Andrew Unterberger is more than halfway home on his trip to every NBA arena. Here are his thoughts on Phoenix…

When I asked my dad for suggestions of things to do when passing through North Dakota a few weeks ago, one of the only things he could think of was to see a home game of the state’s D-League team, the Wizards. (Is that really such a great team name that it demands both pro and minor repping?) The league’s season hadn’t started yet, so I couldn’t take him up on it, but I did like the idea of going to a D-League game at some point in my trip — I’d never been before, and had absolutely no idea how it would compare to the live NBA experience. So on my way down to Phoenix from Denver, I stopped off in New Mexico to pay a visit to my old college trivia friend Jason and to go see the New Mexico (née Albuquerque) Thunderbirds square off against the Erie BayHawks.

The stadium that the Thunderbirds played at (Santa Ana Star Center) was so far off the main road that my Garmin refused to believe that it even existed, but luckily Jason had a pretty good inherent sense of direction, and we were able to find the stadium well before tip-off. The arena was far from sizable — just one level of stands, putting the seating capacity somewhere between high school and Div-II college — and, unsurprisingly, it was still far from full. The attendance might have just broken quadruple-digits, but probably not if you take away all the kids and their families that were there as some sort of youth basketball cross-promotional thing. Jason and I were able to walk up to the box office and get seats two rows back at center-court for $23. I don’t even think the Nets could offer that kind of a bargain.

The game itself was enjoyable enough. Both teams had one player each that I’d heard of — Solomon Alabi for the Hawks, Daniel Orton for the Birds — though neither ended up playing much, as Alabi was largely ineffective and Orton played well in the first half (some impressive face-up moves) but sat out the second half with a tweaked ankle. Instead, the star of the game was 2010 D-League Slam Dunk Contest champion Dar Tucker, who showed off his ups as well as his jumper on his way to scoring a game-high 26 points in the Thunderbirds’ 96-83 victory. I eventually realized that the main difference about going to D-League games is that when you try to heckle the players — I started yelling for Tucker to shoot the ball almost every time he touched it, and ragged on him when he failed to do so — not only can they actually hear you, but they can very easily isolate you as the asshole shouting at them. (I wasn’t drunk enough to have the courage of my convictions, so I quickly backed off.)

Ultimately, not a terrible way to spend a weekend night, though the concessions were predictably lacking (At least there was a choice offered between Bud and Bud Light), the Jock Jams were majorly repetitive (I’m pretty sure we heard two different Rihanna songs played multiple times in the third quarter alone) and the team mascot was yet another dumb cat (despite there actually being a different animal in the damn team name!), I’m glad I went, and Jason and I certainly had a good time, but I hoped for a somewhat richer experience to come at US Airways, as the Suns took on the Wizards in what looked to be a fantastic past/present vs. present/future point guard duel.

The Stadium: I should say that it’s going to be hard for me to talk unbiasedly about the Suns’ stadium, because I was so gushingly enamored with the surround Phoenix weather. A crisp and sunny 77 degrees in Arizona, it was the exact kind of weather I’d waited for my whole trip. (I hoped to get it in LA, but it was surprisingly windy the whole time I was there and thus less than perfectly pleasant.) I was so overjoyed just to be able to walk around the stadium comfortably in short-sleeves, it might have handicapped the digs a little bit in my eyes. Still, I thought the arena’s externals were very pretty, and I liked that they had basketball hoops set up at each of the entrances for fans to play around on, as well as a DJ rocking out the good-time tunes out in front. Hey, you have this beautiful weather to work with, might as well make the most of it.

The insides, though, were just as good. Some of the best and most interesting food stands I’ve seen at the stadiums thus far (I ended up getting an excellent Chicago-style hot dog from a stand that sold specialty dogs from all over the country), and the walls of the upstairs area were lined with the kind of historical displays that I’ve spent a lot of time and space here calling teams out for not doing. There were timelines of the team history, especially as they related to franchise players like Paul Westphal and Charles Barkley, and I wished I had allowed more time to be able to actually pore over all of them.

But even cooler was the APS Gorilla Green House — the Suns’ own mascot-approved playground area, filled with arcade games, pop-a-shots, and an impressively elaborate jungle gym. I don’t know why more teams don’t make an effort to have nifty stuff like this to give their arenas a little charm and personality, but it all certainly fit well with a team as fun and fan-friendly as the Suns.

The Game: It was fairly clear from the outset that this was going to be — surprise, surprise — an offensive-dominated game. The Suns’ post defenders couldn’t be bothered to control the paint, and the Wizards were absolutely flummoxed as to how to even begin to guard the pick and roll. The Wiz jumped out to an early lead, mostly as a function of streaky Wizards forward Andray Blatche hitting his jumper and the Suns’ newly-christened center Earl Barron being physically unable to put ball in basket from within ten feet, but the Suns quickly caught up — nothing new for Phoenix, who apparently had already come down from three double-digit deficits for wins at home this season. By the finish of the first half — which was capped by a thunderous Hakim Warrick dunk at one end, quickly upstaged by a buzzer-beating banker three from John Wall at the other end — it seemed like it was heading to be one of those “whichever team has the ball last” type contests.

