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The Mavs are flying high after their eighth win in nine games, while the Suns have lost four straight.
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Tim Duncan did more than just score and rebound, tallying seven assists and five blocked shots.
DALLAS -- The Phoenix Suns naturally hated all those questions, inevitably posed in a skeptical tone, about their ability to adjust to a new coach with a radically different philosophy and keep the proverbial championship window propped open.
That was October.
Not even two months later, Phoenix has to miss all that window talk.
Those kinds of questions are delicious softballs compared to the hard realities suddenly confronting coach Terry Porter and his Suns, whose daily routine these days drags them in front of pesky reporters who can't stop asking why the team formerly known as the new millennium's great entertainers looks so flat and unhappy. It happened again Thursday night when the Dallas Mavericks -- who are supposed to be right there with the Suns on the West's list of declining properties -- uncorked a complete game at home for the first time this season under their own new coach, inflicting a nationally televised 112-97 pounding of Phoenix.
Used to be that any Phoenix-Dallas hookup was must-see viewing, even in the regular season. The Suns' fourth successive defeat and fifth in a row on national TV certainly didn't meet that standard, with Steve Nash conceding afterward that last season "feels like six years ago."
Translation: Phoenix's transition from Mike D'Antoni to Porter isn't getting any smoother, with one-fourth of the schedule already gone. And...
Unfair as it might be to judge the Suns (11-9) on the second night of a difficult back-to-back -- especially with Nash recovering from a stomach flu that drained seven pounds off his slight frame this week and with Shaquille O'Neal nursing a sore knee after neither played Wednesday in New Orleans -- they pretty much lost the right to toss out alibis by playing with so little passion.
"Right now, we're in a dark place," Nash said, after he initially slammed the Suns as a team that "didn't play hard enough" ... and not for the first time this season.
"Maybe we've gotten too down on ourselves," Nash continued. "We need to find a fighting spirit. ... I think that's what we're lacking right now. We get out there, things don't go our way and we drop our heads a little bit.
"We've lost a little bit of belief and we need to get that back."
Pretty alarming stuff, you'd have to say, from the leader of a team that has played only 20 games. There is no shortage of leaguewide skepticism about the Mavericks' ability to keep their own window of contention ajar after surrendering Devin Harris to acquire Jason Kidd last February and hiring Rick Carlisle to replace Avery Johnson, but at least they've gamely scrapped their way out of the worst start (2-7) seen in Big D since Nash and Dirk Nowitzki went 1-8 as they were just getting to know each other in the lockout-shortened 1999 season. Although it's true that the Mavs (10-8) have only three wins over winning teams in this 8-1 rebound, they've also played seven of those games without Josh Howard, losing only to the Los Angeles Lakers on the road in that span.
With one more point in a near-flawless shooting exhibition, Nowitzki would have joined Harris and Miami's Dwyane Wade as the third Suns opponent in the past four games to score 40 points. He settled instead for a 39-point shredding of Amare Stoudemire, Matt Barnes, Boris Diaw, Grant Hill and Raja Bell -- each of whom took a turn trying to guard Nowitzki -- and received some unexpected help, too. Erick Dampier (nine points, 14 boards, three blocks) hushed years of "Ericka" barbs from O'Neal (four points and five rebounds in 26 quiet minutes) by winning their statistical duel handily, while little Jose Juan Barea supplemented Jason Terry's 19 points by tossing in 18 more as a surprise starter.
"We allowed those guys to pretty much go wherever they wanted to offensively at times, get whatever shot they wanted at times," Porter said. "We just didn't have any resistance at all defensively."
The offense wasn't much better, even with a gaunt Nash -- who probably shouldn't have played and had to be talked out of going back in as the Mavs, sparked by Barea, pulled away in the fourth quarter after a brief Suns rally to within 88-78 -- mustering 20 points and 10 assists. Amare Stoudemire scored 28, but not a single Sun topped six rebounds in a lifeless showing that further dented the psyche of a group that, if nothing else, had a hint of a road swagger before this trip with its 7-2 start away from Phoenix.
This week actually began with some offensive promise in the desert. Sources say that O'Neal, at a team meeting, implored his fellow Suns to start pushing the ball again, amid much private and publicly voiced concern that the Suns had become too half-court oriented to accommodate the 36-year-old. Confirming what he told his teammates, Shaq said Thursday: "I didn't want to hear that they are slowing down for me. If we're gonna run, let's run."
