Here Comes the Sun
Phoenix rising in the West.
by Colin Powers
Phoenix is 20-5 since February 1. They have put together their most prolific offensive season since the Nash/D’Antoni era began, averaging a robust 110.5 PPG coming into tonight. Amare is on a tear similar to the one we witnessed immediately after the Suns acquired Shaq in 2008, with the added dimension that he now consistently displays a commitment to the defensive end of the court as well. I’m not sure how you can contain him beyond constant double-teams and divine intervention on pick-and-roll sets. Nash and Grant Hill’s sustained excellence gives further testament to the magic of the Phoenix training staff, who I’m sure are now meticulously easing the bulging disk in Robin Lopez’s lower back to its rightful place. Jason Richardson is not quite the athlete he once was but still provides a jolt of explosiveness here and there along with toughness and improved 3 point shooting. Channing Frye has found a home in the land where 6-10 bigs are free to roam the 3-point arc and strut that same aversion for physical play that didn’t exactly win him many hearts and minds in New York. Louis Amundson compensates for that softness with his physical play, and Goran Drajic and Jared Dudley have been key in allowing Coach Alvin Gentry to keep the minutes of his veterans to a suitable level because of their consistent performance (Stoudemire leads the team with 34.7 per game).
Right now, Phoenix is one game back of the 2nd seed in the West, yet nobody seems to take them seriously as a legitimate contender. That irrational stigma grown out of their shortcomings in the past decade now shadows them everywhere they go and in all discussions of their prospects. You can’t win playing that style. It’s all good fun in the regular season, but come Playoff time, the run-n-gun bogs down. The system is fundamentally flawed. Before discussing this season’s team, we must revisit their history as it is popularly remembered.
In the Spring of 2005, the Suns had captured America’s imagination with their innovative 7 seconds or less style. Their play harkened back to a more open, free-flowing time in the League prior to the iso-heavy, war of attrition tactics that gripped the 1990s. This mustachioed West Virginian Head Coach, with a system born out of Italy, eschewed conventionality and the traditional rules of war en route to a 62 win regular season, the tops in the NBA. They ran and ran and ran, shot the ball early and often from far and wide, and set the NBA aflame. Come postseason, they dismantled Memphis in the first round, overwhelmed Dallas in a high-quality second round, and then found themselves staring down Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs. Unfortunately, we never were afforded the series we deserved, with both squads at the peak of their powers. Joe Johnson, by far the most dynamic of Phoenix’s wing options as well as a capable ball-handler and playmaker, broke his orbital against Dallas and couldn’t suit up for the WCF. Despite a mammoth series by the pup Amare Stoudemire, Phoenix lost in 5 (with three of their losses being decided in the last few minutes of the game). The conservatives of the basketball world were left to snicker to themselves, delusional in their certainty that this new system couldn’t win when it mattered.
The next year, in spite of their rising juggernaut Amare Stoudemire being sidelined with microfracture surgery, Phoenix kept on with their free-wheelin, sharing the ball, leave your conscious at home ways (I’m sure critics thought the team also espoused free love), taking it all the way to the Western Conference Finals again before bowing to Dirk Nowitzki at his absolute apex (by the way, another unfair myth should be addressed here, namely that Dirk is a choke: Until that bizarre Final against Miami, Dirk had put together an incredibly clutch and dominant postseason. Things eventually went haywire, with an assist from the referees, but he was nothing short of brilliant throughout their run up to that point. For his career, he has been one of the best in all statistical measurement of 4th quarter and clutch scoring. That should not be neglected). Once again, awkward castoffs who hadn’t defined themselves yet in the League found their place in Phoenix, with Boris Diaw’s outstanding play perhaps most representative of the Suns’ willing embrace for the undesirables of others. All in all, not a bad effort in a year without their franchise Power Forward.
In 2007, they again met the Spurs, this time in the conference semifinal after a wildly successful 61 win regular season. With the series tied at 2 games, Big Shot Bobby Horry decks Nash, Stoudemire and Diaw walk onto the court to check on their teammate/’escalate the potential for violence’…and get suspended. Phoenix drops a nail-biter at home in game 5 without their frontline, losing 88-85, before San Antonio closes out business at home in game 6.
