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Here come the Suns

December 17, 2006|Michael Wilbon | Washington Post

MIAMI — 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 game, 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 knee surgery.

OK, 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 Dwyane 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 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 O'Neal -- 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 O'Neal has gotten older, as Iverson and Kevin Garnett have been marginalized, as the Lakers try to rebuild around Bryant in the post-O'neal 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.

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