Suns schedule quirk hits a difficult stretch

Goran Dragic is healthy and the Suns will need him to continue streaking with a stretch of eight games against teams with superior records.

Jae C. Hong/AP

PHOENIX — Just when the Suns have seemingly hit their stride, things get difficult.

The quirk of what originally appeared to be a gift from the NBA schedule-makers isn’t looking so generous in the Suns’ push toward a playoff berth.

The Suns are three games — all victories — into an eight-game homestand that is the longest in franchise history, but they will now play eight games in a row against teams with better records than their current 25-18 mark. Playing the first five at home to start that stretch will ease some of the worry, but the Suns have already four home games against inferior teams early in the season, so it’s not as if the U.S. Airways Center advantage is impregnable.

It starts Wednesday with Portland (31-11), followed in rapid succession by Houston (29-13), the L.A. Clippers (28-14), Washington (29-13) and Chicago (27-16). Then comes a road game at Golden State (33-6), a home game vs. Memphis (29-12) and a road rematch at Portland. All told, that’s eight opponents with a combined record of 237-96 (.712).

"It would be nice to have a few more wins on our belts," Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. "This is the part of the season where we are at home, but we’re playing some great teams. If we want to make a push for it, these are the games we should be fired up and guys are ready to go and hopefully we win. These stretches could sometimes make or break your season. We want it to make our season."

The Suns feel like they let winnable home games slip away against Sacramento, Charlotte, Orlando and Detroit. They have recovered to win their last six home games after a 115-100 win against the Lakers on Monday night.

As of Tuesday morning, the Suns are in eighth place in the Western Conference, 1.5 games behind San Antonio in the seventh playoff spot and 3.5 ahead of ninth-place Oklahoma City.

The Suns started the homestand by weathering upset threats from Cleveland, Minnesota and the Lakers. It’s helped that Goran Dragic looks like his old self. During the four-game road trip before this homestand began, he battled a lingering illness. Since returning home, he’s averaged 21 points, 5.7 assists and 5.3 rebounds while shooting 62 percent from the floor.

Suns schedule

Opponent Record Date
vs. Blazers 31-11 Wed., Jan. 21
vs. Rockets 29-13 Fri., Jan. 23
vs. Clippers 28-14 Sun., Jan. 25
vs. Wizards 29-13 Wed., Jan. 28
vs. Bulls 27-16 Fri., Jan. 30
@ Warriors 33-6 Sat., Jan. 31
vs. Grizzlies 29-12 Mon., Feb. 2
@ Blazers 31-11 Thur., Feb. 5

"On that road trip I was sick. I had a fever, didn’t have that energy, kind of always was sleepy, I didn’t eat right. It was exhausting," Dragic said after scoring 24 against the Lakers. "Now, I feel great."

And Hornacek likes where his entire team is at, though there have been spurts of losing focus.

The defense was intense again on Monday, but the Suns coach wished they had given up fewer offensive boards during a first half that ended tied. Then there was a brief lapse during a fourth-quarter stretch where a 19-point lead became six as Lakers guard Nick Young caught fire. The Suns blew all of a 19-point lead against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers a week prior before rallying late.

Phoenix has played well late in games to make up for those bad stretches, but losing focus during this upcoming schedule likely won’t end in such a kind way.

"We’ve been playing better at home lately," guard Isaiah Thomas said. "We just got to be focused each and every game knowing that we’re playing against the top teams in the NBA."

Here’s how the rest of the eight-game homestand looks as of Tuesday, and why the Suns might be hitting some good teams during rough patches.

Wednesday vs. Blazers (31-11): The Suns catch a break against the league’s third-best team. On Monday night against Sacramento, Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge injured his left thumb and though X-rays were negative, he’s not expected to travel to Phoenixr. Portland had lost three straight to the Clippers, Spurs and Grizzlies before beating the Kings by four points.

Friday vs. Rockets (29-13): The Rockets have gone 9-6 since the acquisition of power forward Josh Smith, who was cut by the Pistons in mid-December. Houston, which beat Phoenix 100-95 on Dec. 6, has lost two of its last four, giving up 120 in a loss to the Magic and 131 to the Warriors.

Sunday vs. Clippers (28-14): Continuing to be hot and cold, the Clippers will be trouble for the Suns. But if you believe Phoenix wants revenge for the Dec. 8 loss that saw Blake Griffin’s three-pointer bounce off the front of the rim and into the hoop at the overtime buzzer, there’s a good chance the Suns won’t come out flat in this one.

Wednesday, Jan. 28 vs. Wizards (29-13): One of Phoenix’s more impressive road victories this year came during a 104-92 win at Washington. That said, the Wizards have won seven of their last nine.

Friday, Jan. 30 vs. Bulls (27-16): On Monday, the Bulls got walloped by the Cavaliers to drop to 2-6 over their last eight. Will Derrick Rose and company figure it out in the next week before meeting the Suns?

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