Suns, Thunder, Pelicans limping toward finish in playoff race

Injuries to the Suns' Brandon Knight (from left), Pelicans' Anthony Davis and Thunder's Kevin Durant cloud the race for the Western Conference's No. 8 playoff seed.

PHOENIX — As three teams approach the home stretch in this rally for the eighth seed in the Western Conference, it’s not a collective swagger we’re witnessing. It’s more like a three-way limp.

With Friday’s news that Oklahoma City superstar Kevin Durant and his slowly mending foot will be out indefinitely, that eighth seed really seems up for grabs. We’re just not sure which of the three contenders has enough balance and strength to reach up and take it.

Before checking the roll call of the limping, let’s look at the standings.

Lurching into Friday night’s schedule, OKC — which entertains the Eastern Conference-leading Atlanta Hawks — possessed a one-game lead over the New Orleans Pelicans, who are in Oakland to take on the Warriors.

The Suns, who will engage the Rockets in Houston on Saturday and return home for a Sunday date with the Dallas Mavericks, trail OKC by 2.5 games and New Orleans by 1.5.

Complicating the closing kick for each team is a list of injures to some very important personnel.

Let’s start with the Suns, who’ve been without guard Brandon Knight (ankle) for the last four games (but won three of those) and second-year center Alex Len (ankle) for two. Fold in the required trade-deadline assimilation, and Jeff Hornacek has been forced to play rotation roulette. But the second-year Suns coach thinks the challenge is overrated.

"We mix it up in practice all the time," Hornacek said, "so that shouldn’t be that big a deal. These guys are basketball players … they practice with each other all the time.

"It’s like you’re at the playground … you’re on different teams all the time. (If) you know how to play, you know how to play."

Suns gain ground in playoff hunt

That seems reasonable, but the lineup fluctuation doesn’t account for the Suns’ lack of experienced depth or the signature skills of Knight and Len.

It also doesn’t provoke Hornacek into fits of pity. Considering the Thunder are working without difference-making power forward Serge Ibaka (knee) and trade-deadline gem Enes Kanter (ankle) is day-to-day, and New Orleans is even worse shape, a no-excuses policy certainly serves.

The Pelicans, by the way, were sans star Anthony Davis in Thursday’s loss in Phoenix and may be without him, Tyreke Evans (ankle) and center Omer Asik (calf strain) Friday in Oakland.

New Orleans already was attempting to fight its way to the postseason without point guard Jrue Holiday (lower leg stress fracture) and stretch-four-man Ryan Anderson (knee). Davis, Evans and Asik are day-to-day; Holiday and Anderson could be out another week or more.

So while point guard Eric Bledsoe rests, Hornacek will roll with temporary backup Archie Goodwin attempting to dribble the ball against pressure into offense-initiating areas before too much shot clock evaporates. And until Len returns, the Suns hope Brandan Wright — who has been a salvation in wins over the New York Knicks and Pelicans — can provide inside baskets and rim protection.

With all three significantly handicapped in terms of personnel, the Suns can claim the greatest scheduled-related challenge.

Of the 13 games remaining in their regular-season, the Suns must take on 10 teams currently ahead of them in the Western Conference standings. Six of those dates are on the road.

And this does not include a game with the Hawks in Atlanta.

Including Sunday’s game with the Mavs, the Suns do have four home games in succession, before a two-game roadie to Portland and Golden State.

Following a home game with the sizzling, Rudy Gobert-infused Utah Jazz (one of two supposed breaks in this brutal run), the Suns close with a four-game trip — Atlanta, Dallas, New Orleans and San Antonio — before closing out at home against the Los Angeles Clippers.

Some cakewalk, huh?

By contrast, the Pelicans have seven more games against teams currently sitting above them in the Western Conference standings; five of those games are outside New Orleans.

The Thunder has five such games against Western heavies (only two on the road) and Friday’s aforementioned test from Atlanta.

With Durant shut down from basketball operations and Ibaka not expected back any time soon, OKC will attempt to ride Russell Westbrook into the postseason.

On a lesser scale, the Suns are attempting to do the same with Bledsoe, who had a solid floor game against New Orleans, but needs to be more efficient than 2 of 15 from the field.

"Eric had a hard time finding a lane to get all the way in there," Hornacek, who encourages his floor leader to fire mid-range jumpers coming off of ball screens, said. "And then he just didn’t make the shots. He typically makes those shots, he just didn’t make them tonight."

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