PHOENIX – The Suns made their best title run of the D’Antoni Era sans Amare in 2005-06, when Boris Diaw ensured Phoenix didn’t miss a beat without STAT.
Aside from Tuesday night when the Charlotte Bobcats come to town, Diaw won’t be anywhere near Phoenix this time around – and neither will any other true four.
It’s cliché to say “everybody has to step up,” but aside from the massively increased role LB seems to be about to play the rest of the season, Matt Barnes is the player who most needs to step up the rest of the year.
Thus far Barnes has had a very up-and-down season, looking great at the start of the year in a starting role before falling into a two-month slump.
Since Alvin Gentry replaced Terry Porter, Barnes among other people has become a different player. His last three stat lines read: six points, nine boards, six assists; seven points, five boards, five assists; and 14 points, six boards and a career-high nine assists.
“It shows how much more comfortable he is playing that style of basketball,” said longtime teammate Jason Richardson. “He can do so many things, I think he was just uncomfortable, and with the coaching change, it changed a little bit, it shows what Matt Barnes can do.
“He can do a lot of things, he can rebound, he defends, he plays some defense, gets steals, passes the ball well. I think he’s more comfortable than anybody playing this open-floor offense.”
The 6-foot-7 Barnes has been here before, playing the four in a small, hybrid offense built to run at all costs and worry about the size mismatch in the post later the last three years for Golden State.
Barnes said he can be an asset at the four due to his ability to pass the ball and get the rebound and push the ball up court. That self description sounds like the perfect four for the offense Gentry wants to run, which the past three games has been even more helter skelter than even D’Antoni’s at its running best.
Of course, that’s only if Barnes regains his shooting eye. He will be the first to tell you that he’s been “really struggling” with his shot lately, averaging 6.5 points on 34.3 percent shooting from the field and 26.4 percent from three in January and 6.9 on 33.3 percent shooting from the field and 18.2 percent from three thus far in February.
He now raises his arms to celebrate every three he hits like it’s a game winner, but that’s understandable for a player as emotional as Barnes is considering his struggles.
His 14 points on 5-for-10 shooting and 2-for-4 threes on Friday could be the start of a break out, which the Suns badly need to space the floor while Barnes likely will get pushed around a bit at the other end.
Barnes’ 30 minutes Friday were the most he’s played since mid-December, and although some of that had to do with Grant Hill’s injury I expect Barnes to continue to play big minutes in a style he knows and loves so much.
Although only Steve Nash and Barbosa remain from the Suns teams that perfected this pace, Richardson and Barnes played exactly this style – and thrived in it I might add – as Warriors. In fact, I would say the Suns have looked more like that Golden State team that took out Dallas in the first round of the 2007 playoffs than the Suns of recent vintage the past few days.
“This is just like we played at Golden State, and just like Phoenix has played in the past when I’ve watched them just create,” Barnes said.
Added Richardson, “Definitely this is our game. This is the style I’m used to playing, the style (Barnes is) used to playing. It feels like those old days back at Golden State.”
As he watches Barnes, J-Rich, LB and Nash run around the court, this will also be an incredibly important time for the judgment of Amare Stoudemire.
Let’s say hypothetically the Suns streak into the playoffs and win a series or two with their rejuvenated spirit. What does it say about Amare if this team succeeds more without him than it did with him?
That’s not to say the Suns won’t miss Amare.
They go from being the only team with a pair of All-Star big men to having Shaq and an undersized crew of Barnes, Lou Amundson and Jared Dudley (assuming Fropez doesn’t crack the rotation) in the frontcourt.
The Suns will likely be punished on the boards most nights like they were on Friday and some power forwards will have their way in the post.
On offense, J-Rich admitted it was a bit tough for him being that he’s used to looking for Amare down low, “but we’re not going to just crash in the rest of the season because he’s down, we’re going to try to pick him up the best we can and see if we can get him back.”
“This is a very offensively-talented team with or without Amare,” Barnes added. “Losing your best player is always tough, but it’s going to give other people a chance to step up.”
Considering the style Gentry wants to play, Barnes should know he’s at the top of that list.