Self-doubt as well as a clash of egos surfaced in 2008, with the higher-ups deciding to move Shawn Marion for the Shaqtus. With this move meant to appease the basketball dogmatics, the Suns still played pretty well though once again ran into long-time nemesis San Antonio in the post-season. A promising beginning cruelly reversed itself when Duncan nailed a flukey game-winning three to end game 1, and Phoenix never recovered. Last year with Terry Porter as Head Coach was similar to a teenager in the midst of an identity crisis, with lots of whining and misplaced anger resulting in their floundering into the lottery for the first time in years.
With that as our background, we shall proceed. To those who discredit the Suns way of basketball as inherently and inevitably misdirected, I say you are wrong. Basketball and life is all about context. For Phoenix, a very specific set of unfortunate circumstances collided throughout their run in the past decade that severely hampered their hopes of winning the championship. Johnson’s orbital, Amare’s injury, and the suspensions of Diaw and Stoudemire all played undeniably critical roles in deciding their ultimate fate. Even with this cosmic ass-kicking, however, in all three seasons they still hung around, made it so just about each game was decided in the final few minutes, and gave themselves an opportunity to win.
When a contest reaches end game, you can throw out all the debates of philosophy and system along with all the clichés about winning ways. When there’s two minutes left in a tie game, none of that has any tangible value anymore. No, now it simply comes down to certain players making plays, knocking down open shots, winning a battle mano-e-mano, getting a lucky whistle, getting a lucky bounce (ah, how different things would have been if Vlade Divac never inadvertently tipped that ball to Robert Horry, who buried the 3 at the top of the key for a Lakers Game 4 win over Sacramento in 2002, saving the series and their dynasty). In these three years (four if you include the Shaq year), things didn’t work out for Phoenix, but it would be wrong to oversimplify and conclude, well, of course they were gonna lose, their system is wrong. You can talk about systems at a macro-level, as in evaluating a season in its entirety and the statistical patterns that emerge. You cannot apply that same way of reasoning at the micro-level, however. You cannot apply it to the very case specific variables that conspire in determining a win or a loss on the game-to-game basis. Phoenix didn’t lose those years because of their system. They lost because in those few moments that decided everything, Ginobili was a stud, a shot or two rimmed out, they weren’t at full strength, and they just didn’t get it done on the given night.
Alright, apologies for the lengthy diatribe; I needed to get that off my chest. This year, I think their system deserves as much credit as ever for the fine regular season they have put together. Like the 2005-2006 year without Amare, they have accomplished a great deal under Alvin Gentry in ‘09-10 with a less than awe-inspiring roster. Amare and Nash have been their typical superlative selves, but the quality play the Suns’ style has brought out of Dudley, Frye, Drajic, and Amundson along with Grant Hill’s continued resurgence deserves to be commended. Under the radar for the first time in five or so years because of missing the Playoffs last year and trading the attention-grabbing Shaquille O’Neal, the Suns have shown us the ride aint over yet. Lower expectations have suited them well.
If they are able to keep climbing the rankings and grab themselves a 2 or a 3 seed, should we take them to be a real player in the West this year? Funny enough after this long article defending them, this time around I think they probably don’t have the weapons to get it done. Amare’s capable of averaging 40 and 12 for a series, Nash will persist in his maestro ways, but beyond those two and maybe Richardson, there is not a whole lot of individual talent, guys with the ability to create a shot for themselves or others (though to be fair, despite his over-dribbling ways, Drajic isn’t that far from getting there). Earl Clark could have been incredibly valuable as the hybrid Joe Johnson/Boris Diaw type, but unfortunately he is not ready to contribute this season. The Suns just don’t have the horses they have had in years passed to ascend out of the cauldron that is the Western Conference. They have a ceiling on how high they can reach because their personnel are just a little too limited for 2010. When push comes to shove against a team as deep as the Lakers or Mavs, they don’t have the goods to measure up.
Nevertheless, that does not mean they haven’t had a tremendous season, because they have. And most importantly for me, that doesn’t mean their system is broken, because it isn’t.