by Stephen Litel

The Phoenix Suns are one of the most entertaining teams in the NBA and have been for years. As a whole, offensive displays draw fans in and the Suns run-and-gun style makes for many fun nights during the regular season. The behind-the-back passes, the alley-oop dunks and the near perfection of the fast break are all regulars on SportsCenter. Suns guard Leandro Barbosa has been a part of the offensive exploits for a long time, but, of course, he knows one of the main reasons for this is their leader, two-time Most Valuable Player, Steve Nash.

“I’ve been playing with Steve for so many years and I learn a lot of things from him,” says Barbosa, now in his sixth season with Phoenix. “I love to play with him and he’s doing such a great Steve Nashjob with us. He’s carrying the team on his back and he makes it easy for everybody. I’m sure that players from other teams would love to play with him, but I’m very happy–and all my teammates are very happy–to have him on our team.”

The most obvious difference in this year’s team is the subtraction of Shaquille O’Neal and addition of Channing Frye. After two years in New York and two relatively disappointing seasons in Portland, Frye is having one of the best years of his young career, certainly benefiting from having a point guard of Nash’s stature. His skills are a great addition to an already incredibly potent offensive team and the smoothness of the transition was surprising to some, including his teammates.

“When Channing signed the contract in Phoenix, I didn’t know he could shoot like he shot,” says Barbosa. “Many guys told me that he really could shoot and I didn’t believe them, so when I got to Phoenix and saw his playing of five-on-five before training camp, I was really happy. I knew that he was going to help us really well and he does a great job on the team. He’s always in the right place to get his shot and he spaces out a lot of the floor, so that makes it easy for everybody. He’s been a factor of our team and we’re happy to have him here.”

Yet, with all of the firepower the Suns have had throughout the past few seasons, they have never been mistaken as a defensive team by any stretch of the imagination. That has been a defining factor for this team when the entertainment spectacle of the regular season ends and the reality of playoff basketball begins. Coach Alvin Gentry has made his team aware of how their lack of a defensive identity, their playoff frustrations will continue.

“He’s working really hard with defense since we started training camp and that has effected why we’re doing such a good job,” continues Barbosa. “All the guys are doing better on defense and it brings the ball into our hands so we can run. This is the way we like to play. This is our style. We’re doing well now and this is bringing up a good start for us. Sometimes we forget about that we don’t have a big guy like we used to have last year. We need to do a better job on rebounds, so that becomes a defense thing. We’re doing betChanning Fryeter than we used to do and this has been a factor for us.”

How well is Coach Gentry doing with his team on the defensive end of the court? They give up 105 points per game, which is fourth worst in the League. But that is also a misleading statistic because of the uptempo style the Suns play since both teams get a larger number of possessions per game. Suns opponents shoot 45 percent from the field and 36 percent from three, ranking Phoenix as 13th and 8th worst in the League, respectively.

“Sometimes we forget about that we don’t have a big guy like we used to have last year,” says Barbosa. “We need to do a better job on rebounds, so that becomes a defense thing. We’re doing better than we used to do and this has been a factor for us.”

Phoenix averages nearly 42 rpg, but that ranks as 20th in the League and they are outrebounded by nearly two each night. As a team that likes to run, getting possession of the ball is of utmost importance. It could be a disturbing foreshadowing of another short playoff run when your starting bigs combine to average just over 13 rebounds per game, but with nearly every player who sees valuable time contributing in the department, the Suns make due with what they have.

“I’ll tell you now, we are capable of doing a lot of things, as we have been doing so far,” proclaims Barbosa. “We’re surprising people because I know a lot of people didn’t think we could be where we are and they thought we couldn’t do well, especially without having a big guy. We’re surprising many people, so I’m very happy to do that. I like this way and we’ll be great. We just have to do what we’ve been doing.”

For those who watch the team closely, the defensive play has improved from past years. In ‘09-10, they are having a typical season for the Phoenix Suns, full of excitement and fun. However, if they want the conclusion of the year to be atypical, they will need to improve their play on the defensive end even more. Improvement is great, but a championship level defense is an entirely different story.

“I think we can be,” says Barbosa when asked if the Suns can be the best team in the League. “I don’t think we are, but we can be. I know we have a good record, but we definitely can be the best team. We need to do more and we’re working to make that happen.”

With one of the best records in the League early on, the Suns have time to tinker with their defensive scheme. Coach Gentry and his staff have done a fine job at working with what they have and improving the defense, but as Barbosa mentions, there is still work to do.