Suns Have a Small Problem

Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX — Here come the Phoenix Suns, blazing their way to triple-digit scores, but perhaps too small to be anything more than an entertaining novelty that flames out in the playoff solar system.

Their offense has set the standard for point-scoring enthusiasts, but their perimeter-oriented style and lack of size have created longevity questions when the going gets rough this time of year.

Their center, 6-foot-8 Boris Diaw, is more of a small forward. Their power forward, Shawn Marion, often camps out at the three-point line. Their only 7-footer, Nikoloz Tskitishvili, rarely gets off the bench, other than to go to the locker room with the rest of the team at halftime.

The Suns rose to the top of the Pacific Division despite getting only two games out of All-Star center Amare Stoudemire, but Coach Mike D'Antoni laughed when asked whether the concept should be mimicked by other teams.

"If we win a title, they won't believe it," he said. "That's fine. They shouldn't. There's holes in our game. We'll see what we can do. I understand what they're saying and they're right."

The Lakers nearly bullied them out of the first round, which is really saying something considering that the Laker coach recently referred to his team as "a bunch of nice guys" and "pussycats."

Of course, Phil Jackson also referred to the Suns as pussycats, which is precisely the problem as they begin Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals tonight against the hard-hat Clippers.

The Suns are a thrill-a-possession bunch who hurl themselves up and down the court, scoring a league-high 108.4 points during the season and setting a league record with 837 three-point baskets.

During practices, they try to get up a shot before the shot clock hits 17, a mind-set that carries over to their frenetic games.

On the flip side, they often settle for outside shots instead of attacking the basket, the reason they also set a league record for fewest free-throw attempts a game (18).

Now in their second season of high-flier mode, they have shown a grand inability to punish in the post when it matters, specifically in last year's Western Conference finals against San Antonio. Marion averaged only 7.8 points, Spur center Tim Duncan did whatever he pleased, and the Suns were done in five games.

The sensitivity meter is already running high.

Two weeks ago, Marion snapped at a Phoenix columnist for writing that the forward doesn't tend to show up for playoff games. (The article came after the Lakers won Game 2 in Phoenix. Marion had 13 points in the game.)

The Laker post players were effective against the Suns for most of their seven-game series. Lamar Odom averaged 19.1 points and 11 rebounds. Kwame Brown, a surprisingly large part of the game plan, averaged 12.9 points. Small forward Luke Walton averaged 12.1 points.

Think Elton Brand and Chris Kaman were watching?

"Every team does it," D'Antoni said. "That's why when the Lakers came out with their strategy of pounding it down, it's like, 'Oh, really?' It's our activity, and how we run and how we respond, that is the key. I thought after the initial jitters against the Lakers, we responded well."

The Suns have already heard enough about their size.

Before the first round, league most valuable player Steve Nash sounded incredulous as a host of pundits picked the Lakers as an upset special.

"For whatever reason there's been a lot of doubters," he said. "That's fine. We don't mind that position. Whatever. We're too small and whatever. It means nothing to us."

On Sunday, a day after finally dispatching the pesky Lakers in seven games, the questions began anew.

"It's no secret that they're going to try and post up Elton as much as they can and Kaman when they can," Nash said. "That's their advantage against every team, let alone a smaller team like us. But we've seen it before."

Diaw probably will start against Kaman, giving up four inches, and Marion will go up against Brand, D'Antoni said.

Help may be on the way later in the series for the Suns. Center Kurt Thomas, a workmanlike veteran who averaged 8.6 points and 7.8 rebounds during the season, could return after sitting out since Feb. 22 because of a stress fracture in his right foot.

Until then, the Suns will have their fun, score their points and see how far this thing lasts before the law of winning with strong post players catches up to them.

"That's the great thing about our country," Sun guard Raja Bell said.

"Nobody has to agree with you. It's fun to play in. If nothing else, I guess it's good entertainment value for the NBA."

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