When I left US Airways Center back on Jan. 26, I wondered if the Suns would dig themselves an insurmountable hole in an incredibly bunched up Western Conference by the All-Star break.
After heartbreaking losses against Utah and Charlotte to cap a stretch of seven defeats in nine games, the Suns had moved to the bottom of the Western Conference playoff hunt and looked to be in dire straits with a home game against Dallas and then a tough four-game road trip preceding a home date with Portland and the All-Star break.
The thinking made sense because Dallas is in the upper echelon of the West and the Suns had lost 12 of 13 on the road entering this week.
However, after beating Sacramento 114-102 on Friday to cap off a perfect road trip, their first sweep of a trip of at least four games since December 2006, the Suns have vaulted into fifth place in the packed West because of a win streak that occurred at the strangest yet most opportune time.
A week and a half ago I was bracing for the realization that the Suns’ league-best 14-3 November was just a mirage. They were blowing leads, breaking down in the clutch and all the Amare Stoudemire trade rumors were taking a toll on the court.
Facing this brutal stretch against teams near them in the standings, their first five-game winning streak of the season pushed the Suns back to the middle of the West instead of burying them far below the No. 8 seed line.
“We are getting some momentum, but I think we are consistent,” Nash told Suns.com. “We are playing a little harder and a little sharper mentally, and our focus is better. It has given us confidence to stay with it. Before, I think we overanalyzed and thought too much. Sometimes, you make up for your mistakes by playing hard and being competitive. I think we have seen a better streak of that.”
For the better part of two months the Suns blew every lead in the book and then made up a few of their own. I was ready to play “Suns Blown Lead Bingo” because they hit almost every number between 13-20 when it comes to blown leads, not to mention a few 24s. It got so ridiculous that as the Suns built their leads you could only wonder how large the advantage would get before they would blow it. And blow it they always did.
To run up those large leads, the Suns played extremely well in stretches of just about all their games during their December-January malaise save for a couple blowouts at the beginning of December and the Memphis and Charlotte calamities in January. It’s just that once the bleeding started, they had no way to staunch it.
Tonight after the Suns took a 21-point lead midway through the second quarter, they predictably let it drop to 10 points three minutes into the second half.
If this game were played before the last few games, the lead would have been gone a couple minutes later altogether and then the Suns would have spent the fourth quarter fighting for their lives and then probably losing to the Kings after executing poorly down the stretch.
This time Gentry promptly called a timeout, Nash drained a three from like 30 feet and then Amare followed that up with a couple power slams off Nash assists, including an alley-oop, with all this coming not much more than a minute after the timeout to put the Suns back up by 17 all of a sudden. Phoenix proceeded to score a couple more buckets to make this an 11-0 run, and before the Kings knew what had hit them the Suns had gone on a 22-3 run over the course of about six minutes to put this one away.
The Suns finally showed the killer instinct lacking since November, running up their biggest lead since taking a 32-point advantage on Nov. 27 in Minnesota.
“We feel as good as we’ve felt all season knowing we’ve gone through a rough stretch,” Grant Hill said on the Suns’ postgame show.
Steve Nash was once again brilliant, threatening a triple double with 23 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds to go with a plus 26 in 32 minutes. He sadly (for the Kings) equaled Sacramento’s assist total and scored 20 in the first half after hitting the 30-point mark in Phoenix’s first two games against the Kings.
Then there was that Amare character — whom I hear has been in the news a bit lately — coming up with a strong 30 points and nine boards on 10-for-16 shooting, including a handful of monster crushes, while putting up a plus 23 in his 38 minutes.
This 30 and nine effort ever so barely marked his first game of the trip without a double-double. After averaging 16.3 ppg and 4.0 rpg in his four games before this road swing, STAT exploded for 27.8 and 12.3 on the trip, never scoring fewer than 20 points and only this one time failing to reach double-digit boards.
Earlier on the trip he spoke of needing to get away from Phoenix to get “focused,” and the only shame is that he does not bring this level of focus every night. If he would play like this all the time, there would be no talk of trading Amare Stoudemire.
Whether he’s playing for his trade suitors and his next contract or just focusing on the here and now, who knows at this point? What we do know is that Amare isn’t letting all this trade talk become a distraction on the court.
Watching him this trip makes you wish the Suns would lock him up long term, and frankly that has always been the best-case scenario so long as it’s at the right price. The Suns will not be replacing Amare with a player with a higher ceiling, as when he’s right he has few rivals on the offensive end.
I still would ultimately prefer for the Suns to keep STAT, I just think if they decide they are not going to sign him to an extension then the Philly trade might be the best they could do.
Also, if the Suns keep winning and Stoudemire keeps playing like this, they might want to seriously consider keeping this team intact for now and worrying about all this stuff in the offseason, when STAT is fairly likely to stay in Phoenix for one more year anyway.
It may be difficult for Kerr to gauge his next move because this Phoenix Suns team is tough to figure out. This squad boasts a mediocre 13-15 road record — which includes a white hot 8-3 start to the season, a putrid 1-12 middle of the year and now these past four wins in a row. So take out the middle 12 of 13 and the Suns are the best road team in the NBA at 12-3.
Have they turned the corner?
It’s too early to say that definitively, but the Suns are unquestionably playing a different brand of basketball than they did during their December-January malaise.