If you're taking your 5-year-old nephew or 80-year-old grandmother to his or her first NBA game and you can't afford the ticket markup to watch LeBron or Kobe, you have them see the Phoenix Suns.
For all but a few months of the past six seasons (including this one), the Suns have been the most pleasant spectacle in team hoops. Against the steadily rising obstacles of age and past front-office penury and incompetence, this year's team continues to delight.
Steve Nash remains the scrawny point guard who performs with the magical realism of a Harlem Globetrotter. Amar'e Stoudemire dashes down the court for his tomahawk dunks. Grant Hill, 37, reversed the voodoo curse that riddled his uber-athletic, 6-foot-8 frame with injuries earlier in his career and now uses the Fountain of Youth as his personal Jacuzzi. And a procession of previously obscure players -- Channing Frye, Jared Dudley, young backup guard Goran Dragic -- have upheld the Suns' legacy for unearthing unlikely long-range marksmen by each hitting at least 40 percent from three-point range.
Add a helping of 7-footer Robin Lopez and Jason Richardson's scoring prowess, and you have a team exceeding preseason expectations en route to a 38-24 record through Tuesday. The Suns have beaten five of the six division leaders (including Monday night's 101-85 thrashing of the Nuggets in Phoenix), won 12 of 15 since late January and are just a game out of the fourth seed and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
But as most everyone aside from your nephew and grandmother knows, the playoffs have not been so pleasant for the high-tempo team from the desert. During its otherwise marvelous six-year span, Phoenix has never exceeded its playoff seeding, and has twice been bounced by opponents with inferior records (the Spurs, in both 2005 and 2007). The same quality that makes the Suns so enjoyable to watch in November, January and March -- they try to outscore opponents by running them off the court -- dooms them when the playoffs commence in the spring.
"A lot of teams give in to the temptation of running up and down the floor with them in the regular season," said a scout from a Western Conference team jousting for playoff position with Phoenix. "But in the playoffs teams get more serious about execution [of their half-court sets on offense] and stopping people. That's when they get in trouble."
That's the leaguewide conventional wisdom about Phoenix. It is why Suns general manager Steve Kerr -- who learned the formula for postseason success while earning three rings with the Bulls and two with the Spurs during his playing career -- tried to shift Phoenix's style toward a more deliberate approach, most conspicuously by acquiring Shaquille O'Neal and hiring Terry Porter as coach. But the players -- most notably Nash -- passively-aggressively resisted the change, and Kerr abruptly pulled the plug on the makeover, first by firing Porter and then trading O'Neal. Consequently, after missing the playoffs for the first time in five years last season (with a 46-36 record), the Suns are once again winning more than 60 percent of their games and thrilling fans with their balletic, rapid-fire offense -- and once again they're destined for playoff disappointment.
Basketball isn't rocket science. It isn't hard to figure out that you don't advance very far in the playoffs without a commitment to quality team defense. But that is a commitment Phoenix is either unwilling or unable to make.
The evidence couldn't be plainer: The Suns are 15-0 this season when holding their opponents under 100 points. But that's an underwhelming stat when you consider Phoenix is already 62 games into the season. The four vintage Suns teams from 2004-2008 held their opponents under 100 between 30 and 36 times per season; this year's edition would need to shut down nearly every one of its 20 remaining foes to reach that range.
Because of their run-and-gun pace, the previous Suns teams always ranked near the bottom of the league in points allowed. Yet with quality defenders like Raja Bell and Shawn Marion on the roster, those teams managed to play average defense, ranking between 13th and 17th in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions). This year's Suns are 29th, ahead of only Toronto, in defensive efficiency. Phoenix doesn't generate turnovers (last in the league) and doesn't keep teams off the offensive glass (next to last in the league), providing opponents with more opportunities to score than any other team.
