The question was directed to Steve Nash, who was among several members of the Phoenix Suns participating in a Q-and-A session with fans at the Basketball Hall of Fame last Thursday: "Um, little guy on the end, can you tell me what age you came into the NBA?" Suns president and general manager Bryan Colangelo chuckles at the way Nash was addressed. "The worst thing about it," he says, "was that the kid who asked was about 10 years old." ¬∂ These days the little guy on the end is the big guy in the middle of a fast break that's the talk of the NBA. The running Suns score more than any other team (109.7 points per game at week's end), take and make more three-point shots than any other team and, most important, set a sizzling pace in the standings: Their 36--10 record through Sunday matched the San Antonio Spurs' for the league's best. Predictably, Phoenix also seems to be having more fun than any other team. "Any time you have that kind of record, even if it's in slo-pitch softball, you're going to be happy," says Nash. "Put it at the pro level, with a team that wasn't supposed to be this good, and imagine how much fun it's been."
Wasn't supposed to be this good? You think? The Suns went 29-53 last season, and, despite the free-agent additions of Nash and swingman Quentin Richardson, were not even considered a lock for the Western Conference playoffs. Now they are on track to become only the ninth team in history to go from 50 losses to 50 wins in one season. Yet slow-down tactics have become so pervasive that Phoenix's resurgence is viewed skeptically. "A different type of science project," Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle calls the Suns, whose formula won't be fully tested until the postseason: Can flash dancers succeed at a time that has long favored bumpers and grinders?
Some say yes. "They're as good a contender as any team to win a championship," says Miami Heat coach Stan Van Gundy. "I don't understand people who think otherwise."
Others no. "All of Phoenix's success right now doesn't mean anything," says Golden State Warriors assistant Mario Elie.
A scouting report left in the visitors' locker room at America West Arena offers the stock pursed-lip rebuke to Phoenix's style. It read, in part, "The Suns will run off misses, makes, out-of-bounds plays, half-court out-of-bounds plays, tip plays, anything. There is literally nothing that is frowned upon." The emphasis was added by Phoenix coach Mike D'Antoni, who related the story of finding the report (he won't say for the record which team had written it), which has become a source of both amusement and motivation. "[The scout] was more or less saying we just roll the balls out there and let 'em play," says D'Antoni. "But I remember frowning at least once or twice this season. I just can't remember at what."
He certainly grimaced during a stretch last month in which Nash missed all or most of four games with a left thigh bruise and back spasms. The Suns dropped all four and averaged only 86.3 points while 22-year-old center Amare Stoudemire, who was shooting 58.2%, hit only 37.8% during that stretch. Phoenix needs Nash as desperately as People needs Brad and Jennifer--the little guy on the end is the front-runner for MVP. "We can run without Steve," says forward Shawn Marion, "but he makes us want to run. We just do it better when he's out there. And we know we have to run to be good."
Before Nash signed as a free agent last July, D'Antoni had already planned to install a fast-break attack with Leandro Barbosa, a 22-year-old Brazilian, as his quarterback. The Suns had two gazelles in Stoudemire and Marion (whose nickname is Trix--from The Matrix--because his aerial acrobatics defy belief) as well as an all-around threat in 6'7" swingman Joe Johnson. D'Antoni spent most of the last two decades playing and coaching in Italy and was therefore more amenable to running than most NBA coaches. "It's not like we ran pell-mell, but I probably wouldn't have been as willing to try a new style if not for my time there," said D'Antoni, who was so famous as an Italian player that a young American, name of Kobe, who grew up in Italy started wearing number 8 in his honor. "I won all kinds of different ways over there, both as a player and a coach. I thought running was the best way to win here, and if nothing else, I figured we'd be entertaining."
