By the Numbers: Phoenix Suns vs Milwaukee Bucks

(Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images)

(Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images)

The difference an O’Neal makes!  One night after Shaquille O’Neal sat on the bench in a suit, he suited up for the Suns and scored 29 points on 12-16 shooting from the field and 5-9 shooting from the free throw line in 35 minutes.  He also added 11 assists rebounds and four assists. [Read more...]

By the Numbers: Phoenix Suns vs Chicago Bulls

(Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images)

(Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images)

I guess we couldn’t expect the Suns to go 41-0 on the road.

 

When the Suns lose, I always try to look at the box score and try to figure out the one thing the team could have done better to keep themselves in the game.  Unfortunately, this time there were several things Phoenix could have improved upon Friday night:

[Read more...]

Reality

It’s often been said that athletes don’t deal with reality. They don’t see the big picture. It’s understandable when you see the commitment it takes to compete at such a high level individually.

Mike D’Antoni and the Suns are weeks away from another run at an NBA title.
(NBAE Photos)

Since the Suns’ sensational win in Dallas on March 14, the team has come down to earth. In January, when the Suns posted a 15-1 record, I felt we were witnessing some of the best basketball I have seen in my 25 plus years in the NBA. The Suns were playing at such a level, that they had captured the entire attention of the basketball world.

It all started to slip when Steve Nash’s shoulder froze on him just prior to the all-star game. The team’s game started to freeze as well. I personally think the Suns became bored with little to play for and lost some focus.

Mike D’Antoni felt the team lost a little confidence that the club was pressing. Nobody handles all this better than Mike, who is the last to panic, but he is ticked off it happened. Ironically, the two long winning streaks of 15 and 17 games has seemingly made the season even longer.

After those remarkable stretches, the Suns looked up and still had a month and a half left. It was apparent they weren’t going to catch Dallas for the number one seed and their rear view mirror told them that the Spurs had little or no opportunity to pass the Suns for the number two seed.

So, the reality of the situation is, we’re okay, we will be ready when the playoffs hit. The Suns have a very difficult finish to the regular season, playing four games in five nights.

How will that prepare them for post-season play? Can the Suns get razor sharp during that span of games, or will it take a toll on a team that isn’t all that deep?

To win the NBA Championship, you must win 16 games. Those 16 games could occur within 28 games or ideally it would be nice to shorten the number of games in the first round, as you can almost bet the second round with San Antonio and the Western Conference Finals with Dallas will go the full distance of seven games. My point being that the Suns could use a break and not have to play four seven-game series.

So what is the reality of what’s ahead? Will Shawn Marion’s shot return? Is Boris Diaw’s back still a factor? Will James Jones’ shooting slump continue? Will the Suns’ defense get better? Will the Suns win the title?

I don’t know!

Can they win the title?

The reality is, they can!

Suns Entertainers On and Off the Court

Hard to believe that by the end of this weekend, there will be just nine games remaining for the Phoenix Suns on the NBA schedule. Weren’t these guys just in Treviso, Italy like three weeks ago?

Suns reserve forward Jumaine Jones can roll with the punches.
(NBAE Photos)

It was October when the Suns were touring overseas and it wasn’t too long after that, a number of questions began to surface. Off to a 1-5 start, many were skeptical this was not the Suns team they had hoped for entering the season. Some pointed to the draining experience of international flying, others to the fact Amaré Stoudemire wasn’t playing like the STAT we remembered.

A major possibility, however, was simply impatience. The offseason had flown by and with Stoudemire back in the mix, the regular season just didn’t seem as if it was worth playing. Think about it: This year’s playoffs have pretty much been scripted from the get-go and has thus far followed that script to a tee. In November, everybody knew the Western Conference was going to be represented by Phoenix, Dallas and San Antonio. Here we are almost in April and nothing has changed. The Suns were possibly suffering from impatience in the early going and that could have very much played a factor in the slow start.

Now, as Yogi Berra would say, it’s like déjà vu all over again. For the most part we know what the playoff picture is looking like and it’s time to play ball. Let’s not forget, this is something that happened last season as the Suns enjoyed a less-than-successful April. The month started with back-to-back losses to the Pistons and Clippers, and would eventually end with additional losses to teams including Seattle, Golden State and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Worries were quickly put to rest once the postseason started, and hopefully that will be the case yet again. The path to the NBA Finals will not be an easy one as many are quick to point out, but that applies to everybody. I’m not sure Dallas is doing cartwheels about the possibility of playing the Don Nelson-coached Warriors in the opening round and following that series up against the Rockets who always play them tough. To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man, and for whoever holds the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy above their heads this summer, that will certainly have been the case.

Most importantly, the players are relaxed which is what Head Coach Mike D’Antoni wants. Not too relaxed mind you, but a team that relies heavily on its shooting is never one that wants to be playing tight basketball and D’Antoni understands this. Because of that, everybody has remained cool, helping make for some memorable moments as of late.

There was some great ribbing taking place in the locker room the other night between Marcus Banks and Jumaine Jones. The two were discussing the number of NBA players who go back and finish college after they leave early for the draft. After each player realized they weren’t getting through to the other, here is roughly how that conversation finished playing out:

Jumaine: Marcus, what do you know about school any way? You went for Social Studies.

Marcus: Whatever Jumaine, the only reason you went to school was for lunch.

Good times and definitely an enjoyable one for everyone in that locker room, player and media person alike. This includes Jumaine who has proven himself as a person who can definitely roll with the punches – an absolute must with this organization. After producing the worst score during a recent team-trip to the bowling alley, Jones reported to practice wearing a throwback Suns t-shirt with the phrase “World’s Worst Bowler” screen printed on the back.

