By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
I usually don't look upon anything Charles Barkley says as being especially prophetic. I should have listened to him the other night, though.
"We had a perfect month," Barkley said after the Suns had won their 14th straight game. "Now the season starts for real. It's gonna be tough."
I wonder if Barkley saw a flaw developing in the chemistry of the Phoenix Suns' offense that the rest of us didn't have the perception to see.
"We're heading into the Texas triangle, where it's always tough," Barkley said. "That streak won't mean anything. We're top dogs now, but everybody will be coming for us."
Barkley was right on several counts. The first team the Suns encountered was the San Antonio Spurs last Sunday night. The Spurs promptly ended the Suns' winning streak in a baffling, frustrating, overtime shocker. The Suns will be forced to remember this unnecessary defeat as a galling giveaway.
But what some will remember most was the strange performance of Kevin Johnson at point guard. Newly returned to action after an injury, KJ seemed bent in some strange way on demonstrating that he is the most important member of the Suns' cast.
Perhaps KJ doesn't even realize how his erratic performance in the second half of the Spurs game minimized virtually every asset Barkley brings to the club. Not only did KJ seem uninterested in getting the ball to Barkley, at times he appeared totally content to dribble the ball aimlessly in the backcourt.
One thing remains clear. The Suns established their all-winning record in December by going to Barkley with the ball at every opportunity. KJ, now that he has returned to action, seems to have a different agenda. It is almost as though he wants to establish his own strategy of offense. The KJ battle plan would appear to center on his being in control of the ball for the maximum amount of time. If this plan were to be followed, Barkley's role would be limited largely to getting his points off rebounds of KJ's missed shots.
This was the very style of play the Suns weren't going to have this season. It has been recognized that one of the club's problems over the past few years has been that KJ controlled the ball too much and played too many minutes.
This resulted in two things, neither of them beneficial to the Suns. It made the Suns' offense too predictable. It also wore KJ down physically, so he was unable to perform at full speed, if at all, when the playoffs came around.
This is the season in which KJ kept promising he would sublimate himself. He would play a reduced number of minutes to help avoid muscle injuries and he wouldn't hog the ball.
On Sunday night, after being back just a few days, KJ played 47 minutes--more than any other Suns player. And he hogged the ball.
It does little good to dwell on the defeat in San Antonio. There are miles to go before we sleep, because the season is 82 games long and we have barely dented the surface.
You can't win them all. You can't afford to brood about the ones you lose. But you don't have to throw games away, either. Certainly, the Suns should never lose a game like the one in San Antonio, in which they had possession of the ball and a two-point lead with 4.2 seconds remaining in regulation time.
@body:I remember Barkley holding court in front of his dressing stall in the handsomely appointed clubhouse down in the bowels of the Purple Palace just before the road trip began. The Suns had just won their 14th consecutive game by routing the Houston Rockets. Barkley had outplayed the fearsome seven-footer Hakeem Olajuwon.
The winning streak was the longest in the club's 25-year history, and the Suns were starting a January in which they would be out of town for all but three games.
The capacity crowd that night had gone home convinced the Suns team had so many potent weapons that it might not lose in the foreseeable future.
Barkley and Kevin Johnson had been trotted out for television appearances on the court following the game. At least 5,000 fans remained in their seats to watch and listen as the two players were interviewed. Hundreds more remained outside for more than an hour, clinging to the fence surrounding the players' parking lot on Third Street, waiting for a fleeting glimpse of the wealthy, young arrivistes as they climbed into their BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes.
This team has captured the imagination of the city's sports fans like no other in at least a decade. The story of how more than 18,000 fans showed up merely for the chance to watch the Suns practice, while 4,000 more were turned away, has spread nationwide. With the retirements of Magic Johnson in Los Angeles and Larry Bird in Boston, Barkley and the Suns now share top billing with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
Barkley, who arrived here as a somewhat fearsome character in a trade with Philadelphia, has performed one of the great volte-face in the history of the NBA. He has transformed himself from a glowering thug to a local hero in less than two months. Everywhere you go, people talk glowingly about Barkley. Suns tickets are virtually impossible to obtain. Barkley's face peers out in signs that take up entire sides of city buses. He is omnipresent on local television. His name is brought up continually on talk-radio shows. Barkley owns the town. Barkley will soon turn 30, an age when many NBA players are playing on borrowed time. But his skills remain awesome. His physical condition is excellent. He still runs the floor well. He is one of the finest rebounders in the game, and his shooting skills are superior. Barkley summed up his attributes best--if not modestly--in his autobiography, the one in which he later claimed he was misquoted: