Desert mirage

. Friday, February 20, 2009
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Phoenix storms have a bit of a reputation.

The sky will be clear in the morning, packed with clouds by the afternoon and will open up by nightfall. 90 minutes and several inches later, the rain will stop as suddenly as it started. The clouds will part. The desert sky will be clear once more.

Bad news was coming down by the bucketful in Phoenix over the weekend. While the NBA's  focus set on U.S. Airways Arena, rumors were flying over the future of the host franchise.

Would first-year man Terry Porter be fired as Suns coach? Would Amar'e Stoudemire's all-star appearance be his last game wearing a Phoenix jersey? Was the acquisition of Shaquille O'Neal a year earlier to blame of all of it?

The Suns were singing a much different tune by Thursday's NBA trade deadline. 
Porter was out. Former Mike D'Antoni assistant Alvin Gentry was in and already had two wins under his belt. Two wins in which Phoenix went back to its 7-seconds-or-less style of offense. Two wins in which the Suns scored 140 and 142 points. Two wins in which Stoudemire played his way off of the trading block. Two wins over the Los Angeles Clippers. 

Phoenix throttled the league's sixth-worst defense, taking the pair of games by a combined score of 63 points. Stoudemire had 23 points in 20 minutes in the first contest and 42 points in 36 minutes in the second. 

By the time Suns general manager Steve Kerr sat down for lunch Thursday, he was content to keep Stoudemire, content to turn down the Cleveland Cavaliers last-minute offer for Shaq, content on his promotion Gentry, content for two routs, albeit at the expense of the hapless Clippers. He was content for the first time since taking over the post a season ago. The front-office captain of the Phoenix Suns ship thought he'd weathered the storm. 

He was right in a way. He just mistook when the storm took place. It wasn't during All-Star weekend. It was Tuesday and Wednesday night, when the Suns swept a home-and-home with the Clippers.

Friday morning brought news that Stoudemire, the all-important cog to Phoenix's fast-paced machine, would be out eight weeks after surgery to repair a partially detached retina in his right eye. It'll be the last week of April before Steve Nash has his high-flying buddy back throwing down alley-oop dunks and thundering fast-break putbacks.

At 30-23, the Suns are a game behind Utah for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. It will be a miracle if they're not statistically eliminated by the time Stoudemire returns.

Even with a healthy lineup, the Suns were lying to themselves if they thought that all was well in the desert. Too many things needed to happen for them to reach the playoffs. Two blowouts over the Clippers does not a season make. Phoenix needed to beat a legitimate playoff team like the Celtics on Sunday or the Lakers on Thursday. They needed Shaq to not break down going at Phoenix's break-neck pace. They needed one of the teams in front of them to suffer a major injury like the Mavs losing Dirk Nowitzki or the Blazers losing Brandon Roy and even that wasn't a guarantee. Houston and Utah are still ahead of the Suns and they've been without Tracy McGrady and Carlos Boozer, respectively, for most of the year.

Without Stoudemire, Phoenix will see less motivation and fewer games from Shaq and more frustration by the docile-by-nature Nash. It will see fewer highlights on Sportscenter and more finger-pointing I-told-you-sos from pundits and coaches alike. 

It might be the first time the ousted Porter has cracked a smile in months.

With Stoudemire healthy, the best Phoenix could have hoped for would have been another quick exit in the first round. Without him, the best it can hope for is more ping pong balls in this year's draft lottery. 

For two days against the sixth-worst defense in the league, it rained buckets in Phoenix. Now the Suns will try and make it through the next predictable desert weather phenomenon - the months of drought that follow after the rain stops.