SALT LAKE CITY - Sweeping change. Limited talent. Inexperience. Injuries.
Those are just a few of the plagues that clouded the Suns’ worst season in 16 years.
The thin ray of light coming from Wednesday’s scarcely noticed anticlimax in Salt Lake City may not offer much solace moving forward. But it did say one undeniable thing about this team — it never quit, even when it had a dozen reasons to do so.
In a positively spun microcosm of the season, Phoenix (29-53) overcame a late Utah rally, an empty bench and its own shortcomings to post an 89-84 win. In doing so, the Suns, coupled with the Clippers’ loss to Seattle, escaped by one game the ignominy of finishing last in the Pacific Division.
"I know this win didn’t mean anything as far as playoffs for us or them, but it meant something to us to get it done in the end," said Suns guard Casey Jacobsen, who was 0-3 in Salt Lake before Wednesday. "Not that it’s any consolation prize but I’d rather not finish in last."
Suns coach Mike D’Antoni met with his entire roster one last time at a team breakfast. His emphasis?
"We talked about the images we want to have in our head coming back next year," D’Antoni said.
Here’s a few snapshots the Suns can smile about this summer.
• There was Amare Stoudemire (29 points) stretching his game to new heights by draining his first 3-pointer of the season to spark a 12-0 run at the start of the third quarter.
• There was Antonio McDyess, he of the completely remade knee, leaping over the front row of the crowd to try and save an errant ball.
• There was plowhorse, Joe Johnson, logging 40-plus minutes for the 35th straight game.
• There was Shawn Marion hitting another money shot late in the game to seal the victory.
Sure, the Suns exhibited all those frustrating traits that had D’Antoni and club brass wringing their collective hands throughout the season.
They built a pair of big leads, including a 16-point bulge in the third quarter, only to fritter them away.
They committed 20 turnovers and their defense, at times, was as soft as the Kuwaiti military.
But even with a bench limited to nine players by injuries to Jahidi White, Howard Eisley and Jake Voskuhl, even when McDyess and Leandro Barbosa fouled out, even when Donnell Harvey and Maciej Lampe left the game with injuries, leaving just five available bodies, Phoenix found a way.
"The guy that got us going was McDyess," D’Antoni said. "He’s a free agent and a guy who’s battling injuries and he’s all over, jumping over three rows in a game that means nothing. If that doesn’t send a message then we’ve got the wrong guys.
"It makes you feel good as a coach."
Good is the feeling the Suns chose to embrace as they parted company Wednesday night, dreaming of better days.
"We closed it out with a good win," Marion said. "What more can you really say?"
The Suns finished the season with the seventh-worst record in the NBA, meaning they will have just a 4.4 percent chance at landing the top pick — they want UConn star Emeka Okafor — in the June 24 draft. Phoenix entered the final day of play in a tie with Atlanta and the Clippers for the fourth worst record (expansion Charlotte gets the draft’s fourth pick), but the Hawks and Clippers both lost while the Suns won.
Phoenix now has a 5.06 percent chance of landing the second pick in the draft and a 5.93 percent for the third pick. The draft lottery is May 26.
Lampe left the game late in the first quarter with a left ankle sprain and did not return. ...
Harvey suffered a knee injury in the fourth and did not return. . . Joe Johnson’s streak of 40-plus minute games reached 35 when he played 41 minutes Wednesday. The streak is tied for the ninth longest in NBA history with Celtics great Bill Russell. Wilt Chamberlain owns the record at 102. . . . Utah missed the playoffs for the first time since the 1982-83 season. . . . Phoenix went 17-31 following the big trade of Stephon Marbury and Penny Hardaway to New York.