Amaré Stoudemire misses another game. No problem. Who needs a dominant inside presence, when you can throw somebody else in the paint such as. . .Steve Nash?
The Suns point guard raced around the floor, somehow grabbing a career-high 13 rebounds — 11 in the first half alone — as the Suns rolled to a 116-87 laugher over the Philadelphia 76ers.
Nash’s boardwork propelled him to his career’s second triple-double; he also had 12 points and 12 assists in just 27 minutes.
"I was pretty lucky," Nash said. "I try to work hard and all, but there had to be stars in alignment."
Wednesday’s win at America West Arena clinches the title for Phoenix in the revamped Pacific Division, thus ensuring a top-three playoff seed.
And at 54-17, they remain a game ahead of San Antonio for the West’s best record. And they are a halfgame ahead of Miami for the league’s best record.
"Given that the team won 29 games last season, and nobody picked us to win the division or even make the playoffs, necessarily, it’s a great accomplishment," Nash said.
"We’ve raised the bar. But it’s not enough."
The rout was so complete that the Sixers started raising the white flag with 8:47 left, when they took Allen Iverson out.
Even Bo Outlaw and Paul Shirley got to enjoy the party, playing the last few minutes.
Outlaw drew a charging foul, the sort of play that’s kept him in the league so long.
At the crowd’s urging, he tried an 18-footer, but the shot rolled out. Another bomb missed entirely. His third and fourth shots bounced off the rim.
Outlaw said he thought all but one of the shots were going in.
"I’m a shooter," he joked.
Shirley knocked down a free throw for his sixth free throw of the season.
The Suns were able to do all this by putting together a nearly perfect first half, rolling to a 65-41 lead.
Joe Johnson and Leandro Barbosa helped relegate Iverson to a harmless 4-for-12 from the floor while Quentin Richardson — who has been fairly quiet the past month — broke through for 16 points before the break, 20 for the game.
The Suns flawlessly carried out the game plan of trying to prevent Iverson from scoring on layups and free throws, coach Mike D’Antoni said.
"Just a great game," he said. "They followed everything we told them about."
Besides, he said, "When Steve Nash gets 13 rebounds, if you don’t win on a night like that, something’s wrong."
Nash tied his own franchise record by passing for double-figure assists in his 12th straight game. He did the same from Jan. 26 to March 5.
Also, Shawn Marion had another great game, this time putting up 26 points and nine rebounds in just 31 minutes.
On defense, Steven Hunter tied a career high with five blocks.
"I’m the last line of defense," he said. For the Sixers, who are battling for one of the final playoff spots in the East, Iverson had 26 points; but he shot only 10-for-27. Chris Webber shot only 5-for-15 and left the game with a left shoulder injury.
The Suns won their fourth division title in the franchise’s 37 seasons. They also brought home division crowns in 1980-81, ’92-93 and ’94-95. Those three seasons also mark the Suns’ three best records (62-20 in ’92-93, 59-23 in ’94-95 and 57-25 in ’80-81.) D’Antoni doubted his club was even aware this was the night they might clinch, saying his team has had its eyes more on getting the best record in the league and in the West.
’Q’ SETS RECORD
Quentin Richardson hit his 200th 3-pointer of the season midway through the second quarter. That breaks the franchise record of 199 set by Dan Majerle in ’94-95. Majerle has three of the top five seasons for 3-pointers over the years (192 in ‘93-94 and 167 in ’92-93.) Richardson also is on pace to come close the NBA records for makes and attempts on 3-pointers.
Stoudemire missed his second straight game — his season’s only two misses — with continuing soreness in his left ankle. Though Stoudemire says the ankle is feeling better, "He says he still has pain," D’Antoni says. "He needs to be 100 percent before he comes back."
Shirley, whose Web blog on Suns.com is a hit, will be interviewed on ESPN News from 5 to 6 p.m. today. . .The Suns are 37 games above .500 for the first time since their Finals season of ’92-93. . . Nash’s only other triple double came with Dallas, vs. Portland, on Nov. 17, 2003. He had 10 rebounds in that game, to go with 14 points and 11 assists.