Can the Suns reverse this trend? Well, they've limited six of their last dozen opponents to fewer than 100 points, climaxed (at least thus far) by their stellar performance against Denver (the league's second-highest-scoring team behind Phoenix), when they forced 18 turnovers and allowed only 11 offensive rebounds. Of course, both teams were on the second night of a back-to-back and played much slower than their normal pace. Suns coach Alvin Gentry also played his two best defenders, Dudley and 6-9 forward Louis Amundson, together for most of the second quarter, triggering a 26-5 run from which the Nuggets never recovered.
A broader view would suggest that Phoenix's two stars, Nash and Stoudemire, aren't going to upgrade their horrible defensive play at this point in their careers -- like Popeye, they "am what they am." And in the playoffs, what they am are beautiful losers, seemingly gallant in defeat because of their magnificent offensive exploits, but ultimately betrayed by their own deficiencies at the other end of the court.
• You can't feign body language, and since the trade that brought Brendan Haywood, Caron Butler and DeShawn Stevenson to Dallas, Jason Kidd has been playing with a joyful, hungry confidence reminiscent of when he was guiding New Jersey deep into the playoffs.
The NBA's active leader in career regular-season minutes is actually getting better as the season progresses. February was Kidd's most productive month for points, rebounds, assists and steals, a stat line boosted by his hardy averages of 14.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, 9.5 assists and 2.5 steals in the first eight games after the trade with the Wizards. Remember when Kidd was simply too old and slow to be an effective defender anymore? (I do; I'm one of the people who wrote it.) According to basketballvalue.com, the Mavs' defense yields an average of 2.36 fewer points per game when Kidd is on the court.
And how special was Kidd's triple-double (19 points, 16 rebounds and 17 assists) at Atlanta last Friday? No player had produced at least 15 points, rebounds and assists in the same game since Kidd himself did it back in 1996. Kidd, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird are the only players to accomplish the feat in the last 23 years. Not bad for an old codger who will turn 37 in three weeks.
• Speaking of old codgers, trade-deadline pickup Marcus Camby and the Trail Blazers are still adjusting to each other as the veteran big man (who turns 36 a day before Kidd turns 37) helps them make a playoff push. Camby's value was most evident last Friday in Chicago, where he blanketed Bulls star Derrick Rose with a savvy double team out near the half-court line, resulting in a steal that produced a game-tying layup in the last minute of regulation. And on the very next play, his inbound defense caused the Bulls to call a timeout.
Immediately after that overtime loss in Chicago, the Blazers headed to Minnesota for the second half of a back-to-back, where they learned a little more about Camby's strengths and weaknesses. He was blitzed by Al Jefferson for 11 points and two offensive rebounds in the game's first eight minutes. But put in a scheme that allowed him to roam more and not play on the ball against a beast like Jefferson, Camby delivered four blocks, two steals (one created by an elbow-scraping sideline dive for the loose ball after he'd made the strip) and two assists (but just one rebound) during his remaining 15:46 on the court, a time when Portland was plus-18.
"We found out it was better playing him off [the dominant scorer like Jefferson] and providing help defense," Portland coach Nate McMillan said after the game. "We're still learning about each other."
Of course, in LaMarcus Aldridge the Blazers already have a 6-11 roamer, and were probably hoping that Camby, like the injured Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla before him, could clamp down on physical big men such as Jefferson in single coverage.
• Asked to explain why his Blazers are an NBA-best 12-3 on the second half of back-to-backs, McMillan indicated that the biggest factor might be embarrassment. "I would like to know what our record is the night before -- did we win or lose?" he said. "Because we watched a lot of film where we have lost games in situations like this, and then our guys have responded to the challenge." He's right: Portland is 4-11 on the front end of those back-to-backs.
• If there is any justice, the absence of Shaquille O'Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (who isn't eligible to rejoin the Cavaliers until March 22) should elevate the profile of Anderson Varejao enough to bring him back into the Sixth Man Award conversation. Yes, Jamal Crawford has been a great lift off the bench for the Hawks. But to consider Crawford a lock for top-reserve honors, as many pundits are doing, isn't fair to Varejao, Cleveland's best pick-and-roll defender and a quality glue guy.