When I asked Marcus about how bad Jumaine looked out on the bowling lanes, the guard responded, “He bowled under 100 and I’ll leave it at that. He’ll definitely be hearing it until the next time we make it out.”

Having been around these guys for almost two seasons now, I don’t doubt that for a second.

The Suns That Might Have Been

As a writer of both frequently fanciful cartoons and physics-challenging comic book adventures, occasionally I get involved in the “what if” stories.

Neal Walk manned the middle for the Suns from 1969-74.
(NBAE Photos)

You know, stories where one altered detail from the past completely changes the future. What if Superman’s rocket had landed on Mars instead of Earth? What if Bruce Wayne had been shot by the thief that murdered his parents, and never had the chance to become Batman? Things like that.

I also find such questions fascinating when applied to real life, particularly sports. Case in point:

Around the time of the recent NBA All-Star Game, NBA TV ran a marathon of “classic” All-Star Games from the past. There was Jerry West’s famous three-quarters court shot. There was Magic’s triumphant return to the NBA spotlight after his premature retirement. And so on. Included among the list of games was the 1975 All-Star Game, played at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, the first time the Suns had hosted the midseason classic (They’ve since hosted one more). I’d never seen it before.

The “home” Western Conference All-Stars wore white uniforms, and the “visiting” Easterners wore road purple. That’s right, purple. The uniforms for the game were modeled after the Suns’ own, so there were guys like Rick Barry, John Havlicek, Bob McAdoo and Elvin Hayes running around wearing western-style lettering across their chests, and sunbursts on the sides of their shorts. It was kind of disorienting, to tell you the truth, but it also made you wonder what it might have been like if those guys had actually worn the purple-and-orange on a regular basis.

Nothing, however, was more disorienting, and at the same evoked more of a sense of “what if,” than seeing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then in his last season with the Milwaukee Bucks, in an approximation of a Suns uniform during that All-Star Game. For the Suns missed out on the chance to draft the league’s all-time leading scorer by just the width of a single coin.

That was just before Phoenix’s second season in the league. In their first year, they’d piled up a 16-66 record, qualifying them for the “Super-Flip,” the flip of the coin that, in those days prior to the NBA draft lottery, determined which of the league’s two worst teams would have the right to draft first. The Flip had begun in 1966, and over the years yielded such players as Cazzie Russell, the aforementioned Elvin Hayes and Bob Lanier. Portland participated in the Flip an impressive four years in a row, “losing” twice (and drafting Sidney Wicks and soon-traded Jim Brewer) and winning twice, selecting LaRue Martin and someone named Bill Walton.

In any case, the Suns qualified for the Super-Flip in 1969, maybe the super-est (flippy-est?) of all Super-Flips, because Kareem (then Lew Alcindor) was at stake. The other team to qualify was another second-year club, the Bucks. In his account of the Bucks’ first season, then-owner Marv Fishman as much as admits that Milwaukee played their inaugural schedule simply to get through it and hopefully wind up with that coveted first pick. The Suns were given the right to call “heads” or “tails” in the coin flip, and put the choice to a fan vote. The fans overwhelmingly selected “heads.” So, when the Super-Flip was staged via conference call, Commissioner Walter Kennedy asked Jerry Colangelo to call the coin, and Colangelo firmly answered, “Heads.”

And it was tails.

To which then-Suns Coach Johnny Kerr hopefully offered, “Maybe Milwaukee won’t pick Alcindor.”

But of course, the Bucks did, and in Kareem’s second season, Milwaukee acquired the great Oscar Robertson, then went on to win the league title. For the remainder of Abdul-Jabbar’s time there, the Bucks were a perennial contender, reappearing in the Finals in 1974. Then Kareem departed for the more cosmopolitan and less pasture-like pastures of Los Angeles, and…well, some Laker-blogger can tell you what happened after that.

The Suns, meanwhile, determined to take a big man in that 1969 draft, selected Neal Walk, who went on to be a pretty good player for Phoenix, even averaging more than 20 points and 10 rebounds per game one season (and folks, that was not the world’s deepest draft – after Kareem and Neal, the only players in that draft to go on to make an impact were Lucius Allen and JoJo White. The next year, by contrast, Bob Lanier, Dave Cowens, Pete Maravich, Rudy Tomjanovich, Calvin Murphy and Tiny Archibald all joined the league. Timing has never been on the side of the Suns). By virtue of losing out on Kareem, the Suns qualified for a second “Super-Flip” with the next worst team in the league, Seattle, for the rights to negotiate with Connie Hawkins, who was at last being admitted to the NBA after years of exile. The Suns won that coin toss, and the Hawk went on to be the first Sun to have his number retired. But the Suns never won a championship…and they still haven’t.

But, but, but…

It’s the writer in me, but I can’t help but wonder…What if that coin had come up heads, instead of tails? What if we’d seen Jerry Colangelo smiling wide next to all 7-foot-2 of Abdul-Jabbar at his introductory press conference in Phoenix (can you picture the reporters and photographers gawking?)? Where would the Suns have gone from there?

Well, let’s see…First of all, the Suns would never have had the chance to sign Connie Hawkins, and they would not have drafted Walk. But they also would never have felt the need to trade Paul Silas to Boston a few years later for Charlie Scott, so the Suns would have had a front line of Lew Alcindor, Paul Silas and Dick Van Arsdale (who played forward in those days). It’s hard to imagine a better, tougher, stronger set of bigs in the league in 1969. Gail Goodrich might have stuck around to play point guard, or maybe not. But I think the Suns would have won a championship with Alcindor in the pivot and Silas and Van flanking him. They’d have dominated the ball – other teams would have been helpless on the glass – and they’d have been murder in the half-court defense, despite not being the fastest team around. And the Suns would have had at least as much talent aside from their giant big man as Milwaukee did (Robertson, though fading, was still great, of course, but Van and Silas were far better than anyone Milwaukee had after Robertson).

