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Suns Battle Old Pals Boris Diaw, Raja Bell, and Joe Johnson in Charlotte Tonight and Atlanta Sunday

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Charlotte's Boris Diaw in his strange new role: starter.

If Charlotte were Philly, the Phoenix Suns would be wise to beware of flying alkaline batteries and half-filled beer cups when they take the court against the Bobcats at Time Warner Cable Arena at 5 p.m. tonight. But North Carolina's still part of the genteel South, and that's good news for Suns head coach Terry Porter and company, 'cause our fair city has not been kind to poor, put-upon Charlotte of late. (Neither has the economy for the banking stronghold, but that's another story.)

The Arizona Cardinals handed the Carolina Panthers their first, and only, home loss of the season on January 10 when they folded, bent, spindled, and mutilated the highly favored Panthers, 33-13, in the NFC Divisional playoffs.

Exactly one month earlier, on December 10, Suns GM Steve Kerr appeared to rob his Bobcats counterpart blind by dumping the disgruntled Raja Bell, the overpaid and undermotivated Boris Diaw, and backup point guard Sean Singletary on the Bobcats in exchange for young-gun shooting guard Jason Richardson and reserve forward Jared Dudley.

Said Bobcats GM Rod Higgins at the time, "We're excited about the opportunity to add these new pieces to our team. While we're giving up two key members of our rotation, we feel like Raja, Boris, and Sean can help us improve our team."

As for us, we were excited to see these pieces go. But are we still? How looks the trade six weeks on, as the Suns and Bobcats prepare to meet for the first time this season?

Despite his 27-point road outburst against the New York Knicks on Wednesday, J-Rich certainly hasn't made a case as the missing piece of the Suns' puzzle, but he's an exciting player (love that windmill dunk). Plus, Kerr offloaded Diaw's egregious contract, and Bobcats management even tossed in a 2010 second-rounder to entice Kerr to do it. And native son Michael Jordan, the Bobcats' part-owner and Managing Member of Basketball Operations, vetted the deal. Geez, how much is the genteel Charlotte fan expected to take before he starts lobbing D cells?

Anyway, here's the deal -- or where it stands:

Jason Richardson: In 14 games with Charlotte, J-Rich averaged 18.7 points and 4.1 boards and was shooting threes at a .458 clip. In his first 16 games with the Suns, he knocked down 15 points and pulled down 4.4 rebounds a game, and his three-pointl percentage fell to .392. The swingman's shown an unsettling tendency to disappear for long stretches, and he contributed only eight points in each of the heartrending losses to the Boston Celtics on January 19 and the Minnesota Timberwolves on January 16.

Raja Bell: In 22 games with the Suns, he had 9.6 points and 2.9 rebounds, with a three-point percentage of .468. In 13 games with Charlotte, he's at 11.1 and 3.5, but his tre percentile has dropped to .392. Bell almost single-handedly beat the visiting San Antonio Spurs on January 19 with a season-high 25 points and six boards before the Spurs prevailed, 86-84.

Boris Diaw: In Phoenix, he played in 22 games with no starts, averaging 8.3 points, 3.8 boards, and a .357 three-point percentile over 24.5 minutes. With Charlotte? Eighteen games, all starts, 37.9 minutes per game, 13.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, and an unthinkable .422 three-point average.

We're forced to admit that Diaw (gulp!) has the Bobcats playing reasonably well. Since he and Bell joined the team, the lost-cause 'cats have played above-.500 ball. Still, even Carolinians (Bobcats management understandly excluded) can't deny that Charlotte screwed the pooch in the J-Rich transaction once you factor in Diaw's bloated, $9-mil-per contract, the inexplicable second-round toss-in from the Bobcats, and a position-to-position breakdown between Bell and Richardson.

Hey, don't blame us Phoenicians. Fire His Airness.


Atlanta's Joe Johnson in his strange new role: winner.

After their reunion with Diaw and Bell in Charlotte, the Suns continue old-home week on their swing through the East and the South with a game at 4 p.m. Sunday against old pal Joe Johnson and the Atlanta Hawks at Hotlanta's Philips Arena. Since the Suns and Hawks just met January 13 in the PHX, there won't be nearly the drama of seeing 3D and the Bell Ringer in weird-ass non-Suns gear, but watching Phoenix play former Sun J.J. -- especially when the Suns come out on top, as they did on the 13th, 107-102 -- is always a treat.

Johnson remains The Man in Atlanta, but there's a difference this year: The Hawks, reliably pitiful until their surprising seven-game playoff push of the Boston Celtics last year, are actually winning consistently with their guard-centric setup of JJ and point man Mike Bibby, who's averaging 16-plus points and five assists this year after coming over from Sacramento about halfway through last season.

But while J.J. and Bibby have been jelling on the perimeter, Atlanta's been challenged up the middle, as big man Al Horford has been out for an extended period with a bone bruise in his right knee. Horford's absence allowed Shaq to ring up a big game in Phoenix, scoring 26, pulling down 10 boards, and blocking three shots. Still, with or without big Al, taking one from Joe and the Hawks at home will be a tougher sell than in previous years, as Atlanta's won 16 of their 20 games thus far at Philips.

Both the Charlotte and Atlanta games will be televised on My45 (cable 9). Radio: KTAR-AM 620. For more info, see www.nba.com/suns.

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