The Western Conference playoff race comes to a close. Both the Suns and Grizzlies had much to play for on Monday night, though it was Memphis that managed just enough late-game offense to secure a crucial 97-91 victory. As has been the case throughout the season series, Zach Randolph was dominant; he bullied his way to ample scoring inside, in all notching about a third of the Grizzlies' points. The Suns battled in piecemeal at every turn, but came up just short in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. So ends a valiant run for Phoenix, now officially swept from the playoff picture.
• Memphis and Phoenix played a competitive game befitting its stakes. Were the Suns to lose, they would be officially disqualified from playoff contention. Were the Grizzlies to fall instead, the race would live on. Both teams played with a full grasp of what the outcome meant, which made for an excruciating fourth-quarter course of stymie and relief. There can be no lingering doubt as to what either of these teams deserves; both Phoenix and Memphis were unquestionably playoff-worthy, and the game was played as such.
The Grizzlies won with a rare string of successful offense -- six scores out of seven consecutive fourth-quarter possessions, from which a two-point deficit was turned into a four-point lead. As is the case so often with this Memphis team, that entire offensive stretch was a bit haphazard. Zach Randolph, against all odds, became a one-man fast break. Mike Conley and Mike Miller found openings beyond the arc in transition. A passing lane to Marc Gasol opened up at just the right moment to create an easy score. The fate of Memphis' season rested on plays like these, even after the Grizzlies had been stalled and frustrated by the Suns just minutes prior.
These are the breaks of the game. Phoenix's locker room has to be smarting with those late turnovers that yielded vital points, to say nothing of their own open looks that came up empty. Any game this close has dozens of marginal plays that could have swayed the night's outcome. It's just unfortunate that a good team saw its season undone by a few moments of antsy execution. Memphis did its part to make plays and battle for every opening (Tony Allen, in particular, was killing himself to scrap for loose balls), though these teams played one another so tough and so closely as to create a virtual draw. If nothing else the fans in Phoenix were treated to a playoff game.
• So long, Suns. The end of Phoenix's season doesn't really deserve funereal treatment. The Suns are good again, and better yet: young again. Of their eight most crucial contributors this season, only one has reached 30. Two rookies on the roster -- No. 5 overall pick Alex Len and No. 29 overall pick Archie Goodwin -- are churning along in the developmental pipeline. Phoenix is set to have three first round picks in the 2014 draft with additional future first rounders courtesy of the Timberwolves and Lakers. Guiding it all will be Jeff Hornacek and Ryan McDonough -- a head coach and general manager coming off exceptional debuts in those posts.
It would be a bit condescending to classify this competent bunch as some fledgling team. This is a winning bunch as-is. But with that much talent, so many assets, and bright individuals, Phoenix is situated remarkably well. The Suns will have their chances.
This campaign still goes down as a season well-played -- the lack of a benchmark achievement shouldn't drown out the teams' greater progress. It means a lot that Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe were able to play splendid basketball as members of the same backcourt. The reclamations of Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee were big for a franchise that gave up only Luis Scola for them. There's a lot to like in the freedom and flexibility of the Suns' offense, not to mention the across-the-board improvement of role players making intelligent reads.
I suspect this team will be remembered for its incredible bucking of preseason expectations, but to do so would be to remember a rich, vivid story for its introduction alone. This was no novelty act; Phoenix turned out to be proficient and deep in ways that survived rounds of scouting, months of game planning and a major injury to Bledsoe. This was a team that fought until the very moment of its mathematical elimination, through tired legs, nagging injuries and all. The humble beginnings and unfortunate end, then, are bits of cold context. What matters most with these Suns was all the riveting basketball that came between.
• Mike Miller comes alive. It's a bit of a wonder that Tayshaun Prince -- who offers little to Memphis in terms of on-court functionality -- continues to outpace more useful players in terms of minutes played. Monday's game only added to the mystery, as sharpshooter Mike Miller capitalized on his 30 minutes of playing time with a season-high 21 points. With Courtney Lee struggling from the field, Miller was instrumental. Five of the Grizzlies' six three-pointers on the night came from Miller, and those helped grease the wheels of Memphis' offense.