We never thought we'd be saying this, but the Phoenix Suns won the last two games against tough Western Conference foes with solid D, and now find themselves on a 6-game winning streak.
Of course, this offsets the 6-game losing streak the team endured immediately preceding, but let's not talk about that now.
Let's talk about the 10 steals the Suns finagled in their 118-114 victory over the Utah Jazz Wednesday night, the same number they pinched in their 118-115 win over the Denver Nuggets Monday night. And the 12 blocked shots against the Jazz, including a spectacular slap-away late in the game by "Lightening" Lou Amundson of a Carlos Boozer dunk attempt.
And these were against teams who're definitely headed to the playoffs. Utah's currently tied for sixth place in the Western Conference (with Phoenix's opponent tonight, the Portland Trail Blazers) and Denver's in fourth.
Did we mention that Dallas beat Golden State Wednesday night and is still in the eighth and final playoff spot in the West, three games ahead of the Suns.
So the Suns making the playoffs still looks bleak, except that the team's playing better than they have all season. They're playing consistent team basketball for the first time in memory, and we're talking about the whole team getting into the action big-time.
Seven Suns players were in double figures against Utah, with Grant Hill winning our player-of-the-game award for the second straight contest with 26 points (to lead all scorers), 5 rebounds, 2 steals, and 2 blocked shots. The 36-year-old hasn't looked this good since his pre-serious-injury days with the Detroit Pistons, when was touted as the next Michael Jordan.
Well, he certainly hasn't been hurt this season; he's the only Suns player to appear in every game. Hill came up big in the clutch against Utah with a 12-foot jump shot in the closing seconds that put the Suns up to stay.
After that, Phoenix held on defense, and Utah fouled Steve Nash. But the Jazz had a foul to give, and the Suns inbounded. Nash, one of the league's best free-throwers, was double-covered and the ball went to Matt Barnes, who'd been struggling on offense lately but already had 19 points in this game.
US Airways center was tomb-quiet as Barnes, who'd missed 6 of 12 foul shots at this point in the game, went to the line. He bounced the ball twice and shot. Swish. Twice again and shot. Swish. Phoenix was up by four with five seconds left.
The Suns smothered the Jazz on defense, and (shazam!) the game was over.
We can't say enough about interim coach Alvin Gentry's basketball savvy. In his short tenure (he took over for fired head coach Terry Porter after the All-Star break), Gentry's developed a very reliable bench. These guys can not only keep the Suns in the game, they can mount a lead.
Remember the old days under Mike D'Antoni when we grimaced as some rusty back-of-the-bencher went in because too many of the front seven were in foul trouble or injured? It wasn't much better under Porter, who used more bench players than D'Antoni but couldn't get much going.
It may be too little, too late this year, but the emergence of backups like point guard Goran "the Dragon" Gragic, forward Jared Dudley, newly acquired forward-center Stromile Swift, and -- most importantly -- forward Lou Amundson has been a joy to watch.
The bench accounted for 26 points and 11 of the team's 46 rebounds in 18 minutes or less against Utah. Amundson had 10 of those points and Dragic had 11, including two clutch three-pointers, but Amundson's defensive hustle (2 blocked shots, 2 steals, and several near steals; the guy gets a hand on lots of balls), plus Dragic's vastly improved passing and ball-handling, gave the Suns the edge over the Jazz.
Swift, acquired after Amar'e Stoudemire went out for the season with an eye injury, only played eight minutes, but he had 4 points, 2 rebounds, and 1 block at a time when Phoenix needed a momentum boost.
But enough about the Suns' bench. Nash was solid, as usual. Though he only scored 12 points, he dished out 14 assists to surpass Maurice Cheeks for ninth on the NBA's all-time list, with 7,398.
Shaquille O'Neal was double- and triple-teamed all night and wound up with 12 points, but he had 5 impressive assists, 3 blocked shots, and pulled down 12 rebounds. Jason Richardson had another good game: 21 points, including 3 three-pointers.
We thought for awhile that phenominal Utah point guard Deron Williams would will his team to victory with his speedy moves past Nash to the basket, his laser passes, and his crack three-point shots (he had 10 assists and 25 points, including three from the outside), but it wasn't to be.
Phoenix improved to 30-31 with the win over the 44-27 Jazz.
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It'll be interesting to see if the Suns can keep the momentum going in a back-to-back tonight at Portland (tip-off's at 7:30 p.m. TV: TNT, My45. Radio: Sports 620 KTAR).
The Trail Blazers have had two days' rest since they lost to Philadelphia 114-108 Monday night. They've won 6 of their last 10, and are powered by All-Star guard Brandon Roy, who averages 23 points a game. You may remember that Roy torched the Suns for 52 points when the teams met on December 19.
But that was in an era before Phoenix played team basketball, when a disrespected coach was at the helm. If the Suns win again tonight after the hard-fought Utah game, we may start to believe they've got the heart to overtake Dallas and make the playoffs.
What's amazing is that they're playing their best basketball of the season missing two stars, Stoudemire and sixth-man Leandro Barbosa. The Brazilian Blur, out during the last three wins with a brused bone in his left knee, is expected to return before the end of the regular schedule.