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Suns stumble into 'Paper Clip' territory

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Even if Charles Barkley were ever at a loss of words -- which is never -- he could amuse by talking about the Los Angeles Clippers. The "Paper Clips" is what Chuck calls them, and they're one of his barometers of bad play in the NBA.

So who would have thought, more than a month into the season, that Barkley's Phoenix Suns would have just one win more than the "Paper Clips?"

But that's exactly where the Suns stand. Phoenix has lost three straight games, is just 6-5 at the America West Arena and has the sixth-worst winning percentage (.421) in the Western Conference. The 8-11 record reflects the team's worst start since the 1987-88 team began the season 7-12 on the way to a 28-54 record. The Suns have lost two straight at home, to the Miami Heat (playing without Alonzo Mourning) and the Charlotte Hornets (on a night when Larry Johnson went 3-for-18 from the field).

So, naturally, there's a bit of dissension on a team that has a new look after the retirement of Danny Ainge and the early-season trade of Dan Majerle.

"Everybody thinks they're Charles Barkley," Barkley said. "Everybody's got the green light to shoot, and nobody is doing the little things."

Like play defense. Going into games last night, the Suns were allowing more points (107.9 points per game) than any other team in the league. Barkley's a leader, but he has never been known for his defensive skills, and everyone playing that way in the wide-open Western Conference will not help a team's success.

It certainly hasn't helped that Barkley and Kevin Johnson have missed so many practices with various injuries. Johnson has missed five games (he played just 47 last sesaon), and his latest groin and hamstring injuries suffered against Charlotte on Tuesday might land him on the injured list.

"Nobody on our team is playing with those guys because they don't practice," coach Paul Westphal said. "Charles expects a guy to go one way, and he goes the other way . . . The only time they play with those guys is when they're in front of 19,000 fans."

"I'm not saying I have an answer," Westphal added. "If they can't go, they can't go. But it's certainly apparent we're not very cohesive after 19 games when we've shot 50 percent twice."

It could be the type of season that persuades Barkley to retire, which he has hinted at after recent seasons (he actually announced his retirement after the Suns were eliminated from last season's playoffs). Barkley and his 32-year-old frame might not be strong enough to carry the Suns.

"We've got just two stars," said guard Elliot Perry, referring to Barkley and Johnson. "We're going to live and die with them."

He's like Mike, again

Remember the time when former Washington Bullets guard LaBradford Smith scored 37 points against Michael Jordan during the 1992-93 season, and then made the mistake of saying "Good game, Mike," afterward. It doesn't sound like a sign of disrespect, but Jordan took the comment personally and the next night in Chicago -- the teams were playing back-to-back games -- he embarrassed Smith.

That's what I was reminded of going into Wednesday's showdown in Chicago between the Bulls and Orlando Magic.

In the last game between the two teams, Anfernee Hardaway outscored Jordan, 36-23, and many were ready to crown the Magic guard as the successor to the throne. Jordan came back with a vengeance Wednesday, scoring 36 points as the Bulls won the rematch.

Is Jordan back? Maybe he's not the same player he was before his retirement two years ago, but his off-season work is definitely showing he's better than when he returned for 17 games last season.

Jordan's numbers in 17 games he played last season: 39.3 minutes, 26.9 points, 41.1 field-goal percentage, 80.1 free-throw percentage, 50.0 three-point percentage, 5.33 assists, 6.9 rebounds, 2.1 turnovers. The Bulls were 13-4.

This season, after 17 games: 38.4 minutes, 29.4 points, 49.3 field-goal percentage, 86.0 free-throw percentage, 32.7 percent three-point percentage, 4.9 assists, 5.3 rebounds, 2.2 turnovers. The Bulls were 15-2.

Jordan, with the help of Dennis Rodman, who just returned from the injured list, has helped the Bulls to a 17-2 record, the best start in the 30-year history of the team.

"Last year when he came back, it was all hype," said Chicago guard Ron Harper. "And do you want to know what I think? Michael got caught up in the hype. He got caught up in his own hype where he felt he had to do so much to carry us and to meet other people's unrealistic expectations."

And when those expectations weren't met, Jordan's lofty status as the game's best player was threatened. That is why he dedicated himself in the off-season to getting in top basketball condition. Not only is he leading the league in scoring, but he's also helped the Bulls once again reach the top of the Eastern Conference.

"Age-wise, I think I'm old," said Jordan, who is 32. "But skill-wise, I think I'm still capable of playing the type of basketball I know I can play.

"I think that by the end of the year, hopefully you will see that it's basically the same player with two years in between."

Around the league

Pat Riley wasn't pleased with the cover story package in last week's Sports Illustrated titled, "Hot & Not: Miami loves Pat Riley but wants to give Don Shula the boot." Said Riley: "To be put in the light where [Shula] is denigrated, I just thought it was terrible." . . . Riley will make his return to Madison Square Garden on Tuesday when the Heat visits the New York Knicks. . . . Atlanta guard Steve Smith, struggling this season, is losing more and more minutes to Craig Ehlo. "Can't score if you don't play," Smith said. Countered coach Lenny Wilkens: "Can't score if you don't shoot." . . . Dikembe Mutombo blocked nine shots against the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday, victimizing Jerry Stackhouse four times. "What's wrong with him, Stackhouse, Steakhouse or whatever his name is," Mutombo said. "When you come to the league, you got to know who you play against." . . . The Los !! Angeles Clippers, who were 7-6 over their first 13 games, had an eight-game losing streak going into last night's game at home against Miami.

Quotes of the week

From Philadelphia 76ers guard Scott Skiles, who signed earlier this week for the NBA minimum:

"I told Derrick [Coleman], 'Do you realize I'm probably playing for less money than you played for in college?' "

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