CHARLOTTE, N.C.(AP) Larry Brown was in his first week of training camp in his record ninth NBA head coaching job when he invited his mentor, Dean Smith, to see his flawed Charlotte Bobcats practice.

"I remember watching coach Smith watch us and him saying, 'Are you sure you like coaching?''' Brown said.

How far the Bobcats have come since then was on display Friday night, as Boris Diaw dominated his former team with 26 points and 11 rebounds in Charlotte's 98-76 rout of the slumping Phoenix Suns.

"It was an unbelievable great game,'' said Brown, clearly enjoying coaching now with the Bobcats having won five of six and 11 of 18. "I don't think we can play better.''

Last month's deal that brought Diaw and Raja Bell from Phoenix for Jason Richardson has invigorated the Bobcats, who also got 28 points from Gerald Wallace.

Richardson's arrival hasn't cured Phoenix.

The Suns committed 24 turnovers in their third straight loss, and Richardson was bottled up much of the night by Bell, finishing with eight points on 3-for-9 shooting in his first game back in Charlotte.

"We need to figure out ways to just go out there and compete,'' said Richardson, who received polite applause when he was introduced. "We can't expect to get wins just because we're the Phoenix Suns.''

Shaquille O'Neal had 20 points for the Suns, who had been 8-0 against Charlotte and had never failed to score fewer than 110 points in those games.

But while the Bobcats don't resemble the poor teams of the past, these Suns are suddenly a bumbling bunch that has dropped five of six and sinking fast in the Western Conference standings.

"I haven't seen them not scoring the ball like that,'' said Bell, who had nine points and a career-high eight assists. "We probably caught them on the right night - and we were firing on all cylinders.''

Diaw, Bell and backup point guard Sean Singletary were sent to Charlotte Dec. 10 for Richardson and reserve forward Jared Dudley.

Bell and Diaw, who were in their fourth seasons in Phoenix, had their roles reduced following O'Neal's acquisition and coach Terry Porter replacing Mike D'Antoni.

The pair have quickly become leaders in Charlotte - and Diaw particularly punished his former team.

"I said he was my hero tonight,'' Bell said. "When he's confident and aggressive and really feeling it, he's as good as anybody.''

After Wallace scored 22 points in the first half, Diaw showed his versatility by scoring 14 points in the third quarter in a variety of ways, including two 3-pointers to put Charlotte ahead 81-55.

"He's a better bride than a bridesmaid,'' Suns forward Grant Hill said. "Here he has a chance to be a bride.''

The Suns, meanwhile, could be left at the altar when the playoffs roll around if they don't soon get out of their funk.

Four nights after their first-half stinker in a blowout loss at Boston, the Suns fell behind 59-37 at halftime.

Things got so bad Steve Nash, who was hampered by a sore back, missed a free throw for the first time in a month, ending his streak of 54 straight. He finished with four points, five assists and six turnovers.

"Steve was hurt. He probably shouldn't have been out there,'' Hill said. "I know what's it like to try and play when you're hurt. I told him if you're hurt, don't play.''

Nash's woes helped contribute to a disjointed offense. The Suns scored a season-low 13 points in the first quarter. Amare Stoudemire, voted an All-Star starter this week, was held to 12 points on 5-for-14 shooting.

"We've got to do some soul searching,'' Porter said. "Somehow we need to find a way to win a game. Our will has got to make us win a game. We've got two left on this road trip.''

Charlotte begins a five-game road trip Sunday at Indiana full of confidence, and looking nothing like the outfit Smith saw in camp.

"He wrote me a note the other day,'' Brown said of Smith, "asking if I still like it.''

Notes: Asked if he felt the Bobcats would make another trade, Brown said managing partner Michael Jordan "wants to be active and wants to make us better,'' before adding, "but he keeps telling me the most important thing is we've got to improve the guys we have.'' ... The Bobcats wore uniforms with stripes resembling a checkered flag down the side on NASCAR night. Jeff Gordon was among the drivers on hand. ... The win means Dallas (0-10) is the only team the fifth-year Bobcats have never beaten.


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