The Phoenix Suns hold the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, but appear to be limping into the home stretch rather than racing down it.
Goran Dragic recently missed time with a sprained right ankle. Miles Plumlee sat out for the first time all season Tuesday night with a sprained right knee. And to add insult to injury, veteran guard Leandro Barbosa suffered a left hand fracture in the team's 104-96 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.
The first two situations are par for the course, the type of ailments that occur during a marathon 82-game season. Dragic has since returned to action and been forced to endure new aches and pains, including soreness along the left side of his body. Likewise, Plumlee's status is day-to-day and not a major threat in terms of derailing the team's chances of making its first postseason since 2009-10.
Barbosa's fracture, on the other hand, is a completely different story. Brought in to provide offensive depth and insurance following the loss Eric Bledsoe (torn right meniscus), the 31-year-old is expected to miss up to six weeks or basically the remainder of the regular season.
Yet don't expect the Suns to fill the Brazilian Blur's spot any time soon, after all, the organization at this point is anxiously awaiting the return of Bledsoe, who participated in a five-on-five scrimmage for the third time in five days Wednesday.
With anxiousness does come some caution, though, on the part of the Suns and general manager Ryan McDonough. While the need for Bledsoe is apparent in the here and now, his long-term future with the franchise seems to be priority number one.
"We could use him, but at the same time we don't want to do anything that would hurt the team," McDonough told Arizona Sports 98.7 FM's Burns & Gambo Wednesday. "Guys like Ish Smith and Archie Goodwin have stepped up and played a nice role in Eric's absence.
"Anytime you are out for close to two months, conditioning is the main issue. Jumping on a treadmill mid stream can be difficult, and that is essentially what you are asking a guy to do who hasn't played in 2014. His last game was at the end of December. We're being cautious with that, especially given the quality of opponents. We're in a stretch of four really tough games right now. Our guys who are playing are playing well enough, so we only want to bring Eric Bledsoe when he's ready to contribute and help us win, not just for the sake of playing him."
The stretch is undoubtedly one of the toughest to date for Phoenix, as it follows Tuesday's loss to Los Angeles with a home contest against the Western Conference-leading Oklahoma City Thunder coupled with a back-to-back on Sunday and Monday against the Golden State Warriors and Clippers.
Tough as it may be, the Suns will not be getting by with the equivalent of cheap scotch tape with Smith and Goodwin patrolling the backcourt.
Following multiple stints in the D-League with the Bakersfield Jam in late January and early February, Goodwin, the youngest American-born player taken in the 2013 NBA Draft, has impressed when given the chance to play regular minutes.
In recent contests against the San Antonio Spurs, Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz, Goodwin has compiled point totals of nine, 14 and a career-high 16 respectively.
And as for Smith, the journeyman point guard who is now on his seventh NBA team since 2010-11, the Bledsoe injury has allowed him to blossom both as a back-up to Dragic and as a complimentary backcourt mate.
Since the calendar flipped to 2014, Smith has had 10 games with at least five assists, and arguably more impressive is the fact that the former Wake Forest standout has scored eight or more points in 10 games during that same span.
"We thought he'd fit in well with how we wanted to play in terms of pushing the ball and trying to score a lot out on the break," said McDonough of Smith. "And, he has done that. To his credit, he's kept on working on his shooting. His main Achilles heel throughout his career has been the jump shot, but he's gotten better as the year's gone on and he's gotten more minutes.
"He's certainly a change of pace and a guy other teams can't relax with when he comes in the game."