Only those Phoenix Suns fans who dress themselves up in purple costumes from the company store in the America West Arena remain true believers.
Success has turned the Suns into a complacent, overconfident group of fat cats who think it is only necessary for the ball to be rolled onto the floor for them to win. They have come from behind too many times. Everything has been too easy. But they've become targets now. Unfortunately, they may no longer have the mental toughness to stand up to the challenge. It was something they had early in the season. They had desire, too. But the Suns seem jaded now. They've had too much success too early. This year's Suns' team may never actually have been good enough to unseat the Chicago Bulls. Maybe it can't beat any of the other contending teams in the NBA's Eastern Conference, either. The only way the Suns can win is to play with rage. They must do it with heart, plus a big night from Charles Barkley and three-point shots from Dan Majerle and Danny Ainge. But none of these ingredients was present last weekend against the New Jersey Nets. In a pivotal game, the Nets exposed all the Suns' weaknesses at once. Chuck Daly's Nets humiliated them. The Suns were a soft, wimpish bunch that seemed to quit much too early. It was a night that you wanted the gorilla to go away because there was nothing to feel good about. And if they didn't quit, certainly Coach Whataburger threw the towel over the ringside ropes for them by yanking Charles Barkley, Dan Majerle and Kevin Johnson.
What was Coach Whataburger thinking about? This was one of the crucial home games of the season with 19,023 fans jammed into the seats. And here his three most important players, with a combined income of $5 million a year, were riding the bench during the second half. "It was our ugliest game of the year," Coach Whataburger said later. Even so, he did not exhibit any anger. He prides himself on being nonchalant and low-key. No one bothered to contradict him. But it was by far his ugliest coaching job, too.
The loss to the Nets was the kind that sent the fans streaming into the night air even before three quarters had been played. The Nets smothered and constricted Charles Barkley. They also destroyed the myth that Dan Majerle is the best defender in the league. Kevin Johnson was run ragged by a Nets benchwarmer who was only in the game because the regular point guard was injured. Early in the second half, with the Suns trailing by 31 points, Whataburger removed Barkley and KJ at the same time. It seemed a symbolic gesture. Whataburger was telling the crowd he had quit on the Suns for the night. He sent the bench into the game.
Barkley, a forlorn figure, trudged to the end of the bench. He sat with a towel wrapped around his shoulders. A camera focused on Barkley's face and beamed it to the huge television monitors above the playing floor. His pained expression told the story to everyone in the stands.
All season long, Barkley has been playing perilously close to the full 48 minutes. On this night, Whataburger sat him down after 27 minutes. Majerle also played only 27 minutes. KJ played 26. Ainge played 17. Mark West played 13. What message was Whataburger trying to send? You could write a thousand words about why the Suns lost to Daly's Nets, but a few things tell you what you need to know.
In the first period, Drazen Petrovic made seven of nine shots from outside. Majerle was guarding him.
Also in the first period, Derrick Coleman, six-foot-ten and supposedly a head case, made six of nine shots and scored 14 points while dominating the backboards. Barkley was trying to guard him despite a six-inch height disadvantage. Not only did Coleman push Barkley around, but he also set the key picks on Majerle for Petrovic's open shots.
Rumeal Robinson, playing because Kenny Anderson is out for the season with a broken wrist, scored 23 points and dished off ten assists. It was KJ who was guarding Robinson.
There is only one way to deal with a team as determined as the Nets were. You must establish a defensive posture so ironhanded and ruthless that the opposition realizes it is at war. The Suns were not dedicated or resolute enough for that.
Isiah Thomas, who will be here Friday night with the Detroit Pistons, two-time champions before losing to the Bulls, said it best:
"There's a formula for success in the NBA. It can't be created by your marketing team. It has to be created by your players. We didn't win by accident. A fan could care less whether he wore a Detroit Pistons cap. It didn't mean anything to him."
Phoenix is loaded with wonderfully naive fans who love autographs and wear Suns hats and shirts and jackets and even pants and shoes and who love to stand in line outside Dan Majerle's restaurant.
But none of those demonstrations of good will on the part of the fans can stop people like Petrovic and Coleman when they turn fierce. They won't affect Portland, Houston, Seattle, San Antonio, the Knicks and the Bulls.
From this point in the season on--with 22 games to play--a doubt will accompany the Suns whenever they take the floor against a good team. They must come prepared to pay a terrible price to win from here on.
Barkley has said all along that as a team, the Suns are too small. He needs all the help he can get under the boards. Despite his announced height of six-foot-six, he is perhaps a shade over six-foot-four. That's incredibly small for a post-up player who rebounds against seven-footers. Barkley is actually shorter than Michael Jordan, who gets most of his points outside. This makes Whataburger's handling of big Mark West incomprehensible. West is the one strong and experienced big man the Suns have to offer. This is the real reason Oliver Miller has been treated as delicately as if he were the Faberg diamond. The Suns desperately need big men.
Coach Whataburger may not like the fact that West often exhibits stone hands when thrown quick passes. Nevertheless, if the Suns are going to win, West must be on the floor more than the 13 minutes he played against New Jersey.
The eyes of the entire NBA remain focused on the Suns. Despite their troubles with Eastern teams, they still have the best record. They have many offensive tools. They have exhibited no defense, something that comes from mental toughness.
Even Isiah Thomas realizes that it's Barkley now, and not Jordan, who is in the eye of the hurricane this season.
"Is Barkley going through the same thing that I and Jordan went through to get to the next level?" Thomas asks.
Then he winks and says: "Yeah, he sure is."
Barkley was right to blame himself for the Suns' collapse against the Nets. He was never really in the game. It was one of those nights when he appeared to be triple-teamed and nobody else seemed capable of stepping up to take charge.
Barkley played on the Olympic Dream Team last summer for Daly. He probably wanted to have a good night against his onetime coach. But Daly outsmarted him. Or is it more accurate to say he outsmarted Whataburger?
One day at the Olympics, Daly was asked about Charles.
"I always thought he was one of the five best players in the world," Daly said. "Now, after watching him regularly, my rating of him has gone up several notches."
Barkley is that good.
But one wonders about Whataburger, the rookie coach. How will he react in big games with the heat turned to maximum level? Suns announcer Al McCoy keeps saying the coach looks good dressed up in those clothes from Alexander Julian. Well, perhaps it's time for a first-rate clothier. Against the Nets, he only looked petulant.