn’t have been more than 50 percent Monday, Dragic scored 14 points but admittedly wasn’t his usual explosive self.
"The guy’s ankle, he could be making it worse, but he is going ‘Well, if I’m going to go down, I’m going to go down kicking and trying,’" Hornacek said.
The Suns, too, went down kicking and trying, and against a different set of teams this late in the year they might have survived to play beyond 82 games. But the Suns knew long ago they would have to best such seasoned teams in their push for the playoffs, and they didn’t quite have enough to get it done.
"These are the hardest games to win," Hornacek said. "You’ve got to do everything right. You can’t have bad stretches. … As we come together as a team we’ll solve that and get better at it and hopefully grow."
Monday’s loss left the Suns to wonder what might have been had they not lost games in the past month or so to lesser teams like the Lakers or Cavaliers — teams veterans groups tend to put away. The Suns were also left to wonder what might have been had they been able to pull out a win against the Grizzlies.
They might have won out and gotten help from Dallas, the Grizzlies’ final opponent. Or they might have won out and gone down as the winningest team ever to miss the playoffs. But instead they came up short before they could see.
"We fought, we made it a game, and we had a chance to win," guard Eric Bledsoe said. "We can say all day we had a great season, an unexpected season, but at the end of the day it hurts."