The No-Win Situation

Sure, they may score more points than the Spurs, in which case their victory tally will increase by one, but no one outside the greater Phoenix area (and maybe even some people within it) will acknowledge it as a meaningful win.

If the Suns do come out on top, critics will squawk that they beat a team without their starting point guard and one of their most indispensable players, Tony Parker. Until the Suns at full strength beat San Antonio at their full strength, any victory over our esteemed rivals to the southeast will be considered hollow.

By contrast, if the Suns lose tonight, we’ll hear more of the same old, same old: The Spurs have a borderline mystical hold on Phoenix, their voodoo owing to the Spurs’ innate superior basketball IQ and tine-tested toughness, and the Suns’ much-discussed weaknesses on defense and rebounding.

The Suns just can’t win.

Every game, to some degree, has taken on that kind of frustrating atmosphere for the Suns. If they win…well, they’re supposed to win. They have a high-powered offense studded with stars and a proven system. If they lose, well, they’re soft, perennial pretenders to the throne, and maybe the system doesn’t work in the long run, and blah blah blah.

The days of the Suns being fun-to-watch underdogs surprising the league with their play are over. Now, it’s “What have you done for me lately?” time.

So, given that the Suns can’t win in the court of public opinion, they may as well focus all their attention on winning on the court. Just let people say what they will, and use the hot air as fuel for the playoff stretch drive.

Initial signs are that the Suns are doing just that. Grant Hill’s appendicitis might prove to be the biggest blessing in disguise since Dick Van Arsdale’s broken wrist in 1976. Just as that injury prompted the Suns to move Ricky Sobers into the starting lineup and reconsider Van as a primary bench piece, priming them for their unlikely moon shot, Hill’s time out of the lineup appears to have aligned Boris Diaw’s stars. As a starter, he’s played at a consistently excellent level not seen around these parts in a long time. And Grant Hill, mature enough to handle coming off the bench for a contender, gives the Suns the second-unit ball-handler they’ve been craving, as well as another explosive scorer to pair with Leandro Barbosa when Steve Nash takes a seat.

I like where the Suns are headed. I’m optimistic. I expect big things. What I don’t expect is for people to think a win tonight is anything special.

But with the beating the Suns have taken in the press and among followers of the NBA this season, every win, particularly now as eyes turn to the not-to-distant playoffs, particularly as the Suns make fine-tuning adjustments that hopefully get all their players performing at their peaks at the same time, is important.

It doesn’t matter who the opponent is.

Shades of The Hawk

Not only is Amare Stoudemire doing it all at both ends of the court these days, but a couple of his swoops en route to an eye-popping 24-point performance in less than 28 minutes evoked memories of some of the moves Hall of Famer Connie Hawkins used to dazzle the local basketball populace with.

Amare Stoudemire has been improving all year and the scary part is he can still improve even more.

(NBAE Photos)

Of course, Amare doesn’t quite have The Hawk’s panache, but then Hawk is a member of the NBA’s All Time Panache team. However, Amare is just as big a load for defenses and he is plenty dazzling in his own right thank you very much.

In fact, there are nights when I find myself wondering why he isn’t even more appreciated than he is by Phoenix fans, and even at times by the management. This is a kid who came into the league with a ton of raw talent and has developed it into one of the most devastating packages in the NBA.

His improvement, even on the defensive end, has been remarkable. Maybe that should read ESPECIALLY on defense, since that is the area the critics have been saying all along that he must improve if the Suns are to take the next big step.

I’m not saying they’re wrong. Just that they don’t seem to have noticed he has improved, and in fact is one of the big reasons the Suns have held opponents under 100 points in six of the last nine games.

One of the truly impressive things is how he has worked at developing various offensive skills and blended them into Coach Mike’s team concept. This is a guy who could well be sulking that he doesn’t get the ball enough, or that the offense should in fact be built around him. After all, players with not nearly as much talent as he has have been known to do just that.

But so far Amare has proved he’s more about winning games than whining about stats, and has totally bought into the team’s championship goals. And what’s even more exciting (or scary if you’re the rest of the West) is that he’s only a little more than halfway down the road of improvement.

Last night he was 10 of 11 from the field (although admittedly he turned it into a very short field), had 7 rebounds, and blocked 4 shots. Oh, and he also had an assist and 2 steals.

