By Scoop Jackson
Page 2

OK, you'd ask the same question I did: What's the problem with the Phoenix Suns?

What's the deal? What's wrong? What happened?

Like Bernie Mac would say, "What's goings on???"

It seems like Jekyll and Hyde, the Britney and K-Fed, for the Phoenix Suns from last year to this year … damn.

2-5?

All the losses have come after having substantial leads in games: a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter over the Spurs, 15-point lead in the third over the Jazz, 19-point lead in the first over the Lakers -- without Kobe.

Steve Nash
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Even the two-time MVP has been unable to rescue the Suns from their slow start.

The Suns were supposed to run the table, run shot over everyone and lift the Larry O'Brien at the end -- the trophy that some felt they were supposed to lift this past June had they gotten past Dallas.

We all picked them. All of us.

"The lesson has been learned: I will never again pick against Mike D'Antoni during the regular season." -- from Slam.

"Phoenix isn't just the fun team; it's the team everybody wants to be." -- from Hoop.

"They're like the Colts of the NBA." -- from Simmons.

"70 wins and ball in June are the future." -- from me.

NBA Finals: Suns over Heat. -- from Sports Illustrated.

The oddsmakers in Vegas had the over/under for the Suns' wins this year at 55. Amare back, Boris with a new contract, Kurt establishing a post presence and a legit defender. Basketball fans were amped to see the next greatest show on Earth, a circus without clowns. They were going to save the NBA.

Then this.

This. Losing leads and losing games. Losing to teams in the Western Conference that came into the season fearing them. This being next-to-last in the Pacific?!?

They beat the Grizzlies the other night (their schedule is much more favorable over the next five games: Philly, Utah (again), G. State, Nola, Jersey), but so what. No disrespect to Memphis (1-5 this season), but let's be real: How long before they are considered NBA elite? They are the one team sitting below the Suns in the West. They're record is a surprise, but … PHX has been there, on top, the crop's cream, for the last three years. Lounging on the verge of greatness. Now …

Is it this serious? Is this just an aberration or an indication?

"It should have been a playoff game for us," coach D'Antoni screamed like Dennis Green after the loss to the Mavs. "It was for them but not for us and it should have been, which is inexcusable. We're going to figure out what is wrong and we are going to fix it.

"We're done messing around and we're going to play guys that are going to play hard."

Amare Stoudemire
AP Photo/Paul Connors
The Suns have had trouble getting Stoudemire into the offensive flow.

(He also said, beautifully: "We're as soft as freakin' cupcakes" and "we haven't gotten an offensive rebound since 1998.")

And as nice as it is to hear a coach rage against his machine, in this case, it still doesn't answer the question of what is really wrong.

So, what is wrong?

• Amare Stoudemire, until Saturday against Memphis when he had 25 points and 14 boards, has been an adjustment for the team to get used to -- in his final game in 2005, he gave them 42 and 16; this year, he's averaging 12.1 and 5.6. They can't find a flow when he's in the game, and he can't find his flow either.

• Boris Diaw got paid. Simple as that. He got the contract and is playing like he isn't hungry no more because he cleared the buffet.

• Steve Nash is not 100 percent. The Suns are not officially saying anything, but Steve's mythical powers didn't leave with his haircut.

• Raja Bell and Leandro Barbosa are caught up; they think they are stars and have gotten as shot happy as John Starks. They have forgotten that on any other team in the NBA, they'd be All-Stars, but they aren't on any other team. They need reminders of who they really are.

• Because everyone is back and there are no injuries that have people off the roster, D'Antoni has yet to establish roles for each player on the team and has yet to establish a solid rotation for minutes. No one has any idea of when he is going to play in games and what his role in each game will be.

• There is no chemistry.

• Collectively, they are playing without pride.

They've given up 100 points in all five losses, they are 30th (last) in the L in defense, allowing over 108 ppg, while their point production hovers around 106 -- two points lower than last year on offense, six more allowed on D.

No pride.

But maybe it's bigger than that. Maybe when you finally break it on down, it ain't the pride. Maybe it's fate. The fate of teams which excel one year (or two). Maybe the Phoenix Suns are not alone, maybe this should have been predicted.

The Steelers, Super Bowl champs, are 3-6; the White Sox, 2005 World Series champs, no playoff appearance in 2006; the Houston Astros, 2005 World Series runner-up, no playoff appearance in 2006; the Dallas Mavericks, NBA Finals runner-up, 1-5; the Miami Heat, NBA champs, .500 so far.

There's an air of mediocrity that seems to follow teams the season after supremacy, a trend of elite sports teams falling into subparness.

Or am I reaching?

Even so, of all those teams, the Suns are the one to panic over. Because they, unlike the others, seemed destined for destiny: the perfect mixture of youth and veteranship, superstarism and role players, fast break and half court, offense and offense (no defense). The future of the NBA.

If the Suns were a woman: Paula Patton. But so far, this season, they are America Ferrera -- in character.

Basketball translation: the West's version of the Knicks … with a worse record.

Boris Diaw
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
Something you haven't seen much from the Suns and Boris Diaw this season: tough D.

If you talk to some people in Phoenician land, they don't seem worried, but you can hear it in their voices. Still reeling off that loss to the Bears, the city needs the Suns to be the Suns before they find that big rope and go on top of a mountain in Scottsdale and jump.

And no one wants to disrupt Charles Barkley's (after)life like that.

So what's going to save the Suns? Better yet, who?

Not trying to put too much on Shawn Marion, but he's the key, the reason, the answer.

When all is said and done with the Suns, their fate is not in his hands and skills as much as it is in his soul. Nash is the team's leader and best player, but he's not that certain person they need to get them out of this situation, this "slump," through this early phase of indecent exposure that every team they've lost to so far will use against them in the playoffs.

Much like Mario Elie gave the Spurs a soul when they won ring one in 1999. The Matrix is Morpheus in this revolution. But just like the movie series, questions are (and might remain) left unanswered.

They say "soul" is the ability to make others feel better about who they are. A nomadic sense of being. This is what the Suns are missing, someone who holds their soul in check and gives them a sense of being. Steve Nash for the past two years has been the heart of the team; he makes the chamber beat. But now they need a soul.

Someone who will not allow a team this good, this talented, this deep, to go 1-5, to lose the games they've lost. Someone with that "killer" in them. Not just someone who will put the knife in another team's back, as one Suns rep says (Nash gets that credit), but someone who twists the knife then pulls it out. That person is missing.

Because at this point, nothing else makes sense. The losses, the blown leads, the apathy. Nothing that the Suns have and have done on paper makes their .286 record to start the season make sense. Making me look like a damn fool.

As someone inside the organization said after the Mavericks loss: "Some guys may not be in good enough shape yet; other guys may not be giving enough effort or playing with that passion."

Or pride.

So what do they do? What do the PHX Suns have to do to not just win games, get above .500, get back the division, but win the faith and make believers back out of the people that be leaving them?

As my cousin Brian, who lives in Phoenix, said when he heard I was writing this column, "The Suns are just out of whack right now. They'll be fine." Yeah, but there's a difference between being out of whack and being straight wack.

Scoop Jackson is a national columnist for Page 2 and a contributor to ESPN The Magazine. He appears regularly on "Quite Frankly" and other ESPN shows. He resides in Chicago. Sound off to Scoop and Page 2 here.




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TROUBLE IN PHX