THE PHOENIX SUNSteam that had wreaked havoc on the NBA for much of the past four seasonsbriefly reappeared in the playoffs on Sunday afternoon. But at press time itseemed mostly a face-saving performance. Indeed, the only clear conclusion tobe drawn after the Suns' 105--86 Game 4 thrashing of the San Antonio Spurs atUS Airways Center was that Phoenix would not be swept. To emphasize that point,the Gorilla, the franchise's iconic mascot, stood at center court during a latetimeout and broke a broomstick in half. At this juncture boasting, Dammit, wewill not lose four in a row! was a little lame. But that was the fate thatbefell the Suns after a heartbreaking defeat in Game 1 and poorly playedefforts in Games 2 and 3.
By the time youread this, the significance of their win will be known; Game 5 was scheduledfor Tuesday night back in San Antonio. But whether the series ended or not, thelarger story is the possible breakup of the NBA's version of the Fun Bunch andthe potential departure of coach Mike D'Antoni, whose hand pushed Phoenix'sthrottle toward the red zone for the last four years.
D'Antoni'srun-and-gun style produced the league's third-best record over that span,back-to-back MVP awards for point guard Steve Nash (2005 and '06), a Coach ofthe Year nod for himself ('05) and a spirited following of aficionados whoappreciated the return of fast-break basketball to the league. "Mike shouldbe given credit for re-revolutionizing offensive basketball in the NBA,"says ABC/ESPN commentator and former New York Knicks and Houston Rockets coachJeff Van Gundy. "And if he never won it all, it wasn't because of hisphilosophy. It was because his teams weren't quite as good as those thatdid."
A parallelsituation, meanwhile, was playing out in Dallas, where the New Orleans Hornets'97--84 Game 4 victory on Sunday night put the Mavericks in a 3--1 hole, furtherproving the eternal mutability of the NBA. Dallas, like Phoenix, had a recentMVP and Coach of the Year (forward Dirk Nowitzki last season and Avery Johnsonin '06), yet will probably also undergo a makeover.
It won't be easy.Neither franchise is stuck, in the Knicks sense of the word, with vastlyunderachieving and untradeable players collecting extravagant sums of money.But neither has a lot of wiggle room either. The Mavericks are hamstrung by bigcontracts given to players they may want to move, such as forward Josh Howard,who made headlines last Friday by publicly admitting his off-season affectionfor marijuana and who is due $20.8 million over the next two years. The Sunshave a huge albatross in center Shaquille O'Neal, who is due a flat $20 millionin each of the next two seasons.
But change willtake place, and it will probably start, as it usually does, in the seat whereX's and O's are drawn. Dallas's run was also not quite over (Game 5 in NewOrleans was scheduled for Tuesday), but well-placed sources, not to mentionlogic and precedent, say that Johnson, the Little General, will be gone even ifthe Mavs pull a minor miracle and make it to the second round.
There was still achance that D'Antoni would remain in Phoenix, a chance that no doubt wouldincrease if the Suns were to stay alive. But the best guess is that D'Antoni,who has two years and about $10 million left on his contract, will step down,either to sit out for one season (and recharge his batteries) or to takeanother head job (with New York, Toronto or Chicago as possible destinations).A 232--96 record over four full seasons with the Suns? Two Western Conferencefinals appearances? The No. 1 offense in three of the last four years? Doesn'tmatter. D'Antoni hadn't been able to get by San Antonio, which through Sundayhad beaten Phoenix in 11 of 15 playoff games going back to 2005.
So what happenedin the Valley of the Sun? Why couldn't an enlivening coach with the perfectpoint guard (Nash), an athletic big man (Amaré Stoudemire) and the affection ofthe media and the masses keep it going? The first and most obvious answer, ofcourse, is the Spurs, who played an exquisite series. But the Suns are atextbook example of what happens when Successful Team can't make the final jumpto Championship Team. Here are some of the reasons they were unable to.