He wasn’t the only Sun who shone this night, of course. Perhaps most noteworthy was the continued resurgence of Boris Diaw. The target of much flack earlier in the season, he has been coming on stronger and stronger of late, and had 16 points, 9 assists, and 7 rebounds against the Hawks in just 31 minutes. And he seems to be developing a better understanding of when to help his teammates and when to go to the hoop.

One of the most pleasant surprises was how hard to the Suns jumped on the hapless Hawks right from the opening tip. They have been know to give up points in mega bunches in first and second periods, but Atlanta managed only 17 points and shot a woeful 21 percent from the field in the first period. They followed that with only 16 points in the second period. The Suns also blocked eight shots in that opening period and went on to reject a franchise record 19.

Ironically, although the Suns built a lead that stretched as high as 37 points and seldom dipped below 25, if you didn’t see the game and somebody told you Atlanta had 26 offensive rebounds and a 50-36 over all edge on the boards you might have leaped to the conclusion the team’s glaring (real and alleged) weaknesses inside had been exploited yet again in another loss.

But of course the main reason the Hawks got all those offensive rebounds was that they missed all those shots (67 to be precise). In fact, they got 6 of those offensive boards in one wild (and scoreless) trip down the floor in the first period. Indeed, the Suns took only 14 more shots than the Hawks missed.

In the interest of full disclosure it should be duly noted this was the fourth stop on a five-game swing for Atlanta, but judging from its lack of energy, the team must be traveling by mule train. “We just didn’t show up”, grumbled Coach Mike Woodson. Outside of Marvin Williams nobody competed across the board.”

But he shouldn’t be too hard on his lads. The fact is they caught the Suns at a time when they are healthier and closer to hitting their full stride than they were the last time these teams met. Much of the fretting about the Suns in the early months of the season overlooked the fact the team was banged up in various ways and still adjusting to the addition of some key new players.

This was the team’s sixth straight home win and seventh in the last eight games, and was an auspicious beginning to a six-game home stand. It was also great preparation for a Thursday meeting with the World Champion Spurs (also known in these parts as The REAL Evil Empire) that has generated buckets of buzz.

The bottom line: If nothing else, games like this should get the Suns off the couch analysts have had them on much of the year.

A Desert Waterworld

As the ballboys did their best to dry the rain-soaked court, the Suns front office contemplates their options before postponing an exhibition game in 1974.

(NBAE Photos)

The game was delayed 12 minutes in the first quarter because of water dripping down to the hardwood, less than a foot from the baseline under the Lakers’ basket.

This got me to thinking about the Suns, who must lead the NBA in all-time weather-related incidents.

Playing in a city that boasts 300 sunny days a year and a paltry average of 7.7 inches of rain a year, the Suns sure have had their issues with Mother Nature since their inception 40 years ago.

The first incident remarkably occurred at home on Oct. 6, 1974. It started out as just another preseason game for the Suns at old Veterans Memorial Coliseum, but quickly and quite literally became a washout.

A steady rain and a constant drip from the ceiling cancelled the exhibition after a 90-minute delay and prompted an impromptu address to fans by Jerry Colangelo, telling them they could exchange their tickets for a future game and that the decision was “in the best interest of everyone that this game not be played.”

US Airways Center Vice President of Facility Management and Suns Ring of Honor member Alvan Adams wholeheartedly agrees with the decision.

“That was totally the right call,” the Oklahoma Kid said. “We cancelled that game against the Trail Blazers because of water on the floor. It was just common sense. Luckily, it was a preseason game. Portland had rookie Bill Walton, and you could only imagine what their coach was thinking, too.

Jerry Colangelo addresses the fans at “The Madhouse on McDowell,” informing them of the decision to cancel the preseason game against the Trail Blazers.

(NBAE Photos)

“Kids do crazy things, and most NBA players are still kids. They’ll go out a ride a motorcycle at 100 mph. So skidding around on the court could be fun, but not when you’re trying to win a game. Plus, being a preseason game, it wasn’t that important.”

It certainly wouldn’t be the last time weather would wreak havoc with the Suns. Eleven years later, storm clouds followed Phoenix to the Pacific Northwest as they took on the SuperSonics at the old Seattle Center Coliseum.

The ballboys were once again working overtime after puddles quickly formed on the floor for tip-off. By the second quarter, the NBA had its first-ever “postponement due to rain.”

“We actually had to come back the next night and finish it off,” Suns broadcasting legend Al McCoy said. “It was a little unusual, but the floor got so damp, they had to do it. Waiting that extra day was something, because the Jazz were also in town to play their game, we were there, and of course, Seattle was, too.”

