For at least half of Monday night's game in Dallas, it looked like the Suns could finish a daunting five-city road trip with more wins than losses. With Dirk Nowitzki in street clothes due to a knee injury, it seemed a perfect opportunity to topple the defending champion Mavericks.
After trailing by as many as 15 points in the second half, the Suns climbed back to within striking distance. That effort ultimately was not quite good enough, though, as the Suns lost 93-87, punctuating the road trip with a result fitting of the team's current condition.
"We tried to get this one," forward Markieff Morris said on FOX Sports Arizona's postgame show. "We needed this momentum go back home, but weve got another game tomorrow."
At 6-10 after going 2-3 over that last nine days, the Suns remain in limbo; not quite good enough to contend and not quite bad enough for the cellar of the Western Conference. It's a kind of basketball purgatory that frustrates fans just as much as it fuels speculation about Steve Nash's future with the franchise.
Getting wins over Boston and New York to finish the road trip 2-3 was much better than many expected, but even with a tough slate of opponents, those aren't the expectations for a contender. Those are the expectations for a team simply look to keep its head above water in a grueling season compacted by the lockout.
At this rate, the Suns won't find themselves playing past 66 games or drafting very high come June, and it seems inevitable that they will be forced into a rebuilding period. That's been the consensus for some time now, and the road trip reaffirmed it.
While getting a pair of wins certainly offered some hope that the Suns can figure out their inconsistencies and possibly sneak into the playoffs, the perception gathered from those victories may be a bit skewed.
The Knicks, also 6-10 with the season about a quarter of the way over, have been lifeless lately amid a six-game losing streak, and the Celtics were without Rajon Rondo. Then again, the Bulls were without reigning MVP Derrick Rose and the Mavericks without Nowitzki.
Those matchups simply demonstrated further the banged-up nature of the entire league right now. Depleted opponents are commonplace this season as teams squeeze 66 games into five months, and Suns coach Alvin Gentry, as he often does, downplayed Nowitzki's absence after Monday's game.
"They didn't win the championship with one guy," Gentry said. "They've got a deep team, and they're a good team. Obviously they're a great team with Dirk out there, but they've got some very capable guys."
On the opposite end of the spectrum of lessons learned on a road jaunt that covered more than 6,000 miles, there was further confirmation of the defensive culture change that came to Phoenix with assistant coach Elston Turner. While games like the 118-97 loss to the Rose-less Bulls raise some question the Suns' newfound defense, the greater numbers tell a truer story.
The Suns have held 10 of their first 16 opponents, including three of their last five, under 100 points. It took them more than twice as long, 41 games, last season to keep that many opponents under the century mark in a game. Opponents are averaging 94.6 points per game and shooting 44.2 percent. This new defense, it seems, is no desert mirage.
The Suns weathered what was probably the toughest five-game stretch they'll see all season, coming home without falling totally out of contention. There's some respite Tuesday, as the Suns host the flailing Raptors, though a back-to-back offers little time to recover from their time away from home.
That's just another part of the harsh reality that remains: Things aren't getting any easier any time soon for these Suns.