Yes, I am back, sort of. After nearly three months in the hospital recovering from an accident that took my wife’s life, I’m ready to start blogging again. I’m not 100 percent, of course, but then as I recall there were reader questions about my percentage for years before the tragedy.

The reason I bring up this personal note is that my first order of business is to thank the hundreds of very thoughtful people around the country, and even the world, who took the time to e-mail condolences on the loss of my wife and wish me a speedy recovery. Those messages meant a lot to me, and I was especially moved by the many touching tributes to Ginger, whose columns in The Republic over the years touched literally thousands of lives. Indeed, some of her columns are still posted on refrigerator doors. I can’t begin to thank you all enough.

But enough about me. You want to know about the Suns. And by way of setting the stage for what about them, I’ll start with a parable. Well, actually more of a goofy story:

Once upon a time a simple soul went to the movies. In fact he sat through four sittings of the same movie day after day, and was particularly absorbed by a scene in which a speeding car almost but not quite makes it through a railroad crossing. When asked why he kept coming back he explained, “One of these times I know the car’s going to beat that train.”

Hey, I said it was a goofy story. But substitute Phoenix fans for the simple soul, the Suns for the speeding car, and the San Antonio Express for just plain train and it’s more painful than goofy.

Think about it!

Suns fans have been sitting through the same playoff “movie” for three years now, and they’re sure that one of these years the “car’s” going to beat that “train”. This year they are more sure than ever, and, for reasons I will explain anon, I’m with them.

But first, a mini-review of past crashes.

In 2004-5, which by no coincidence whatsoever was Steve Nash’s first year, the Suns won 62 games, swept through the first round of the playoffs, and took out Dallas in six games. But they also lost Joe Johnson (orbital bone fracture) and fell to the Spurs in five games.

In Year II of the Nash era Amare Stoudemire was lost for he season (knee) but the Suns still won 54 games and came back from 1-3 to beat Kobe and his non supporting cast in the first round of the playoffs, take out the Clippers in round two, and open the conference finals with a victory over the favored Mavericks in Dallas. But Raja Ball, the team’s stopper and one of its main snipers, went down with a calf injury, and the Suns fell in six.

In Year III (otherwise known in these parts as a year that will live in infamy) the Suns won 61 games and the playoffs opened on a promising note with the Suns beating Kobe and his even less supporting cast in five games, and seized the home court advantage the rest of the way when top-seeded Dallas was upset by the barely seeded Warriors. The Suns split the first four games with the Spurs, but Stoudemire and Boris Diaw were suspended for Game Five for leaving the bench after Roberto Horry folded, spindled, and attempted to mutilate Nash. The seriously depleted Suns still led the Spurs most of the way in Game Five in Phoenix before simply running out of gas, and San Antonio took care of business in Game Six en route to another NBA Championship.

So why do I agree with most local fans that Year IV at long last is the Suns’ year?

Well, to give you the short version first, the Suns are significantly better this year, and the Spurs and Mavericks are merely just as scary as ever. And given that there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the three NBA super powers, strengthwise (more like four cents) “significantly improved” rates a slight edge over “just as scary”.

How are the Suns better? Let us count the ways.

Last year at this time there were still some unanswered questions about Amare, Boris Diaw was either over stuffed or under interested, and none of the off season moves were working out. All of the above plus a tad too much la dolce vita during training camp in Italy, and, not surprisingly, the team got off to your basic flying standstill.

This year at this time Amare looked like he’s ready for a breakout year (which considering his other years weren’t too shabby) is reason enough in itself to like the team’s title chances. But there’s more, lots more, most notably the addition of Grant Hill. True, it could be argued he gives the Suns more of what they already had, but he does a lot more than that. For one thing, he raises the talent and savvy levels considerably and makes the league’s most versatile team even more versatile. This is a class and competitive act on the Nash level. Put it this way: If a healthy Hill had been on the team last year the question being asked around the NBA now would be, “Can they repeat?”

Also, Diaw looks a lot more like the player who played so brilliantly his first year with the Suns, and that is a huge plus. How huge? Put it this way: If Diaw had played last year like he did his first in Phoenix that same question wouldn’t be being asked.

As for Nash, he not only looks better than ever, but if anything seems even more determined. The two suspensions in last year’s playoffs threw some gasoline on the competitive fire in him that was already hot enough to melt titanium.

In fact, overall, going in to the season this may well be the most motivated, single minded Suns’ team ever. These guys are mad as heck and are going to take it — the title that is.

Moving right along, you have to figure Bell will be as good as ever, and Barbosa should be even better, the depth is better, and the back end of the bench shows more promise and seems happier.

And unlike last year, when they were locked into their playoff position very early and thus tended to lose focus at times, they figure to be in the hunt fro the top seed from Day one, and that should more than hold their attention.

The biggest hurdle for them is health, but all teams are in that boat.

There will be times the loss of Kurt Thomas’s rebounding and defense will be lamented on talk shows (probably every time the Suns lose a game), but in some ways Thomas was not really a good fit for Coach Mike’s system. And while there will be the usual grumbling around the league about lack of defense the bottom line is the Suns play better defense against the rest of the league than the rest of the league does against the Suns.

Some of the annual carping about the system has already started. An unidentified scout was speaking for many of the cognoscenti recently when he said, “I love Mike’s system, but it’s not really built for the playoffs.”

To which I have only two words, namely, hog and wash.

Anybody who really pays attention to the NBA knows it wasn’t Coach Mike’s system that did the Suns in the playoffs last year, it was the $%$#$ NBA system.

But seriously, you don’t win 60 games and come within a whisker/suspension of an NBA title without playing decent defense. The key stat in pro hoops is not points allowed, but point differential. Check the leaders in points allowed and you’ll find that most of them don’t score a whole lot of points themselves.

All in all, I don’t know about you, but I can hardly wait to go see that “movie” again. In fact, while the title of my first book about the Suns was, “The Little Team That Could …And Darn Near Did”, the title for the next one will be, “The Year The Car Finally Beat The Train Across The Tracks.”

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