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NBA's best try to bring fun back to Phoenix

February 15, 2009|Brian Mahoney | Mahoney is a writer for the Associated Press.

PHOENIX — For one weekend, basketball promised to be fun again in Phoenix.

The NBA's best were in town for the All-Star game, bringing the spectacle of endless entertainment, lots of laughs and plenty of points.

Just like the Suns used to provide.

Now, with the hometown team mired in so much misery that its own All-Star starter was perhaps days away from a ticket out of town, it was up to Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, LeBron James and the other high-scoring showmen to bring hoops happiness back to the Valley of the Sun.

"Right now, the dynamics with the Phoenix Suns, there is a lot of head-scratching going on right now," said Doug Collins, a Phoenix resident who will be part of TNT's coverage of the game tonight.

"This team was the darling of the city for the last four years with Mike D'Antoni, high-flying and had a wide-open style. There have been a lot of trades and changes, and I think they have more meetings in the last month than I have in my career trying to get things squared away, which is always a bad sign."

The Suns were championship contenders during most of D'Antoni's four full seasons, winning games and fans with their uptempo brand of offense. He's gone now, and he might not be the only one by next week as the disappointing Suns look to start over while barely hanging on at the bottom of the playoff race.

Amare Stoudemire, scheduled to start for the Western Conference, is perhaps the biggest and most frequent name mentioned in trade talks ahead of next week's deadline. Teammate O'Neal, back in the All-Star game after missing out last year, also is on the block.

The potential dismantling of the local team threatened to overshadow the NBA's third trip to Phoenix for its midseason event.

"We don't have the momentum that we'd like to have, we are underperforming and there are financial concerns," Suns general manager Steve Kerr told reporters last week. "So there's things, there's issues to talk about and to deal with and we have to do what's best for our team going forward. That could mean doing something or that could mean doing nothing. "

Just in case, perhaps Suns fans should enjoy their favorites while they can -- along with the other talent surrounding them Sunday night.

They'll see the return of the O'Neal-Bryant pairing that once dominated NBA headlines, on and off the court. Together they led the Los Angeles Lakers to three straight championships and four finals berths in five years, but that success was eventually overshadowed by the bickering that triggered their breakup.

They'll be on the same team for the first time since the 2004 NBA finals, when the Lakers were knocked off by Detroit. They traded sporadic barbs through the years after O'Neal's departure, but say they've patched things up -- with O'Neal saying they were never that bad in the first place.

"That will be kind of fun to see how well they hook up together," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who will coach the West. "I think there's no doubt about the fact they'll have a relationship. They still are very friendly."

O'Neal was chosen to 14 straight All-Star games before missing last year during an injury-plagued season. Few players match his level of popularity with fans and fellow players.

Bryant and James have dominated recent All-Star games, combining for the last three MVP awards. James said the first three quarters are for fun, but, "the fourth quarter, that's when we all really start to play hard. The fourth quarter is buckle-down time."

A Bryant-James duel down the stretch would be the perfect ending, except James may have an obstacle in the form of his coach, who is leading the East and may prefer his franchise player to save his strength for the real games.

"He may have a tough time getting MVP because I don't know if you can get MVP playing more than three minutes," Brown joked. "We'll have to see, that honor may go to Kevin Garnett. Playing 48 minutes, you can put up big numbers."

The West hammered the East, 139-112, in 1995 in the most recent visit to Phoenix. The East took the first meeting 20 years earlier behind 30 points from MVP Walt Frazier.

There were plenty of potential standouts in this one, with Bryant, James, O'Neal and Allen Iverson all in the hunt for a third MVP award. Bryant, though, didn't seem interested, with bigger things to look forward to in the games that count.

"It's going to be a fun little vacation for me," Bryant said. "I'm looking forward to having some time off, getting off my legs a little bit and recharging my batteries for the second half of the season."

Associated Press writer Tom Withers in Cleveland and freelance writer Matthew Coles in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.

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