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At the Half: Suns Weekly Checkup for 01/21/2008

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We are at the halfway point of the season, which just so happens to coincide with our regular Weekly Checkup. The Weekly Checkup was last spotted putting the mother of all jinxes on the Los Angeles Lakers. Here is what I wrote a few hours before Andrew Bynum's knee injury last Sunday:

"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."
Despite the date on that post, I really did write it last Sunday afternoon before the injury occurred. Unfortunately, I failed to check the latest NBA news before I posted it Monday morning, so it came off sounding a lot more mean-spirited than I intended. At the time I wrote it, however, it seemed like the Lakers were having the healthier season. Between Raja Bell's aching back and ankles, Steve Nash's shoulder, Grant Hill's appendix, and so on, it looked like this might be turning into one of those seasons where one niggling injury or the other would keep this team from ever really being at its best. Then, all of the sudden Raja started making shots, Shawn Marion found his three-point range, Boris Diaw returned out of nowhere, Amare Stoudemire started looking like his 2004-05 self, and Steve is playing as well as he ever has. With Grant Hill expected back on Tuesday, the Suns suddenly have the upper hand in the "H" column, and the Lakers are looking at a bleak couple of months if Thursday's performance by Kwame Brown is any indication (especially now that Trevor Ariza is injured too). Still, it's a bit early to completely count these guys out. Maybe they'll make a move before the trade deadline that puts them over the top. Maybe they'll simply band together the way the 2005-06 Suns did and rise above what they are without their up-and-coming big man. But at least on paper, it looks like the Suns have a good opportunity to separate themselves from the Pacific Division pack a little.

As for this past week, the Suns started off on a sour note, looking abysmally awful against the Clippers. From the astute observations of srp, perhaps this had something to do with Steve Nash still recovering from the stomach flu. Whether or not that was the case, the less said about this game, the better. Next up was the win over the Lakers, which will forever be asterisked by Andrew Bynum's absence (although the Suns were missing a starter of their own in Grant Hill). With Bynum expected to be out for the remaining regular season matchup as well, the Suns will have to wait until the playoffs to truly settle up with the Lakers. In the meantime, we'll always have our memories of Kwame's nightmare at the Staples Center.

The Suns closed out the week with a couple of blowouts over sub-.500 teams. First it was the Timberwolves on Friday, then the Nets last night. In both cases, the Suns won in a way fans have become accustomed to in recent seasons, and have sorely missed for the better part of this one. Perhaps the Clippers game was the last straw. Perhaps owner Robert Sarver's public declaration that he plans to keep the core together put everyone at ease. Maybe it was the injection of fresh energy by rookie D.J. Strawberry enjoying his first meaningful minutes of the season. Whatever the case, it was nice to see the Suns obliterating people again.

As they start the second half of the season, the Suns find themselves once again on top of the West standings by virture of having played more games than the other three teams (Lakers, Mavericks, and Hornets) tied at 12 in the loss column. They are on pace to win 58 games, and have the opportunity to pad their road record a bit in the coming week with a four-game trip against teams they have already beaten this season. Here's hoping the last two games are a launching point toward that consistency they've been searching for.

Some things we learned this week:

  • D.J. Strawbery is smart. In his first non-garbage time minutes of the season, he wisely chose to mostly defer to teammates on offense, and focused instead on the areas the Suns are lacking--defense and rebounding. The results didn't show up much in the boxscore, but that lineup of D.J., Leandro Barbosa, Raja Bell, Boris Diaw, and Brian Skinner played about as well at the start of the second quarter last night as I have ever seen the Suns do when Nash, Amare, and Marion are all resting on the bench.

  • Speaking of Boris Diaw, that guy who saved the 2005-06 season is still in there somewhere. Will he stick around once Grant Hill re-joins the lineup?

  • Leandro Barbosa really, really likes playing for the Suns. He was reportedly near tears when someone played a mean hoax on him in LA and left a message that he had been traded to the Knicks.

  • The Suns could be looking to make Damon Stoudamire their mid-season pickup if he is bought out by the Grizzlies. After that debacle against the Clippers, though, am I think only one thinking Sam Cassell might be a better target? If nothing else, I'd say he tops my list of point guard pickups I would least like to see playing for the Lakers or Mavericks. Then again, it sounds like Stoudamire is a lot closer to buyout territory than Cassell, so maybe there's a "bird in the hand" aspect to this.

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