And so we reach the All-Star break, and I picture the Suns’ offices filled with recipes for chicken soup, prayer beads and magic crystals sent in by Suns fans all over the globe concerned about the health of Boris Diaw and Steve Nash.
These fans see the team’s first prolonged slump since the start of the season and are torturing themselves with visions of a promising year going down in flames over the Salt River.
A wave of injuries, in any sport, can spell doom for a team. In the NBA, frequently the team that has stayed healthiest over the course of its 82 games is the one that wins the championship. Boston and Milwaukee certainly weren’t going to challenge for the throne this season, but did anyone think they had a prayer after Paul Pierce and Michael Redd, respectively, went down for prolonged periods? How good do you feel about Utah now that Carlos Boozer is on the sidelines?
Suns fans have been down this road before. The team was just starting to get its act together in 1974 when Charlie Scott decided to try climbing Mount Smith – 6’ 11” Elmore Smith of the Lakers – only to crash back to Earth with one of the worst broken arms you’ll ever see (and I saw it a lot – for some reason that was always on the “highlight” films we were shown every summer at Suns Basketball Camp). The Suns sputtered after that.
Walt Davis fractured his elbow in a preseason game in 1981, and while they made the playoffs and even won a round, the slow start they experienced without their star likely cost them home court advantage, and they were swept by the Lakers in the second round.
We won’t even get into poor Danny Manning, brought in to the be the Suns’ bench leader on their powerful teams of the mid-1990s, only to blow out both of his knees something like a combined forty-eight times. Or Jason Kidd snapping an ankle during the stretch run a few years later, leading to a Suns second-round playoff exit, not to mention Kidd’s dubious decision to return with his hair dyed blond.
Now, Suns fans are bound to feel, here we go again. Steve Nash, the team’s unquestioned leader and quarterback, has missed games with a shoulder ailment. Boris Diaw, arguably the team’s second-best ball handler, has been out as well, and in their absence, the Suns have looked thoroughly lost. Without a doubt, the team still has enough talent on paper to deck the majority of the NBA’s squads on a given night, but it goes to show you how fragile a club’s makeup can be – take away the orchestrators of that talent, and suddenly everyone’s out of tune.
But I don’t think there’s a reason to panic. For I believe in the wise man (I think it was Joe Gilmartin) who said, “If you’re going to have injuries, have them right before the All-Star break, while you’ve got a big lead in your division, and while the team behind you looks worse than you do.”
Nash and Diaw will have what will amount to two weeks of uninterrupted rest, rehab and conditioning. The Suns go into the break leading the Pacific Division by ten and a half games over the hated Lakers (who have their own injury problems with Kwame Brown and Luke Walton out, and Lamar Odom playing much of the season at less than a hundred percent).
And the Lakers have been very accommodating to their desert neighbors in recent weeks: While the Suns may have lost three in a row (which only seems like fifty after the season’s two long winning streaks), the Lakers have kindly lost five straight. The bottom line is, the Suns can afford to coast a little (but only a little) if it means Nash and Diaw come back thoroughly rested and rejuvenated. These injuries coming when they do might just be a small blessing wrapped in bandages – two of the Suns’ key players will be fresh as daisies at a time of the season when other teams’ stars are running on fumes.
It would have been nice if the healthy Suns had learned how to win together in the absence of Nash and Diaw. But there might be another important benefit – the team has certainly learned it can’t take Nash and Diaw for granted, and when they return, my guess is they’ll play with renewed vigor and precision. They’ll probably tear off another huge winning streak.
Nash and Diaw will be back. Soon. Their injuries were relatively minor, requiring rest, more than anything else. They’re not going to get too out of shape, and the team’s not going to need to adjust to their presence when numbers 13 and 3 re-take the floor. This remains the most promising Suns team in many years, and while they don’t need our chicken soup and prayer beads, I’m sure they’re grateful for our concern, and for the knowledge that we’re with them every step – and sniffle or pulled muscle – of the way.