The phoenix suns began the season as a nullity, quickly evolved into a novelty and wound up winning more games than any other NBA team. Into a likely first-round matchup against the Memphis Grizzlies they take an MVP candidate in point guard Steve Nash, a Coach of the Year candidate in Mike D'Antoni and a Most Improved Player candidate in center Amaré Stoudemire (not to mention a Blogger of the Year candidate in offbeat forward Paul Shirley). Yet many around the league still wonder whether the Suns, who had won 61 games through Sunday after going 29--53 last season, are too much the arrivistes, with their full-throttle offense--"blitzkrieg basketball," Minnesota Timberwolves general manager and coach Kevin McHale calls it--destined to fizzle in the playoffs. ¬∂ Just how far can fast-breaking Phoenix go? That tops the list of compelling questions as the postseason gets started this Saturday. Among the others: Can Shaquille O'Neal, after leading the Los Angeles Lakers to three straight titles as Finals MVP, work similar wonders for the Miami Heat? Are the Detroit Pistons, seeded second in the Eastern Conference, ready to tighten up and play the disciplined style that earned them a championship in 2004? Will San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan shake off a late-season right ankle sprain and win his third ring (and his first without David Robinson)? Can one of the dark horses--the Dallas Mavericks or the Houston Rockets in the West, the adversity-tested Indiana Pacers in the East--conquer a field that lacks a prohibitive favorite?
Despite their record, the Suns are not generally viewed as the team to beat. Indeed, for every positive about Phoenix there's a negative. The Suns average more points (110.2 at week's end) than any team since the Orlando Magic's 110.9 in 1994--95. But they don't play lock-down defense. The Suns run better, off makes and misses, than any team since the Showtime Lakers of the 1980s. But they don't have a reliable half-court attack. The Suns had more three-pointers (9.6 per game) than any team in NBA history. But they also attempted the third-most threes (24.6) in NBA history, and their shot selection was often suspect. Phoenix hasn't been stopped all year, except for brief stretches in January and February when Nash had leg and back injuries. The playoffs, however, are different.
A true fast-breaking team hasn't won it all since the 1987--88 Lakers, and they could go to an indomitable half-court force, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, when the action slowed down. Yet some team, some time, is bound to change the paradigm--or, rather, return it to what it was when Magic Johnson relentlessly pushed the ball (as Nash does now) and Pat Riley stood on the sidelines waving his hands and yelling, "Go!" (as D'Antoni does now).
Certainly, Phoenix has a chance to be that team, to emerge victorious from what Nash calls "a battle of styles." Here are a few reasons why the Suns might prevail--and why they might not.
THEIR SECONDARY BREAK
On the Sunny side: It's not so much that teams can't run in the playoffs; it's more that they seldom get easy baskets when they do. Defenses tend to sprint back into the paint in transition, then administer punishment to those who dare seek a gimme. But the Suns' break doesn't have to get all the way to the hoop to be successful; their secondary break is the best in the league. All of their starters can stop and pop. Or with Nash on the dribble, they can run a superb pick-and-roll for an open jumper--often from beyond the arc. "It's impossible to stop a team from shooting 18-, 20- and 25-footers in transition," says McHale, "and that's what those guys do."
On the cloudy side: Because they don't have a go-to scorer in the half-court, the Suns need to make those transition threes. But can they keep up their long-range accuracy (39.2%, best in the league)? Small forward Quentin Richardson, who through Sunday had made a franchise-record 219 three-pointers while attempting a franchise-record 610, is a notorious streak shooter. If he misses his first one or two, he may clang 10 in a row--and even that won't stop him from firing away.
THEIR PEERLESS LEADER
On the Sunny side: Phoenix has an unshakable belief in Nash, akin to how the Lakers felt about Magic. "Steve will find a weakness in the defense and do whatever is necessary," says 6'7" power forward Shawn Marion. "That's the way we've been doing it all year." And though there has been much talk about his wearing down, the 6'3", 195-pound Nash said last week that he's feeling fine. "In many ways it's easier to [stay fresh] in the playoffs because there are no back-to-backs," he said.
Even if Nash, who signed a six-year, $60 million free-agent contract in the off-season, doesn't win the league MVP award (he's in a neck-and-neck race with Shaq), the Canadian Kid is having a truly magical season. Remember how a generation of youngsters began drying their sweaty hands by wiping them along the soles of their sneakers because Larry Bird did it? Watch how many budding point guards begin making an exaggerated shooting motion before launching a free throw, and licking their fingers between dribbles. (Nash even does that while leading the break.) As far as copying Nash's moppish hair style? Not a good idea.
