Tuesday April 29th, 2008

The Phoenix Suns team that had wreaked havoc on the NBA for much of the past four seasons briefly reappeared in the playoffs on Sunday afternoon. But at press time it seemed mostly a face-saving performance. Indeed, the only clear conclusion to be drawn after the Suns' 105-86 Game 4 thrashing of the San Antonio Spurs at US 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 late timeout and broke a broomstick in half. At this juncture boasting, Dammit, we will not lose four in a row! was a little lame. But that was the fate that befell the Suns after a heartbreaking defeat in Game 1 and poorly played efforts in Games 2 and 3.

By the time you read this, the significance of their win will be known; Game 5 was scheduled for Tuesday night back in San Antonio. But whether the series ended or not, the larger story is the possible breakup of the NBA's version of the Fun Bunch and the potential departure of coach Mike D'Antoni, whose hand pushed Phoenix's throttle toward the red zone for the last four years.

D'Antoni's run-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 of the Year nod for himself ('05) and a spirited following of aficionados who appreciated the return of fast-break basketball to the league. "Mike should be given credit for re-revolutionizing offensive basketball in the NBA," says ABC/ESPN commentator and former New York Knicks and Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy. "And if he never won it all, it wasn't because of his philosophy. It was because his teams weren't quite as good as those that did."

A parallel situation, 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, further proving the eternal mutability of the NBA. Dallas, like Phoenix, had a recent MVP and Coach of the Year (forward Dirk Nowitzki last season and Avery Johnson in '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 vastly underachieving and untradeable players collecting extravagant sums of money. But neither has a lot of wiggle room either. The Mavericks are hamstrung by big contracts given to players they may want to move, such as forward Josh Howard, who made headlines last Friday by publicly admitting his off-season affection for marijuana and who is due $20.8 million over the next two years. The Suns have a huge albatross in center Shaquille O'Neal, who is due a flat $20 million in each of the next two seasons.

But change will take place, and it will probably start, as it usually does, in the seat where X's and O's are drawn. Dallas's run was also not quite over (Game 5 in New Orleans was scheduled for Tuesday), but well-placed sources, not to mention logic and precedent, say that Johnson, the Little General, will be gone even if the Mavs pull a minor miracle and make it to the second round.

There was still a chance that D'Antoni would remain in Phoenix, a chance that no doubt would increase 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 take another head job (with New York, Toronto or Chicago as possible destinations). A 232-96 record over four full seasons with the Suns? Two Western Conference finals appearances? The No. 1 offense in three of the last four years? Doesn't matter. D'Antoni hadn't been able to get by San Antonio, which through Sunday had beaten Phoenix in 11 of 15 playoff games going back to 2005.

So what happened in the Valley of the Sun? Why couldn't an enlivening coach with the perfect point guard (Nash), an athletic big man (Amaré Stoudemire) and the affection of the media and the masses keep it going? The first and most obvious answer, of course, is the Spurs, who played an exquisite series. But the Suns are a textbook example of what happens when Successful Team can't make the final jump to Championship Team. Here are some of the reasons they were unable to.

Tension at the Top

Steve Kerr was the first major hire made by Robert Sarver when Sarver became majority owner of the franchise in 2004. After serving as a consultant, Kerr took over as president of basketball operations and general manager last summer. Kerr and D'Antoni are two of the most pleasant, intelligent and nonconfrontational men in the business, but that doesn't mean they get along. In public comments each has expressed respect for the other, and they are civil enough that few in the organization noticed there was a problem. But they had an angry early-season row about D'Antoni's use of Stoudemire, whom Kerr believed would be better served with more postups on offense. "Whatever you want to criticize me for," 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 feels that 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 principles and never listens to any of Kerr's ideas. There is some truth in both of their assessments.

A schism developed between the coaching staff and the scouting staff, too, Kerr being aligned with the latter, as a G.M. often is. The more it was suggested that D'Antoni give playing time to a specific player -- rookie forward Alando Tucker, for example -- the less inclined D'Antoni was to do so, even though the coach has been faulted for having too short a rotation.

The Weight of Expectation

In 2004-05, D'Antoni's first full season at the helm, the Suns won 62 games and lost in the Western Conference finals to the Spurs. Everybody loved them. The following season, with Stoudemire injured almost the entire year, they still won 54 games and reached the conference finals, in which they lost to the Mavericks. Everybody still loved them, but fans started getting antsy. Last season Phoenix rebounded with 61 wins but was victimized in an unlucky six-game loss to San Antonio 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 the team 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's uptempo style was the freshest thing to hit the NBA since dance teams. At their best the Suns were loosey-goosey, but there was little loosey or goosey about their 55-27 performance this season.

