By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, December 14, 2006
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?"
It is one of the central questions of the NBA season, still only one-quarter old. At the moment the Suns are on such a roll they look like the Harlem Globetrotters playing against the old Washington Generals.
Nash has been so consistently, well, Nash-like, you wonder if he could be any better with the old leather ball that feels like an extension of his hand. In his last six games, he's had 20 assists, 13, 14, 10, 15 and 11.
The toughest thing Nash has had to deal with is the way that new synthetic Spalding ball shredded his fingertips. Nash wasn't the only person who hated the ball; most players did. But Nash is the two-time MVP and is rarely critical of anything, so this resonated. Certainly, Nash didn't think the league would announce a switch back to the old leather ball in the middle of the season.
"I don't want to keep this alive," Nash said before Wednesday's game, "but I had just gotten used to the new ball in the last three or four games, and I think a lot of players felt that way."
Even so, with scoring up marginally, shooting percentages up marginally and turnovers up marginally, the new ball is like New Coke -- which is to say, out. But it's hard to imagine it making a difference to what the Suns do or how they do it. The high note was that 161-157 double-overtime victory in New Jersey last week. But even on a completely ordinary night, on the seventh night of a five-game road trip, the Suns had six players score in double figures against Miami, and the team produced three or four of those signature scoring sprees that leave you slack-jawed.
Stoudemire, whom the Suns hoped would play himself into reasonable shape by February, is about 80 percent back to his dominant self. He ripped Dwight Howard for 30 Monday night in Orlando. Stoudemire isn't "there" yet but he's close. He hasn't had pain or swelling even playing back-to-back games. With Stoudemire healthy the Suns are not only the most entertaining team, but the best team.
Of course, Stoudemire didn't have to exert himself Wednesday night in Miami, at least not until the end when the Suns cruised to an 80-55 lead and woke up just in time to keep Miami from pulling off the unlikely comeback without Wade. Presumably, the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year was in the midst of a 48-hour sleep-a-thon after having wisdom teeth removed. Because air travel is not exactly on the prescribed list after such a procedure, it doesn't seem likely Wade will be at Verizon Center on Friday night to face the Wizards.
Shaq looks fabulous in this cheerleader role. "Bro, I look pretty good, don't I?" he asked earlier in the day. And yes, Shaq does. He looked, well, scrawny by Shaq standards.
"Say some bad stuff about me. Talk bad about me. I need some fuel for my fire," he said before the game. Sorry Shaq, not in this space. Miami is indeed 9-12, but this is indeed December and the Heat, playing in the miserable Eastern Conference, will be playoff ready, with or without Iverson.
But the interesting story now in the NBA is Phoenix. Leandro Barbosa may be the best sixth man in the league. Boris Diaw, the elegant Frenchman, signed a new deal and promptly got, uh, big over the summer and is just now playing himself into shape. Marion continues to be perhaps the most underrated player in the league. And Nash, who went to the whip after the Suns started 1-5, is trying to join Bill Russell, Wilt and Larry Bird as the only men in NBA history to win the MVP for the third straight time.
Of course, Nash hit the three-pointer that essentially killed Miami's comeback. That's what MVPs do. When the Suns left the floor having scored only 99 points it was somewhat a surprise, perhaps for some a downright disappointment. It's not something anybody should count on happening very often.