Would Phoenix have won more than one championship in their Alcindor years? They’d have at least as good a shot as Milwaukee did. And what epic wars they’d have had with the Wilt Chamberlain Lakers! Maybe the Suns and the Lakers would have blossomed into the real rivalry I mentioned a few columns back.

But ultimately, I think Kareem would have wanted out of Phoenix, just as he did in Milwaukee. I think he’d still want a big city, with the culture and diversity a big city offered (which Phoenix couldn’t, in the mid-1970s). However, I don’t think Colangelo would have traded him to Los Angeles, but rather to New York – Kareem’s home town and, more importantly, out of the Suns’ division. What would the Suns have gotten back? Impossible to know. But they probably would have wound up in the same position Milwaukee did after trading Abdul-Jabbar – sinking just below mediocrity and waiting to be rebuilt by a new coach…maybe John MacLeod. Lots of the pieces would have been different (without Charlie Scott and Connie Hawkins, Paul Westphal and Keith Erickson never would have played with the Suns), but maybe there would have been a Sunderella team in 1976, just as it happened in real life, or maybe not.

Certainly, New York’s fortunes would have been much different. And I smile when I thin
k of LA not getting Kareem…and probably not Magic and James Worthy after that.

But it didn’t happen that way. The Suns did not get to draft the greatest scorer in the history of the game. They did not get a championship to go with a moody, aloof superstar who would have most likely left them in a lurch as soon as he could.

The Suns got the unique Hawk and his charismatic swoops. They got Neal Walk and his tireless efforts and pronounced year-to-year improvement. They got Paul Westphal and his leadership, cool and charisma. They got Alvan Adams and his poise, passing and grace. They got Sunderella. They got the foundation for everything that has made the franchise what it is today, the team that has inspired my loyalty for so many years.

I, for one, wouldn’t wish for history to have happened any differently.

Top Five Reasons for Suns Hitting Speedbump

What in the Wild World of roundball is going on?

The health of Raja Bell’s knees are vital to his long range game.
(NBAE Photos)

That is the question I have been peppered with the last two days – at the grocery store, at the coffee shop (double iced latte with caramel pecan flavoring FYI), at the pool supply store! But I love it. The Suns are like a mini-series – the NBA’s Grey’s Anatomy as NBA doctors (aka fans) try to figure out what is ailing the Suns and what cure-all will make these harrowing last two games go away.

I love the fans’ passion and concern. And I share both. Here now are my top five reasons why the Suns have hit a significant speed-bump in the middle of March:

1. Boris Diaw is not the 3-D image we saw last season.

Boris told Eddie Johnson and me on the plane flight home from Denver that his lingering back problems continue to limit his ability to elevate and most importantly explode off his feet to loose balls. So for those who think Boris is lazy or enjoying his “fat new contract,” think again. He has the WILL, just not the WAY until this back problem clears.

2. Raja Bell is not Ringing-up 3′s Consistently.

Raja’s long-range game is vital for the Suns. While he ABSOLUTELY “brings it” every night from an intensity standpoint, you can definitely see his shot has been betraying him lately – or as Steve Nash has said, “he’s firing some scuds out there.” Raja will never admit it, but he too has been battling a lingering injury – and knees are key to lift and power on long-range shots.

3. The Suns are Bulls-eyed!

No, I am not saying the Suns are enamored with that team in Chicago. It’s basically this simple: NBA teams can’t wait to take aim on the “NBA Darlings.” Now tell me, if you’re an NBA player reading Sports Illustrated or USA Today, wouldn’t you be up to your ears in envy over the affection bestowed upon our beloved Suns? Every writer across the country has a pen dripping with superlatives when gushing over the Suns. So each night that envy is played out with a passion that other teams around the league (outside of Dallas) do not have to endure. Simply put, the Suns will get the other team’s best shot EVERY NIGHT!

4. Speed Ball has a Speed Limit

The Suns style is the most entertaining the league has since the Lakers Showtime days. But to expect that every night over an 82-game schedule (with every team gunning for you) is unrealistic. Okay, so the Mavs have demonstrated a rare consistency – but they too have hit some recent speed-bumps (see meltdown to PHX or near-loss to Celtics). Look at Utah lately or even the Spurs and Heat who were totally disinterested at times this season. It’s an NBA fact-of-life: You will struggle at some points during the season!

5. Rebounding and Defense

I know this is stating the obvious, but come playoff time the passion will return and so too will the chasing down of long rebounds and committing yourself to staying in front of the man you are covering.

So there are the Top 5 Reasons why the Suns are reeling right now. Here now is my Top Reason Why I am Not Worried:

1. The Suns Shine in the Spotlight

Go back to last season (the best two performances in DO-OR-DIE Game 7s – shooting better than 60 percent from the field in the most pressure-packed of circumstances) and even this year (national TV games against the Cavs, the Mavs etc), this Suns team excels when the stakes are high. So when the playoffs roll around, expect the Best Show on Sneakers to peak again.

Press Box Blogging

For the second time this season, I blogged during a game live from the press box at US Airways Center when the Suns host the Pistons on Saturday night.

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9:12 p.m. - Timeout, Pistons lead 103-81 with 2:2007 to go.  All teams have these kind of games throughout the season and as far as one game in 82 goes, this is just one non-conferene loss.  I think we’re used to this team being unbeatable, putting teams away and going on winning streaks.  That hasn’t happened all that much of late, but this is no time to push the panic button.  This is still a supremely talented team with a legitimate shot at a title run. 