Tension at theTop
Steve Kerr was thefirst major hire made by Robert Sarver when Sarver became majority owner of thefranchise in 2004. After serving as a consultant, Kerr took over as presidentof basketball operations and general manager last summer. Kerr and D'Antoni aretwo of the most pleasant, intelligent and nonconfrontational men in thebusiness, but that doesn't mean they get along. In public comments each hasexpressed respect for the other, and they are civil enough that few in theorganization noticed there was a problem. But they had an angry early-seasonrow about D'Antoni's use of Stoudemire, whom Kerr believed would be betterserved with more postups on offense. "Whatever you want to criticize mefor," D'Antoni told Kerr, "don't tell me how to coach offense!"D'Antoni believes that Kerr subtly knocks his coaching in the press and feelsthat Kerr spends too much time away from the office, at his home in San Diego.Kerr, for his part, believes that D'Antoni is stubborn about his own principlesand never listens to any of Kerr's ideas. There is some truth in both of theirassessments.
A schism developedbetween the coaching staff and the scouting staff, too, Kerr being aligned withthe latter, as a G.M. often is. The more it was suggested that D'Antoni giveplaying time to a specific player—rookie forward Alando Tucker, for example—theless inclined D'Antoni was to do so, even though the coach has been faulted forhaving too short a rotation.
The Weight ofExpectation
In 2004--05,D'Antoni's first full season at the helm, the Suns won 62 games and lost in theWestern Conference finals to the Spurs. Everybody loved them. The followingseason, with Stoudemire injured almost the entire year, they still won 54 gamesand reached the conference finals, in which they lost to the Mavericks.Everybody still loved them, but fans started getting antsy. Last season Phoenixrebounded with 61 wins but was victimized in an unlucky six-game loss to SanAntonio in the second round. Then the valentine read, I still kind of love you,but you'd better make me happy next year by winning it all. Everyone on theteam began to feel the collective struggle of trying to reach the top,particularly those who had been around in the halcyon days when D'Antoni'suptempo style was the freshest thing to hit the NBA since dance teams. At theirbest the Suns were loosey-goosey, but there was little loosey or goosey abouttheir 55--27 performance this season.
With maximumcontracts given to Stoudemire and since-traded forward Shawn Marion, and anear-max to Nash, Sarver began to look for little ways to save money. Everyowner has to do so, but sometimes the fate of a franchise hangs on those smalldecisions. Versatile guard Joe Johnson left for the Atlanta Hawks after the2004--05 season over a few million dollars. First-round draft picks—includingRajon Rondo, No. 22 in '06—were dealt away to avoid having to sign them toguaranteed deals. (Now the quarterback of the Boston Celtics, Rondo, apenetrator and willing defender, would've been the ideal backup for Nash.)Phoenix saved $8 million by trading Kurt Thomas and two No. 1 picks to theSeattle SuperSonics for a second-rounder before the season, but the veterancenter resurfaced in San Antonio and had haunted the Suns in this series withhis resolute interior defense.
When Phoenixtraded at midseason for O'Neal (a move supported by D'Antoni, ascounterintuitive as it might have seemed), the Big Standup was supposed toleaven the tension in a locker room burdened by the title expectations. To anextent, he did. At practice on the day before Game 3, for example, O'Neal toldassistant coach Alvin Gentry that he would buy him a Ferrari if Gentry, a knownleaper even at age 53, could dunk in two attempts. "But no warmup,"said O'Neal. Gentry failed, but the challenge gave the practice a nice feel,though that hardly helped the Suns on the court the next night.
But the arrival ofShaq also added to the pressure. For one thing it changed the go-go Suns to thestop-and-go Suns, a peculiar hybrid of a team, one that was sorta-gonna-run andwas sorta-gonna-play-tough-D. (The team did neither in Games 2 and 3.) On thenight O'Neal was introduced to the home crowd, he pointed to the championshipring on his finger, a sign that he intended to add another to the four healready owns. With formidable Western contenders lurking all around, like thefeathered predators on telephone wires in Hitchcock's The Birds, just the sightof O'Neal reminded everyone that the Suns had to win it all this season to gettheir money's worth out of him. Now he represents $40 million of diminishingreturns.
