Pity the poor, misbegotten Phoenix Suns.

They've been hosed by the stupid, stupid NBA.

The league's supposed crime is that it didn't give leniency to Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw, who each took a stride off Phoenix's bench and onto the court in the waning seconds of Game 4 of the Suns' series with the San Antonio Spurs. Stoudemire and Diaw were checking on Steve Nash, the Suns' superstar guard, who had been sent flying into the courtside signage board after a cheap-shot hip check by the Spurs' Robert Horry.

Horry was given a two-game suspension for the foul and for hitting the Suns' Raja Bell in the skirmish that followed. Stoudemire and Diaw each got suspended for Wednesday's pivotal Game 5, which the Spurs wound up winning in the final minutes to take a lead of three games to two.

And ever since the league's penalty was announced, public opinion has backed the two Suns.

Wednesday on TNT, my friend Charles Barkley excoriated the league for its strict interpretation of the rule. The spirit of the rule, Barkley said, was that players who incite or escalate fights from off the bench should be disciplined, not people like Stoudemire and Diaw who were just standing up to check on their teammate. And just about everyone else, including the Suns, has smacked David Stern and Company around in similar fashion.

Lemme think. Yeah.

I haven't heard so much whining since my 3-year-old wanted to stay up past his bedtime to watch another episode of Sagwa, the Chinese Siamese Cat.

Are NBA players aware that when there's a fight, they can't leave the bench? Or was that something that just came up this week?

Great message to send to our children: Rules are rules, except when they're really inconvenient.

I've heard that people are especially angry because Suns-Spurs is a marquee series. So, should Tim Duncan and Nash get extra fouls because it would be bad for the series if they fouled out? (By the way, this also puts the lie to all you conspiracy loons out there who e-mail me any time a playoff series goes six or seven games. Don't you think the league would prefer the high-octane, fastbreaking Suns advance instead of the plodding, non-telegenic, ratings-death Spurs?)

Do I like the rule? Not especially. But if the league had looked the other way this time, it would have had one hell of a time explaining itself to Patrick Ewing, and Allan Houston, and Larry Johnson, and Chris Mills, and Jalen Rose, and Dee Brown, and all the other players who have been suspended during the playoffs for taking the same one step off the bench during altercations since 1997.

"David Stern made the exact decision he should have made with the rule that's in place," an NBA head coach who wanted to remain nameless said yesterday. "We remind our players all the time about the consequences of stepping on the floor . . . We know the rule."

You want to blame somebody? Blame the Suns' assistant coaches, who failed to do their job - keeping their players from getting on the floor. If the players were too emotional to think clearly, the assistants had to be.

"I tell my coaches all the time, hey, if there's a fight, first thing, turn around," the head coach said. "All the coaching staffs talk about it and all the players hear about it three or four times a year. Because any time there's a fight, I guarantee you, the next day, they're hearing, 'Hey, guys, stay on the bench.' "

You want to blame somebody? Blame the Suns for losing the opening game of the series at home (and for not being able to stop the cut on Nash's nose, which kept him out of the last couple of minutes. It's also interesting that Nash is just about the only Sun who hasn't been sniveling about the decision.) And for losing again at home Wednesday despite being up eight with 5 1/2 minutes to play.

What's really galling is that many of the same people who are decrying this awful, awful rule are among those who have the most bile in their stomachs about the NBA, and who are the quickest to condemn the "thugs" on the rosters, and who recoiled the most after the Brawl at Auburn Hills.

The NBA doesn't have all these anti-fighting rules in place so that it can penalize one of its most appealing teams at the worst possible moment. It has these rules in place because many in Middle America and on Madison Avenue have turned their backs on the game and trashed it every chance they got, and it would be economic suicide to give them any more ammo in the form of another bench-clearer.

You want to blame somebody? Look in the mirror.