I guess the key is to keep me off the keyboard.  Suns fall 105-83 and I fall to 0-2.  The good news is that I’m staying off the computer for the Nuggets game tomorrow night.

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9:10 p.m. – Okay, it does look bleak, no doubt.  But fans leaving en masse with three minutes to go in the game? That’s more disturbing that than the Taco Gorilla.

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9:06 p.m. - Atypical bad shooting night for the Blur., who is now 2-10 from the field.  Timeout with 4:50 to go, 96-77 Pistons.  Could be heading for the worst loss for the Suns this season.  I blame myself.

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9:05 p.m. – Nice move by Nash, but trading baskets won’t do it. The Suns need stops.

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9:02 p.m. – STAT jam to cut the lead to 12, but as EJ is probably saying right now, the Suns need a couple of stops.  That presumably does not include Delfino hitting a three to jump the lead back to 15.  Nor the trunover and lay in to stretch it to 17.  Not looking good, fans This might be my last live blog for a while.

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9:00 p.m. - Nash and Marion return as all three All-Stars are back on the court.  LB shoots the technical free throw after Wallace gets called for mouthing off to one of the refs.

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8:57 p.m. – I knew the first half was bad, but I just noticed it was the Suns’ season low for offense with 43 points following a season-low second quarter with only 17 points scored.  Hopefully, I can stop with the negative stats and report on a typical Suns’ run to close the gap.  Nash still on the bench as Wallace drains another three to give the Pistons a 15-point lead, 85-70 with 8:54 left in the game.

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8:53 p.m. - Suns have just eight points off the bench as Barbosa is 2-8 from the field with just five points, and James Jones has missed all three of his shots and has gone scoreless.  Thomas has three points in just nine minutes.  By contrast, the Pistons have 33 points off the bench, although Flip Murray has played more than usual in Billups’ absence.

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8:48 p.m. – Stoudemire picks up his fourth foul as a disappointing third quarter winds down with the Suns trailing 75-64. One of the keys to Wednesday night’s comeback was the insertion of Nash into the lineup to the start the fourth quarter.  He is currently chatting with his warmups still on with inactive forward (and Suns.com blogger) Sean Marks as the Adio Sol Patrol work their magic.

The Suns need to pull this one out, if only so I don’t move to 0-2 on my blogging nights. 

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8:43 p.m. - Not looking good for the home team as the Pistons now have their biggest lead at 82-72 with 1:45 to go in the third.  After Wednesday night, nobody’s giving up yet.

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8:35 p.m. – Steve for three, 58-54, still need to pick things up defensively, which leads to the running game.

Block for Marion, who is now one block away from becoming the first player this season to reach 100 blocks and 100 steals.  The Matrix has been playing some stellar defense of late and should most definitely garner some Defensive Player of the Year votes come season’s end.  I’m not sure how it happened, but Marion has been among the top vote getters for the award the past couple of seasons, but has not made first or second team All-Defense.  I don’t like to hear him complaining about not getting respect or lobbying for himself for the award, but with that kind of anomoly, I can’t hardly blame him.

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8:31 p.m. - Nash with a patented drive and finger roll.  He does that so well.  If he has any opening at all, he is do deft at using his body to fend off defenders and flip it in, makes it look so easy.

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8:30 p.m. – Billups injury is a strained left groin, questionable to return, he is on the bench.  Suns need to take advantage, which they do as Nash feeds Diaw for an easy lay in, 52-49 Detroit.

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8:26 p.m. - Second half underway.  No time for the cookie, with having to wait in line at the bathroom and running into former Mercury PR Director Tami Nealy.  But I grabbed my Diet Coke and I’m ready to get this game back to the Suns.

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8:09 p.m. - Suns down 48-43 at the half.  I’m going down for my halftime cookie, hopefully the Suns will get their “real” runnning shoes on during the break.  Hope you’ve enjoyed the posts so far, more to come in the second half.

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8:05 p.m. - Strong move to the hole by Stoudemire gets him to the line, where he drains his two free throws to give him 10 points on the game, 42-39 Suns.  Free throw shooting is just one of many areas Amare has improved on in his first few years in the league, a major key for his development and the success of this team in the postseason.

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8:03 p.m. – Time out, just under three minutes left in the half, Suns trail 41-37.  The Pistons play such good team defense, they seem to be slowing the Suns down closer to their speed.  The Suns must pick up the pace to extend their winning streak.

Trophy Guy makes his first appearance tonight.  I was skeptical of the Trophy Guy concept when I first heard about it, but the commercials are pretty darn good and the guy in the Trophy Guy costume is pretty funny and seems like a really nice guy.  You can watch all of the ads on our Multimedia page and the Trophy Guy has his own page on Suns.com, as well.

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7:58 p.m. – Well that’s one way to defend Nash.  Carlos Delfino grabbed Steve as he was dribbling across mid-court.  Billups heads to the bench with some sort of injury, perhaps a groin. That could be big for the Suns, as he is their playmaker and is always a tough match-up for Nash.  Replays show Billups pulled something making a Nash-like behind-the-back pass.

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7:55 p.m. – They just showed the “Right Guard Extreme Fans of the Game” on the big screen and they are decked out in green face paint, kilts and Pat Burke jerseys in honor of St. Patty’s Day and the Suns’ Irish reserve.

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7:52 p.m. – ‘Sheed for three to give the Pistons their biggest lead, 38-31. STAT comes back with a strong move in the lane.  “Pound for pound the strongest man in the NBA,” I guarantee Eddie is saying right now.  Time out, 38-33 Detroit with 5:50 to go in the half.

Dick Van Arsdale has left the press box.  As I said last time, he rarely sticks around too long, prefering to head home to watch on TV.  Still looking and doing great, though. 

