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.

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