Bulls know they were never elite

A little more than 30 games into the season, the idea seems silly.

Could the Chicago Bulls really be better than the Detroit Pistons? That was a popular belief in the preseason, though few would make such a prediction now.

"I think you have to look at Detroit as a team that's done it year in and year out. We were a team that was on the rise and so you become the darling," Bulls interim coach Jim Boylan said.

"You're like the backup quarterback in town; everybody wants them out there but yet he really hasn't proven himself completely."

A number of outlets, including The Associated Press, picked the Bulls over the Pistons to win the Central Division, even though Detroit had won three consecutive division titles and eliminated Chicago in the second round of last season's playoffs.

Instead, the Pistons have been one of the NBA's best teams, currently holding an 11-game winning streak and 10-game bulge over Cleveland. Chicago has been one of the NBA's most disappointing clubs, falling to 12-19, 13 games back and in fourth place, following a 115-109 double-overtime loss to Portland on Thursday.

"I mean you can't put us over Detroit. Last time I checked we lost to Detroit, so I mean Detroit had the same team," Bulls guard Ben Gordon said. "That's just what the critics said. I don't think we had expectations of our own. I think there's some great teams in the East and it's tough either way to win it, so I don't think that's one of the things that got to us at all."

SUN RISING -- Christmas wasn't much fun for Amare Stoudemire and the Phoenix Suns.

Phoenix lost to the Lakers for the second time this season, slicing its Pacific Division lead to one game, and Stoudemire had been outplayed on national TV by Los Angeles center Andrew Bynum.

The Suns looked vulnerable then, but not now. Not the way Stoudemire is playing.

The All-NBA center led Phoenix to victories in its next four games, averaging 30.8 points and 13.3 rebounds while shooting 67 percent from the field.

Stoudemire had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee the day training camp opened and missed a few weeks. That caused him to get off to a poor start, and he even missed three games in early November while working his way back. He seems there now.

TIP-INS -- Knicks forward Zach Randolph was suspended one game without pay by the NBA for throwing his headband at a referee. Randolph was called for a foul by Tony Brothers with 1:47 remaining in the third quarter of the Knicks' 107-97 loss to Sacramento on Wednesday. ... The trial of Pacers players Jamaal Tinsley and Marquis Daniels on charges stemming from a bar fight has been delayed a third time. The trial was to begin Jan. 14, but was rescheduled for March 17 because a new prosecutor is handling the case.