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7:47 p.m. - This game seems to be shifting more towards the Pistons’ pace.  MV-Steve is back in there, though, so hopefully that will change.  Tied at 29, 8:43 to go in the half.

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7:46 p.m. – I think the Suns caught a break on that out of bounds play, looked like Kurt touched it after ‘Sheed did.  We’ll take it.  Looked like Flip Saunders was going to flip out on the call reversal by refs.

Gorilla in a taco suit alert.  As posted last game, very disturbing.

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7:40 p.m. - Kurt Thomas with a jumper on the elbow (no pun or pain intended).  Great to see that.  “Dirty” was money with those before the wing injury.  His ability to hit that mid-range shot does so much to open up the Suns’ offense for everyone else, both for Amare inside and the perimeter shooters in the corners.

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7:36 p.m. – Wow, end of the first quarter already (“We are done with one,” Tom would say.)   Suns up two, 26-24, seems to be about the pace the Suns want to play.  Pistons are a good help defense team and are doing a pretty decent job on the defensive end.  Clearly, the Suns want to keep pushing the ball up the court and wear this team down. 

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Amy – Tempe
Barbosa is my favorite player — It was so great to see all his fans show up yesterday. I hope he has more appearances so he and I can be friends! :) I don’t know if you can keep track there, but the Celtics are within one point of the Mavericks in the 4th quarter. …  

7:34 p.m. – I’ve got the Mavs game on another window, but it’s tough to keep track, feel free to keep updating. 

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7:32 p.m. – Antonio McDyess getting ready to check in for Detroit.  McDyess got a raw deal his first trip through town, although some of that was deserved based on his departure.  I was glad that he got a chance to come back for a time a couple of seasons ago.  One of the genuainely nice guys in the NBA.  Nice to see him come back from all his injury problems, seems to be a nice fit with the Pistons coming off the bench the past few seasons.

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7:30 p.m. - Suns up five with just under three minutes to go in the first.  I would be able to write more if Leander would stop bothering me for the NCAA and Mavericks scores (Celtics up by two early in the fourth).  Tom has promised another blog, by the way, possibly tonight. 

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7:28 p.m. – Diamondbacks hurler Randy Johnson is in his customary seat behind the North basket with his daughter, who looks just like him, poor thing.

LB for three!  Barbosa had an appearance at Paddock Pools in Avondale and was absolutey mobbed.  So great to see him getting some recognition as his game improves.  All the things people say about how nice a guy he is are not overstated.  You just have to root for the guy.

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7:24 p.m. – ‘Sheed with a three to pull the Pistons to within one, 14-13 at the first timeout with 5:39 to go in the first.  It is disappointing to me to see that STAT is in Wallace’s range for technicals this season.  Most of Amare’s T’s have come on ticky-tack complaints to the officials.  I understand their desire to take control of the game and it can be ridiculous how much professional athletes complain about the officiating (deserved or not).  It appears Amare has taken the hint and has not had a technical since he was assessed two against the Bobcats.

* * * * *

7:17 p.m. – Good passing in infectous.  Marion’s passing skills have improved dramatically since the arrival of super-disher Steve Nash.  Bell with a nice dish to Diaw underneath to give the Suns an early 8-4 lead. 

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7:15 p.m. – And away we go. Raja gets things going with a long two, great to see him get going early.  D’Antoni has said he might limit his minutes because of a couple of bum knees.  We’ll see.  Coach has said always said Raja is the heart and soul of this team and we’ll definitely need him come playoff time.  Bell with another jumper before I can submit this entry.  Nice start indeed.

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7:08 p.m. - I am flanked once again by broadcaster Tom Leander and Suns.com columnist Joe Gilmartin.  Dick Van is making is usual first half appearance, as well.  Other than that, the press box is fairly barren, although FSN’s Kevin McCabe and Jody Jackson have taken seats in the second row.

The Suns introduction video has played (if you have not seen it, go to the Multimedia page on Suns.com and watch it, it’s well done) and Suns.com TV’s Cedric Ceballos is introducing YOUR Phoenix Suns.  As many times as I’ve heard it, it still gets me going. 

Strap yourselves in, it should be a good one!

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7:00 p.m. – I see that Illinois product Eddie Johnson is doing color commentary for FSN AZ’s broadcast tonight.  I wish the Fightin’ Illini had won because I know a lot of alumni from there, but to look on the bright side, at least EJ will talk more Suns basketball than Illinois basketball. 

On a serious note, Eddie told me earlier in the week that his mom is ill, so I wanted to wish her a speedy recovery.  I heard tonight that she is indeed feeling better, great to hear.

* * * * *

6:55 p.m. - Both teams have taken the court and with Thin Lizy declaring “The Boys Are Back in Town,” we are rapidly approaching the start of the game.  The Suns will not be back in town for long, as they leave after the game for Denver to play the Nuggets tomorrow night.  This should be a much shorter trip than the one which had them stranded in Colorado earlier this season.  The Nuggs look about as different as the weather with the addition of Allen Iverson.  The Nuggets are currently in the seventh slot in the West, which means tomorrow’s game could be a preview of the Suns’ first round match up.      

* * * * *

Amy – Tempe
When you don’t pay for cable, there has to be other ways of keeping track of the home games. … so thanks for doing this … Good luck keeping up with the speed of the Suns!

6:38 p.m. - Thanks, Amy.  I thought keeping stats for the broadcasters was a challenge in the speed of the game department, but that is nothing compared with this challenge.  I will do my best to keep up with the action. 

