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"Walter was taken out of his comfort zone," says MacLeod. "He was frustrated with his mistakes. But with each one there was a lot of learning."
"I thought it was a demotion at first," Davis says, "I thought they had lost confidence in me. Even though I really didn't think the switch could be done, I know now it has been. I know because the other night the coach put me back at forward for a few minutes and it wasn't right. I couldn't wait to return to guard."
That enthusiasm was apparent in last week's 123-108 win at Chicago when Davis made a pass on the fast break that led to a score. "He was so excited he jumped four feet into the air," said Johnson. Davis also responded to a flashy assist by D.J. by rearing back and giving him a high-five that was so hard, said Johnson, "I thought he'd break my hand."
The 24-year-old Cook, who resembles a 6'10" Huck Finn, has added his own brand of high-spiritedness—his specialty is seeking out teammates who are listening to music through headphones and slyly turning the volume up. More important, he has given Phoenix better rebounding. Cook already has three more offensive rebounds than Davis had all of last season. And though Cook isn't a true power forward—that role still belongs to Robinson, who's three inches shorter—he has freed Robinson to move around more and to operate facing the basket.
Robinson came to the Suns in January of 1979 from New Orleans, where he'd led the league in minutes played, rebounding and, some observers said, selfishness. He says it was a bum rap and that the New Orleans system simply called for him to do too much. "I had a no-trade clause in my contract, so I asked to leave," Truck said last week, before scoring a season-high 40 points in the win over Chicago. Robinson selected Phoenix as the place he'd like to play because of the presence of Davis at small forward. Fortunately, it hasn't bothered Robinson now that Davis has moved outside. He's scoring slightly less than 20 points a game and getting 10.5 rebounds, while playing about 38 minutes a game, six more than Johnson, who is second in court time. None of the other Suns starters plays more than 30 minutes on the average.
The presence of Truck, Cook and two guards who can operate down low has taken some pressure off Alvan Adams, the former Eagle Scout who is in his sixth season as the Suns' starting center. Adams, a model-train buff who frequently asks people when their homes were built because he likes old houses, sneaks through defenses hitting soft jumpers at a 52% clip and delivering passes most other pivotmen wouldn't dare to try. But Adams has only 210 pounds on his 6'9" frame and often he has been outhulked. When it became obvious that Phoenix would have to make a change, some Suns thought it was Adams who would go. But the added rebounding of Cook and D.J. has apparently eliminated that shortcoming. Phoenix was next to last and last in rebounding the past two seasons; the Suns have been in the top four all this season, even though Adams' seven a game is 17th among starting NBA centers. "Yeah, baby, we've been doing some glassin'," says Johnson.
Phoenix was tested at the center spot last week when Adams missed three games with a bruised back. Rich Kelley did an excellent fill-in job as Phoenix won two of them. The unkempt Kelley is a major force in keeping Phoenix loose. On the plane from Chicago to Indianapolis last week, some of the Suns noticed that his hair was much neater than usual. "I'm just trying to get my do together," Kelley told them. When he's not performing that hairy mission, Kelley turns his attention to inducing Kyle Macy, the rookie guard from Kentucky, to drink a whole beer, a feat Macy has yet to accomplish.
The Suns appear to have gotten the better of the Johnson-Westphal exchange, especially seeing as Westphal was knocked out of action in the Sonics' 10th game with an injury to his right foot. "These guys have ironed a lot of things out," says MacLeod. "They've subjugated themselves to the team's system. We'd gone about as far as we were going to with that other bunch."
The big question is whether this bunch can beat the Lakers. With all of its success this season, Phoenix has still stumbled against L.A. The Suns were unable to take advantage of Abdul-Jabbar's absence in a 116-109 road loss on Oct. 17, or Magic Johnson's absence in a 116-88 road defeat on Nov. 21. And they barely beat the Lakers, 102-99, in Phoenix on Nov. 20, again with Magic out of the L.A. lineup. The key may be keeping Robinson healthy, because power forward is the only position at which the Suns have a clear advantage over the Lakers. Strained left knee ligaments caused Truck to miss last season's 4-1 semifinal playoff loss to L.A.