Return of the Joker: Shaq-Less Suns at L.A. Lakers Tonight
Alas, these are not Steve Kerr's winning lottery numbers. They're actually grim statistics reflecting an alarming trend: the full-on revival of the Los Angeles Lakers as a major pain in the Phoenix Suns' butt.
And they may be an even bigger pain in the posterior tonight with Shaquille O'Neal out of the lineup to attend his grandmother's funeral -- unless Coach Terry Porter returns the team to the days of old under Mike D'Antoni. That is, runs up enough points to beat the tall and talented Lakers.
The Suns owned these clowns during D'Antoni's heyday, something we ascribe less to D'Antoni's tortured genius than to the general ineptitude of the Lakers during the post-Shaq dark ages of 2004 to 2006. For a pleasant change, the Suns were a mountain somebody else couldn't scale.
That dreamy interlude came to a screeching halt on the evening of November 2, 2007, when the Lakers hung a 98-119 statement on the Suns in last season's home opener at U.S. Airways Center. To that point, Phoenix was actually (hard to believe now) a heavy favorite to reach the NBA Finals, but that game changed the power balance in the West. It provided an early first step in healing the breach between the Lakers and Kobe Bryant (who'd been bleating for a trade all of the previous summer), and was very likely the first fallen domino in the chain of events that led to the departure of D'Antoni, the arrival of The Big Cactus, and the ever-widening gap between the Suns and their Western Conference betters, the Hornets and the Lakers.
It's now been almost a year since Phoenix has managed to beat Kobe and company (that lonely 106-98 Suns win noted above came last January 17). If the teams' most recent meeting on November 20 (92-105 Lakers, fueled by those Vladimir Radmanovic three-point daggers) is any indication, Jack Nicholson's gonna be doing his damnable Joker imitation courtside for years to come. As with his movies, we vastly prefer it when Jack scowls.
The Suns travel to Jack's pad, the Staples Center, to give it another go at 8:30 p.m. tonight. See www.nba.com/suns. National TV: ESPN. Local TV: Channel 45 (cable 9). Radio: KTAR-AM 620. -- Clay McNear