I am now safely in my press box seat overlooking the court.  The stands are slowing filling up with less than a half hour to tip.  I devoured another fine meal in the (soon to be named Al McCoy) media lounge.   Chicken jambalaya with rice and catfish, with some minestrone soup.  Good stuff and well worth the meager charge.  Most of the eyes in the lounge were glued to the U of A game.  I picked Purdue in our office pool.  The jokes about Lute Olson being in Hawaii or at a Suns’ game soon were flying.  But, I’m trying to shake that off until after the game, plenty of time to check my brackets later.  It’s almost Suns basketball time!

 * * * * *

6:34 p.m. – “Every trip in here is like a trip to basketball heaven.” That is how Associated Press sportswriter Bob Baum described Head Coach Mike D’Antoni’s pregame media session in his locker room office. Although Bob’s remark had a sarcastic tinge to it, he was not too far from the truth.

D’Antoni meets with the media an hour before each game and it is usually a most enjoyable session of basketball talk with one of the nicest guys and quickest wits in or out of sports. Tonight, most of the time was spent breaking down the details of the Suns’ dramatic double overtime win in Dallas on Wednesday night. Among the more interesting topics was the talk of Jason Terry’s three-pointer over Nash with 4.5 seconds to go that the second OT. The two-time MVP said that maybe he should have fouled Terry, but D’Antoni did not have a problem with the way he defended the shot. Even more than what was said, it was interesting to see D’Antoni talk so casually about such a huge moment in a huge game.

As far as the Pistons, D’Antoni, to no one’s surprise, is looking to speed the game up to offset Detroit’s half court game, much like the Suns did against Houston on Monday. Defensively, look for Boris Diaw to match up against Rasheed Wallace and Amaré Stoudemire to get the assignment on Chris Webber.  As usual, that can and should change as the game goes on.

* * * * *

Current Pistons GM Joe Dumars was a “good” member of the Pistons “Bad Boys” of the late 1980s.
(NBAE Photos)

3:40 p.m. - The last time I attempted this endeavor was last month when the Suns hosted the Bulls, the team I grew up watching. Tonight, the purple and orange gang looks to clinch their third straight Pacific Division title against the team I grew up with a severe distaste for.

Before the Bulls finally broke through and reached the NBA Finals in 1991, the “Bad Boys” in Detroit had Chicago’s number for several seasons. Not only did they end my team’s season on more than one occasion, but they did it in a thuggish manner. It was not surprising to me that when I had the opportunity to interview some of the major players on those teams as a production assistant for a local Chicago television station that their image translated from their on-court nastiness to a standoffish personal demeanor.

That I was conducting the interviews for a station in their rival’s town and that I went into those sessions with an established bias might have had something to do with it, but my recollections of those guys personally are every bit as negative as their images. The one guy I remember having enjoyed talking to was former guard and current Pistons General Manager Joe Dumars, who exuded class and stuck out as a result.

I relay all of this with the full knowledge that I was a fan who was expected to dislike the opponent before I even had designs on getting into the business, where there is supposed to be a journalistic impartiality.

The Bulls certainly exacted revenge for those postseason thumpings at the hands of Laimbeer, Thomas, Rodman and company. Chicago ousted Detroit in their first two runs to the championship after being eliminated by the Pistons in the three prior postseasons. But that has not dimmed my view of those Bad Boys teams for not only beating my team, but the manner in which they conducted themselves in doing so.

With all of that being said, I don’t hold the same contempt for teams that I once did. Sure, I still hate the Mets, and always will, for leap-frogging the Cubs in 1969 (I was 6 and it broke my heart) and even the mention of the aforementioned Pistons teams of the late 1980s, let alone seeing highlights or ESPN Classic games, brings a snarl to my lips.

But I don’t “hate” the Mavericks, for example. I respect an organization which can turn things around as they have in going from a half-empty arena to the madhouse that was the American Airlines Center on Wednesday in a relatively short time span. I like Dirk Nowitzki as a person and have enjoyed watching his game improve over the years. Even after last season’s defeat of the Suns in the Conference Finals, I hated that they beat my team, but I held none of the personal animosity I might have felt in years past.

Maybe I’m just old(er) now, but it doesn’t make sense to me to exert that kind of negative energy. Besides, now that I work for the Suns and, by extension, the NBA, it does not seem to be in my best occupational interests to do so. The Mets on the other hand…

Okay, tangent over. Time to focus on the game tonight, which sees the Suns going for their seventh straight win and 12 of their last 13. This will be the last Eastern Conference team Phoenix will see until Game 1 of the NBA Finals and win or lose tonight, the Suns will finish this season with their best-ever record against the opposing conference.

Amaré Stoudemire will be gunning for his personal-best 54th straight game in double-figure scoring and Shawn Marion enters the game two blocks shy of becoming the first NBA player this season to record at least 100 blocks (98) and 100 steals (127) for the fourth consecutive season.

Let the March Madness continue…

March Madness Starts Early for Suns Fans

It’s rare that a title bout like we saw last night actually lives up to the hype. How many times have we been sold on a match or Championship Game that either ended in a first round knock out or a 111-73 victory? That certainly wasn’t the case last night.

Steve Nash was one of many heroes in the Suns’ big win in
Big D on Wednesday night.
(NBAE Photos)

I didn’t have doubts the Suns would climb back into the contest after a horrendous third quarter. When they were still down with about a minute left, however… well let’s just say I was skeptical to say the least. A buddy of mine kept insisting the game wasn’t over yet and he proved to be absolutely right.

Obviously it was Steve Nash at the center of attention after the victory and for good reason. The former Maverick made Dallas pay for every mistake they made (and they usually don’t make many), first by netting three clutch free throws and eventually the shot which forced the first overtime.

