The once-mighty Phoenix Suns went into the All-Star break with a whimper.
Granted, they were playing one of the top teams in the league Wednesday evening, the Cleveland Cavaliers, who had only lost one game at home.
And the guy who probably has a lock on league MVP this year, LeBron James (the cover of Ryan Jones' book on him's at left).
But there was hope. The Cavaliers had flown in the night before from a gut-wrenching, last-seconds 96-95 loss to the Indiana Pacers. There was speculation that the team would be worn out playing a back-to-back.
This presumes, of course, that a superman like King James gets worn out.
But the Suns were able to get an early 17-11 jump on the Cavs, and we thought for a minute that our boys in purple and orange might actually compete.
Well, their interest in the game was short-lived. And, just as we feared, the Cavs were anything but tuckered out. By half-time, Cleveland was up 12 points. By the end of the third quarter, the Cavs led by 15 points. And by the end of the game at Quicken Loans Arena (The Q), it was 109-92, Cleveland.
Turned out, the dysfunctional Suns were never really in it past early in the second quarter.
Did we mention that Steve Nash didn't play (shooting pains into his legs).
Which didn't help. But we've got to think that this team -- even when Nash is on the court -- is just phoning it in now. From where we sit, Coach Terry Porter's Suns have given up, and there seems to be not a damn thing he can do about it.
The trade rumors, which have become all anybody talks about re the Suns anymore, are certainly contributing to the team's lack of focus.
But there wouldn't be any trade rumors if the Suns hadn't laid down in game after game this season. They've been blown out by some of the worst teams in professional basketball.
We need not belabor the Suns suckage, because come the February 19 NBA trade deadline, we may barely recognize this team.
General Manager Steve Kerr's been telling the media for a week that nobody on the squad is sacrosanct -- except Nash.
Amar'e seems certain to be traded. He's the one with immense value out there, despite worry over how long his knees will last and, more importantly, whether he can play with his head and his athletic body.
"Lack of focus" is the way it's always put about why Stoudemire rarely plays defense (when's the last time you've seen him take a charge?), can't seem to live up to his potential. He's a wannabe super star who doesn't measure up to the greats -- no matter how much he carps about the refs disrespecting him.
At 26, maybe his best days are ahead of him. Maybe.
He did seem to play better under former Coach Mike D'Antoni than he has for Porter, whose coaching abilities apparently aren't held in high esteem by the veterans on the payroll.
Porter has a tough-guy reputation. He stresses defense, which the Suns desperately needed coming out of the D'Antoni era, but from the looks of things, he can't get through to this team.
There's been too much talk about Shaquille O'Neal and his low-post game messing up the Suns (hey, Shaq's having an All-Star season!), and not enough on Porter's inability to come up with a system in which star players can mesh. Against Cleveland, the Suns had 25 turnovers -- a nagging problem since the new coach arrived.
Which is why Kerr's got to do something -- fast. That is, if he wants to save his old buddy, Terry, from the chopping block. And probably himself. If the Suns don't make the playoffs, owner Robert Sarver would be crazy to keep either of them.
And barring a monster trade for Stoudemire, and whomever else, it'll take a miracle for the 28-23 Suns to wind up in that ninth and last playoff spot in the West.
About the Suns' latest loss, Stoudemire scored 27 points and took down 6 rebounds on the eve of his appearance as a Western Conference starter in the NBA All-Star Game at US Airways Cener Sunday night. It was another game where he played on one end of the court.
James played his usual superior game on both ends, with 26 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists. But the star for 40-11 Cleveland was point guard Mo Williams, who torched the Suns for 44 points -- including 7 of 9 three-pointers.
The sad thing is, the Suns played better in this game than they did against the mediocre 76ers, who blew them out Monday night in Philly -- with Nash at the helm until garbage time. If they could've kept up the intensity they showed in the first period against the Cavs, they could've won.
That might've suggested there are better days ahead for this talented roster, that those trade ideas should be shelved.
But where there's no will, there's no way.