Updated: April 9, 2007, 4:31 PM ET

Suns improved on D, at line

Chances are if the Phoenix Suns win the 2007 NBA championship, the images used to capture that feat won't be Amare Stoudemire standing at the free-throw line and Steve Nash taking a charge. Although they should be.

While everyone still considers the Suns an up-tempo team that doesn't have enough defense to get past any opponent who can throttle down the pace, this past week's results (if not the entire season) would suggest otherwise.

Remember how the Lakers took a commanding 3-1 series lead against the Suns in last year's first round by slowing down the tempo and thereby disengaging Phoenix's runaway train of an offense? They tried and, to a certain extent, accomplished the same feat Sunday afternoon at the Staples Center and never had a chance, losing 115-107, a result far more decisive than the final score might indicate.

That's because of two primary reasons. One, the Suns' defense is dramatically better than last year. In the past week, against the Spurs and Lakers, I watched them play stifling D for minutes at a time, exerting more energy at that end of the floor than on offense. As heretical it may sound, Phoenix's defense is reasonably close to the level played by the two Western powers everyone likes to tout as defensive juggernauts, San Antonio and Dallas. Scoff if you like, but the most important statistic, defensive field-goal percentage, bears it out:

Suns are at 45.74. San Antonio: 44.04. Dallas: 44.72. Yes, Phoenix is still behind the other two -- but it's not as far behind as it was last year.

Perhaps more important, though, is the second element: the Suns have closed the gap in scoring from the free-throw line. Thanks, largely, to Amare.

I found it rather amusing last year when quite a few voices attributed Phoenix's defensive problems to Stoudemire's absence due to knee surgery. Here's a news flash: Stoudemire was a terrible defender. Don't be misled by a few blocked shots. That's one out of six categories a defensive player is rated by, and Amare was well below average in at least four of them.

(To be fair, he's played his best D this season, though it still isn't anywhere near the level of, say, Kevin Garnett or Tim Duncan.)

It's my contention that Phoenix's biggest weakness last year actually wasn't their defense, but the fact that they scored a league-low 14 points from the free-throw line. The most high-powered offense in the league went limp in a grind-it-out contest for that very reason. With the game inevitably slowing down in the postseason and the NBA on a mission to defy its image of letting the game get more physical in the playoffs, not having a player who could force contact around the rim was as crippling as Phoenix's myriad injuries.

And that's where Stoudemire makes the biggest difference, as he demonstrated Sunday against the Lakers. By his standards, his 19 points and nine rebounds were relatively quiet, but the numbers deserving to be in neon represented his work from the line: 7 of 9, helping the Suns outscore the Lakers in free throws, 29-14.

Not to tread on Hollinger's territory, but here's the short of it: the Suns were 3½ points behind San Antonio, the next lowest team in free-throw scoring, last season. The Suns are last again this year, with one huge caveat: they're averaging 17.9 points from the line, only .2 behind the Spurs and 2.2 behind the Mavs.

Yes, they lost to the San Antonio Spurs Thursday in a boat race, 92-85, their offense as about as anemic as it has been all season. Take that result and extrapolate it into meaning that if the Spurs and Suns meet in the postseason, as they almost assuredly will, San Antonio will once again come out on top. What I liked is that the Suns competed at that pace, something they couldn't have done last year. If anyone can knock off the Suns, it's San Antonio, but I'm not going to bank on them outshooting the Suns 18-6 from beyond the three-point arc or holding Nash and Barbosa to a combined 11 for 32.

Or holding Stoudemire to 1 for 5 shooting from the free-throw line.

Granted, I could give you more intangible reasons for believing in Phoenix, such as the improved comfort Raja Bell has with the Suns' system or Stoudemire having developed a midrange jumper or Nash having ratcheted his efficiency up another notch.

But for those fearful of abandoning old thinking for new, those whose instincts have them uneasy about putting their faith in the Suns' style, I offer these numbers as a security blanket. It still takes a leap of faith -- but only a small step in logic.

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine.

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Dwyane Wade casts a glance at Shaquille O'Neal before Sunday's 111-103 overtime loss to the visiting Bobcats. Wade played 28 minutes, finishing with 12 points, eight assists and six turnovers.



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Unless and until he wins a title, Kevin Garnett's going to go down as the guy whose contract changed the game.

"You're an old 30, as long as you've been in the league," I told him.

"An old 30? I've never heard of that," Garnett said.

"OK. An experienced 30. A seasoned 30," I replied. "Is that still too young for you to have started building a legacy?"

"I don't know. It's all about how you leave the game and how people assess your play and your career, and if you made any impact on the game," Garnett said. "One day I think you guys will do that, but I don't think today is that day."

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Lakers F Vladimir Radmanovic, sidelined since separating his right shoulder during the All-Star break, hopes to return Thursday night against the Clippers.

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Sunday's Best:
Rockets forward Tracy McGrady: The Rockets needed that. T-Mac had 40 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds. Bye, three-game losing streak. The 112-106 win over the Kings means Houston is within a half-game of the Jazz in the battle for the 4-5 playoff seed home-court advantage.

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And with the benefit of the extra five minutes, both Vince Carter and Jason Kidd achieved triple-doubles. (Carter's triple-double was clinched with his 10th assist a little more than halfway through the overtime period; Kidd clinched his triple-double by scoring his 10th point on a free throw with 20 seconds remaining.)

Yes, it was the first NBA game in which two teammates each had a triple-double since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen did it against the Clippers, also an overtime game, on Jan. 3, 1989. (The last teammates to turn the trick in a regulation-length game were Larry Bird and Robert Parish, against the 76ers, on March 29, 1987.)

But it had been even a longer time -- just over 30 years -- since we had seen an NBA player get a triple-double in which he had totals as high as Carter had in both points (46) and rebounds (16). The last player to do that was Phoenix center Alvan Adams, who had 47 points, 18 rebounds and 12 assists against the Buffalo Braves on Feb. 22, 1977. Besides Carter and Adams, the only other players in NBA history to get a triple double that included as many as 46 points and 16 rebounds were Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain (who did it twice).

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Chris Sheridan: That's been their plan, and they've been married to it to such a degree that it probably dissuaded them more than it should have from going harder after Pau Gasol. But they've put a lot of effort into getting key guys (Ben Wallace, Kirk Hinrich) to sign deals with decreasing rather than increasing salaries, which will give them more money to spend on Andres Nocioni, Luol Deng and Ben Gordon so they can keep all of them.

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That's why barring any change of coach or change of mind from LeBron, he won't win a championship soon.

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