Penny Pinching

With maximum contracts given to Stoudemire and since-traded forward Shawn Marion, and a near-max to Nash, Sarver began to look for little ways to save money. Every owner has to do so, but sometimes the fate of a franchise hangs on those small decisions. Versatile guard Joe Johnson left for the Atlanta Hawks after the 2004-05 season over a few million dollars. First-round draft picks -- including Rajon Rondo, No. 22 in '06 -- were dealt away to avoid having to sign them to guaranteed deals. (Now the quarterback of the Boston Celtics, Rondo, a penetrator 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 the Seattle SuperSonics for a second-rounder before the season, but the veteran center resurfaced in San Antonio and had haunted the Suns in this series with his resolute interior defense.

The All-In Gambit

When Phoenix traded at midseason for O'Neal (a move supported by D'Antoni, as counterintuitive as it might have seemed), the Big Standup was supposed to leaven the tension in a locker room burdened by the title expectations. To an extent, he did. At practice on the day before Game 3, for example, O'Neal told assistant coach Alvin Gentry that he would buy him a Ferrari if Gentry, a known leaper 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 of Shaq also added to the pressure. For one thing it changed the go-go Suns to the stop-and-go Suns, a peculiar hybrid of a team, one that was sorta-gonna-run and was sorta-gonna-play-tough-D. (The team did neither in Games 2 and 3.) On the night O'Neal was introduced to the home crowd, he pointed to the championship ring on his finger, a sign that he intended to add another to the four he already owns. With formidable Western contenders lurking all around, like the feathered predators on telephone wires in Hitchcock's The Birds, just the sight of O'Neal reminded everyone that the Suns had to win it all this season to get their money's worth out of him. Now he represents $40 million of diminishing returns.

The Consequences of O

To his dying day, D'Antoni will tell you that a team can win a championship with an uptempo style, and he will tell you that his teams are not as bad defensively 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 the resulting weaknesses were exploited.

D'Antoni does not demand 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 Manu Ginóbili, then flares to the side and takes a return pass, he almost has time to count the seams on the ball before he releases a jump shot, of which he made four from 16 feet or more in Game 3. (Never mind how many uncontested looks Parker, who scored 41 points, had that night.) "That's just their philosophy," Duncan said between games in Phoenix. "If I missed those shots, it would be the right one." That's the diplomatic answer; Duncan could give you the script, blue as it might be, on what he would hear from coach Gregg Popovich if he ever stayed in the lane as O'Neal does.

Phoenix coaches will tell you that they employed a variety of defenses in Games 2 and 3 in an attempt to combat the endless pick-and-rolls, even going to a hated zone. But all of the defenses were deeply flawed, even if credit is given to the metronomelike precision of the San Antonio offense. In Game 4 D'Antoni used 6' 8" forward Boris Diaw on the 6' 2" Parker, and that slowed Parker down. But the Suns don't specialize in situational defenses and active rotations, which require discipline and hours of practice to master.

Everyone in the Phoenix organization still gets a migraine thinking about the play late in Game 1 on which Stoudemire failed to switch off and cover guard Michael Finley on a three-point shot. With a clean look Finley sent the game into overtime, and San Antonio 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 the Suns don't drill and drill and drill for those situations as the Spurs do.

Karma

Perhaps if Joe Johnson hadn't suffered an eye injury during the '05 postseason, Phoenix would've gotten by San Antonio and into the Finals. Perhaps if Stoudemire and Diaw hadn't been suspended for Game 5 of last year's conference semis, in an incident precipitated by Spurs forward Robert Horry, the Suns would've won that series and gone on to the Finals. Perhaps if Finley hadn't made that Game 1 shot and Duncan hadn't made his own three (his first of the season) to send the game into a second overtime, Phoenix would've gained control of this series.

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. So much has to go right for a team to win a championship, and in the end not enough things fell in place. Keep in mind, though, that the Suns represent a clear majority. Teams -- such as the Sacramento Kings, the Mavs and the Suns -- rise then come apart if they don't make it to the top. Even some that do, such as the Detroit Pistons (the '04 champs) and the Miami Heat (the '06 champs), 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 and fifth in 10 seasons, continues on a seemingly endless loop, the team alternating between really good and great.

But if D'Antoni does depart, let this be the epitaph of his run-and-gun tenure: It was great fun while it lasted.

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