LOS ANGELES - The Suns haven’t made a single roster move since just after the last time they faced the Lakers — signing Jalen Rose to a free agent deal.
But there has been a new addition to the team for weeks now, one that was still obviously present Saturday as the Suns had a walk-through and light practice for today’s end to a seven-day, four-game road trip that felt much longer for all aboard.
The Suns might have a gorilla for a mascot, but right now it’s all about the elephant in the room.
While the rest of the Western Conference elite are sharpening their playoff armaments and competitive edge, the Suns are groping about in search of the one thing they’ve seemingly always had.
Pundits routinely knock their defense or their toughness, their size or their toughness. But poor team chemistry? Even Charles Barkley doesn’t touch that one.
But with 10 days and six games left in the regular season, here are the Suns openly discussing their lack of cohesive play, their selfishness on offense and being consumed by playing time and personal statistics instead of preparing for the postseason ahead.
Not talking about it hasn’t worked. The Suns have been running in place since the All-Star break, seemingly taking a step forward in one game, only to backslide the next.
“You wouldn’t think you’d be talking about chemistry issues with a team that won 17 in a row and 15 in a row (earlier in the season), but that’s where we are,” said guard Raja Bell. “We have to figure it out and get it ironed out because it’s not healthy to go into the playoffs this way.
“I hope it all melts away, and we find a way to be productive and put it aside for the common goal, which is to win a championship. We have to find a way to win no matter what.”
Another chance to break free comes today on national television against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers — another one of the teams the Suns can usually focus on and get up for, no matter the inner squabbles.
Just a week ago, the Suns appeared to have a handle on their woes. The offense was crisp, the ball was moving and everyone played a helpful role in a 22-point pasting of Dallas. But in three games since them, the sluggishness has returned, the extra pass has disappeared and only a friendly schedule featuring the horrible Grizzlies and battered Hornets has kept the wins coming.
Bell missed all 10 of his 3-pointers Friday but kept firing although teammate Leandro Barbosa was red hot. Amaré Stoudemire collected four personal fouls trying to create his own shots instead of finishing other’s passes. Shawn Marion continues to shoot from the outside but hasn’t made many in recent memory. Coach Mike D’Antoni continues to champion Boris Diaw’s importance to the team, but Diaw’s production hasn’t been worthy of the words.
Steve Nash hit a breaking point Thursday in San Antonio, when he ran several fast breaks only to find he had no one on his wings. The Spurs played good defense, but Phoenix’s energy and enthusiasm was missing and didn’t show up the next night in Oklahoma City.
“We have to have confidence in each other,” said Nash, who called out his teammates after Friday’s uninspired win over the Hornets. “We have to share the ball and look to set each other up instead of worrying about how many shots we get up.
“In the playoffs, chemistry has to be one of our strongest characteristics. It always has been, but this year it’s faded and we have to get it back. We’re not playing for one another.”
The Suns won’t be the only team on the floor today enduring harmony problems.
Struggling point guard Smush Parker has had several recent run-ins with Lakers coach Phil Jackson and may have lost his starting job after making one basket Friday and committing five turnovers before being benched for rookie Jordan Farmar.
BONUS SHOT: The Lakers still have Bryant, who has scored at least 43 points in seven of the last 11 games. And they will have Lamar Odom, who sees the Suns for the first time since going for 34 points and 13 rebounds when the Lakers rallied to win on opening night.
As usual, Bell will get the primary assignment on Bryant. The two teams have a rematch Friday in Phoenix, meaning he has a busy week.
“I always prepare if he’s going to shoot a high volume of shots, so the fact he’s shooting more now doesn’t change anything,” Bell said. “You try to make the catches harder, make him work to shoot tough shots and keep him off the free throw line as much as possible.”
Suns at Lakers
When: 12:30 p.m. today
Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles
TV: Ch. 15
Radio: KTAR (620 AM)
Records: Suns 57-19, Lakers 40-36
Series history: These two teams meet for the 200th time today. The Suns have won eight of the past 10 but have not played the Lakers in L.A. since Halloween night, when they blew a 19-point opening-game lead and lost 114-106 to the Kobeless Lakers. Bryant was around on March 4 in Phoenix, when the Suns won 99-94 behind 23 points from Steve Nash. Bryant led the Lakers with 31 points, but he played without Lamar Odom or Luke Walton, both of whom are back for this one.
Scouting report: Suns — Phoenix is 2-1 on this road trip but is still looking for its first effort worthy of a 57-win team. Phoenix won’t be able to hand-pick its first-round opponent this year; its focus is winning games and staying ahead of San Antonio for the No. 2 seed in the West. The magic number to clinch is five. Despite another subpar game in Oklahoma City, Boris Diaw remains a starter and will get increased minutes. Shawn Marion is averaging 21.4 points and 9.3 rebounds in his past five games.
Lakers — Bryant is still putting up big numbers, but the Lakers had lost four out of five before winning in Seattle Friday and have both the Nuggets and Clippers on their tails in the playoff race. They have a very challenging week ahead (Phoenix, at Denver, Clippers and at Phoenix), especially considering they haven’t beaten a team with a winning record since Feb. 26 (Utah). Outspoken point guard Smush Parker started Friday, but Jordan Farmar played the fourth quarter and snapped Parker’s streak of 157 straight starts today. Kwame Brown sat out with an ankle problem, and backup Andrew Bynum was horrible in a scoreless 12 minutes. The Suns haven’t seen Odom since he put up 34 points and 13 rebounds on opening night.
Scoring at will
When Kobe Bryant scored 65 points against Portland on March 16, he began an incredible run of production that’s seen him top 43 points seven times and 50 points five times in the last 11 games — including a mind-boggling streak of four straight.
Date Opponent Points
March 16 Portland 65
March 18 Minnesota 50
March 22 @Memphis 60
March 23 @N.O. 50
March 25 Golden St. 43
March 27 Memphis 23
March 30 Houston 53
April 1 Sacramento 21
April 3 Denver 39
April 4 @L.A. Clippers 29
April 6 @Seattle 46