Adams added, “It was a great place to have to spend an extra day in, though.”

The game was made up a day later, resulting in a 117-114 Suns win, but that proverbial dark cloud over the Suns’ schedule continued.

“It also happened in Washington when Cotton Fitzsimmons and I were doing a game,” McCoy said. “They had ice under the floor, and it was a warm day. The floor got damp, and they kept mopping and mopping, and that game got cancelled. It had to be played later in the season. Cotton and I were doing the simulcast on radio and TV. We couldn’t throw it back to the station, so for almost an hour we interviewed just about everybody but the usher.”

Last season, the Suns got hit with a bit of precipitation of the frozen variety, when their match-up against the Nuggets was postponed due to a blizzard. In addition to having to wait to extend their 15-game winning streak, the team was stuck in Colorado as the clock began ticking down for their game back in Phoenix two nights later. After bussing it to Colorado Springs, the Suns caught a flight back to the Valley, arriving two hours before tip-off of what would be a loss to the Wizards.

Thankfully, the interior of US Airways Center has stayed rain- and snow-free since its doors opened in 1992.

Getting back to Sunday’s delay in Los Angeles, everything worked out in relatively no time. And as Adams comments, that’s a credit to the NBA’s high level of commitment to players, coaches and fans through the use of first-class venues.

“That’s why the league is as great as it is,” the 13-year NBA veteran said. “They have standards in terms of their facilities. And even a great facility like Staples Center and all places have places where water can get through. It happens in the best of homes and the best public assembly buildings, as well.”

As for the Suns’ propensity for getting the short end of the weather stick over the years, McCoy has a simple suggestion.

“This team needs a weatherman,” he smiled.

Tom's Top 5

 

Joe Kleine is on Tom Leander’s First Team of top per-sun-alities. (NBAE Photos)

Well, I figured we know the great performers on the court, but what about off the court. Since joining the Suns in 1993 as a studio host, many colorful characters have come and gone. I have intereacted with these players through various interviews and features for our pregame show, Suns Gametime. Also, for the last 5 years, I have been travelling with the team, and you really get to know a guy while 35 thousand feet in the air amidst wicked turbulence!

So I am submitting my own Top 5 with the caveat that my 3 broadcasting partners(TC, Thunder and EJ) are ineligible because they are obvious “shoe-ins” and then I’d have only two spots left! Also, I am disqualifying two of my all-time favorites–Hawk and Van(Dick Van Arsdale)–because they have received so many honors(Ring of Honor, Hall of Fame etc.)that making my list would be like Angelina Jolie winning a State Fair beauty contest.

So here goes…

Tom’s Top 5 “Per-Sun-alities” [Read more...]

Winter Wonderland

<“Let every man shovel out his own snow and the whole city will be passable.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

One reason to live in Arizona: You don’t have to shovel snow!

When my family moved from Chicago to Phoenix back in the early 70s, my dad cited a lot of reasons for our pilgrimage west, but weather was at the top of the list. Any time a family member from back east would visit us in the summer months and complain about the heat, he would say “but you don’t have to shovel it!” In the midst of another January on the road with the Suns – this trip through the frozen tundra of Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Cleveland and Chicago – I am ever grateful that I didn’t have to be subjected to more of this growing up. Which begs the question: who, if they really have a choice, lives in this bitter cold?

Certain cold cities have a charm about them that can offset the bad weather. Chicago is a fantastic city with something for everyone: great museums, sports, nightlife, beaches, parks, etc. Minneapolis is a real gem, a melting pot of cultures and beautiful architecture – and one of the best local music scenes in the country. New York has a tangible energy and almost a life of it’s own. I can see why people are drawn to Manhattan – I wouldn’t want to live there, but I can understand the attraction. Toronto is another great cold weather NBA stop – and certainly the cleanest big city I’ve ever been to. I think there’s a provincial ordinance that mandates the cleanliness of pigeons. Denver has more going on in and around the downtown area than most cities – not to mention some of the world’s best skiing during winter months. [Read more...]

Phoenix Suns Mid-Season Report

Along with Boris Diaw and Brian Skinner, DJ Strawberry’s extended minutes have helped the Suns to the top of the Western Conference standings. (NBAE Photos)

With 30 wins, we’re on pace to win 58, which is about our average over the past three seasons. The difference this year, though, is that the wins aren’t coming as easily. The West has really improved, with teams like Portland, Golden State and New Orleans making dramatic strides forward. In fact, the way the season has unfolded, it appears that there are ten very strong teams in our conference, which means two teams will be left out of the playoffs altogether. There isn’t much wiggle room, that’s for sure. I’m really proud of the fact that our team has plowed ahead in difficult circumstances and put itself at the top of the conference.

