Also in this column: • Defending Kobe's suspension • Best quotes of the year -- so far • Bright spot for hapless Celtics
The numbers are staggering. Two winning streaks of at least 15 games. A 20-1 record against the Eastern Conference. An 8½-game lead in the Pacific Division. A winning percentage of .800.
By any measure, the Phoenix Suns are blazing a trail through the 2006-07 season that few teams have ever traversed.
But as daunting as the arrival of Steve Nash and his running partners are in an opponent's locker room, the challenge the Suns face in graduating from regular-season carnival act to NBA champion is equally onerous. For all that the Suns have dazzled under coach Mike D'Antoni's European-flavored run-and-gun system -- leading the league in scoring for the third consecutive season, winning at a pace that could secure homecourt advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs for the second time in three years -- Phoenix has to prove its style can win in June. Indeed, the past two seasons have seen the Suns stopped in the conference finals by the Spurs and Mavericks, respectively. Further, the recent body of NBA evidence doesn't lead one to conclude titles are won with flash.
Over the last three campaigns, defense has won the day. The Pistons of 2003-04 and the Spurs of '04-05 each led the league in scoring defense en route to the trophy, while last season's Heat team was second in that category in the playoffs.
D'Antoni, now in his fourth season in the desert, believes a win in the Finals isn't a matter of style as much as timing.
"Two years ago the geniuses said this system wouldn't work through December," D'Antoni said. "Then [after a 62-win regular season] it was, 'It's definitely not going to work in the playoffs,' and that Memphis would sweep us. Well, we swept them. Then it was, 'It's not going to work against Dallas.' Well, we beat them 4-2. Then it was, 'It won't work the next year without Amaré [Stoudemire]'. Well, it did work. So now until we win the Finals, it will be, 'Well, it doesn't work in the Finals.'
"Give me a break. It doesn't work in the Finals because there are other great teams and other great players. If we hit the right shots and get lucky, we can win it all."
Every champion needs its steppingstone, every Bulls needs its Pistons. But the Suns face a conference with a host of accomplished rivals -- three alone in Texas -- every bit as talented as D'Antoni's group. And unlike an entire conference of Eastern teams too bogged down by its own inconsistent play to slow down the Suns, the West's likely playoff participants know this Phoenix team like a next-door neighbor. And if this season's results are any measure, it appears they want the lawn mower back; the Suns entered Thursday's matchup with San Antonio a combined 0-6 against the Mavs, Spurs, Jazz and Lakers.
Truth be told, though, all but one of the losses came in the opening weeks of the season, when Phoenix was getting reacquainted with Stoudemire after the 24-year-old big man missed all but three games in '05-06 while recuperating from microfracture knee surgery. His presence, and return to playing 31 minutes a game, has given Phoenix a boost defensively, helping the Suns rank 13th in the league in defensive field-goal percentage, an improvement from 17th last season. That growth has been obscured, though, by the Suns' fast pace, which provides both teams more chances to score, and hence, more points.
"Our goal is to play a little bit better defense than the team we're playing," D'Antoni said during the Suns' recent trip to New York. "If we score more points than them, then that means that we played better defense, and we're doing it a lot of the time. ... We don't have strength in a lot of places and we don't overpower people defensively, but if you watch [us] skating around, [we] are playing good team defense."
With perhaps the best defensive team of D'Antoni's tenure, a 36-9 start, Stoudemire's return to good health and the sublime play of two-time MVP Nash, the championship window has never seemed more open in Phoenix.
"We want to win it now; that was our goal coming into the season," said Raja Bell, Nash's backcourt mate. "We understand we were real close last year minus an injury or two. [But] there's always a little luck that goes into it, so if it's not your year, it's not your year."
Just how many years this Phoenix unit has, though, is in question, as Nash reaches further into his mid-30s -- with a notoriously balky back. A rotation that is effectively only eight deep doesn't figure to help ease the burden on Nash or his teammates. Nonetheless, Nash, who hasn't missed more than seven games since the '00-01 season, doesn't seem concerned.
