- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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The Phoenix Suns say they feel no must-win obligations to finally beat the only team they haven't beaten this season.
The Suns say they'd feel that way even if Tim Duncan weren't playing Wednesday night.
Turns out they feel a greater obligation.
Reaching the conference finals, namely.
The Suns would happily take an 0-fer against the San Antonio Spurs in the regular season if they knew that guaranteed a Phoenix presence opposite San Antonio, most likely in the final four round of the NBA playoffs.
That's because the Suns, if they feel any pressure, want badly to disprove the many skeptics who say their style can't succeed in the postseason.
Steve Nash, the Suns' MVP candidate, recently acknowledged the need to validate this stunning breakthrough season by winning at least a series or two.
"Before the season, if we would have told people that we'd lose in the first round of the playoffs, they definitely would have taken it," Nash said. "Now it's probably unacceptable."
Make that definitely unacceptable. Everything changed when the Suns started 31-4.
They've leveled off some since, going 2-4 in the six games Nash has missed because of injury, but the Suns have also since assembled an actual bench, which they couldn't claim in their first two meetings with the Spurs. Jim Jackson and Walter McCarty hadn't yet joined reserve center Steven Hunter.
The feeling in this cyberspace remains that Phoenix, no matter what the skeptics say, has the best chance of anyone out West to keep San Antonio out of the NBA Finals. It's a conclusion we reached when even Spurs types we spoke to after the Spurs won an overtime thriller at Phoenix playing at the Suns' tempo came away from that game saying that you can't snuff out the Suns' will to run no matter how hard you try. The Suns haven't beaten the Spurs yet, but they've clearly made an impression on them.
One of the season's recurring debates nonetheless pits Phoenix against Seattle. Which of those surprise teams, folks keep asking, has a better chance of achieving playoff success?
Can the Suns, without the quietly effective board men in Seattle's lineup, overcome their rebounding and defensive shortcomings?
If they don't, Phoenix's Quentin Richardson insists, it won't be because they started feeling the heat now that the season is getting serious.
"I'm not worried about that," Richardson said. "The one thing we do have on our team is a lot of confidence. It's not just confidence it's swagger and all that.
"You got Amare [Stoudemire] he feels like nobody can stop him. He feels like he can go over or around anybody, and when a guy does it night in and night out, you can't really question it.
"I don't think we worry about [raised expectations]. We feel like we can beat anybody and play with anybody. And regardless of what happens, I don't think it'll be because we were nervous or tight."
• I'm hearing ...
That it would be a mistake to discount Minnesota's chances of luring Phil Jackson to Great Lakes country. The buzz I keep hearing is that the Wolves have a shot if owner Glen Taylor wants to spend at the Zenmeister level for a coach, even with the Lakers and Knicks chasing Jackson. The lure of coaching Kevin Garnett is apparently that appealing.
That there was some Damon Stoudamire-to-Houston discussion before the trading deadline, but the Rockets had nothing to tempt Portland with in exchange for Stoudamire's expiring contract. You'll recall that the Rockets also unsuccessfully tried to convince Portland to swap Derek Anderson for Maurice Taylor before dealing Taylor to New York instead.
That Carmelo Anthony certainly didn't enjoy his recent fourth-quarter benching against Memphis, but that Anthony does appreciate coach George Karl's efforts to get him more post-ups. The Nuggets have made it a point of emphasis to get Anthony the ball in scoring positions, always a problem in the Jeff Bzdelik era, and it has made a noticeable difference. He's getting more layups and free throws.
• I'm thinking ...
That Geoff Petrie is still going to have to convince me that the contracts of Brian Skinner, Kenny Thomas and Corliss Williamson are sufficiently movable to give Sacramento the flexibility to retool. The Kings claim they now have such flexibility after trading Chris Webber to Philly. All three have long-term money forthcoming in the $6 million-and-up range, and the Kings still face the expensive prospect of re-signing Peja Stojakovic in the summer of 2006. But you have to give Petrie this none of the three Kings veterans he has exiled since last season is exactly flourishing in his new surroundings. Webber is struggling mightily, as everyone knows, and Doug Christie and Vlade Divac are essentially out for the season with injuries.
That it's tough to dispute the notion that the settlement agreement between Kobe Bryant and his Colorado accuser has lifted a significant burden off Bryant. The Lakers are only 2-2 in the four games since that news broke, but Kobe is averaging 36 points per game in that span.
That Allen Iverson is losing any momentum he had been gaining to crack the top five on my MVP ballot. Iverson has to do more to help Webber assimilate in Philadelphia but seems to have forgotten what he said during All-Star Weekend, even before the Webber trade: "People are saying I'm having an MVP year, but I want them to say I'm the best player and I'm making everyone around me better." Iverson can't heal Webber's knee or magically boost Webber's confidence, but he can share the ball better with the new guy. A lot better.
As they prepare to face the Spurs, the Suns say they feel no pressure not now, anyway.