I’m particularly happy with our team’s recent progress, especially given that Grant Hill missed 7 games following his appendectomy a couple of weeks ago.. In a strange way, though, Grant’s absence may have helped us grow stronger as a team. We were forced to go deeper into our rotation, with Brian Skinner, DJ Strawberry and Boris Diaw all given more responsibility and playing time. Boris has played better than he has all season during that span, and Brian’s shot blocking continues to give us a boost defensively. DJ has seen significant minutes the last two games, and his defensive intensity and energy have been important. He did a great job on Vince Carter in the New Jersey game, giving us the kind of size and toughness Raja Bell provides. Now that Grant is back, DJ will return to the bench, but it was great for us to see him perform the way he did when he got his chance. We believe DJ has a bright future, and that our depth has improved because we know he can do the job when called upon.

The rest of our schedule is going to be difficult, even with much of our road slate behind us. We’re going to be facing a lot of Western playoff teams coming up, and with the Lakers much improved, our main goal is to win the Pacific Division and get a top 3 seed in the West. We’re going to have to play consistently well the rest of the season to make that happen.

As always, thanks so much for your support. Go Suns!


One more thing…I’ll be answering fan e-mail again in my next blog so send me your questions and check back soon.

Another Double Digit Win for the Suns

Just one word for this one: Appropriate!

Amare Stoudemire led 6 Suns players in double-figures on Sunday night.

(NBAE Photos)

With the greatest defensive player of all time in the audience, how appropriate it was that the Suns turned in one of their finer defensive efforts in the process of holding an opponent under triple digits for the fourth straight game.

Former Celtic star/Hall of Famer Bill Russell was given a long ovation by the sellout crowd at US Airways Center, and considering all he’s read and heard the last few years about the way the Suns play “D” (i.e. — with one hand tied behind their back and the other in their pocket) he had to be pleasantly surprised and not a little impressed with the energy the Suns showed at the “other” end.

And he had to be especially appreciative of Shawn Marion, who tied his season high with five steals in just 29 minutes.

The offense wasn’t too shabby either, as Amare Stoudemire led six Suns in double figures with 28 points and Raja Bell hit on five of his ten “trey” tries.

The victory brought the Suns to the half way mark in the regular season at 29-12, a mark bettered in the entire NBA only by the Celtics. It was also their 14th consecutive victory over the Nets at US Airways Center. To put that figure in perspective, the Nets have had six head coaches since they last won in Phoenix and their coach on that occasion was Chuck Daly.

The Nets opted to go small to keep up with the pedal-to-the-metal Suns but all that got them for their effort was a 48-38 beating on the boards — especially on the offensive end, where the Suns had 17 – leading to 16 second chance points.

The bottom line: All in all, a nice way to set the stage for a four-game swing through the Midwest.

Talking Hoops with Donald Faison

If you’re a fan of the NBC sitcom Scrubs, you’re probably not surprised to hear that Donald Faison is a big basketball fan.

The 33-year-old’s character, Dr. Christopher Turk, has had a number of scenes over the years playing ball and even painted his “basketball head” in one episode.

“Turk likes to blow off steam by playing basketball before surgery,” explained Zach Braff’s character before one of their many pick-up games in the parking lot outside “Sacred Heart Hospital.”

 

Faison will get a chance to blow off some steam on Saturday when the actor competes in the Suns’ Jack in the Box Celebrity Shootout at US Airways Center (2 pm). But before the 8th annual exhibition, Faison and his fellow entertainers enjoyed some inspiration courtesy of the Suns and T’Wolves on Friday night. Well, maybe just the Suns.

 

Prior to tip-off, I caught up with him for a few minutes in the “B-Lounge” to talk about tomorrow’s run and his love of hoops. [Read more...]

Suns Welcome Easy Win

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Two words for this one: Ho and Hum. And I mean that in a nice way.

After all, when you have the best record in the West and are playing a team which has won only five games all year and is 1-18 on the road, you don’t need any excitement, suspense or things like that. Au contraire, a ho-hummer is exactly what you are looking for.

There was some concern the Suns might suffer a letdown coming off a big win against the Lakers in Los Angeles Thursday night. That and the team’s tendency to play down to the level of its opposition.

But not to worry!

