Man, we've waited a long time for this!
The Phoenix Suns dominated Chris Paul and New Orleans from the start at US Airways Center last night and wound up blowing out the Hornets (who challenged for NBA Western Conference supremacy a couple of seasons ago) 124-104.
And (in a phrase we were accustomed to using about the scores Suns opponents ran up last year): It wasn't nearly that close.
With the bench playing the entire fourth quarter because Phoenix led by double-digits for most of the game, the Suns pushed ahead by 29. New Orleans managed to make up nine of those points when the back of the Suns bench got in the game in the final minutes.
Steve Nash set the pace with 12 points and 10 assists in 23 minutes, making magical passes the whole way. Amar'e Stoudemire was high scorer for the Suns with 21 points in 25 minutes.
But it was a classic team effort. No Sun had more than seven rebounds, but five had six or above, and Phoenix won the battle (if you could call it that) of the boards, 45-29.
Fifteen of those rebounds were offensive, just one indication of how killer the team's defense was on this evening. Channing Frye blocked three shots, and Lou Amundson blocked two -- including an in-your-face beauty on Hornets forward Hilton Armstrong in the second period that had the awestruck home crowd yelling Louuuuuuuuuuu.
We're still not sure we won't eat these words (tonight's game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center will be a real barometer of the Suns' mettle), but this year's version of the Purple & Orange looks damn good. The Suns are running and gunning again. They're playing with intensity, particularly old guys Nash and Grant Hill, who had 18 points against New Orleans and was leading the team in rebounds over Stoudemire before last night's game.
If you watch SportsCenter on ESPN, the talking heads can't stop gushing that the Suns have the same league-leading 8-1 record as the revered Boston Celtics, and that Nash & Co. are the only team to beat Beantown this season. With Kevin Garnett back in full form. With Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Rasheed Wallace, and Rajon Rondo all playing. With Suns Leandro Barbosa and Robin Lopez out injured. In freakin' Boston.
And we never thought we'd be saying this: The Suns are deep. The team loses little when the top bench players are on the floor. Guys like Amundson and Jared Dudley are fearsome on defense, and Dudley's a hell of a scorer (with three-point range). He had 11 points against the Hornets in 20 minutes, but lit up Philadelphia for 18 on Sunday.
With their hustle for every loose ball, he and Amundson bring Phoenix something the team never before had: grit.
Leading the Suns' second team last night was backup point guard Goran Dragic. The Slovenian is vastly improved over his rookie season last year and had 14 points, seven assists, seven rebounds, and a steal in 25 minutes.
Barbosa is back in action, BTW, though not back at full speed. He had 11 points against New Orleans. The 7-foot Lopez's return is uncertain.
High scorer for the now 3-6 Hornets was super-talented point guard Paul, with 25 points and six assists. The team's other star, David West, was held to 10 points.
Despite the fact that center-forward Pau Gasol won't play tonight against Phoenix because of an injured hamstring, the Suns will have their work cut out for them against Kobe Bryant and his supporing cast. Center Andrew Bynum will be back on the floor after missing two games with a strained right elbow and sore triceps. Along with Bynum will be Lamar Odom, Ron Artest, and the deepest bench in the NBA to help Kobe out.
This is not to say we're counting Coach Alvin Gentry's guys out. Though the Suns will be playing probably the best team in the NBA without a day's rest, the Suns' starters should be fresh after taking much of last night's blowout off.
Game time is 8:30 p.m. from the City of Angels. TV: TNT. Radio: KTAR-AM 620. For more information, go to www.nba.com/suns.