Pivot Points: The Phoenix Suns' Blazing Start Was A Desert Mirage

Hadarii JonesSenior Writer IDecember 8, 2009

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 06: Steve Nash (R) and Amar'e Stoudamire of the Phoenix Suns follow the action from the bench during the NBA basketball game against Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on December 6, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

I love the old cartoons where the characters are stuck in the desert and are desperately trying to make it to the oasis in the distance, only to find that once they complete their journey there is nothing there but endless sand.

It reminds me of the plight of the Phoenix Suns who appeared headed for a dream season. At one point they were at the pinnacle of the NBA; now they find themselves crashing back down to earth on the wrong side of reality.

The elusive respect the Suns were seeking proved to be a desert mirage. In the space of one week as the Suns went from a league leading 14-3 record to 1-3 in their next four games, including a blowout loss to the lowly New York Knicks.

So what happened to the seemingly mighty Suns, and is there any way that they can stop the freefall they are now entangled in?

The answer is probably not comforting for Phoenix and their fans, because this spiral was bound to happen sooner or later; the very essence of the team is fundamentally flawed.

The Suns were able to spurt to their quick start by hiding their weaknesses in a blur of orange and purple, but when forced to slow down, their shortcomings were exposed for all to see.

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Their lack of interior strength has been present all season but the Suns were able to succeed due to the athleticism and quickness of primary post players Amare Stoudemire and Channing Frye.

Although Stoudemire is a beast, his offensive range is limited and he plays much better when facing the basket as opposed to posting up. He is forced into bad shots by good defenders, with the ability to take away his dribble.

Frye on the other hand seems to be much more comfortable on the perimeter and would rather hoist three-pointers than mix it up underneath the basket.

This can cause mismatches in some situations as his thin frame makes him a poor defender against some of the bigger and stronger players he is sometimes matched up with.

It's not like Frye and Stoudemire are well-versed in the art of man-to-man defense anyway, as both are prone to bad footwork, bad position, and horrible timing which often finds them unable to make any type of play on the defensive end.

The horrible performance on defense is not limited to Frye and Stoudemire; the whole Phoenix team could use a primer on the basic principles of man-to-man defense.

The only player on the Suns' team that shows any defensive acumen is forward Grant Hill, and injuries have robbed him of most of his agility and quickness as the weight of time has pressed on.

The Suns have the athleticism to be a decent defensive team, but seem to show no desire whatsoever to improve in that area. The one part of their game that has been reliable is now showing holes.

The Suns' ability to push the ball down an opponent's throat has been their bread and butter, and is the reason they rank among the league leaders in scoring average.

But as the Knicks have shown, a little defense can go a long way.

It's not like New York made a sustained effort to shut the Suns down; they just played well enough to provide some resistance, and the Suns' inability to defend any position on the court took care of the rest.

The Los Angeles Lakers did make a concerted effort to slow down the Suns and the results were staggering.

The Lakers managed to hold the Suns to 88 points, their lowest output this season, and forced point guard Steve Nash to finally begin to show his age.

The Lakers' attention to the Suns' transition game forced Nash to slow his pace, and when being defended by Kobe Bryant, Nash often looked confused and showed a lack of focus.

This permeated through the rest of the team, which was unable to establish any continuity without the guidance of their frazzled captain. The game quickly turned into a rout and Phoenix found themselves three games behind the Lakers in the Pacific division.

So what direction do the Suns take now? Nash admitted that they were tired and unprepared to play the Lakers, but their lack of competitive fire is inexcusable, and improvement on the defensive end is a must.

The Suns have spent a large portion of their time on the road, and a return to the friendly confines of their home arena is sure to give them a much-needed boost of energy.

There are some things that home can't fix, and one of them is their lack of tough interior players. I don't know if upper management has been hesitant to make a deal, but if this last week is any indication that hesitation should be in the past.

The Suns may be able to get by with a semblance of defense, but their weakness in the middle will be their swan song if it's not addressed, especially with the quantity of talented big men in the West.

I'm not sure if the Suns will be able to rise to meet the dearth of challenges they face. Every game seems to bring a disappearing act to their promising start as it continues to evaporate like a desert mirage.

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