A new coaching staff. A different style of play – more emphasis on defense and no more “7 seconds or less” on offense. Preseason injuries to their 2 best players. A rookie backing up Steve Nash. Various family matters and league rulings that have pulled players from the lineup. An early schedule that included 5 of the first 7 games away from home.
And somehow, the Phoenix Suns have the most wins in the Western Conference. The team that used to run out of gas down the stretch against physical teams now appears to thrive in these chaotic times.
A lot has been written, said and reported about the scuffle with Houston last Wednesday and the hard foul that got Shaq an early shower Sunday against Detroit. Rather than qualifying what transpired in either incident or throwing another opinion into the blogosphere, let’s review what we’ve learned from all of this early season commotion:
1. Raja Bell finally has some competition for “toughest guy not named Shaq” – Matt Barnes responded to some chippy play by the Rockets, including an unnecessarily hard screen on Steve Nash by Tracy McGrady and his teammates showed they had his back.
2. Steve Nash has no good will stored up at the league office. Despite his career-long resume of good will and sportsmanship on the court, the NBA powers that be surmised his part in the Houston fracas as “escalating the event.” What? Seriously? Steve Nash? Ummmmmmmm – OK.
3. Terry Porter is absolutely committed to limiting the veterans’ minutes and developing his young players. He showed that opening night in San Antonio when Goran Dragic got serious 4th quarter minutes and hasn’t backed down since. Robin Lopez, Louis Amundson and Sean Singletary have also been early season bright spots. Over the last 3 seasons the Suns had a 4-13 record without Nash in the lineup, yet won on Friday at Sacramento with a pair of rookies at the point.
4. Shaq has a bit more left in the tank than he’s been given credit for. He was thoroughly dominant against the Bucks and Kings – not the best competition, agreed – scoring at will and clogging the paint like no post player in Suns history.
5. The Phoenix Suns are no longer a “soft” team. You can’t transform yourself into a defensive juggernaut overnight, but the days of layup lines of opposing guards seem to be over. Shaq is tough. Matt Barnes is tough. We knew Raja was tough. And it’s contagious. Steve Nash picked up a couple of blocked shots against Detroit and hassled Allen Iverson into a 9-point, 4 for 17 shooting night. Amar’e Stoudemire ended Sacramento’s upset hopes with a pair of blocked shots on Friday in Sacramento.
I think it’s too early to know exactly how far this team is capable of going. I won’t put too much stock in the sloppy loss in Chicago, nor get too excited over the big win against Detroit. I’ve definitely seen flashes that this Suns team can be elite. After 25 or 30 games, I think we’ll have a much clearer picture. With the Lakers coming to US Airways center on Thursday, they’ll get another big test. But the early returns – an 8-3 record amid all the changes – look pretty good to me.