PHOENIX – The end came at 9:28 p.m. PDT. When the horn sounded on the Dallas Mavericks’ 122-117 victory over the Suns on Tuesday, it was over.
The Suns are 51/2 games back of the Mavericks for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Suns have 18 games to play.
Do the math.
“For us to get in, it’s going to take something wild,” Steve Nash said. “We’d have to go on a tear and one of the teams is going to have to tank a little bit.”
The Suns have lost a season-high five straight games. They can’t play defense, and on Tuesday, in a game it had to win, Nash said Phoenix came out flat for the second half.
Does that sound like a team about to go on a tear?
“This wasn’t the difference between us making the playoffs and not making the playoffs,” coach Alvin Gentry said.
He’s right about that.
The Suns weren’t going to catch Dallas even if they had won. They can’t shoot enough 3-pointers to make up that much ground in the standings.
No, all Tuesday’s loss did was stamp an official date on the death certificate. You could see it on the Suns’ faces as they trudged off the court, not a word being spoken, and you could hear it in their words in a locker room that seemed more like a mausoleum.
Oh, they tried to offer some hope, Gentry saying the season isn’t over and Jason Richardson trumpeting the players’ belief in each other, but then Nash came out and told the truth.
The Suns are finished. Unless Phoenix does something miraculous in the next month, it will miss the playoffs for the first time since the 2003-04 season.
Does Phoenix have some built-in excuses? Sure. The hiring of Terry Porter was a disaster, the deal for Richardson backfired and Amare Stoudemire’s season-ending eye injury put the brakes on whatever hope the Suns had.
But let’s be honest: Even in the best of circumstances, Phoenix wasn’t going anywhere. It’s a fatally flawed team. The two most important players – Nash and Shaquille O’Neal – don’t mesh, either on the defensive end of the floor, where they routinely get burned on pick-and-rolls, or in their strategy of how the game should be played.
O’Neal wants to walk it up and pound the ball down low. Nash wants to run and hoist up 3-pointers. There’s no middle ground for the two to meet.
It’s so strange to be writing the Suns’ obituary in mid-March. Usually, they’re gearing up for an extended playoff run. Now, the gaze extends further out, to the 2009-10 season.
There’s no question that the Suns team you see today won’t be the team that returns next fall. Owner Robert Sarver is not about to sign off on a $77 million payroll – and a resulting $15 million luxury tax – for a team that misses the playoffs and is getting older by the day.
The changes will be sweeping and dramatic. Stoudemire could be gone. So, too, could O’Neal, who – according to a Los Angeles Times story Tuesday – is privately telling friends that he wants out.
Nash might even be on the block. What’s the point of keeping the 35-year-old point guard if the team is starting over?
Oh, and let’s not forget the search for a new coach, assuming the Suns don’t keep Gentry as a cheap alternative while the team rebuilds.
It’s a mess. An absolute mess.
You know the worst part? Even if the Suns do the right thing and trade away all their stars and go young and stink up the joint so bad that they get a top-five draft pick, it won’t help.
They traded their 2010 first-round pick to Seattle/Oklahoma City as part of the Kurt Thomas salary dump.
“This is not a hang-your-head night,” Gentry said.
It was a night to say goodbye.