IN A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN

Feb. 1, 2007 – You may not believe me, but I really didn’t want to spend another month writing about how well Mike D'Antoni has his Phoenix Suns playing. I got that out of my system the last time my words graced this space.

But then the Suns decided losing in January wasn’t something they were interested in doing, and Steve Nash continued to play at an MVP level, and my plan crumbled from there.

I’ll get the obvious critique out of the way: They lost their last January game Monday in Minnesota. But it took a super-human effort from one of the Association’s marquee talents to finally turn them away, as was the case when their 15-game run ended in December.

"Our big thing is if we get beat, it's going to be the other team that beats us," D'Antoni said following a 115-100 victory in Cleveland on Jan. 28. "We're not going to beat ourselves. We're going to come every night and play as well as we can, and if they beat us, they beat us."

After Kevin Garnett erupted for a season-high 44 points, 15 of which came in the fourth quarter, and single-handedly stopped Phoenix in its history-making tracks, the All-Star coach’s prophecy came true. But I’m not going to let one little loss – no matter how ill timed – rain on this parade.

The Suns won 17 games in a row, the longest streak in seven years, 15 of 16 in the month (had they taken care of business in the Mini Apple, they would have become only the third team in history to finish a month 16-0) and 33 of their last 36. Not too shabby.

At 36-9 overall, you’d think Phoenix would be running away in the Western Conference. Unfortunately, there’s a team in Dallas that's pretty good too.

While the Suns were busy ripping off win after impressive win, the Mavericks stealthily went about their business, happy to fly under the national-media radar after their loss in The Finals last year. But it’s getting harder to ignore them, especially when they have the NBA’s best record (38-9) after a 16-2 January.

Like Phoenix, they have a phenomenal coach in Avery Johnson and a legit, top-tier MVP candidate in Dirk Nowitzki. And they, too, have been compiling victories at a prolific pace, winning 24 of their last 26 outings, the most significant of which came Jan. 21 in Miami, when they notched a demon-exorcising victory over the defending champs.

But, as Jason Terry pointed out before that pivotal win, the Mavs don’t get a ring for doing in one game this season what they failed to do in four at the end of last. If they want the hardware, they need to get it done come playoff time.

And something tells me those desert-dwelling juggernauts may be laying in waiting when the second season rolls around. Stay tuned.

Is there any team in the Assocation on the Suns and Mavs' level? Was there a bigger story this month? Drop me a line and tell me what you think.

Also making headlines in January ...

Ready to Take Charge?

The Pistons may have separated themselves from a couple of young challengers looking to make headway in the Eastern Conference when they signed Chris Webber on Jan. 16 after his contract was bought out by the Sixers five days earlier. Webber gives Detroit another strong veteran presence and frontcourt depth that the Wizards and Cavs will have a hard time trying to match. That being said, the Pistons' stiffest competition come playoff time might turn out to be the Bulls and – if they finagle their way into the postseason – the Nets or Heat, all of whom are more seasoned in big games than either Washington or Cleveland.

Let's Make a Deal

The Warriors and Pacers, two teams looking to spark a second-half surge, made a big splash with an eight-player trade on Jan. 17. Indiana shipped Al Harrington, Stephen Jackson, Sarunas Jasikevicius and Josh Powell to Golden State in exchange for Mike Dunleavy, Troy Murphy, Ike Diogu and Keith McLeod. Harrington and Jackson have been starting for Don Nelson's squad, and Dunleavy and Murphy have found their way into Indiana's starting lineup. Having played just six games each with their new teams, though, it's still too early to tell what kind of impact the eight players will have down the stretch.

Lights Out on Broadway

On Jan. 26, only four days after a Wade-less, Shaq-less Miami team dismantled New York using a franchise-best 27-0 run, Jamal Crawford did the Heat dirty. Crawford began 0-of-4 from the Madison Square Garden floor but got hot in a hurry. He rattled off 16 straight field goals before misfiring with 2:16 remaining in the third quarter. He scored a career-high 52 points – good for the 10th 50-point performance of the NBA season – on 20-of-30 shooting as the Knicks rolled to victory. His 16 consecutive makes were the most without a miss in over a decade.

Mixed Results in Denver

So far it's hard to tell if the Carmelo Anthony-Allen Iverson experiment going on in Denver has been a success. In five games together since Anthony returned from a 15-game absence, Melo is dropping 29.4 points per and remains the Association's leading scorer, while Iverson is averaging 25.2 opposite his new wingman. Meanwhile, J.R. Smith is holding steady at 16 ppg, so it seems there are plenty of passes to go around. But the Nuggets are just 2-3 with the dynamic duo in the lineup, a figure that needs to improve before calling this mission accomplished.

It's All About Perspective

If you look at the glass as half empty, you'll probably say the Heat had a rotten month. The defending champs lost Pat Riley to hip replacement surgery, Shaquille O'Neal to a bum calf – this after he played just two games following left knee surgery that kept him inactive in 35 – and, at 20-25 overall, remain 1½ games out of a playoff spot. But, if you want to take a more optimistic approach, Shaq is listed as day-to-day and interim head coach Ron Rothstein guided Miami to an 8-7 record in January. And with Dwyane Wade on the team, they're still a threat to make a run in the wide-open Eastern Conference.

The Big Ticket's Big Milestone

One day after Randy Wittman replaced Dwane Casey as coach of the Timberwolves, Kevin Garnett put himself in elite company. With a first-quarter assist against the Trail Blazers on Jan. 24, Garnett became just the fifth player in NBA history to collect 18,000 points, 10,000 rebounds and 4,000 assists in a career. He joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Charles Barkley, Wilt Chamberlain and Karl Malone on the exclusive list.

And the All-Star Starters Are ...

The fans had their say and chose the starters for the 2007 All-Star Game. Results of the balloting were revealed on Jan. 26, and (to no one's surprise) reigning All-Star MVP LeBron James was the leading vote-getter, amassing the second-largest total in history. The closest race in this year's election was between Gilbert Arenas and Vince Carter. Agent Zero bested Vin-sanity by just 3,010 votes in the tighest battle in 17 years. Chris Bosh, Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade round out the East crew; Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady and Yao will rep the West in Las Vegas on Feb. 18.

Have your own thoughts on the month that was? Disagree with my January highlights? Send an e-mail and let me know.