As part of the teamwide discussion, Porter agreed to put the ball back in Nash's hands more and reintroduce some of D'Antoni's old offensive sets, after the former Detroit assistant began the season with an offense utilizing most of Flip Saunders' old Pistons playbook. Yet you inevitably wonder -- even if that's the right move and the adjustment time to familiar play calls turns out to be seamless -- whether the Suns need to make another trade (and soon) to try to change their chemistry, with Leandro Barbosa (to name one Sun) attracting interest. You also wonder whether Phoenix, as some rival executives have begun to speculate, will soon consider moving core players such as Stoudemire in the first step of a more dramatic makeover.
Injecting the locker room with new life was one of the Suns' biggest motivations in making the O'Neal deal. Believing that this team was too small to get past the Lakers and San Antonio and desperate for a shakeup, Suns president Steve Kerr and D'Antoni agreed that they should trade Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks for O'Neal.
Now, though, it would appear that the Suns' morale is heading for an all-time nadir in the Nash era. It started with a crushing Game 1 loss to the Spurs in the first round of last season's playoffs, from which the Suns never recovered. That was followed by D'Antoni's acrimonious departure, with both developments snuffing out the initial optimism stemming from last season's strong regular-season finish with Shaq. The current slide has left the Suns with their first four-game skid since the 2006-07 season, marked by their ongoing (and mounting) struggles to hatch a style that has enough defense to placate Porter and enough of the running and entertainment that made the F-word so commonplace around this team.
"I'm not going to even bother to go there," Nash said when someone asked if he was starting to worry that the current mix -- with him, Porter, Shaq, etc. -- has already seen its last days of fun and just isn't going to click.
"We've got a lot to give. We've got a lot of talent, a lot of guys who like playing together in here, so we've got to give it time. Too many positive things about our squad [and] our situation to give up on it."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
Gregg Popovich coaches the regular season in order to get ready for the postseason. He coaches for the bigger picture. They had some injuries and that is why you see guys like George Hill and Roger Mason getting big minutes, which is something that is going to strengthen the team down the road.
Mason is my leading candidate for the league's Most Improved Player award. He helped keep them going when Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were out, and there are a lot of opponents who are wishing they had buried the Spurs when they had the chance. Now, those two are healthy, Hill and Mason got experience, and the Spurs were able to stay above .500.
I'm a big Chris Paul fan, and he should definitely be in the argument when talking about best point guards in the game, but to me, Parker is the best point guard playing. He plays in a situation where it's all about the pot of gold at the end. It's all about the title for him. His statistics might not be 20 and 10 on a nightly basis, but that is because he plays with two other superstars. One thing about being a good teammate is the unselfishness to let others make plays. You have to do that in order for your team to be a championship contender. I've always respected that about his game. Paul is the most talented point guard in the game, but Parker is the best point guard.
Jalen Rose is an NBA analyst for ESPN and a regular Daily Dime contributor.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"He's fearless. He's small, but for some reason he's a great finisher in there. He gets to the seams. I just really like that he's in attack mode."
Forbes ranks the value of NBA teams, and as of last year, the news was generally excellent. The average team profit last season was the highest in at least a decade. The average team is worth a whopping $379 million.
The effect of market size is undeniable, however. Most would agree that the Knicks could hardly have been managed more poorly over the last few years, yet the New York team remains the most valuable.
To read the TrueHoop blog, click here.
The Nuggets have been a completely different team since trading for Chauncey Billups, winning three of four and 12 of 16 overall since he entered the lineup. After losing to the Spurs (10-8), Denver has only a 4-6 record against teams that have a winning record. The only teams with a winning mark against opponents above .500 are the Lakers (9-1), Celtics (6-1), Hornets (6-4), Cavaliers (5-3), Trail Blazers (7-5) and Nets (5-4).
• Dirk Nowitzki made 17 of 25 shots (.680) from the field in the Mavericks' win over the Suns. Only one player in Dallas history had a higher field-goal percentage in a game in which he took at least 25 shots: Sam Perkins (19-for-26, .731) on April 12, 1990 at Golden State. Mark Aguirre shot exactly 17-for-25 three times in his career for the Mavs, all late in the 1984-85 season.
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Coach Gregg Popovich liked what he saw from Tony Parker, who combined with Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan for 64 points, 24 rebounds and 17 assists in a win at Denver.