The Consequencesof O
To his dying day, D'Antoni will tell you that a team can win a championshipwith an uptempo style, and he will tell you that his teams are not as baddefensively as critics claim. Perhaps he will be proved correct somewhere else.But in consistently tilting his practice time and philosophy toward offense,defensive details inevitably got overlooked—and just as inevitably theresulting weaknesses were exploited.
D'Antoni does notdemand that O'Neal come out and defend on high pick-and-rolls. Consequently,when Spurs forward Tim Duncan sets a pick for guards Tony Parker or ManuGinóbili, then flares to the side and takes a return pass, he almost has timeto count the seams on the ball before he releases a jump shot, of which he madefour from 16 feet or more in Game 3. (Never mind how many uncontested looksParker, who scored 41 points, had that night.) "That's just theirphilosophy," Duncan said between games in Phoenix. "If I missed thoseshots, it would be the right one." That's the diplomatic answer; Duncancould give you the script, blue as it might be, on what he would hear fromcoach Gregg Popovich if he ever stayed in the lane as O'Neal does.
Phoenix coacheswill tell you that they employed a variety of defenses in Games 2 and 3 in anattempt to combat the endless pick-and-rolls, even going to a hated zone. Butall of the defenses were deeply flawed, even if credit is given to themetronomelike precision of the San Antonio offense. In Game 4 D'Antoni used6'8" forward Boris Diaw on the 6'2" Parker, and that slowed Parkerdown. But the Suns don't specialize in situational defenses and activerotations, which require discipline and hours of practice to master.
Everyone in thePhoenix organization still gets a migraine thinking about the play late in Game1 on which Stoudemire failed to switch off and cover guard Michael Finley on athree-point shot. With a clean look Finley sent the game into overtime, and SanAntonio eventually won 117--115 in two OTs, setting the course for the series.Was Stoudemire told to make the switch? Yes. Was it his fault? Yes. But theSuns don't drill and drill and drill for those situations as the Spurs do.
Perhaps if JoeJohnson hadn't suffered an eye injury during the '05 postseason, Phoenixwould've gotten by San Antonio and into the Finals. Perhaps if Stoudemire andDiaw hadn't been suspended for Game 5 of last year's conference semis, in anincident precipitated by Spurs forward Robert Horry, the Suns would've won thatseries and gone on to the Finals. Perhaps if Finley hadn't made that Game 1shot and Duncan hadn't made his own three (his first of the season) to send thegame into a second overtime, Phoenix would've gained control of thisseries.
Perhaps, perhaps,perhaps. So much has to go right for a team to win a championship, and in theend not enough things fell in place. Keep in mind, though, that the Sunsrepresent a clear majority. Teams—such as the Sacramento Kings, the Mavs andthe Suns—rise then come apart if they don't make it to the top. Even some thatdo, such as the Detroit Pistons (the '04 champs) and the Miami Heat (the '06champs), can't sustain excellence. We've seen that movie so many times before.Only the saga of the Spurs, who are gunning for their second straight title andfifth in 10 seasons, continues on a seemingly endless loop, the teamalternating between really good and great.
But if D'Antonidoes depart, let this be the epitaph of his run-and-gun tenure: It was greatfun while it lasted.
The Suns are a textbook example of what happens whenSuccessful Team CAN'T MAKE THE FINAL JUMP to Championship Team.
The sight of O'Neal reminded everyone that the Suns hadto win it all this season to GET THEIR MONEY'S WORTH out of him.
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Photograph by Greg Nelson
BIG ENIGMA O'Neal (on floor) isn't asked to defend pick-and-rolls, allowing Parker (above, with ball) to run wild in the series.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
[See caption above]
INSIDE MAN Like Parker, Ginóbili, who hit the winning shot in Game 1, had little trouble getting into the lane at will.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
SIZE DOESN'T MATTER Duncan (left) has gotten the better of O'Neal in spite of O'Neal's overwhelming physical advantage.