PHOENIX// The Phoenix Suns are supposed to be an ageing NBA afterthought, a team who a couple of years ago saw their best title shot slip away. Few could have foreseen the way this team have bolted out of the starting gate. With Steve Nash as good as ever, Amare Stoudemire on the mend and an array of sharpshooters firing away, the Suns are off to an 11-3 start, sitting joint top of the Western Conference after Tuesday's games.
"It's a lot of fun. My teammates are great," Nash said. "We're playing in a fun style where we move the ball a lot. We're not really a fast break team like we used to be but the ball still moves. I think the guys are just playing hard for one another. "We enjoy each other on the court and off and it makes all the difference in the world when you have that singular vision and everyone buys into it."
Nobody was talking that way a year ago, when many players, including Nash, were not buying into the then coach Terry Porter's system. Porter wanted a slower game, a defence-oriented style, a system that, except for centre Shaquille O'Neal, failed to match the personnel at hand. Porter was fired at the All-Star break and O'Neal was traded to Cleveland in the off-season. Now the court is wide open for Nash and his teammates to do what they do best.
Stoudemire is back, wearing protective goggles following serious eye surgery that sidelined him for the final 29 games last season. He leads the team in scoring at 19.9 points per game. "He's probably 80-85 per cent now," said the Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. "I still think there's a little bit more that he can do for us, but he's getting better and as he gets a little better, our team will get a little better."
With O'Neal no longer clogging the middle, Nash and Stoudemire are again making the pick and roll, the tough-to-defend heart of the Suns' offence. "The spacing is good. Everybody's comfortable," Stoudemire said. "It feels great when guys know where they're supposed to be and then when the ball comes out to them they're ready to shoot or pass because the rhythm and flow is perfect right now." Gentry promised to return the team to the high-flying style of their former coach Mike D'Antoni, and while the Suns might not quite be the "seven seconds or less" squad of those days, they are still a highly-entertaining team.
Phoenix lead the NBA in scoring with a 110.35 average and are the only team to top 100 points in each of their games. They are also making 44.4 per cent of their three-pointers. At the controls is the 35-year-old guard Nash. "I think he's playing right now better than he did the year he got the MVP, either one of them," Gentry said. Nash is averaging 17.1 points and an NBA-best 11.6 assists per game.
On the court, the Los Angeles Lakers dominated the New York Knicks for three quarters of Tuesday's game before squandering much of their lead and holding on for a 100-90 victory. Kobe Bryant scored 34 points as last season's NBA champions cruised to a fourth successive win despite a poor fourth quarter. "Depending on the match up, we have to go to our advantages, and we have so many it's hard to focus on one or two," said Pau Gasol, who grabbed 16 rebounds.
"Our second unit has to do a better job of playing together and helping us any way they can." Elsewhere, Carmelo Anthony and the Denver Nuggets piled more misery on the New Jersey Jets with a 101-87 success. Anthony poured in 27 points for Denver as the Nets slumped to their 14th consecutive loss in the competition. * AP