But let’s not forget the others who stepped up in the big 129-127 win. As was the case last year during Game 6 against the Lakers, Nash’s shot wouldn’t have even been possible were it not for a critical offensive rebound by Shawn Marion. This after the Matrix had stuck to Dirk Nowitzki like glue whenever given the defensive assignment. The final line from Shawn, as usual, didn’t have one specific statistic that jumps at you, but rather serve as a collective effort of what he brings to the table. Fifteen points, 12 rebounds, three blocks and two steals – I don’t think anyone needs to campaign for a Defensive Player of the Year Award for Shawn, the numbers speak for themselves.

A little early for awards, but being I’m on a one-blog-every-three-months pace, now just may be the only time I get a chance. Leandro Barbosa again came off the bench, not sparking the Suns as he did in the victory over Houston, but doing something equally as important. With Nash resting on the bench, the Suns by no means folded to the Dallas Mavericks. That was due in large part to the “Brazilian Blur” who again played like a composed veteran. I asked Nash the other day about LB’s play this season and the two-time MVP used the word “poise” to describe the Brazlian native. We more than saw what Nash was talking about last night as Barbosa contributed 17 points and three assists. But put all the career numbers aside for LB’s accomplishments, he is running an offense and running it well. That is why he is the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year.

Amaré Stoudemire looked pretty good too, didn’t he? Forty-one point efforts like last night’s sure would’ve been nice in last year’s Western Conference Finals to say the least. I said going into the contest the Mavericks had no answers for STAT and he more than proved that last night, particularly when it mattered most. Were there still an award for Comeback Player of the Year, I believe Stoudemire’s name would’ve been on it since February.

Finally there’s the award matchup most had their eyes on last night, the race for MVP between Nash and Nowitzki. FOX Sports writer Charley Rosen chronicled the Mavericks MVP candidate down the stretch and points to a number of missed opportunities for the big man to seal the deal. Missed opportunities coming in the form of missed freethrows, jumpshots and big shots which were sent the other way by Marion. Nash meanwhile capitalized whenever he could with the three big free throws and big three-pointer in the final minute of play. Nash in fact scored 10 points in the final minute of regulation, finishing with 32 points, 16 assists and eight rebounds. Statistically he was matched by Nowitzki who finished with an equally impressive 30 points, 16 rebounds and six assists.

Why does Nash get the edge in the MVP voting? Suns fans will point to the fact that Phoenix won the game, but let’s not forget these two teams did meet two times before this season with the Mavs on the winning end. Some will point to Nash’s clutch shot, but Nowitzki hit a clutch shot of his own in the December 28 meeting.

Nash gets the nod because when you’re a two-time MVP, the award is yours to lose. Steve Nash’s play this season gives no indication those three letters should be going anywhere. We’ve seen it in big time shots against the Warriors, Nets, Heat and Mavericks. We’ve seen it in his continued ability to make others around him better as he’s averaged a career-high 11.7 assists per contest and helped a number of teammates to career years yet again. We’ve also seen him score the basketball when need be himself, averaging a career-high 19.2 points per contest on career-best shooting from the field.

In my eyes you can’t take something away from somebody when they’ve given you more than anybody could’ve imagined. This season the MV3 has done just that.

And Now… Deep Thoughts

There’s no better cure for a slump than a blowout of a playoff contender. It did my heart good to watch the Suns batter the Rockets, but not nearly as much good as it did the Suns, who’ve spent the last two weeks expressing concern over a lack of focus. They looked plenty focused last night.

Shawn Marion shoots his classic jumper.
(NBAE Photos)

Of course, if going 9-1 in the ten games prior to last night’s dismantling of Houston can be considered a slump, then give me lots of slumps. Bless you, friendly Schedule Maker, for lining up a lot of league patsies at just the moment the Suns needed to work out a few kinks. 

                                *     *     *

I don’t hear many quarters criticizing Shawn Marion’s jumper these days. In the old days, he couldn’t take a three from the corner without some announcer squawking, “fundamentally unsound,” or “awkward!”

Two of the biggest reasons to change a shooter’s mechanics are a) to keep the shot from getting blocked and b) to ensure the shot has proper spin. Well, a) Trix gets off the ground and gets up so high, so fast, his shot is practically unblockable and b) he gets an ungodly amount of backspin from his current mechanics.

Watch him shoot a free-throw sometime, it’s fascinating: His shot reaches the apex of its arc, and then the backspin takes over and the ball seems to drop straight down through the hoop. I’m glad no “shot genius” decided to re-make his jumper. I bet the Suns are glad, too. 
 
                                                                    *     *     *

I’m not sure how Dallas is doing it. I give the Mavericks a ton of credit, because I look at their roster on paper, and I just don’t see how they can be this dominant. Outside of Nowitzki, they don’t have a marquee player. They didn’t add any big names between last year and this. They just play great team ball, move the rock exceptionally well, and have a roster overloaded with “glue guys,” role players that do whatever it takes.

They’re having a historically great season, and it’s obscuring the fact that the Suns are having one of the best years (maybe the best year) in their history (largely owing to the fact that they essentially “added” Stoudemire to the roster after his injury-plagued 2005-2006 season). For my money, this is the best, most loaded Suns team since the Barkley-led squad that made the Finals in 1993. Maybe even better than that team.

Maybe that’s an okay thing, that Dallas is having such unprecedented success. It keeps the Suns hungry, for one, and keeps league and media attention in Texas. The Suns aren’t lurking in the weeds and aren’t going to sneak up on anyone, but Dallas has a bigger bullseye on their backs than Phoenix. 

                                                                    *     *     *

Everyone knows I’m an NBA history nut, so it’s natural for me to ask this question: Has there ever been a point guard like Steve Nash?