"We feel like there's no reason we can't be a great team next year," Nash said. "[But] we aren't looking at the future. We're looking at this year, not because of any window but because of the opportunity in front of us. ... The return of Amare has helped combined with having a better understanding of what we're trying to do and when we're at our best."
For a club that averages 111.6 points, the Suns are at their best not merely because they run. Heck, even the woebegone Grizzlies run nowadays. But when the Suns take off, they do so with five players who average better than 15 points. They do so shooting 50 percent as a team. And they do so averaging more assists than any team in the NBA.
"[Our success] doesn't have anything to do with the system," D'Antoni said. "We have the personnel to fit this type of style. ...With Steve, and Amare and Shawn [Marion], we're able to go back to a fast-breaking, more wide-open kind of game that everybody played in the '70s and '80s. That system worked because everybody played it. Nobody plays this way [anymore]."
And should this attack -- which strives to shoot with 14 clicks left on the shot clock while forcing an opponent to decide whether to stick to its defensive principles or try to outshoot the Suns -- falter again this year, D'Antoni is ready to retool the best way he knows how.
"We'll just speed it up."
I would sleep well knowing I made the right decision in suspending Kobe Bryant for one game after he scraped his hand over Manu Ginobili's face in the closing seconds of regulation in last Sunday's Spurs-Lakers showdown. Lost amid the hue and cry of depriving the country's largest market of Bryant's only appearance all season is the fact that Kobe crossed a line. No one but Kobe can know whether he intended to hurt Ginobili, but everyone can see when a player is attempting to draw a foul -- arms flail, an errant shot is launched and a look of disbelief (on somebody's face) follows. In Bryant's zeal to force a whistle, though, he drew blood, instead, and in that he went too far.
Yes, NBA basketball is physical, and, yes, attempting to use the referees is a part of gamesmanship, but there are limits. In sitting one of the game's biggest stars, the league sent a message as to what that limit is. Would Kobe have been punished in the same manner five years ago? Probably not. But standards shift, just like laws, as society's standards shift. Thirty years ago you'd be hard-pressed to catch much more than a toe peeking from under a sheet on a TV show such as Quincy; today decomposing or bloody corpses are the basis for top-rated dramas such as CSI. Times change. Players can't ingest any chemical they desire anymore, and, apparently, fouls can't be drawn with little regard for the safety of opponents.
If reports that the NBA is examining the issue of flopping are true, Kobe's punishment may only be part of a larger initiative to add a little legitimacy to the whistles we hear. If one game starts to send that message, well, that isn't a very high price. And honestly, would Kobe's suspension received even half the outrage it did had it occurred in Milwaukee?
In praise of oneself or in criticism of another, players and coaches love to talk, often in response to one another. Here are the most entertaining words of the season so far, with some grouped around a particular subject.
10. Coaching philosophies
• "I'm too mean to get sick." -- Spurs coach Gregg Popovich on how he avoided a stomach flu that ran through most of his team.
• "I don't care if they wear underwear on top of their heads." -- New Grizzlies coach Tony Barone after doing away with a no-headband rule previous coach Mike Fratello instituted.
9. Damon Jones readies for his GQ spread
• "If being ugly was a crime, I couldn't be convicted." -- Cavs guard Jones after hitting seven of his 10 3-point attempts against the Knicks in November.
• "It wouldn't be a good idea for you to rub it in and go to the basket and dunk it on our guys. We're down 18, we're down 19; you don't need to act like that. Basically, show some class." -- Isiah Thomas describes his conversation with Carmelo Anthony before Knicks guard Mardy Collins sparked an on-court brawl between New York and Denver with a flagrant foul on the Nuggets' J.R. Smith.
• "I think his actions after the game were despicable. He made a bad situation worse. I'll swear on my children's life that I never thought about running up the score. It's absurd. He's a jerk for what he's trying to do. I think he's a jackass for the way he called me out in the game. ... My team has blown 10-point leads, 11-point leads with two minutes to go ... and you're telling me that I'm running the score up? He's full of s---. He's a total ass." -- Nuggets coach George Karl offers his opinion of Thomas' role in a brawl that saw Denver lose Anthony to a 15-game suspension.
