CONTENDERS NO MORE

This is the silent season for Suns fans. It is a time for gnawing doubt and fear.

Charles Barkley's shoulder injury has revealed more than Suns loyalists ever wanted to know about their team's limitations.

Here's what it comes down to. Remove Barkley from the lineup, and the Suns are revealed as just another NBA team. With Barkley on the sidelines, they are forced to fight their hearts out even to beat midlevel teams. It is now apparent that only with Barkley on the floor are the Suns contenders.

Without Barkley, the luster is gone. The playing level of every other member of the ball club diminishes.

Paul Westphal turns into a rookie coach who doesn't seem to remember who should be in the game.

Kevin Johnson seems to think it is obligatory that he control the ball every moment. Dan Majerle shoots too many shots from three-point range.

Without Barkley, Tom Chambers looks like precisely what he is, an aging player past his prime. I have no idea whether Barkley will be voted Most Valuable Player. At this point, it's irrelevant. The main thing is that Barkley return to the lineup at full strength. With Barkley back, Cedric Ceballos, Danny Ainge and Dan Majerle will look like all-stars. Chambers will seem five years younger.

Right now, none of these things seems likely. In fact, given the club's inadequate performances without Barkley, it seems highly doubtful the Suns can emerge triumphant from the Western Conference playoffs.

There is something not quite right with the way they have been playing since midseason.

This is no fault of Barkley's. He has done everything expected of him and more. He doesn't merely shoot and rebound well. He is the center of the offense. Even in the transition game, he is the Suns' best ball handler coming up the floor on the fast break. He is the heart and soul of the offense and he is an important part of the defense when he turns on that facet of his game in the fourth quarter. Barkley is the glue that holds this team together.

And now, with the regular season in its final days, we've learned what an extraordinary difference Barkley's presence has meant.

Without Barkley, the excitement is gone. There is no one else capable of carrying the load.

Remarkably, none of this seems to bother Westphal. At least on the surface. He remains the blithe spirit . . . the eternal optimist. He tells us that he is using the final games of the season as an exhibition period. Supposedly, this will give him a good look at all his bench players. Doesn't Westphal realize that this is the conclusion of the regular season and fans are paying top dollar for their tickets?

We've all spent so much time watching the Suns and listening to the TV sports commentators gushing over them that we've come to think they're invincible.

We conveniently forget what it was like when the Bulls came to town and shot the lights out of America West Arena. We fail to remember how the Cleveland Cavaliers completely dominated the boards in their February meeting. Local sportswriters figure the Suns as favorites based solely on a single first half of play here against the Knicks. That was the game the Suns were leading by six points when the fight broke out.

The Suns romped in the second half only because all the Knicks' point guards had been banished.

The truth is, of course, that we have been overestimating this ball club. At the same time, we have actually been underestimating what Barkley's presence has meant to it.

Anyone who saw Portland, San Antonio, Chicago and Cleveland play last Sunday realizes how tough the playoffs will be for the Suns. If Barkley's shoulder hasn't healed sufficiently for him to perform at the top of his game, the Suns can't make it past the second round. To watch them play without Barkley has been a frustrating experience. What has happened to Richard Dumas? Why does KJ turn into the Phantom of the Opera, hogging the ball at every opportunity?

The defeat at the hands of Seattle last Friday was an example of KJ at his worst. He not only dribbled the ball up the floor, but then proceeded to attempt to dribble it through traffic to the basket, as well. The results were predictable.

What in the world has happened to Majerle?
I liked him much better as a player before he became "Thunder Dan" and the owner of the Cheers-type tavern where both the drinks and the tee shirts are overpriced.

The more adulation he receives and the more low-budget commercials he appears in, the less effective his play becomes. Why doesn't someone explain to Majerle that his value to the Suns stems from his willingness to drive to the basket and mix it up? His continued fascination with the three-point shot will kill this club in the playoffs.

I think Westphal believes that the Lakers are so impotent that the Suns can use them in the opening round to get their act together. Can Westphal actually believe that winning the home-court advantage automatically means a ticket to the final dance? That's far from being the case. He's been around long enough to know it.

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