Guard Walter Davis was battling three Clippers for a rebound when he leaped, was knocked off-balance, and fell to the floor. He suffered a fractured elbow. News of the injury quickly put a damper on all forecasts for the season. One year before, the Suns had finished 57-25. Phoenix was projected to take a run at a second-straight division flag during the '81-82 season. They had also drafted Larry Nance, who would develop into one of the NBA's top forwards, late in the first round of the 1981 draft.
Davis would miss about two months of the season to the elbow injury. The good news: the fracture was suffered on his left elbow, which left his shooting arm unharmed. In the absence of Davis, Kyle Macy joined Dennis Johnson, Alvan Adams, Truck Robinson and Jeff Cook in the Suns' starting lineup. Offseason pick-up Dudley Bradley also saw playing time. Seeking the right combinations and the proper chemistry, the season became one of constant change and experimentation for Head Coach John MacLeod, who utilized 21 different starting units.
Alvin Scott supplanted Cook in the starting lineup and later in the season Scott was supplanted by Adams, who shifted from his normal center position to allow Rich Kelley into the starting lineup. By the time Davis made his comeback on December 19, the Suns had struggled to a 13-10 start. When Davis was activated for his first game of the regular season, he received a two-minute standing ovation upon his pre-game introduction.
"The elbow felt really good, and it didn't hurt at all," Davis told reporters after the game. Despite the excitement surrounding the return of "Sweet D," it became clear that his elbow, still joined by surgical tension wires and screws, would keep him from reaching top form. He was used in a sixth man role most of the year, unable to regain the type of game that would have allowed the Suns to make up ground in the Pacific Division. Macy retained his starting role straight through the campaign.
With a month remaining in the season, the Suns found themselves embroiled in a heated Western Conference playoff race. The Suns appeared, on the surface, to be jelling and finished the regular season at 46-36 - good enough for third place in the NBA Pacific Division and a playoff berth.
Phoenix opened the postseason by defeating Denver 2-1 in a hard-fought miniseries. The Suns won the deciding game on the road, sending hopes soaring as they headed into the Western Conference semifinals against the Lakers.
However, the Suns were swept in four straight games by Los Angeles, who went on to sweep San Antonio, then defeated Philadelphia to win the NBA Championship. The early postseason exit brought to an end one of the most frustrating seasons in Suns history, for fans and the team alike. A roster loaded with talent never fully developed, ending the season, in the view of many, prematurely.
"Good coach, good players, good team," former Portland Trail Blazers Head Coach Jack Ramsay said at the time. "A bit puzzling their record wasn't better, but not having a 100-percent Walter Davis probably had something to do with it." Johnson, who was the lone Suns representative at the midseason All-Star Game in New Jersey, also garnered postseason honors by being named to the NBA All-Defensive Team.