In such an offense-only match-up, though, the Suns invariably had the upper-hand, as a result of the man running the show: No. 13, Steve Nash. Not much has been made about the excellent season Nash has been having at age 36 (18 ppg, 10 apg, 50% FG), mostly because by this point, we’re not surprised by it anymore — we’ve stopped prematurely predicting his demise and started taking for granted that he’s just gonna be this good forever. Maybe he will and maybe he won’t, but on Sunday night, he was as good as he’s ever been — 20 points on a pristine 9-9 shooting, with 17 assists and just two turnovers. At their best, a great point guard will look like he’s actually solved basketball, and Nash’s game against the Wizards was him fixing up a Rubik’s Cube in two minutes. Every jump shot, every bounce pass, every floater, every alley-oop, it was all with diamond-like precision and clarity, and if his teammates didn’t convert (they usually did) or if his shots didn’t go in (they always did), it was simply their own damn fault. So impressive was Nash in the first half that John Wall posted a near double-double in the half alone (8 pts, 10 assists) and I didn’t even notice until I looked at the box score and said “Huh, guess Wall’s having an OK game too.”

Though they let him down a little early on, Nash’s teammates started to actually finish on his gorgeous set-ups in the third quarter, and the Suns were able to pull away some. The Wizards bench battled to keep them in it, and rookie reserve forward Trevor Booker had a put-back slam that was Top Plays-worthy, but once the Phoenix offense started really clicking, there was no looking back for them. Final score: Suns 125, Wizards 108. That’s right, three wins in a row. Up to 6-11 for the trip — good enough to make the playoffs in the East, probably.

The Fans: I don’t know to say if I was disappointed in the turnout at US Airways — I had been warned before the game by Michael Schwartz of Valley of the Sun (who was kind enough to show me the ropes at the arena and talk about the team for a minute) that attendance would be relatively low, largely due to the Arizona Cardinals game finishing up across town. Still, it was a bit of a bummer to see another half-filled arena at tip, and though the crowd was certainly a presence, it just wasn’t dense enough to be as raucous as I’d come to expect watching some of the bigger Suns games at US Airways on TV the last handful of years. Seeing a great game at a great stadium with a great crowd in tow — law of averages says it has to happen at least once for me on this trip, right? Maybe? If I ask nicely?

Anyway, fans seemed mostly into the team, if understanding that it’s still sort of a work in progress. “I think they’re doing pretty good,” a fan named TJ told me. “They just need to gel a little more.” Another fan named Mike agreed: “There’s still some work to do,” he said. “Finding consistency, hitting shots on a consistent basis.” Michael was convinced that the team mainly just needed a power forward. “They’re one of the worst defensive rebounding teams of the decade,” he said, citing a recent ESPN study that indeed showed that they had the worst defensive-rebounding percentage of any team since the site started tracking the stat. “If they had a Reggie Evans type in there…” Michael also had another specific name in mind: Jason Thompson, the Kings forward recently submitted for market discussion. “He’s available, he’s young, and he can grow with the young guys,” said Michael. Hey, the Kings need wing players, right? I’m sure the Suns have about seven small forwards they could let the Kings take off their hands for the very reasonable price of JT.

There weren’t many tears shed for the loss of Amar’e Stoudemire, free-agent departee to the New York Knicks. “I think they miss his scoring,” said Mike of STAT’s departure. “But as a fan, I don’t miss his lack of effort at times.” And TJ though the Suns already had their solution to picking up that scoring slack. “I think they need more Hakim Warrick,” he said. “He’s Amare-lite.” (Couldn’t agree more, for the record — at times executing the pick-and-roll with Nash, he looked even deadlier than Amar’e used to.) And no one was paying much mind to the rumors about Nash being a trade risk. “Personally, I think the Nash rumors are ridiculous,” said Michael. “Are you gonna be a championship caliber team soon by trading him? I don’t think so … people should be enjoying these last few years of Nash.” Mike had the line of the night regarding those Nash rumors: “We traded him once. Let’s not trade him again.” Can’t say I see it happening either.

Most Popular Jerseys: Nash for new, but not by as overwhelming a majority as I thought — a lot of Hills, Richardsons, even Fryes and Dragices (Dragici?) to be found in addition. The Amar’e No. 32 was the most popular retro if we want to count STAT as such after one month’s absence, but if not, saw a couple old-school Dan Majerles and Kevin Johnsons in there as well.

Celebrities in Attendance: Current Phoenix Mercury center (Big woman? Why does it just sound insulting and kind of sleazy to say that?) Tangela Smith, who was met with a less-than-rousing ovation from the crowd. Hey man, the two most recent (and only, really) pro titles in Arizona sports came courtesy of the Mercury during Smith’s tenure. A little respect, please.

Also Worth Noting: Two words: Golden Grannies. No doubt we’ll be seeing permutations of this at NBA arenas throughout the country before all is said and done.

Swag Acquired: For one of the bigger gift shops I’ve seen thus far, I still struck out at the Suns’ swag central looking for the two items I really wanted — a Warrick jersey, and a Suns hat with the scorching 90s basketball-sun logo on it. Ended up with a beach towel, because why not. In Miami soon enough.

2010 Jam of the Day: It’s December, which means for at least the next week or two, it’s year-end catch-up time. (Hey man, I got some major best-of lists to crank out.) So we’ll be eschewing the Sirius/XM choices for some contemporary favorites, for the time being.

Tanlines – “Real Life” “Real Life is to Tanlines as the Declaration of Independence is to America,” says YouTube user joeydmb12. Apt, though I imagine Thomas Jefferson would have frowned at African drums in Independence Hall. Ben Franklin probably would have been down, though.

16 hour drive to Houston coming up next. When I finally get back to New York, I’ll never complain about the R train taking 40 minutes to get from Astoria to midtown Manhattan again. Never for three weeks, at least.