On the cloudy side: If teams contain Nash--or if he gets hurt in one of his headlong dashes up the court--Phoenix is doomed. He not only sets up his teammates (a league-leading 11.5 assists per game, the highest average since 1994--95) but also has an underappreciated ability to create his own shot in the half-court. The widely accepted plan for dealing with Nash is to let him fire away rather than allow him to penetrate and dish to streak shooters such as Richardson and sixth man Jimmy Jackson. "When we played Dallas in the playoffs two years ago [Nash was with the Mavericks then], we focused on trying to make Nash finish at the basket instead of letting his teammates get into the game," says Portland Trail Blazers guard Damon Stoudamire. "If Nash scores 40, it means nobody else is getting the ball."
THEIR PRECOCIOUS PIVOT
On the Sunny side: The Suns' athleticism is best exemplified by Stoudemire, their 6'10" marvel of quickness and leaping ability who, in the words of Blazers interim coach Kevin Pritchard, "runs like a guard and can get out in front of the posse." Though Stoudemire and Marion regularly give away inches and pounds at the five and the four, respectively, they are capable of beating their opposite numbers down the floor on every possession--a trait shared by Phoenix's other starters. That has allowed the Suns to increase their scoring by 16.0 points per game over last year, the biggest jump in the shot-clock era. "Amaré is big, strong and so athletic, and Nash finds him and gets the ball to him," says Portland forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim. "How can they miss with that combination?"
On the cloudy side: Partly because Nash is a veteran of six playoff series and wise beyond his 31 years, Phoenix's playoff inexperience is often discounted. Not, however, by Shirley, whose blog of a recent road trip for the team's website--funny and candid by the standards of the typical "inside look"--got extensive attention from the national press. "I see [us] going through the same struggles as any team that is new to success, especially one with such young personnel," wrote the much-traveled Shirley, who has scored a total of 31 points in three NBA seasons. "I see players who might be starting to believe what they read about themselves and who are beginning to become convinced of their own importance."
Shirley did not name names, but he may have been referring to one of his poker-playing buds, the 22-year-old Stoudemire. Even though he was tied for fifth in the NBA in free throw attempts at week's end (9.9 per game), Stoudemire frequently barks at the refs when he doesn't get a call and then is often late getting back on defense. He also shows his frustration when the game turns physical by committing silly fouls. Rest assured that teams will look to muscle up and show no amore to Amaré.
THEIR UNDERESTIMATED D
On the Sunny side: While they can hardly be lumped with stalwart defensive teams such as San Antonio and Detroit, the Suns play excellent team D, an extension of the share-the-wealth philosophy they demonstrate on offense. D'Antoni spends much of practice on help drills and relies extensively on double- and triple-teaming during games. At 6'7", Joe Johnson is a decent stopper who can cool off guards and forwards, and Marion is a wild-card defender, able to help in the middle, close out on three-point shooters and still get a defensive rebound.
On the cloudy side: Phoenix has shown signs of defensive complacency in recent weeks. "At the beginning of the season we didn't know how good we could be, so we got down and guarded people," says Nash. "Then, suddenly, we have this great record, and we stopped taking defense as seriously. Our biggest challenge in the playoffs is to get back our defensive intensity."
Further, Stoudemire may be, as one coach who desired anonymity puts it, "one of the 10 worst defenders in the league." He partly masks his deficiencies with shot blocking, but his court awareness is poor; he rarely shades off his man to offer help, even on the strong side. That tendency, if not corrected, could be exploited in the playoffs.
But perhaps this is the year that defense won't matter all that much, and the postseason will be owned by the team that, as Shirley writes, "is a test case for a return to the 1980s' Celtics-Lakers style." His coach is all too ready for the Suns to take that test. "About a million times over the last few months I've heard the question, Can your style win in the playoffs?" D'Antoni said last week. "I don't know the answer. But I can tell you this: I'm relieved that we're about to get one."
Every Game a Shootout
WITH TWO games left in the season the Suns were leading the league not only in scoring but also in points allowed. Since the 1976 NBA-ABA merger, none of the other nine teams that topped both categories advanced to the conference finals. But then, none of them had an average margin of victory close to Phoenix's.
Lost in first round
Lost in Western semis
Lost in first round
Lost in first round
Lost in first round
Lost in first round
Lost in first round
Photograph by Bill Frakes
Nash hopes to become the first fast-breaking point guard to win a championship since the Lakers' Johnson in 1987--88.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (RICHARDSON)
To outpace their so-so defense, Richardson and his running mates will need easy looks like this.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (STOUDEMIRE)
Phoenix's fate will ride largely on the athletic Stoudemire, who will have to lift his game at both ends of the court.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
Fired up by the Gorilla at home (LIFE OF REILLY, page 74), Phoenix has burned up the league on the road too.