|By BRIAN MAHONEY|
|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 07 December 2007 20:07|
One key player was traded, another wanted to be, and the star center with a history of knee problems needed more surgery.
No sweat, right?
Not to the Phoenix Suns, who say none of their offseason issues was worth fretting over and have spent the early part of the NBA season proving it.
``To be honest with you, those are things I don't worry about, because I can't control them,'' Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said. ``So I don't spend time on that. There's so much stuff I can worry about, can control, that I don't have time to worry about those other things. If it's meant to be, it's meant to be.''
``And I knew that we had a lot of talent ... no matter what, we were going to be good.''
The Suns sure have been, surging to their usual spot atop the Pacific Division with one of the NBA's best records. But there was a time when that didn't seem to be guaranteed.
Phoenix traded forward Kurt Thomas to Seattle in July, a move designed to cut salary that also left the Suns without their best - perhaps only - defensive option against San Antonio's Tim Duncan.
Two months later, four-time All-Star Shawn Marion told two local reporters he wanted to be traded, even though he's the Suns' highest-paid player. Then All-NBA center Amare Stoudemire, who missed almost all of the 2005-06 season after surgeries on both knees, had an arthroscopic procedure done on his right knee the day training camp opened and missed a few weeks.
Through it all, the Suns apparently just shrugged their shoulders.
``We have a brain trust that knows what they're doing and some of the guys that were involved in some of that stuff are good guys at heart, so I never really thought that there would be a situation that got to be too much of a distraction,'' guard Raja Bell said. ``You can't help but see it on 'SportsCenter,' but other than that I didn't really follow it.''
There's been little reason for concern lately. In the first three games of a five-game trip, the Suns got a season-high 28 points from offseason acquisition Grant Hill in a victory at New York; Stoudemire poured in 42 at Indiana, and the Suns finished with a season-best 136 in a win at Toronto.
Of course, none of their offseason woes involved Steve Nash, who had 50 assists in those three games. All along, the two-time MVP planned to win with whoever was on the court with him.
``I never really worry about that stuff. I just want to come out and build a team with my teammates that are here and just try to be the most successful group we can,'' he said. ``That's all you can do. You come out and play with the players around you and try to make yourselves the best possible group you can.
``You can't set unrealistic goals, but I think the group we have realistically can win a championship.''
ARIZA'S CHANCE: Four years into his NBA career, it's looking more and more as if Trevor Ariza made a mistake by leaving UCLA after his freshman season.
Ariza slipped to 43rd in the 2004 NBA draft, being selected by the New York Knicks in the second round. He was traded to Orlando a year later, and now finds himself in Los Angeles with the Lakers after being traded again on Nov. 20.
Since coming to L.A., Ariza has been working tirelessly to get comfortable with coach Phil Jackson's infamously complex triangle offense.
``I'm definitely enjoying it,'' Ariza said of his new surroundings. ``I'm just trying to stop worrying about the enjoyment and start worrying about getting into the swing of things.''
The athletic swingman had played just 16 minutes in two weeks before Tuesday night's game at Minnesota.
Thanks to a fast start by Kobe Bryant, the Lakers jumped out to a big early lead, which allowed Jackson to give Ariza his first extended minutes in purple and gold. Ariza responded with 15 points, five rebounds, four assists and four steals in 27 minutes.
He made all five of his field goal attempts and was 5-for-6 at the free throw line.
``This is the first extended minutes he's had a chance to play,'' Jackson said. ``He showed his ability out there, running the lanes and squishing it defensively.''
Bryant was also impressed.
``It's a good breakout game for him,'' Bryant said. ``He's been doing a great job of kind of following the offense and getting up to speed, which is not an easy thing to do.''
Ariza can attest to that. But he said extended minutes like those he got against the Timberwolves will only speed the process.
``I feel more comfortable. I'm learning more of the offensive schemes and the stuff that we're doing out there,'' Ariza said. ``I wouldn't say I'm comfortable yet, but I'm getting more comfortable.''
ROAD MAGIC: Rashard Lewis knows opposing teams will no longer be caught off guard when Orlando comes to town. Not after the Magic's NBA-best 11-2 start away from home, including a thrilling 123-117 overtime win at Golden State on Monday night before returning to Florida.
``It's good to win a lot of games on the road,'' Lewis said. ``I don't think they're surprised now.''
First-year coach Stan Van Gundy has his club playing with such a confidence that the players know they will be in games late, even if it means overcoming a deficit in the waning minutes. Guard Jameer Nelson appreciates Van Gundy's willingness to keep sending him out there as he works to find his timing and consistency.
``We want to get better every day and win the game,'' Nelson said. ``We had a lot of opportunities to get down on ourselves. But that's not the type of character we have on this team. When teams have gone on runs in their own building, we've done a great job keeping our composure and staying focused on what we have to do.''
GOOD OL' DAYS: Times have been tough lately in New York and Philadelphia, but fans of those teams get a reminder of better days this week.
The Knicks and 76ers were among the teams participating in the NBA's ``Heritage Week,'' which began Friday and runs through Dec. 14. Nine teams will wear throwback uniforms, with New York being outfitted in home uniforms from the 1972-73 season and the 76ers from the 1982-83 campaign. Those were the years of the last championship for both franchises.
Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Golden State, Miami, Houston and the Los Angeles Lakers will also be wearing a retro uniform at some point during the week. Also, the Lakers (60 years), Pistons (50), Bucks and Suns (40), Spurs (35) and Heat (20) will be wearing a special patch or logo to celebrate their anniversaries.
NBA.com and NBA TV also had features planned, and all the retro merchandise was available at the NBA Store in New York, and on its Web site.
TV TIME: When word of the Tim Donaghy scandal got out, there were some initial fears that fans were going to turn away from the NBA.
That hasn't been the case so far.
Early season ratings have been up - by quite a bit in some places - as the fans have returned following an occasionally rocky offseason that included referee Donaghy admitting he bet on games.
Better yet, they're the right kind of fans. For its first 10 games, TNT reported an 18 percent increase in ratings among adults age 18-34, including a 29 percent jump among men of that age, the most coveted demographic for advertisers.
``Our early growth in ratings and all key demos speaks to the strength and health of the NBA brand and the game itself,'' Turner Sports president David Levy said.
The best news for the NBA following the Donaghy scandal was the Boston Celtics' return to prominence. The acquisition of Kevin Garnett, coming after the Celtics had landed Ray Allen on draft night, immediately made the league's most storied franchise relevant again.
The release of the league's schedule was delayed so the Celtics could be given some nationally televised games. TNT showed them for the first time on Nov. 29, when Boston beat New York 104-59.
The Celtics helped Comcast SportsNet witness a 20 percent ratings increase for the five teams that had games shown on their regional networks last season. Celtics games were up 97 percent on CSN New England.
Ratings on FSN's regional networks were up 12 percent for November, with double-digit increases in 10 markets. That included a 146 percent jump for the Milwaukee Bucks on FSN Wisconsin.
AP Sports Writers Janie McCauley in Oakland, Calif., and Jon Krawczynski in Minneapolis contributed to this report.