The Phoenix Suns longest road trip of the year was a disaster -- until the Big Three (no, not those Big Three) found a way to win against the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday.
We're talking about Steve Nash, Amar'e Stoudemire, and Shaquille O'Neal.
Nash played so brilliantly against the Hawks that we'll forgive him his six turnovers (the team had 19). After all, he'd been suffering from his chronically bad back for the past three games. Nash made great passes all game long and wound up with 13 assists to go with 14 points.
His screen-and-roll to Stoudemire to seal the 104-99 victory was a thing of beauty.
Nash wasn't the high scorer for the now-24-18 Suns. He didn't need to be. Despite scoring only 6 points in the first half, Stoudemire roared back in the second half and wound up with 23 to lead all scorers.
Stoudemire had just five boards (rebounding's been a problem for him lately), but for a change, he actually played a little defense. In fact, it was D that kept the Suns in this game.
Star Hawks shooters Joe Johnson and Mike Bibby together missed 26 shots, and the credit (as far as Bibby was concerned) goes to Nash. He had a hand in the Atlanta point guard's face from the start, and the former Arizona Wildcats and Shadow Mountain phenom only scored 5 points. Johnson had 15, but missed everything when the game was on the line at the end.
But the best player on the floor was Shaquille O'Neal, who's been putting up great numbers on this eastern road swing. The 36-year-old flattened a couple of Hawks when they tried to come into the paint and was too much for Atlanta on offense. Two of his dunks almost tore down the goal, and he finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds.
O'Neal was the only bright spot in the Suns humiliating 98-76 loss to the Charlotte Bobcats on Friday night. He had 20 points against Coach Larry Brown and former Suns Boris Diaw and Raja Bell in what was the worst loss Phoenix has suffered in the Steve Nash era (the Bobcats led by 32 at one point).
The Suns were blown out by the Boston Celtics and the real Big Three (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen) in the second game of this road trip, and that was plenty bad enough. But to be stomped by the 18-25 Bobcats was a new low for the once-elite Suns.
Here's a scary statistic: Nine teams will make the NBA playoffs from the Western Conference, and the Suns are in ninth place. Two teams are nipping at their heels. If they don't start winning with regularity, they can kiss the playoffs goodby.
But, hey, we're not ready to write off Coach Terry Porter's team just yet. We remember those blowout losses the Arizona Cardinals suffered near the end of the regular season -- including that debacle against the Patriots in New England -- and they're headed to the Super Bowl on Sunday in Tampa.
The Suns are loaded with talent, and if they could stay focused (that is, show up mentally and physically for every, single game), they could still go far in the playoffs. They play the 9-34 Washington Wizards tonight, but the next test will be when they tip off against the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday night at US Airways Center. After getting off to a terrible start, the Spurs are now second best in the West at 29-14.
Nash & Co. ended a three-game losing streak with Sunday's victory, and if they win in DC, they can salvage this road trip with a 3-3 record. But more than that, they beat a good team Sunday; the 26-17 Hawks are fourth-best in the Eastern Conference. Only Cleveland, Boston, and Orlando are better.
Leandro Barbosa, who'd been in a slump lately, gave the Suns a real spark off the bench in Atlanta. He had 20 points, including 3 of 4 three-pointers. A couple of his threes were clutch, coming at a time when Phoenix was losing momentum.
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SHOW ME HOW
Beating the Hawks wasn't easy for the Suns. Though they led by 13 points in the early going, Atlanta came back to within a point at the end of the first period. There were 29 lead changes and 15 ties in the game.
For much of the afternoon in the capital of the South, Phoenix looked like the run-and-gun Suns of old on offense, only with a gigantic force in the middle. The team had 30 fast-break points. Compare that to 2 on Friday.
And as for that D we've been talking about, the Suns held Atlanta to 41 percent from the field, a far cry from the 51 percent they let the Bobcats get away with. (Diaw, looking like his first season in Phoenix, had 26 points and 11 rebounds for the Bobcats.) The Suns' 55 percent from the field Sunday was light years from the pitiful 36 percent they shot against Charlotte.
It was sweet redemption. Let's hope the Suns stay saved.