Run n’ Gun No More

by December 17, 2008

by Todd Spehr

Without purposely trying to ooze with sentimentality, I viewed Monday night’s Suns-Knicks game as a funeral. It was a game that provided an opportunity to say good-bye—not to Mike D’Antoni, but to a period of time, to a four-season hoops version of utopia that produced an unprecedented offense ran by a unique group.

Mike D’Antoni received the warmest of receptions during intros—just pretend you saw it NBATV viewers—which was a classy gesture by fans who were, truth be told, spoiled rotten in recent years. D’Antoni and Steve Nash would commemorate their time together the only way they knew how: Score over 100 points, combine for about 60 3s, and treat the defensive end with the enthusiasm as a dentist visit. Finally, it was Nash who delivered the eulogy, busting a three in the final minute that ended the game.

Perhaps the thing I love best about the D’Antoni era in Phoenix is that each of the people involved—Nash, STAT, Marion, Diaw, Bell, Barbosa, heck, you can throw D’Antoni in there as well—will forever be defined by their time together. That’s special. Nash used to speak of “the journey” being capped by a title, and that’s where the fulfillment would draw from. Well, the Suns didn’t win a ring during their most successful period, and it didn’t end well, but really, the beauty of it all was the journey itself.

It’s too bad, because the last 10 months in Phoenix have played out like that scene in Life, where the inmates depart one by one, eventually making things feel foreign. You get the feeling that no one wanted it this way.

Boris Diaw’s parting shot was that things were no longer fun; the excitement was, like D’Antoni, long gone. Amare Stoudemire openly pined for more offensive opportunities, a gripe that would’ve been unimaginable in prior seasons. Nash, the glue that kept those amazing teams together, spoke last week about how he felt as though he was the one who’d been traded, so gutted was his once-feared squad. D’Antoni openly admitted to being unable to watch the Suns this year—not even for scouting purposes—because of his emotional investment in what he still considered “his guys.”

No one wanted it to be this way.

This was the backdrop for the Knicks visit to Phoenix. D’Antoni playing the part of tour guide, bringing his kids into a museum where special things once happened. It’s ironic, but he’s treating his Knicks with the same philosophy as his 2006 Suns: Live (and die) with the three, force mismatches at every opportunity, operate with little size, and stick to the strictest eight-man rotation.

Their opponent was a shadow of the team D’Antoni once ran. The recently departed included Diaw and Raja Bell, meaning the Suns now possess just three players from the 2006-07 rotation. Amare Pst, come to N.Y. in two years...complained of lack of touches, lack of The Man status. Nash has, deliberately or not, sent messages through the media to Terry Porter on the subject of pushing the ball. Speaking of which, Porter has all but thrown the entire 2007-08 Pistons playbook at his new team, hardly a publication that would lead to offensive inspiration. Steve Kerr has promised more defensive effort, like his darling Spurs, yet his most recent trade were in direct contradiction to that idea.

And so they played. The Knicks couldn’t convert from deep, though not through lack of trying. The Suns went for 30-plus in each of the first two quarters. Shaquille O’Neal, in Phoenix in large part because of D’Antoni, was wreaking havoc; all he needed was some pinstripes, some hair, and Penny alongside and you’d swear it was ’93. Al Harrington, D’Antoni’s new all-purpose scorer, was off but you got the feeling he was still getting 20. He didn’t let us down. Phoenix threatened to break it open, but New York hung around, hung around some more, even had a chance to get within one on a Nate Robinson three late, but couldn’t get close enough. Nash wouldn’t let them. He may not be what he once was, but he’s crafty, and he walked that tightrope of do-I-shoot-or-do-I-pass beautifully in the final two minutes. Suns 111 Knicks 103.

While the game itself was largely uneventful, it is stocked with significance. D’Antoni put to rest the demons that were oh so present when he departed. The Suns showed signs of a new identity, one that they must forge if they’re even to make the postseason.

And for a night, things felt right in Phoenix again. That vaunted offense may be gone, but its impact isn’t. Seven Seconds or Less.