Ask forward Charles Barkley about the San Antonio Spurs, and he's confident that his Phoenix Suns would come out winners in a playoff series. Ask coach Paul Westphal about the Utah Jazz, and the coach comes across as being just as cocky.
But if you ask anybody who has seen the Suns play lately, the only thing that Barkley will have a chance at winning come playoff time is a round of golf.
Two weeks ago, the Suns had the best record in basketball. But after losing to the Spurs, 109-106, on Sunday, Phoenix is only the fourth-best team in the Western Conference, going 5-5 in its past 10 games. And if their slide continues, the Suns could wind up facing the Los Angeles Lakers -- this season's team to avoid -- in the first round of the playoffs.
At the All-Star break, Phoenix was 38-10, best in the league. Since then, the Suns have gone 13-11 and have become vulnerable at home, going 7-6 at America West Arena.
The decline can't be attributed to Barkley, who is playing better than he had all season. Since the break, Barkley has averaged 28.2 points and 12.0 rebounds (his season averages are 23.3 and 11.1). But he has gotten little help. Dan Majerle since the break has averaged 13.6 points (down from 16.0 for the season). Injuries have limited Kevin Johnson to 37 games this season, and when he does play, he doesn't appear to have the quickness that made him a three-time All-Star.
Still, the Suns remain cocky. After a recent loss to the Jazz, Westphal was confident.
"I think we'll meet the Jazz again in the playoffs," he said. "And I think we'll send them home."
The truth is that the Suns are proving they can't win without Danny Manning, who went down with a season-ending knee injury just before the All-Star break. Manning gave the Suns another offensive threat and made people forget that Phoenix has no center. Without him, the Suns have gone 15-11.
When Michael Jordan returned, Barkley said that was no big deal because Phoenix was the best team in the league. At the time, it was true, but a late surge is a must, because home-court advantage for the team will be important. If the Suns finish fourth and have to play the Lakers in the first round, Barkley may be forced into retirement sooner than expected.
Hill passes off to Jordan
The current issue of GQ magazine has a story titled "Can Grant Hill Save Sports?" with a shot of the Detroit Pistons rookie on the cover. So how does Hill, billed as the savior of the NBA because of his style and clean-cut image, feel about the return of Jordan?
"I think Michael Jordan coming back is the savior," Hill said. "I'm just a disciple of his. All of us. Myself. [Anfernee] Hardaway. Shaq [Shaquille O'Neal]. We're all just disciples."
Hill said he almost feels that a burden has been taken off his shoulders with Jordan's return.
"Him coming back is going to take away a lot of the attention, and that's good," Hill said. "I think it allows me to grow as a player and become what I'll eventually become. But I'm not there yet, and I don't think he was his rookie season, either."
Hill scored 33 points against the Washington Bullets on Sunday, and is his team's top scorer (19.4 points). When Rookie of the Year is announced, look for Hill to become the first Detroit player to win the honor since Dave Bing in 1967.
New Jersey Nets forward Rick Mahorn is 6 feet 10, and weighs 260 pounds -- much of the poundage packed in a rear end that's on the verge of statehood. New York Knicks center Patrick Ewing is a 7-foot, 240-pound center who occasionally flashes a mean streak. Not exactly the battle you'd want to break up.
But it seems their scuffle just before halftime of Sunday's game ended happily.
Ewing became upset after taking a nasty fall courtesy of a forearm by Mahorn. Ewing waved a finger in Mahorn's face, the two got into a shoving match and were ejected in a game that featured four ejections, eight technicals and one flagrant foul.
During a TV interview, Ewing said, "If I really wanted to do anything, I would have taken a punch at him."
When that was relayed to Mahorn, he responded: "Patrick wouldn't take a punch at me. I'll find out where he lives, and I'll be on his front door waiting for him."
Shortly after that comment, Mahorn, in the third quarter, walked down the hall to the Knicks' locker room. Fireworks? Hardly. They watched the third quarter together.
Kind of makes you wonder whether Vince McMahon of World Wrestling Federation fame had his hand in more than the wrestling debut of Lawrence Taylor on Sunday.
Around the league
The Houston Rockets (42-29) are in sixth place in the Western Conference. If the Rockets finish the season sixth, it will mark the first time since 1970 that a defending champion finished that low. The Boston Celtics won in 1969. Then, after the retirement of Bill Russell, finished sixth in the Eastern Division in 1970.