Here Come the Suns
They are exactly what the NBA needs now, a team that can remind people just how joyful basketball can be when it is played as creatively, as stylishly and as freely as the Phoenix Suns play it.
The Suns put on such a clinic in building a 25-point lead Wednesday night over the Shaq-less, Wade-less Miami Heat that the starters checked out physically and then mentally and had to hold on for dear life in the final five minutes.
Even so, Phoenix won its 12th straight, a fairly gaudy number considering the Suns didn't expect to hit any kind of stride until, oh, late January or perhaps February depending on the progress of Amare Stoudemire and his recovery from the micro-fracture knee surgery.
Okay, you could try to put a damper on this whole thing by pointing out that the Suns defeated only two teams with winning records in the 12-game streak (Orlando and Houston), or that the Suns beat the Celtics without Wally Szczerbiak and the Heat without Shaquille O'Neal and Dwayne Wade.
But sometimes a team simply passes what coaches like to call the "eye test." And the Suns, at the very least, pass the eye test when it comes to basketball entertainment at the highest level. There were hints during the five-game Eastern Conference road sweep that the league could be in trouble if the Suns keep this up.
Miami Coach Pat Riley said: "They're so good . . . they're so talented and skilled and they pass the ball, spread the floor, break you down off the dribble, then make outside shots all the time -- or enough of them. They might miss two and then they'll hit four in a row. They're just really skilled. . . . That team is a very good team and they belong at the top."
At least one measure of how much the Suns like their roster is that they're not trying to acquire Allen Iverson. Miami might be. That's one of the 50 rumors out there about who is interested in Iverson, that Riley covets him. Goodness only knows how Iverson would fit in with Wade, but the A.I. sweepstakes have evolved from curious to fascinating. And it sounds like Riley really, really, really wants Iverson, which then leads to the question of how often does Pat Riley not get what he wants?
Anyway, the Suns don't have a player with the glamour quotient of Iverson or Kobe Bryant or Shaq -- probably not even Wade. But the Suns, with Steve Nash leading the way for a third straight year, have a half-dozen or more passers and shooters who are winning big early even though they're still figuring out what they've got. "We played lineups tonight," Shawn Marion said, "that we put out there for the first time."
Even as Mike D'Antoni experiments and tinkers, the Suns' importance to the league has grown as Shaq has gotten older, as Iverson and Kevin Garnett have been marginalized, as the Lakers try to rebuild around Kobe in the post-Shaq era, as LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony try to have as much success in the playoffs as they have on Madison Ave. The Suns, without an iconic player, might be the most important team in the league. And right now, as Riley suggested, they're playing like it.
"I like our depth and I like our pieces," Nash said. "The question is, can we improve on defense enough to take the next step?"