Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NBA [Print without images]

Friday, February 20, 2009
Updated: February 21, 1:02 PM ET
PER Diem: Feb. 20, 2009

By John Hollinger
ESPN.com

Well, that was a fun two-game interlude. And we now return you to your regularly scheduled snakebit version of the Phoenix Suns.

After scoring 140 and 142 points in their first two games under interim coach Alvin Gentry, Phoenix was slammed today with the news that Amare Stoudemire could miss the rest of the regular season -- at the very least -- after suffering a partially detached retina in his right eye Wednesday during the Suns' win over the Clippers. In October, Stoudemire suffered a partially torn iris in the same eye during training camp and wore protective goggles for seven games.

And with that, suddenly all of our assumptions about the Suns require revisiting.

Our assumption that they would rally for a playoff spot? Not so secure -- not after Utah beat both the Lakers and Celtics to stay a game ahead of Phoenix, and not with the bar for the No. 8 seed in the West now at 47 wins in today's Playoff Odds, and not with the Suns facing the Celtics and Lakers this week before playing seven straight games against winning teams.

Our assumption that they could run-and-gun opponents into submission under Gentry? Tenuous without the game's premier pick-and-roll finisher, especially since it leaves Shaquille O'Neal -- who's never a guarantee to stay in the lineup -- as the team's only quality big man.

And our assumption that the Suns caught a break when it turned out they weren't forced to trade Stoudemire in a financially driven deal? It's in need of serious revision if this injury means they won't make the playoffs. Phoenix could have dealt him for young players and expiring contracts; not only would they have avoided next season's luxury tax, they could have gone under this season's tax line if they had played the shell game well enough with other teams' trade exceptions.

Instead, the Suns may miss the playoffs and still pay the tax this season and next. And oddly, even their improved draft position will hurt them in this respect -- that player will come with a higher first-year salary slot, unless the Suns resort to their old standby of selling the pick to the highest bidder.

But that's for owner Robert Sarver to worry about during the summer. In the meantime, let's look at another question: How does Phoenix cope from here?

I believe the answer is by playing as small and fast as possible. The Suns can insert Matt Barnes at power forward and at times go even smaller. Consider a lineup with Steve Nash and Leandro Barbosa in the backcourt and Grant Hill and Jason Richardson as the forwards around Shaq.

When they go to the bench, the likes of Louis Amundson and Jared Dudley can be the frontcourt -- they'll give up inches, but it's all about pushing tempo.

In a bizarre way, then, it's a blessing that Gentry took over when he did. The Suns tried to play conventionally under Terry Porter and got, at best, mixed results. Without Stoudemire, however, they can't play conventionally even if they want to. The team is seriously lacking in size right now, and they essentially have no choice but to play fast and run their opponents off the court.

The Suns have had success playing this way in the past. During the 2005-06 season, Stoudemire missed all but three games because of knee surgery, but Phoenix was able to reach the Western Conference finals by pushing the gas pedal.

If it works, that may be enough incentive for Sarver to bring everybody back, shell out the extra tax dollars and try again for the championship that continues to elude the Suns despite having contending teams for most of the past four decades.

But if it ends in a lottery visit, then the handwriting is on the wall. The Suns would almost certainly tear down this version of the team to avoid the serious tax hit, and Stoudemire would likely be among the first to go in that scenario.

If so, Stoudemire's eye injury might not only prove costly for the Suns' playoff hopes. It might also ensure that he's played his last game as a Sun.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.