Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns had all sorts of answers for the Wizards last night at Verizon Center.

Entering the game, questions loomed over both Nash’s chances of winning a third straight MVP award and Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas’ chances of unseating him.

The Wizards had the chance to prove themselves as the Eastern Conference version of the high-scoring Suns, as Arenas and his teammates have claimed.

But Nash reinforced his case for MVP with 27 points and 14 assists, and the Suns schooled the Wizards en route to a 127-105 victory.

The Suns won their 14th straight game — one short of an earlier streak the Wizards ended last month. Phoenix became just the fifth team in NBA history to put together two streaks of at least 14 wins in the same season.

Nash defied superstition by shaving off the beard he had grown during the streak and vowed to keep until it ended.

Most of the Suns predictably and diplomatically insisted their focus wasn’t on punishing the Wizards for ending the first streak. But they attacked the Wizards with a vengeance, taking a 40-21 lead by the end of the first quarter and a 76-51 lead at halftime after making 11 of 19 3-pointers.

“We knew we were in for a good game. We respect this team a lot, and we knew we had to play well,” said Nash, who shot 11-for-13 from the field. “And we came out accordingly.”

Suns coach Mike D’Antoni couldn’t find much fault in his team’s performance.

“That first half was about as good as we can do,” he said. “The ball was moving, we were hitting shots and the defense was good.”

The Suns shot 60.8 percent from the field, and seven players scored in double figures. Nash had as many assists as the entire Wizards team. Leandro Barbosa, the backup point guard, added 11 assists, and forward Boris Diaw had seven.

“That’s the way we play,” said Nash, the league assists leader. “We were playing at a high level.”

The Suns came into the game ranked first in the league in scoring, the Wizards No. 2. Both teams play at a fast pace and shoot well from 3-point range.

Arenas, who had 31 points but shot just 5-for-12 in the first half, has described the Wizards as the Suns of the Eastern Conference. The claim traveled westward and fell on interested ears.

“I did hear that, that they wanted to be the Phoenix Suns of the East,” said Suns center Amare Stoudemire, who had a foul-plagued night with 15 points in 19 minutes. “But there’s only one Phoenix Suns, and we rest in the West.”

The Wizards’ 144-139 overtime win over the Suns in Phoenix just before Christmas — during which Arenas scored 54 points — sparked the comparison.

But there were mitigating factors beforehand. The Suns had been stuck in snowbound Denver for three days before finally escaping via a bus trip to Colorado Springs and a flight home that got them to their building only a few hours before game time.

This time, the Suns arrived in the District on Monday and showed up well-rested.

“I don’t want to make excuses,” Nash said of the first encounter. “They were outstanding, but we had a tough day that day. At the end of the game, especially, we made a lot of mistakes and didn’t capitalize. Tonight we were a little sharper for the most part.”

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