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:
"The way I got it figured, there'll never be another player like me again. There'll never be another player who is six feet four inches and averages more than ten rebounds a game, scores inside whenever he wants to against bigger opponents and is quicker than most everybody he plays against. I'm the Ninth Wonder of the World, but I always knew that I was going to have to pay a price for the way I play."
Since coming to Phoenix, Barkley has grown more reflective.
"I am just learning who I am," he told the New York Times. "I haven't had a chance to grow up and mature. I've been in the so-called limelight since I was 18 years old. People tell you: 'You're great, you're great.' Then, all of a sudden, you've got all this money, you don't think you need anybody. You get caught up in it, and it's hard to get out."
Barkley respects Paul Westphal, the Suns' first-year coach, who was himself an NBA All-Star as a player. Barkley also remains close to Cotton Fitzsimmons, who engineered the trade that brought him here from Philadelphia.
During the Suns' winning streak, the biggest concern voiced by the fans who populate the balcony seats had been whether Kevin Johnson's return to the lineup after being on the injured list might actually hinder the team's offensive balance.
"Ridiculous," wrote the jaded mandarins of the daily press. "Kevin Johnson is one of the best point guards in basketball. His return has to help."
Paul Westphal, the Suns coach, echoed their sentiments. "Kevin's return can only make us stronger," he snapped. Westphal expressed impatience with those who feared KJ's style at point guard might diminish the effectiveness of the Suns' half-court offense, which had been centered on Barkley.
Westphal was in a delicate position. Certainly, he had to encourage KJ and welcome him back. But Westphal had to know that the steady ball handling turned in by others in KJ's absence had been of great help to Barkley. Negele Knight and Frank Johnson, as well as Danny Ainge and Dan Majerle, who sometimes played point guard during that period, had constantly searched out Barkley in the area down low near the basket. That and Barkley's willingness to distribute the ball after getting it were the keys to the team's winning ways in December.
All four recognized that the most important thing they could do was to get the ball to Barkley.
"Good things happen when you get the ball in to Charles," I heard Cotton Fitzsimmons say one night. The former Suns coach, now a broadcaster, was right.
After the San Antonio loss, Westphal admitted there might be a problem.
"I still think this is an adjustment period with Kevin back. We're still getting used to him, and him to everybody else, because he runs things a little differently."
This, in itself, is the first admission there is a problem. The Suns can no longer run it the way they did before Barkley's arrival. This time KJ will have to adjust his own style to one which has proven to be a winner.
The obvious reason for the Suns' success while KJ was recovering from both a hamstring pull and an injured groin muscle was Barkley's prodigious performance. He had done all the heavy lifting. In a memorable month of mano a mano performances, Barkley had taken on some of the strongest players in the league and outplayed every one of them.
Barkley had outrebounded bigger men like Larry Johnson of Charlotte, Vlade Divac of the Lakers, Shaquille O'Neal of Orlando, Dikembe Mutombo of Denver and even Hakeem Olajuwon and Otis Thorpe of Houston.
Even in the defeat at San Antonio, Barkley outrebounded David Robinson, the Spurs seven-footer, who was Charles' teammate on the U.S. Olympic team.
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A man asked Barkley at that final meeting in the clubhouse, before the Suns' departure on the road trip, whether he thought there might be some trouble now adjusting to Kevin Johnson's style.
"I don't worry about adjusting," Barkley said. His answer was delivered in a matter-of-fact tone.
"I just play," he said. "I just do what I do, and hope it all comes out together and we'll win."
Before coming to Phoenix, Barkley always said there were several things he needed in order to play his best basketball.
"I need to play fewer minutes," he said. "And I need to play with at least two other guys who can score, at least one more serious rebounder, a point guard who knows how to play and guys on the bench who can give the starters a rest without allowing the opposing team to gain any ground."
Looking over the Suns' performance to date, Sir Charles came to exactly the right place. All we need now is the cooperation of Kevin Johnson.