Jolly Old Saint Nick must've been in an especially giving mood, as that mythical gift-giving elf dropped off a couple primo presents for the Phoenix Suns on Christmas morning: Not only did they get Leandro Barbosa into the starting lineup, but also a heartily lopsided home court victory over the Los Angeles Clippers to boot.
The Brazilian Blur return after spending the past couple week on injured reserve after spraining his ankle earlier this month, and boy, was he missed. Just look at the stats for proof: Prior to Barbosa's hobbling, Phoenix was sitting atop the NBA standings, not to mention riding a double-digit unbeaten streak at home. After the 6-foot-3 guard went down for the count, however, they went into a downward spiral, going a dismal 4-8 over 12 games, including losing their last two at US Airways Center.
Leandro's return must've lit a fire underneath the rest of the team, as the Suns unleashed a torrential downpour of points to thoroughly drown the Clippers 124-93 at home on Christmas night. Although Los Angeles went up by six point early on in the game, the Amar'e 'n' Nash Show eventually kicked it into high gear and started lighting up the scoreboard and shooting 53 percent from the field. Both Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley each had 18 points. Planet Orange led by 19 in the third quarter, before ending the game with a 31-point gap. Grant Hill also had a memorable moment when he sunk an outstounding buzzer-beating Hail Mary at the end of the first quarter. From the opposite end of the court. (Wowszers.)
But the warm-and-fuzzy blowout win ultimately served to cushion the blow of a pair of heartbreaking losses to also-ran opponents that bookended the weekend. Both were of the "woulda, coulda, shoulda" variety.
It started this past Wednesday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder. After the Suns had their asses royally handed to them by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers last week, Phoenix endured its second straight home loss after getting outplayed, outhustled, and outlasted by the much-younger OKC team, which secured a 117-113 victory.
The Purple Gang could've used Barbosa's talents against Thunder players like Russell Westbrook and rising star Kevin Durant (who had 38 points) as they pulled down 16 offensive rebounds during the game and were shooting to kill from the paint, going up by an astounding 54-36 over Phoenix in the second quarter. Stoudemire fueled a 12-1 run in the second half to pull to with two by halftime, and later helped his squad eek out a two-point lead with mere minutes to go in the game. Durant came through with a three-point play with around 90 seconds left to help secure the win over the thunderstruck Suns.
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Phoenix's rebounding woes were also key to Saturday's 132-127 loss to the Pacific Division cellar-dwelling Golden State Warriors (8-12) at Oracle Arena in Oakland, as were the turnover problems that plagued them during last week's loss to Cleveland. It was a rather high-scoring affair (indicative of a lack of defense from either team) where both Phoenix and Golden State passed the century mark in the third quarter. Nash and his crew clinged to a 108-104 lead into the fourth, but a 17-8 run by such Warriors stars as Corey Maggette and Monta Ellis (each had 33 points) proved to be the difference.
Having gone 5-9 this month, it's something of an understatement to say that December hasn't been too fun for the Suns (19-12 overall). There's just two more games before Phoenix can put 2009 in the rearview mirror, and man, are they doozies: The Los Angeles Lakers (24-5) are visiting here tonight, and Kobe Bryant's been on fire as of late, averaging 38 points a game. Pau Gasol is producing double-doubles like a madman (as well as around 30 points each night), and El Lay's staggeringly deep bench are a never-ending threat (at least Ron Artest won't be playing tonight, as a recent concussion is sidelining him for a few days).
If that weren't enough of a challenge, Kevin Garnett and the Boston Celtics are coming to town on Wednesday. Oy vey!
Tip-off for tonight's battle against Kobe and the Lakers is at 7 p.m. TV: Fox Sports Arizona. Radio: KTAR 620-AM. More info: www.suns.com.