Suns Only Fell Short of Own Expectations

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Goran Dragic sat in front of his locker, surrounded by reporters. His ankle was still a swirl of colors after yet another sprain. His ribs were still aching after a 76th game (not counting exhibitions or 20-plus international games last summer) of elbows taken from defenders trying to slow him down. His eyes were still bloodshot because he has a son with the usual sleeping habits of a five-month-old.

In that state, he told the reporters that he hadn’t done enough.

"It doesn’t matter how tired you are,” Dragic said. “If you like to play basketball, you can give everything you’ve got every night. Sometimes I was feeling terrible. I was tired but I still have to push through that. This is the NBA. It’s not going to be always perfect. You have to go through bruises, bumps, through bad days. All the great players, they come through that and try to be positive."

Dragic made it sound like he hadn’t done that. This from a guy who contributed over 20 points, five assists, 50 percent shooting, 40 percent three-point shooting, 18 stitches and a handful of sprained ankles to a team that won nearly 30 games more than anticipated by league outsiders.

It’s worth noting that no one had asked specifically about fatigue or health. He was responding to “what he had learned about himself.” In his response, it was possible to pinpoint what the team had learned as a whole.

In essence: they felt they had fallen short.

Why? Because they hadn’t made the playoffs? When did that happen? When did not playing in late April/May become unacceptable?

“Probably middle of the season when we figured out how we were playing so good that we could do some great things out on the floor,” Dragic said. “Then, Of course, everybody was saying ‘okay, they make some progress, but they’re still probably not going to make the playoffs.’ It’s always fun to try to do opposite of what other people are saying, that the team is not going to win 16 games. It was really fun to prove them wrong.”

They rode that fun. Stormed out of the gates with it. They matched their win projection before New Year’s, then stayed in the playoff hunt without Eric Bledsoe for over two months. Every time they lost, the “experts” would wonder if the Suns had finally crashed to earth.

And the Suns were loving it.

“We bonded together,” Dragic said. “We were like one big happy family. When you go on the floor, that gives you that extra strength that you can do something great.”

You couldn’t blame him for feeling that way. If there is such a thing as “being your year,” this was it for Dragic. His fame skyrocketed as the captain of EuroBasket 2013 host nation Slovenia, which he led to a surprising quarterfinal berth. He started building a house in his homeland (both in design and personal labor). His son was born. He logged new career-highs in scoring three times – all in less than three weeks. The media was showering him with praise.

“He deserves everything that’s coming his way,” long-time teammate Channing Frye said.

Yet for all of his personal momentum, Dragic simply felt it was running parallel to that of the team’s.

Then he hurt his ankle, badly enough to miss a late-season game at San Antonio. The idea was he should rest it then, be as healthy as possible for a next-night matchup at Dallas that had playoff implications and tiebreakers at stake.

So he sat and watched as the Spurs erased a 21-point deficit to erase what little wiggle-room Phoenix had in the playoff chase. After that defeat, they needed to win out.

Dragic did play at Dallas, if only because too much was at stake to risk sitting him.

“If you were to look at [his ankle], you’d say there’s no way he’s going to play,” Hornacek said.

Again, Phoenix built a big lead, but Dragic wasn’t the same. His jump shot was short. His explosiveness was compromised. He finished with 13 points on 6-of-18 shooting.

“It’s tough, especially if you cannot give 100 percent,” he said. “You cannot cut, you cannot run. Every shot is different. It’s a tough situation, but at the same time, I would say it’s even tougher if I don’t play and I watch my teammates and how they’re battling.”

The Suns still had a shot two nights later when they hosted Memphis. They were down late, but Dragic won a jump ball despite that bad ankle. He ended up with an open three-pointer in the corner to cut the lead to one. It went long.

Just like that, the playoffs were out of reach, a fact Phoenix wasn’t ready to swallow despite being spoon-fed far more minimal expectations all season long. They felt more was in store for them, that they had proved higher expectations were okay.

“I think once we figured out we were a good team, we expected ourselves to make the playoffs,” Frye said. “We set the bar pretty high for each other.”

Head Coach Jeff Hornacek watched it happen, witnessed the transformation of the team unfold over a six-month span. In November, his players accepted the goal of simply “playing hard every night.”

Now they were at the point where they didn’t feel that was enough.

“When you’re so close to the playoffs, you always want a little bit more,” Dragic said. “I was hoping that we’d make the playoffs and try to upset somebody over there.”

Such hopes weren’t inherited. Indeed, many gave them none to begin with. The Suns created it themselves.

More importantly, they held onto that hope, held themselves accountable to it, even when they were burned by it and others would have retreated under the shade of those earlier, easier expectations.

Instead Dragic answered the questions under the glaring camera lights and didn’t shy from the goal only he and his teammates had set in the first place.

Give them credit for that much, at least.