As well as the Suns are playing — seven wins in the last 10 games, 10 games over .500 since Christmas and 27-11 after a 4-5 start — the natural tendency is to look up at San Antonio and Dallas, six games ahead in the Western Conference standings, and wonder if there is still time to catch up.
But with 35 games left to play, Phoenix’s focus is all about status quo — keep playing well, keep ahead of the hard-charging L.A. Clippers and hang on to what would be the No. 2 seed in the West.
That would keep Phoenix out of the dreaded 4-5 matchup in the first round of the playoffs — if the season ended today, the Suns would meet the Lakers — and keep the Spurs, Mavericks and even Clippers off their radar screen until the second round.
The Suns take a tenuous two-game lead in the Pacific (one in the loss column) into tonight’s game with struggling Minnesota at US Airways Arena, even though they’re playing some of their best basketball of the season. And the Clippers, who are off to a 3-1 start on a six-game Eastern road trip after Sunday’s overtime win in Toronto, aren’t getting any smaller in their rear-view mirror.
The Clippers are 11 games over .500 (28-17) for the first time. Not this year . . . the first time ever.
“Our focus is winning the division and that won’t be an easy thing to do because the Clippers won’t go away, and they’re not going to go away,” Phoenix coach Mike D’Antoni said. “If you don’t win the division, you’re fourth or fifth no matter what. The goal is to stay away from that.”
The Suns split the two meetings with the Clippers in Los Angeles and host them twice within the final 20 games of the season — Mar. 15 and Apr. 5. And while that would figure to be an advantage, the Suns aren’t much better at home (17-7) than they are on the road (14-9), and the Clippers seem to revel in their underdog status.
“We’re just the same old Clippers. That’s all we are. We’re just the same old Clippers,” veteran guard Sam Cassell, a big factor in the team’s resurgence, said after Sunday’s win. ‘‘We want teams to continue to take us lightly.’’
The Suns aren’t falling for it.
“That’s a very good team. They’ve done a good job and they are coming on,” D’Antoni said. “Elton Brand is playing at an MVP level and they’re tough. We have to keep winning.”
BONUS SHOTS: With Leandro Barbosa back at 100 percent, the Suns have a three-headed scoring threat coming off the bench in Barbosa, James Jones and Eddie House that is not only holding leads but increasing them when they hit the floor. All three average between 12.7 and 10.4 points per game, keeping pressure on teams to keep up the pace.
“Our guys off the bench are all shooters and they bring a lot of firepower. When you have that kind of offense, with the kind of starters we have, it’s a great combination.”
House, a candidate for the league’s Sixth Man Award, is scoring 13.8 a game over the last five and is increasing his assist total as well. ...
Boris Diaw had no points, one rebound and one assist at halftime of Saturday’s game with the Bulls. By the time he left with 4:27 left in the game, Diaw had collected 11 points, 11 rebounds and six assists — in the second half alone.