Friday's home game against Coach Mike D'Antoni's New York Knicks and yesterday's road contest against Coach Kurt Rambis' Minnesota Timberwolves both looked like blowouts in the first halves -- only the Phoenix Suns wound up actually embarrassing the Knicks 132-96 while barely hanging on to beat the Wolves.
The difference in the two games? Suns starting center Robin Lopez was out with a bulging disc in his lower back against Minnesota, which enabled the worst team in the Western Conference to cut a 25-point Phoenix lead to one -- before mighty-since-the All-Star-break Amar'e Stoudemire kicked it into overdrive and the Suns came away with 111-105 victory.
Lopez didn't travel to the northern Midwest with the team and is expected to miss all of the current five-game road trip, plus three more games. His status after that will depend on how his back responds to treatment. But Coach Alvin Gentry certainly hopes he'll be back sooner rather than later, because, without him, Phoenix gave up the paint to the Wolves' Kevin Love and Al Jefferson.
Love came off the bench to give Phoenix's remaining big men fits. He pulled down 22 rebounds and scored 23 points. Jefferson, one of the best power forwards in the league (despite his team's 14-60 record) grabbed 16 rebounds and put in 19 points. Twelve of Jefferson's grabs were offensive, which enabled his team to snag 20 offensive boards to the Suns' seven. Minnesota out-rebounded Phoenix 58-41 overall.
Not that Amar'e Stoudemire didn't do his part; he had 14 rebounds and 30 points. But without the seven-foot Lopez (who's got the wingspan of a California Condor), Phoenix relied on seldom-used reserve Jarron Collins as the starter and Channing Frye off the bench (something about not wanting to mess up Frye's rhythm as a reserve caused Gentry to start the rusty Collins, who had zero points and two rebounds in 10 minutes).
Lopez was getting better and better until his injury got the better of him a few games ago. Even playing with a bad back, he scored 14 points and nabbed seven rebounds in 22 minutes against New York. The second-year pro scored 19 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the Suns' March 20 win over the Utah Jazz -- now just half a game ahead of the fith-in-the-West Suns in the standings. His best game was two weeks before that against the Los Angeles Clippers, when he scored 30 points and brought down 12 boards.
Lopez adds height and might in the middle that the Suns lacked earlier in the season. Stoudemire, at 6-10, and the tentative Frye, at 6-11, weren't able to hold their own in the paint in way too many games, including ones against bad teams. But that was then. When Lopez was inserted into the starting lineup, teams started having to give the Suns' defense a little respect, because the Stanford product took to blocking more and more shots (among his other accomplishments). He slapped away five would-be baskets in the team's February 28 loss to the San Antonio Spurs.
Not to bag too much on Frye -- he's just not the same kind of inside presence as Lopez. Yet the former University of Arizona and Phoenix St. Mary's star has been a great addition to the Suns -- just not in ways you'd expect from a nearly seven-footer: He's become one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA, hitting five of 10 treys in last night's game for 17 points.
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We'll say just one thing about New York, one of those bad teams who humiliated the Suns in the season's early going. Adding the highest-paid player in the NBA, Tracy McGrady, to their roster apparently hasn't done squat for the Knicks. The $23.3 million man only managed to score five points (he did have eight rebounds) in the blowout loss to the Suns. The sleepy-eyed McGrady played his usual lackluster defense. We hope the bloodthirsty New York media are giving D'Antoni and the rest of the Knicks management boobs hell for bringing in the league's most overrated player.
Next up on the road trip: the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday at 5 p.m. our time. Though the Suns have gotten much better since they last played the Bulls, Coach Vinny Del Negro's squad is 3-0 against Phoenix since his arrival (Del Negro was assistant general manager of the Suns before he was named Bulls head coach). The 35-38 Bulls are currently just out of the playoff picture at ninth in the Eastern Conference. Chicago has won two in a row, beating bad teams: the Detroit Pistons last night and the New Jersey Nets on Saturday night.
TV for Phoenix at Chicago: My 45. Radio: KTAR 620 AM. For more information, go to www.suns.com.