As I was watching the Suns play the 76ers last night, I found myself at one point a little bit jealous of 76er fans. Their team had come into the USAC with their "A" game in tow, faced down the giants, and worked so hard to earn a victory that it seemed like something in the cosmic fabric of decency would be offended if they came up short. Watching them play, you had the feeling they would be absolutely crushed (or at least good and mad) if they didn't hang on to win--and positively elated if they did. I imagine that for 76er fans, this game was pure joy to watch, not just for the "W" in the boxscore, but also for the passion and exuberance on the faces of the players. You know, kind of like watching the Suns used to be not so long ago.
These days--and this dates back to some degree even before the trade--the Suns look like they're just biding their time for the playoffs to start. On one hand, they are trying to work in a major change to their lineup. The focus is clearly on completing this task by May, not worrying about the daily grind. The problem is, you have to actually win in the regular season or all that post-season planning won't matter. You also have to practice locating your "A" game switch now, so when the time comes, you'll know right where to find it. The West is way too tough to be acting like these games don't count. It's time for the Suns to start playing like underdogs, because compared to the other Western Conference contenders, it's looking more and more each day like that's what they are.
Losing Shawn Marion predictably blew open a big hole in the defense, and I'm not sure the Suns have the personnel to fix it this season. But they could start by playing with the kind of intensity they showed in the pre-Shaq games following the trade. In those games, they knew they were short-handed and played accordingly. Did it always work? No. In fact, it only worked three of the five times they played between Marion's departure and Shaq's debut. But the losses were both by two points, and one was in double-overtime. Now, tell me Shaq (however ill-fitting he might be) wouldn't have been good for two points? The problem is, with Shaq on the floor, the Suns seem to think they don't need to play scrappy on defense. Well, they do. They showed they can in that game against Boston when they held the team with the league's best record to a mere 77 points. Credit some of it to Kevin Garnett's rustiness, and bad shooting by the Celtics in general, but we also had Shaq diving for loose balls, Amare getting in KG's face, and the Suns taking a lot of pride in winning "ugly". Yet, it seemed like once they proved to themselves they could do it, they just switched it off and stashed it away in the closet to be pulled out again in May.
But it isn't just the defense that is suffering. The Suns simply look rudderless at times, like they desperately need somebody to get angry, step up, and take command. So, here's where I'm going to flip-flop a little and say I think it all starts with Steve Nash. I've been saying since the trade that Nash is no longer as important to the team as he was before. On paper, the Suns are set up to be a traditional "throw it into the post" team that can run the offense through their big guys, and Amare is now "the man". But you know what? Scrap that. Maybe that will (and should?) be the plan for next season when the Suns will have a full training camp and preseason to work with, but for now, I think it's time for Nash to dust off his MVP hat, put this team on his possibly-aching back, and lead the Suns into the post-season one more time.
I say "possibly-aching", because Nash has really not looked like himself lately. Too many turnovers, too many missed shots, too many mistakes in general. I keep expecting any day now to see an article in the Arizona Republic that he's nursing an aching back, shoulder, hamstring or other major body part. He's looked a lot like he did in that series against the Clippers back in 2006--like something is very, very wrong. Yet, last night between a few of those late-game gaffes that doomed the Suns' comeback attempt, there were a couple of signs that "MVP Nash" is still in there somewhere. He had two big gutsy three-pointers and an assist to Amare in the span of 19 seconds. If you go back to just before that sequence, he also used his veteran craftiness to get himself fouled at the three-point line, then sank all three free throws. That's nine straight points and an assist in about 45 seconds of game time. That's amazing, even when your competition is a 26-33 Eastern Conference team you should be hammering. It's also infectious. It's the kind of thing that spills over to your teammates and makes them believe they can beat anyone no matter how hopeless it seems. That's what we're going to need more of if the Suns are going to make a legitimate run at the championship this year.
I know saying Nash is the key is kind of a contradiction to what it appears the Suns need most. The Suns are struggling on defense above all else, and Nash is arguably the biggest reason why. And then there's the very real possibility that he's simply too physically worn down or injured, although nothing has been said in the media about that. However, Nash has made a career out of overcoming his weaknesses by ramming his strengths down the other team's throat to the point those weaknesses no longer matter. That's the kind of mindset that the Suns need as a team right now. They need to find that one thing they do better than anyone else in the league, and start using it to crush people again. They need to play resilient, relentless "underdog ball" like they did in 2006. They need to step on the floor each night with guns ablaze and an attitude that says "it's us against the world". There's nobody in the league better at that than Nash.