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Crowded at the Top: Suns Weekly Checkup for 01/13/2008

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[Editor's Note: What a mess. First, when I originally posted this yesterday afternoon, I had the Suns on top in the West standings, when in fact, they're actually tied with the Mavericks and would be considered #2 if the head-to-head records are considered. Then, after I had re-written the affected parts and re-posted it this morning, I found out about Andrew Bynum's injury. I am not updating this again. I'll deal with this news in next week's Checkup. For now, sorry (again) for the confusion.]

It's time for another Weekly Checkup. Last week, the focus was on pessimism fueled by the Suns' less-than-stellar showing against fellow Western Conference playoff teams. This week, the Suns logged three wins, including a statement-making demolishing of one of those Western Conference playoff teams, and one heavily-asterisked loss. They lost Grant Hill for a couple of weeks, but seem to have found Boris Diaw, at least for one game. The Spurs stubbed their toes a little, and the Mavericks took advantage, while the Lakers remained steady. The result is a four-way tie at the top in the loss column, with the Mavericks holding the lead by virtue of their December win over the Suns. It's getting mighty crowded up here. The good news is that the Suns are hanging right there at the top of the standings, and have a home-friendly schedule coming up. The bad news is that it's looking like the Suns will have a fight on their hands just to win their own division.

We've been waiting all season for the Lakers to come unraveled, for Kobe Bryant to start chucking up 30 shots a game while throwing his teammates under the bus, and for Andrew Bynum to come back to earth. So far, it's just not happening. The Lakers have yet to lose in January. The Suns have an opportunity to change that on Thursday, and should they fail to do so, the Lakers will own the tiebreaker if the two teams end up with the same record at the end of the season. Right now, as much as I hate to admit it, the Lakers show no signs that their success has been a fluke. They are winning both at home and on the road. They have beaten the Suns twice in pretty convincing fashion. Against West teams that would make the playoffs if the playoffs started today, the Lakers are 7-3, so they've not only played more such games than the Suns (2-6) have, they've had much more success in doing so. They do have some tough scheduling coming up, with road games against the Spurs, Mavericks, and the Pistons this month, in addition to home games against the Suns and Nuggets. Plus, they're spending nearly the entire month of February on the road, including a nine game road trip. In other words, if they're going to slip up, now is probably the time. However, at the moment, I'm thinking the battle for the Pacific may come down to whichever team stays healthiest, and given how the season has gone so far, that doesn't seem to favor the Suns. (Now, watch the Suns pound these guys by 30 on Thursday, making everything I've just written sound silly).

It isn't just the Lakers that stand in the way of the Suns ending the season on top, though. The Spurs continue to be right there, and the Mavericks, in case you haven't noticed, are back. The Mavericks are riding a seven-game winning streak. Their win over the Clippers Saturday night was reminiscent of last year's 67-win season, you know, when you'd be watching the boxscore thinking "these guys may actually lose one!", only to see them come back and win anyway at the last minute. They also seem to have finally conquered their Golden State kryptonite, which is something the Suns are still looking to do this season. As for the Spurs, they could probably finish the season with the fourth-best record and still be considered the favorites to make the Finals by most of the national media. Of the current "big four" in the West, the Spurs have had the roughest time of it lately, especially on the road. But they'll get a chance to work on that over the next two months with 13 of their next 21 games away from home. Like the Lakers, the Spurs have a nine game road trip in February. The Mavericks are also looking at a road-heavy schedule in January and February. This is one big advantage the Suns have working in their favor. The Suns got a lot of their road work out of the way in December, so they will be playing 12 of their next 21 games at home.

Competition has been tough out west for a while now, but this season it has gone to a whole new level. With top Western Conference teams matching up against each other all the way through April, something tells me the battle for the #1 seed will go all the way down to the wire. Right now, only five games separate the first and eighth teams in the West. Were eighth place Golden State playing in the East, they'd be in the top four with a first-round home court advantage if the playoffs started today. That's just crazy!

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