Phoenix Suns are considered a championship contender with Kevin Durant.
Without him, they’ve lost their last three games and are in danger of falling out of playoff contention. Durant is scheduled for a re-evaluation of his sprained left ankle in late March.
Fourth in the Western Conference, Phoenix (37-32) has the seventh toughest remaining schedule according to Tankathon. The Suns should get a home win Thursday over the rebuilding Magic (28-41), but they lost at Orlando back in November.
Now the Suns should make the postseason, but can’t afford to continue losing with Durant sidelined.
While James Jones, team president of basketball operations and general manager, said last week Durant would play if the playoffs were taking place now, the initial timetable the team gave on March 9, the day after Durant twisted his ankle in a pregame workout, has the 13-time All-Star up for re-evaluation March 30.
They announced he’d be re-evaluated in three weeks.
“Kevin wants to play,” Suns coach Monty Williams said before Monday’s loss at defending NBA champion Golden State. “I hate answering stuff like that because if I say anything, it becomes a thing, right? I think it speaks to how badly he wants to play. I haven’t gotten many reports outside of he’s progressing.”
However, Jones also gave a timetable that suggest Durant could return sooner than later.
“In 16 games, we’re going to be in the playoffs regardless,” Jones said before Phoenix lost last Saturday to Sacramento. “Kevin being with us for 10 of those or six of those, Kevin knows how to play. We’re not concerned about Kevin forgetting how to play basketball over the next eight games.”
Durant watched the second half of Tuesday’s loss to Milwaukee from the bench in street clothes. He even picked up the basketball during the timeout and dribbled the ball a little bit in regular shoes.
Phoenix traded Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Jae Crowder, four first-round picks and a pick swap right before the Feb. 9 traded deadline to Brooklyn for T.J. Warren and Durant. The Suns are 3-0 with Durant on the floor, but have gone 1-3 since he injured his ankle.
The Suns have six games left after March 30 with two at home against West-leading Denver, one at the Los Angeles Lakers (34-36) and another at home versus the Los Angeles Clippers (37-33) to end the regular season. The other two are at Oklahoma City (34-35) and at home against San Antonio (18-51).
They have seven games between now and March 30, four against teams within four games of them in the Western Conference:
Sunday at Oklahoma City (34-35).
March 22 at L.A. Lakers (34-36).
March 27 vs. Minnesota (35-35).
March 29 at Utah (33-36).
The other three games are Thursday versus Orlando, March 24 at Sacramento (41-27) and March 25 at home against Philadelphia (46-22).
The Suns have 13 games remaining, but they are only a half game ahead of the Clippers. The Warriors (36-34) are just 1-½ games behind of the Suns after losing Wednesday to the Clippers in Los Angeles.
Phoenix owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over Golden State, 3-1 and are 2-1 versus the Clippers with the final regular season matchup set for April 9 at Footprint Center.
The Suns are just 2-½ games ahead of the Timberwolves and Dallas Mavericks (35-35), three ahead of the Thunder and 3-½ ahead of the Lakers.
The T-Wolves, Thunder and Lakers are in the play-in space with the Mavs, but could help push Phoenix in that tournament with head-to-head wins over them.
The seventh and eighth seed play in the play-in for the seventh seed. The loser plays host to the winner of the 9-10 matchup for the eighth and final playoff spot.
The Suns have never been in the play-in tournament.
Utah is on the outside looking in play-in, just four games back of Phoenix.
Now let’s go beyond the numbers to further address why the Suns should be concerned.
First off, the play-in is not the playoffs. It’s an opportunity to play your way into the playoffs. There’s a lot of pressure to win just to make the postseason.
No team, not even Phoenix, wants to be in that situation.
Second, anyone who has watched the Suns without Durant in these last four games can see their rotations are unsettled, they’re giving up 3s and they’re not the same team that won 34 games before Durant.
No Bridges and no Johnson.
Terrence Ross is making up for the their offensive production to a degree, but the Suns aren’t the same team defensively without Bridges and Johnson.
Third, teams are just blitzing Booker and making other guys beat them and they are relying on guys to provide an offensive punch that quite frankly shouldn’t have to do so like Ish Wainright.
He was the unsung hero at Dallas, but Durant and Booker were the difference.
Durant showed he can miss nearly two months with an injury, come back and do what he does at the highest level, but there will be another adjustment period for him and the rest of the team.
Will he be on a minute restriction? Probably. Whether Williams enforces it is another matter.
Will he need time to ramp up with conditioning even after the evaluation and miss another game or two?
Maybe, but the ramp up could be part of that three-week period.
With Durant, the Suns can win it all, but can’t just fold up without him to the point they need to come out of the play-in to make the playoffs.
Last year, the Clippers were eighth in the West and lost twice to miss out on the playoffs.
Phoenix doesn’t want to be in that situation next month even with the ultimate closer in Durant accompanied by Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton.
Have opinion about current state of the Suns? Reach Suns Insider Duane Rankin at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact him at 480-787-1240. Follow him on Twitter at @DuaneRankin.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Struggling Suns need wins facing 7th toughest remaining NBA schedule
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