This year's Phoenix Suns are playing better than ever. They've looked good in the last six games. Unfortunately, they're 3-3 in those contests against (save for the New York Knicks) good teams.
Turnovers have killed the Suns all season, and while they've gotten better at protecting the basketball lately, ham-handed botches are the main thing separating them from the NBA's elite.
Their 16 turnovers last Saturday were good enough against the Denver Nuggets, who had 21. But not good enough against the San Antonio Spurs on Christmas Day.
Phoenix committed the same number of turnovers, 16, against Tim Duncan (pictured) and the Spurs in Thursday afternoon's nail-biter at US Airways Center, but the Big Fundamental's team only committed eight.
If not for the difference in turnovers, the Spurs wouldn't have been in any position to break our hearts and win the game on a three-pointer at the buzzer, 91-90.
The guy who hit the winning basket wasn't Duncan, Tony Parker, or Manu Ginobli (for a change), it was Roger Mason, acquired this season from the Washington Wizards. Mason's clutch shot negated a brilliant play (used before by the Suns before to win a game) in which Steve Nash set a pick and Amare Stoudemire fired a pass to Grant Hill for a layup and a two-point lead.
Except for the turnovers, the Suns played extremely well in this game. All five starters were in double-figures, with Stoudemire scoring 25 points and grabbing 13 rebounds and Shaquille O'Neal scoring 23 with 12 rebounds.
Shaq looked great, scoring three baskets in a row during one first-half stretch, including a drive from the top of the key followed by a finesse baby-hook. At another point, he missed two shots under the goal and grabbed his own rebounds before violently slam-dunking to raised fists from the Suns' bench and oohs and ahhs from the home crowd.
Elvis had not left the building.
Nash had 13 points and eight assists, but he also had six of the Suns' turnovers. As the team's starting point guard, you expect Nash to have more TOs than anybody else (he's got the ball in his hands more than anybody), but he's got to get sharper if this team's got a prayer of going anywhere this year.
Nash needs to stop crying about Mike D'Antoni's departure and the departure of teammates and friends Raja Bell and Boris Diaw. They're good riddance.
For awhile, we agreed with Nash that Coach Terry Porter's system wasn't working with Shaq in the middle, but Porter's started to make things mesh. He's stopped running the offense through O'Neal, picked up his team's pace, and put the ball back in Nash's control.
What Nash needs to do now is fully commit. The team, as last year's early exit in the playoffs proved, was never going to win a championship under D'Antoni (no matter how exciting the regular season was), and it was going nowhere fast with the mediocre Bell and Diaw playing major roles this year.
It probably wasn't the brightest idea for a team hungering for a championship to draft Shaq (he's still good, but his greatness is past tense), but since he's now the Big Cactus, Nash's got no choice but to make the most of it.
Maybe he thinks he's doing that, but we beg to differ. It's been rare this year for him to be as sharp as he routinely was during his MVP seasons.
Hey, we hope the problem's that Nash's not quite on the same page as Porter yet, because the alternative's way scary. We're saying, has the future Hall of Famer, at 34 and with a bad back, lost a step or three? Is he no longer capable of playing championship basketball?
Could it be that Nash (and not Shaq) is the reason that the Suns aren't mentioned in the same breath as the Los Angeles Lakers, the Boston Celtics, the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Houston Rockets -- this year's elite teams? Could it be that he either can't, or is too stubborn (like D'Antoni was), to embrace team defense and, when matchups dictate, a half-court offense featuring O'Neal?
As Suns fans, we hope that this is about Nash's angst, and that he can get over it fast and furious. Without him, nothing will work.
Notice we didn't mention San Antonio in the mix of elites.
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The Spurs continue to be good team, maybe just not the championship team they used to be. At their best, they're the kind of team that Porter aspires his Suns to be. They can run, plus play low-post. They commit fewer turnovers than all but one team in the league, and they play solid defense.
Still, the Suns went head to head with them Thursday, leading the game most of the way and by 13 at one point in the first half. They out-rebounded the Spurs, 50-43. With eight, they had one more offensive rebound than San Antonio. Only three Spurs starters and sixth-man Ginobli were in double figures (Parker had 27 and Duncan had 25 and 14 rebounds).
But the Suns, who beat the Spurs in the season opener, couldn't close it out. Like they haven't been able to close out several games this season. When San Antonio pulled ahead for the first time with 6:27 left in the third quarter, we got a bad feeling in the pit of our stomach.
We figured that the determined Spurs would find a way to win a close contest -- and they did. Merry fucking Christmas, Phoenix! -- Rick Barrs