An important thing happened over the weekend.
The Phoenix Suns convinced me they can handle the Lakers. Perhaps better put, after the Suns victory on Sunday, it became apparent to me that the Lakers can't handle the Suns.
If standings remain as they are, that fact will be critical if the Suns and Lakers meet in the first round of the playoffs.
More than any other team in the league, (except the Dallas Mavericks) the Lakers scare me. Call me crazy, but I'd prefer the aging San Antonio Spurs to the unpredictable Lakers any day this year.
With the stinging upset and heated playoff history still so fresh in the minds of Kobe Bryant and company, I was nervous about the likelihood that the two teams would meet again.
The unpredictability of the Lakers and their young talent, the playoff experience of coach Phil Jackson and the sheer dominance of Bryant don't settle well with me.
The game on Sunday was more important than just another regular season game. It was more important than the Suns prolonging their two-game lead on the Spurs heading into the final two weeks of play. It was more important than the Suns picking up momentum before entering the postseason.
It was a sneak peek at a possible new rivalry.
Raja Bell proved that he can hang as well as anyone with Bryant, scoring 22 points and hitting all six shots from long range. He held Bryant to an average game, 34 points and seven assists, in one where Bryant needed to play phenomenally.
I'm looking forward to all the new developments that a playoff series will bring to the minifeud between Bell and Bryant. Last year, the two battled and beat each other all series long. (Bell was suspended for Game 6 after a clothesline shot to Bryant's neck in Game 5.)
Any notion that the two are now friends was dashed after watching their physical play and trash-talking all game long Sunday.
In the mental department, I give the edge to Bell. The very fact that he has engaged Bryant into a verbal contest proves that he has gotten under Bryant's skin. And the fact that he can mentally distract Bryant and still drop 22 points will be immensely important in itself come playoff time and that just makes me happy.
The Suns stepped up after Shawn Marion got into foul trouble and had to ride the pine much of the game.
The balance exhibited was a thing of beauty. Everyone stepped up. Steve Nash had 25 points and 11 assists. Leandro scored 23, Amare Stoudemire added 19 and Marion contributed 12.
Barbosa's court commanding and ball handling has greatly improved, perhaps under the tutelage of Nash. This was visible on Sunday and it's huge. Nash needs a couple of breaks per game and the Suns can't afford to have an offensive lapse during his absence.
Coach Mike D'Antoni must be impressed with Kurt Thomas' play of late.
Against the Lakers and over the last month or so, he's had a knack for doing all the things that don't show up in the stat sheets. His weak-side help and defense has been great, and his tendency to be in the right place at the right time will be crucial in the playoffs. Four or five extra possessions per game could be the difference between second round and elimination.
After a 115-107 victory that saw the Suns welcome the competition against a well-coached, well-stocked and well-liked Lakers team, I say, "Bring on Round 1 of the Western Conference playoffs."