The natural comparison is John Stockton, but Nash is a better scorer, or at least has more aggressive scorer’s instincts. Certainly, he’s a better scorer than Bob Cousy. Tiny Archibald led the league in scoring and assists, but I’ll always think of him as a scorer first, and he had far more speed at his disposal than Nash. Mark Price? Mostly forgotten now (even more forgotten is the fact that his dad Denny was once John MacLeod’s assistant with the Suns), he was a sweet-shooting point guard with strong passing skills…But he didn’t have the court vision Nash does, nor was he as unquestioned a leader as Nash, and he wasn’t in Nash’s league as a passer. KJ? Kevin Johnson’s greatest asset (among many, many assets) was his speed…and Nash can’t and doesn’t rely on his. In terms of numbers and overall effect on a game, the point guard Nash comes closest to is probably Magic Johnson…but Magic had five inches and thirty pounds on Nash, and Magic could play five positions. There’s one spot and one spot only for Nash.

We’re seeing something truly unique in Steve Nash. Take mental snapshots every time you see him play so you can tell the grandkids. 

                                                                    *     *     *

“The Suns don’t play any defense. They can’t win a championship with their style.”

It makes me want to pull my hair out when I hear a commentator say this, which is guaranteed to happen at least once in any national broadcast. Are these people unaware the Suns are third in the league in point differential?

The Suns rarely get blown out, and their offensive scheme can keep them in games even when they’re not shooting particularly well, simply because it gets them so many cracks at the basket. Their supposed defensive weakness in the post? Well, with Amare showing a strong commitment to defense, the Suns are more capable than ever of getting a stop down low when they need one. Folks, Yao Ming went one-for-nine last night. One-for-nine.

No, the Suns aren’t the defensive-minded Bad Boy Pistons of the late 1980s. Do they need to be? 

                                                                    *     *     *

A few weeks ago, STAT had a stat line of 43 points and 16 rebounds in a game, and I said, “Uh oh.” But I said it with a smile on my face. Those, in the words Joe Gilmartin used a few decades ago when discussing a big game by Wilt Chamberlain, are “ominous numbers.”

Amare’s overall numbers may be down from his first peak (I say “first peak” because I don’t believe for a second he’s reached his potential) a few years ago, but he’s playing better team ball and doing more things that don’t show up in a box score, but still help a team win. However, as the numbers above show, he’s still capable of putting up those big figures and devastating an opponent. My gut tells me he’s got a bunch of those waiting for unlucky playoff foes. 

                                                                    *      *      *

Though his statistics aren’t what they were a year ago, the Suns are simply a better team when Boris Diaw is on the floor. They move the ball much more crisply and seem much more in sync. He does all the little things to keep the gears turning. 

                                                                    *     *     *

Historical perspective again: Who are the fastest players in NBA history? KJ? Randy Smith? Isiah Thomas? Tiny Archibald? Slick Watts?

Were any of them faster than Leandro Barbosa? I’d have a hard time believing that. Regardless, he’s a step and a half faster than anyone in the game today, and a joy to watch. 

                                                                    *     *     *

They get no ink – or playing time – but the Suns bench gives me a good “warm blanket” feeling. I just like knowing that there are guys like Jumaine Jones, Jalen Rose and Eric Piatkowski over there, heady veterans who can understand a system and their role in it even if they don’t play major minutes every game. These are guys who can slide in at any given time, if needed, and keep the machine working. Even better, any of them can, and has, hit a clutch shot. 

                                               

Grandma's Birthday vs. Suns Game

“It’s going to be fun to watch, I’ll tell you that. So you guys stay tuned.” – Amare Stoudemire

I sit here with a dilemma, one that I am sure many of you have faced before and if not, you will likely face it at some point in the near future.

Amaré Stoudemire predicts a great game on Wednesday, but worth missing Bubby’s birthday?
(NBAE Photos)

As a Suns fan, I make it a point to watch every game I possibly can. It helps to be working for the team as part of the Game Night staff because I am “forced” to be at every home game. Hey, a guy has to be able to pay the bills, right? Anyway, back to my dilemma. My problem here is that I have to decide between my family and my favorite basketball team.

As any good Suns fan would know, the team plays in Dallas against the Mavericks on Wednesday. The game is a nationally televised one on ESPN, and I think everyone can agree that it is likely to be a great game. I was all set to watch the game as I had the day off from everything else that I would possibly have to do. Then, out of nowhere, a birthday struck. Like a flailing Kobe Bryant arm, it hit me square in the face and left me in a state of shock.

The birthday belongs to my grandmother on my father’s side, a woman that my brothers and I affectionately call “Bubby.” It is her 73rd birthday and the family is planning on going out to dinner to celebrate. Of course, with my dad being the one to coordinate the evening he is doing the best he can to work around the game for me. But with the 6 p.m. tip-off, I have a bad feeling that there is nothing he can do. This leads to the inevitable thought: How rude is it to schedule a birthday on the day of one of the biggest and best games of the season?

It has been suggested to me that I record the game on my DVR and watch it later, but that would mean I have to leave my cell phone off the entire night and when I get home I would have to avoid my computer and make sure the only thing I watch on TV is the recording of the game. To be perfectly honest with you that is something that I am just not capable of. I am the type of person that has to know what happened when it happened, period.

Does this make me a bad son, grandson, or even a bad person? Is there something seriously wrong with me because I feel torn on whether to celebrate with my family or watch the Suns on TV? I’m not sure. You may have already decided about me, but when you think about it, have there been times where you have missed things that were probably important just so you could watch a Suns (or any team, really) game? If your answer is “yes,” then go back to the first sentence of this paragraph and tell me what you think. If your answer is “no,” then I think you need to look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself if you are really a Suns fan.

Amaré is right: the game should be fun to watch. The question becomes: will I be there to watch it?