• "Typical NBA punch. In hockey, your own team would beat you up for that." -- Two-time MVP and proud Canadian Steve Nash describes his thoughts on Anthony's punch and quick backpedal in the Knicks-Nuggets brawl.
7. A silver lining in Philly
• "It's going to be an exciting time come June." -- 76ers general manager Billy King after trading Allen Iverson for Andre Miller, Joe Smith and two first-round draft picks in 2007.
6. The high price of respect
• "It just shows how much [the Blazers] care about their players. They don't give a damn about me. ... It ain't fair, everybody knows it's not fair. They are just trying to get their money back. They will do anything to get their money back. I guess they are trying to prove a point and make me an example." -- Blazers forward Zach Randolph expresses his displeasure at a team-imposed one-game suspension after he made an obscene gesture to fans at Indiana's Conseco Fieldhouse. Randolph, whom the Blazers are paying $12 million this season, lost one game's salary, $133,333.
5. Isiah, Part II
• "I'd beat the s--- out of somebody. Really, I would f------ murder them." -- Thomas when asked what he would have done as a player to an opponent who stuck his foot underneath his when he was shooting.
"Next time he does that, break his f------ foot!" -- Thomas tells his team his strategy for handling the Spurs' Bruce Bowen, whom Thomas had accused of sticking his foot underneath his players' when shooting.
4. The Lakers' soap opera never ends
• "The only person I've ever had that hasn't been a worker in the fortunate times I've been coaching is probably Shaq. He's the one guy that didn't really like to work." -- Lakers coach Phil Jackson.
• "How can Benedict Arnold be reliable in what he says?" -- Shaq's reponse.
3. Attitude isn't everything
• "Meanness has little to do with basketball. If you want mean, you can just go to Attica and you'd have a hell of a team." -- Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy assessing whether Knicks center Eddy Curry is mean enough to succeed consistently in the NBA.
2. How do you spell love? M-O-N-E-Y
• "I'm just tired of being treated like a cheap prostitute. It's not about money. I just want a home." -- Former Raptors guard Mike James expresses what he'd like as a free agent before signing for $23.4 million over four years with the Timberwolves last summer.
1. Agent Zero speaks and speaks and speaks ...
• "My swag was phenomenal." -- Gilbert Arenas after hitting a last-second 32-footer to beat the Bucks 108-105 in Milwaukee.
"He doesn't seem to have much of a conscience. I really don't think he does. Some of the shots he took tonight, you miss those, and they're just terrible shots. Awful. You make them and they're unbelievable shots. I don't get a chance to play him much, so I haven't gotten used to that mentality of just chucking it up there. ..." -- Kobe Bryant offering a pointed critique of Arenas and his 60-point effort in the Wizards' 147-144 victory in L.A. in December.
"If I have the chance to go back to college, I'll give up one NBA season to play against Duke. ... One college game, that's five fouls, right? ... Forty-minute game at Duke, they got soft rims I'd probably score 84 or 85. I wouldn't pass the ball. I wouldn't even think about passing it. It would be like an NBA Live or an NBA 2K7 game, you just shoot with one person." -- Arenas in his blog on NBA.com in response to hearing that Mike D'Antoni would like to see how Arenas would perform against U.S. national team coach Mike Krzyzewski, who cut the Wizards' guard from the Team USA roster.
Though he likely won't be selected to the All-Star Game, Milwaukee's Mo Williams is playing like one of the league's best. He's averaging 17.7 points, 6.1 assists and 5.2 rebounds; the only other players producing that much in those three categories are Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. A free agent after the season, Williams couldn't have picked a better time to be playing his best ball, as a Western Conference scout described to SI.com.
"I think Mo Williams has played terrific. Milwaukee is much better off with him than with T.J. Ford. I think they like Williams' style of play much more than T.J. Ford's. He's a little bit less of a [me] guy, he's a little bit more team-oriented. He's a very capable scorer but it's a secondary thing; he tries to get other people involved more. Mo makes better decisions than T.J. Ford. T.J. tried to do things a little too quickly, tried to force things, and I think [the Bucks] were unhappy with a lot of decisions T.J. was making on the floor. Mo's good defensively and he's a good person, too."