Suns 119, 76ers 115 -- Seven and one

Thanks to Dudley's late heroics in Philly, the Suns finished off their road trip 4-1. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Thanks to Dudley's late heroics in Philly, the Suns finished off their road trip 4-1. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

I honestly and truly thought the Suns had a chance to be better than good this season.

I honestly felt like all the pieces fit, the defense would be better and the offense would be devastating.

But never did I consider the possibility that the Suns would be 7-1 after the first chunk of their schedule, which is reality after a 119-115 victory in Philadelphia.

Never did I think Nash would play at an MVP level, Jason Richardson would play like he did in Golden State, Grant Hill would rebound like it was the ’90s, Amare would care about defense and rebounding, Channing Frye would drill threes like they’re free throws and the bench would be this rock solid.

I thought a 3-2 road trip would be a pipe dream (not to mention 4-1) and a win over Boston would be unreality.

Granted, there are 74 games remaining on the schedule and the Suns may yet slink into mediocrity or certainly the lower tier of the Western Conference playoff picture, where I predicted them to be at season’s start. But Suns fans can’t tell me they aren’t excited about where this team is headed.

This is a team that led wire to wire essentially against a Boston squad that has suffocated the rest of the NBA, scoring 20 more points than Boston has given up in any game this season.

This is a team that has also shown the resiliency to come from behind, beating Miami despite an 11-point deficit late in the third last Tuesday and downing the Sixers tonight despite trailing by as many as 16 late in the first half and eight in the middle of the fourth quarter.

With some teams such a deficit is insurmountable, but you just always had a sense the Suns had a comeback in them.

The Suns found the right mix, and to nobody’s surprise it involved the bench once again. Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa played so well in fact that head coach Alvin Gentry never could take them out as the Suns cruised to victory.

Dudley tallied 13 points in the deciding fourth quarter, making a play every time the Suns needed one. His back-to-back triples sliced an eight-point Philly lead down to two with 6:20 left, and from there it was pretty much all Suns.

The BC product also harassed Andre Iguodala, grabbed a clutch offensive board and put it back to put the Suns up two with three minutes left and let out a few primal yells for good measure. Hell, he even provided stellar postgame media coverage of the game, as you will see below.

LB was clutch as well with a three ball that put the Suns up for the first time since very early with about five minutes left.

“We finally got Leandro Barbosa and Jared Dudley in there and had kind of a good combination, and that’s what we finished with,” Gentry told Suns.com. “That’s what makes our team so good is that the guys from the bench were playing instead of the guys who usually play.”

And then there’s Steve Nash, and I don’t think I’ve seen a player dominate a game so thoroughly without even putting up 10 shots.

Nash controlled the tempo throughout on his way to his first career 20-20 regulation game by racking up 21 points on 6-for-9 shooting and 20 assists, many of the spectacular variety. MVSteve led all players with a plus 19 in his 36 minutes, and he was more than a little responsible for that.

Nash is now averaging 18.0 and 12.2 on 50-50-90 shooting, better numbers than his MVP years, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him play this well. He already has a pair of 20-assist games to go with 17- and 14-assist contests, and it really looks like the NBA is just a video game to him.

“Steve Nash, I don’t know what to say about the guy,” Gentry said. “I love the fact that everybody thinks he’s getting older and a step slower. We should all be so lucky as players to get older and be a step slower and still do what he does.”

J-Rich is also finding “his niche,” as Gentry put it, leading the Suns in scoring for the third straight game with 29. His five first-half three-pointers kept Phoenix within striking distance at the break, and his pair of buckets at the hoop sealed the deal in the closing minutes.

After going 11-for-16 from the field and 6-for-8 from three in this one, J-Rich is shooting a ridiculous 55.7 percent from the field and 57.9 percent from three. The former Warrior is also averaging better than 20 points per game despite his goose egg in Orlando and would be averaging almost 25 ppg if you throw that stinker out.

What’s also amazing about this start is that it’s been a total team effort. J-Rich’s three-game barrage notwithstanding, five Suns have led the team in scoring in their first eight games, and that doesn’t even count their leading rebounder, Grant Hill. Six Suns average well into double figures (the starters plus LB) and another two are around 7 ppg.

After the national media largely slept on the Suns during the preseason, the praise is starting to roll in. The Suns lead NBA.com’s power rankings, just like they lead the Western Conference. They also shot up to No. 4 in Marc Stein’s rankings.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider that the “the Suns’ mark [is] by far the more impressive of the two” in comparison to the Lakers’ 6-1 record at the start of the day, saying the Suns are doing it by being in the middle of the pack in defensive efficiency and leading the way in true shooting percentage (with their offensive efficiency not far behind). Hollinger thinks the Suns can stay in the West’s upper crust if they can keep it up throughout this brutal 22-game stretch to start the season, about which I originally thought 11-11 might be optimistic.

But this road trip was a major litmus test, and the Suns not only passed it but proved they just might be an elite team again. We will know that for sure as this brutal stretch continues over the next 14 games, including a pair of trips to LALA land, but the early results are incredibly positive for this basketball team.

I ended my “let’s be optimistic” Suns preview with a quote from LB explaining how the Suns “are going to surprise everybody.”

Eight games in, they’re doing just that.

Reporting live from the team bus

If Jared Dudley keeps this up, he might have a job at ValleyoftheSuns waiting for him when his playing days are over (which won’t be for quite a while judging by tonight’s performance).

I love how the players talk like they do in real interviews on JMZ with Dudley asking questions that reporters actually pose. I also love him asking LB what coach Gentry said in the locker room, a question that I’m sure was also asked by the pros tonight.

Be sure to note LB explaining how his preseason prognostications are becoming prophetic.

Boost Mobile to donate $7.5K to Amare’s charity

Time for your dose of PR for the week, Amare Stoudemire will be on hand at the Boost Mobile Retail Store at 4031 North 24th Street for a ribbon cutting ceremony celebrating the opening of Phoenix’s first exclusive Boost Mobile store.

The store will present a $7,500 check to the Amar’e Stoudemire Foundation to support Phoenix youth education programs, and STAT will be on hand for a meet and greet with fans.

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Wednesday, Oct 2222 Oct7:30at Los Angeles ClippersBuy Tickets

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