For one thing, it’s hard to get down to the level of the post Garnett era T-Wolves. And for another, while the Suns did not exactly leap out of the starting gate, once they did get out they pretty much clicked on all cylinders offensively and stayed awake defensively, building a lead that stretched to 28 points before Coach Mike cleared the bench.

Just about everybody had a good line for the Suns, but I thought Steve Nash’s was better than good. Almost perfect, in fact. Reading from left to right it went: 6-6 from the field, 1-1 on 3pters, 4-4 on free throws, 13-1 assists and turnovers, 28.5 minutes. And the turnover, by the way, was more a technicality than a mistake.

Even as great artists paint masterpieces on canvas, he does likewise on a court. And he does it while large people are trying to treat him like the centerpiece in a piñata festival. Even in lopsided games it is a treat to watch the subtleties of his artistry (not to mention the deadliness of his shot.

But enough about Nash (although personally I can never get enough).

In watching this kind of game one’s mind tends to stray a bit and ponder things like the fact that starting the night in there was a five-way tie for first place in the loss column in the Western Conference, with Phoenix, Dallas, San Antonio, the Lakers, and New Orleans each having 12. So tightly bunched is the field that the win over the Lakers propelled the Suns from fifth to first in the seeding order.

Given the loss of Andrew Bynum and an upcoming stretch of schedule that includes a nine-game road trip, the Lakers figure to drop back, but the other four should stay close enough to at least put a modicum of meaning (modicum is Italian for tad) into the regular season for the front runners.

And if I had to narrow it down, I would say what we’re looking at is a photo finish between the Suns and Mavericks for top see

The bottom line: Yawn. (But I mean that in a nice way).

Suns Beat Lakers, Leandro Getting Traded?

Leandro Barbosa is still a Sun and still friends with assistant coach Dan D’Antoni.
(NBAE Photos)

1. Leandro is getting traded. The fan favorite Leandro Barbosa was called in his Los Angeles hotel room yesterday afternoon and was told that Steve Kerr needed to speak to him in the lobby. Apparently, Leandro had been traded to the New York Knicks. A stunned and emotional LB went to his mentor Dan Dantoni’s room and asked, “Do you not like me? I thought you liked me?” Dan barked back at him, “You’re not getting traded!”

Lesson Learned: Famous people shouldn’t use their real names when they check in at a hotel.

2. Mike D’Antoni and Kobe Bryant are great friends. I knew that young Kobe grew up in Italy admiring the explosive play of the superstar Mike D’Antoni. It’s rumored that Kobe adopted D’Antoni’s #8 as his own for several years before he changed to #24 in 2006. Last night we saw Mike and Kobe laughing together on the sidelines. This is hardly evidence of a life-long friendship, but it’s news to most Phoenicians.

Lesson Learned: Sports commentators need to learn to use the word “frenemy.”

3. Boris Diaw can still shoot. If you’ve been a Suns fan over the past few years, you’ll remember that Boris Diaw can hit critical shots in big games. Last night against the Lakers, Boris sunk 9-of-13. It feels good to see confidence in Boris again.

Lesson Learned: Boris needs to get in touch with his inner tiger.

4. Lamar Odom wears girl’s tights. I don’t want to be the fashion police, but some things need to be said. Dwayne Wade debuted his black leotard bottoms to the world a couple seasons ago when his Miami Heat stormed the NBA playoffs and brought Miami home its first championship trophy. His training staff justified Dwayne Wade’s pantie hose as “leg warmers” that kept his muscles limber. Since then, Kobe and Lebron have been seen rockin’ the tights. (At least Lebron has the common sense to grow a burly beard to keep his manliness.) This trend is growing and is causing great trepidation in my life. Last night I suffered through almost 3 hours of watching big and bad Lamar Odom wear purple tights under his gold shorts.

Lesson learned: That ain’t right.

5. Steve Nash is funny. Some of you missed this because you were already in bed for the night. TNT’s courtside clown Craig Sager asked Steve Nash after the game why the Suns seem to be struggling in the first part of the year. Nash listened patiently as Sager stretched a question out over 30 seconds before he finally blurted back: “It’s because we suck!” Steve continued with a straight forward appraisal of the team’s struggles, but it was clear that Steve was in a funny mood after the big game. Sager’s second question was why we haven’t seen more aggression out of Boris Diaw. Nash yelled into the microphone “It’s because he sucks too!” Sager ended the interview before Steve Nash could tell him that he sucks as well.

Lesson Learned: Craig Sager needs new clothes.