A brutal four-game stretch has Phoenix on the outside of the playoff picture, and a road-heavy slate over the final five weeks makes it imperative that the Suns take advantage of their few remaining home dates.
Having Eric Bledsoe back for the first one could provide a major boost.
Bledsoe is expected to play for the first time in 2014 on Wednesday night when the Suns host a fading Cleveland Cavaliers team that’s beginning its own daunting stretch.
Phoenix (36-27) went 16-8 with Bledsoe in the lineup – and 3-3 without him – through the season’s first two months, and it won 10 of its final 12 games of 2013 but lost him to a knee injury Dec. 30.
He had surgery Jan. 10 and began a two-month rehab process that saw him return to five-on-five scrimmages in early March. He targeted Wednesday’s game against the Cavaliers (24-40) to return, and while coach Jeff Hornacek expects him to come off the bench initially, Bledsoe doesn’t expect to be working his way into game shape.
"Full throttle when I come back," said Bledsoe, who was averaging 18.0 points and combined with Goran Dragic to form one of the NBA’s highest-scoring backcourts. "I’m going to stay aggressive, stay in that same mindset I had at the start of the season."
Phoenix could certainly use a spark after going 3-6 in its previous nine games to fall from sixth in the Western Conference and behind eighth-place Memphis, which holds the tiebreaker over the Suns. They trailed by as many as 25 in the third quarter Monday against the Clippers in a 112-105 loss, their second to the Pacific Division leaders in a four-game stretch that also saw them face Oklahoma City and Golden State.
"Our guys never quit. That’s a great thing," Hornacek said. "But to get down by that many points, a comeback just isn’t always going to happen. … Our backs are to the wall now. We have to play tougher."
The Suns have allowed 112.1 points per game as opponents have shot 52.5 percent in this nine-game stretch. In the 24 games Bledsoe played, Phoenix allowed an average of 99.8 points, but in the 39 he’s missed, it has surrendered 104.9 per contest.
Only seven of the Suns’ final 19 games are at US Airways Center, but their first opponent is in an even worse slump – and it’s not about to get any easier. Cleveland’s 107-97 home loss to New York on Saturday was its seventh in nine games.
The Cavaliers are five games behind eighth-place Atlanta in the loss column and now begin a six-game stretch that starts on the road against Phoenix, Golden State and the Clippers before they return home to face Miami, Oklahoma City and Houston.
"We need to play well, obviously, with where we’re sitting," coach Mike Brown said. "So it’ll be good to get out and get on the road and try to come together and get some wins. I’m looking forward to it; I think the guys are too."
Cleveland expects at some point on this trip to get C.J. Miles back from an ankle injury that’s sidelined him for the past nine games, and it could use the boost from beyond the arc. The Cavaliers have been outscored 294-171 from 3-point range in this stretch, allowing opponents to shoot 40.0 percent.
Miles is shooting 43.2 percent from long distance in 2014.
Much of the focus will be on the Dragic-Kyrie Irving battle, but when the Suns visited Cleveland on Jan. 26, it was reserve Markieff Morris who made the difference with 27 points and 15 rebounds in Phoenix’s 99-90 win.
The Cavaliers led by as many as 20 before collapsing with a six-point third quarter.
Phoenix will be without starting forward P.J. Tucker, who was suspended for one game Tuesday for elbowing Los Angeles’ Blake Griffin in the chin Monday.
Tucker had 13 points, 10 rebounds and a career high-tying six assists at Cleveland in January.