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The Western Monkey Wrench

A Daily Babble Production

Let's open up today with a brief dig into the archives.  Back we go to the final days of October 2007 for an excerpt from my Western Conference preview at Taking it to the Rack:

This is your official warning to be on watch for the latest manifestation of the 2006 Indianapolis Colts-2006 St. Louis Cardinals phenomenon. Said phenomenon involves teams that have been dominant in the regular season for several years but unable to win the big one having what appears to be a less-dominant regular season than normal but finally putting it all together come playoff time. [This team] won't win [60-plus games] again this year, and this isn't a guarantee that they will win the championship either, but they will spend much of the regular season tinkering to find that hidden formula that will net them the ultimate glory. Just don't rule out the possibility of them succeeding.

With the team name and win total removed, it likely isn't quite so obvious that this passage was originally written about those lovable defending first-round flunkies, the Dallas Mavericks.  Chances are that given the way the last couple of weeks have played out or the Mavs, I should be spending this column urging you to heed my words.  The team went through periods of looking thoroughly unimpressive and even briefly threatened to miss the playoffs.  Its best player got hurt but only after his heart and internal make-up had come under fire once more.  And then everything started breaking right.  The Mavs have started winning the games they need to win, and Dirk Nowitzki has been playing and acting like the leader of a great team.  With wins in five of six, the Mavs appear to be peaking at just the right time and could be a dangerous first-round opponent for one of the West's top seeds come next week.

Seems on the surface like the rare prediction for me to feel good about.

But, while I have come too far with the '06 phenomenon pick to completely jump ship now, I'm not buying all the way.  That would be because there is a team out West who might be even more qualified for this distinction than the Mavs are.   Because something is brewing in the Valley of the Sun.

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It's incredible to think that we're barely two months removed from Steve Kerr being largely slammed as the great general managerial goat across this country thanks to his decision to move Shawn Marion to the Miami Heat in order to get Shaquille O'Neal.

It's even more incredible to think that two months later, just as Kerr predicted, the Phoenix Suns are about to roll into the postseason with what may well be their most playoff-ready team of the decade.  Given that the Suns have gone to the Western Conference Finals twice in the last three years and lost to eventual champion San Antonio in the conference semis last year, this isn't a particularly easy feat to achieve.

But amidst all the doubting (some of which was certainly done by yours truly; I'm not excusing myself here), the Phoenix Suns could chug on into the playoffs as one of the most dangerous sixth seeds of all time.

Yep, the Suns have certainly gone through their share of trials and tribulations this season.  They spent the early portion of the year trying to figure out Shawn Marion's commitment level.  They focused on not over-working two-time MVP Steve Nash so that he could actually be ready for the playoff run.  They worried about how they were going to fix the interior flaws of a team that had lost given away its most valuable piece toward correcting those flaws in Kurt Thomas.

Then came the Shaq trade and the ensuing negativity.  It didn't help that the O'Neal sat out injured to begin his tenure as a Sun, and in the first month of the Aristotelian Era in Phoenix, the Suns went just 6-8.  Some of the losses came as a result of being shorthanded, some because Mike D'Antoni was still figuring out how to utilize all the parts on his newly made over roster.  To us pundits, it didn't matter.  The Suns were floundering, just as predicted.  Case closed.

Or not. 

Come Sunday, March 9, all that business from above would begin to go out the window.  That would be the day the Suns won the type of ball game that the Suns just don't win.  Generally not in the regular season, and certainly not in the playoffs.  The Spurs came into town, and the black and silver let the Suns hang around for most of three and a half quarters before beginning to pull away.  It was a script Suns fans had seen play out too many times before, albeit usually with a whole lot more hanging on the line.

And then something unusual happened.  The Spurs crumbled.  They scored just two points in the game's final five minutes and eleven seconds.  Tim Duncan missed two lay-ups.   Manu Ginobili missed bunnies and turned the ball over.  The Suns got stops, knocked down big shots and splashed their freebies.  When it was all over, the home crowd was standing and raucously applauding as the Suns turned an 85-80 deficit into a 94-87 victory over their long-time nemeses from the San Antone.

What that game means in the big picture for the Suns and Spurs remains to be seen.  But it can be said with certainty that it marked a turning point for the Suns.  The victory over the Spurs sparked a seven-game winning streak for the Suns and was the start of their current 13-5 run overall.

But it isn't just the record.  Over that stretch, all the pieces have finally started to fall into place for this team.  O'Neal has embraced his new role as the Big Cactus, and his play has only gotten better with each passing month in Phoenix.  He is averaging 12.7 points and 10.5 boards to go with a ridiculous 61.1 shooting percentage as a Sun, but more importantly than the individual production, he is providing the interior defense the Suns have long lacked on defense, and he is forcing opponents to pay attention to him on offense. 

Nowhere has this been better illustrated than with regard to the explosion of Amare Stoudemire.  Back in the saddle at his native power forward spot, STAT averaged upwards of 29 points per game in February and March and has shot 60 percent from the field en route to 27.7 per game thus far in April.  He has had free rein to dominant both in the paint and from mid-range, and with Shaq diverting attention, Stoudemire has gone from very good to one of the game's most dangerous offensive players.  His defensive effort and intensity have picked up as well, and he no longer needs to be the man so far as providing a defensive presence in the post is concerned.

The point guard continues to be his usual Nashty self (he shot 56.3 percent from the three-point line in March before cooling considerably in April).  The bench is deeper than ever, with Leandro Barbosa (when are we officially going to nickname this guy Leo once and for all?), Boris Diaw, Gordan Giricek and Brian Skinner all primed to play key reserve roles come playoff time.

The Suns can put Barbosa in the game and go full speed ahead.  They can shut down opponents with more efficacy than ever before with Shaq clogging up the lane.  They can do pretty well running with Shaq, too, seeing as they have ascended to first in the league in offensive efficiency since his arrival.  They can score in just about every way possible on the outside and inside.

Those are the words that matter: They can.

They can get through these Western Conference playoffs if they play their cards right.

They are more dangerous than ever before.

So look out, Western Conference foes and fans.  This year's '06 phenomenon team may just be coming to knock at your doorstep next. 


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