D'Antoni realized that he would be ceding much of the control that his NBA peers love to have. Coaches make decisions in the half-court; players make decisions in transition. "Sure, I had trepidations," D'Antoni says. "Nobody wants to get fired two weeks into the season." He felt better about his commitment when Nash accepted Colangelo's six-year, $66 million deal--which owner Robert Sarver green-lighted two weeks after an investment group he headed paid $401 million to buy the team--and when the Los Angeles Clippers failed to match Colangelo's six-year, $44 million offer for Richardson, a willing runner and an even more able three-point gunner.
Because of Nash's headlong approach, his durability has been questioned. But before his thigh bruise, he had missed only four games in three years. He is a consummate pro who each year refines his off-season training so that he can maintain his frenetic pace. Last summer Nash worked long hours with Vancouver physiotherapist Rick Celebrini, breaking down what he calls "every conceivable basketball-related movement" in "a total amalgamation of basketball and conditioning." For example, Nash would dribble at top speed and come to a quick stop, and Celebrini would gauge whether or not he dropped his hip. "If you do that, your efficiency in turning and changing directions goes down," says Nash, 31, who was averaging 15.7 points on 51.8% shooting and a league-high 11.0 assists at week's end. "On your own, you could never figure out those subtle sloppy things you do with your body."
Even with Nash and his properly positioned hip in the lineup, it's one thing to preach the idea of transition basketball, another to perfect execution. "Except for natural runners, like Steve, most players' inclination is to take two slow steps and see if everyone else is running," says D'Antoni. "By then it's too late. We had to indoctrinate players to run right away." After that lesson was learned, there were kinks. "I'd start running but not looking," says Stoudemire, "and I'd get hit by a pass I didn't even see. One time Steve bounced a pass through somebody else's legs to get it to me. I said, Damn."
Besides the free-agent signings, the pivotal personnel move was installing the 6'7", 228-pound Marion at power forward. He's more athletic than most small forwards, never mind most of the big guys he's matched up against. That's why D'Antoni shuns the Smallball label applied to his team, preferring Skillball. True, Marion has trouble guarding the marquee fours, such as Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, but who doesn't?
The Suns' fast break doesn't come with a detailed how-to manual; they may be a science project, but their go-go O is more art than science. Spacing is mentioned but nobody obsesses about lanes. "The ball seeks out where it should go," Nash says. The key is relentlessness. Jim Jackson, a 6'6" veteran acquired by the Suns last month, played in 2002-03 with a team considered reasonably up-tempo, the Sacramento Kings. "But no matter how much we talked about getting out and running in Sacramento, we ran to spots," says Jackson. "Here, you just run." And never stop. "The Suns are determined to run the ball [down] your throat," says Portland Trail Blazers guard Damon Stoudamire. "Usually a team that likes to run slows down and gets more conservative if they go cold for a while. But Phoenix doesn't let a couple of misses deter them from doing what they do."
The Suns believe that with Nash running a read-and-react transition attack, they are essentially unscoutable. "I don't know how you script against something when the offensive team isn't even sure what it's doing," says D'Antoni. That doesn't mean some teams aren't good at stopping the break, the Spurs (who are 2-0 against Phoenix) being the best of all. But besides curtailing Nash and coping with the rim-rattling finishes of Stoudemire and Marion, Phoenix opponents have to contest with transition three-pointers--what Richardson calls "arriving with the second fleet." Nash will often penetrate deep just to kick it back to Marion (66 threes), Johnson (96) and especially Richardson (139), who at week's end was on course to break the NBA season record for attempts from beyond the arc. "Perimeter shots and threes are easier in transition than in the half-court," says Johnson. "You're in rhythm, the juices are flowing, and if you're in your spot, you won't be surprised to get it, because Steve will find you." In fact, some coaches, like the Chicago Bulls' Scott Skiles, believe the way to stop Phoenix is to stay home with the shooters and not double Nash in the lane. "Nash may get 30 on you," says Skiles, "but it's his 14-assist games that kill you."
If the break is cut off, the Suns go right into "drag," a simple pick-and-roll that defines their secondary break. "Nash and Stoudemire have developed almost a Stockton-to-Malone relationship," observes Minnesota Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders. If drag drags, the Suns are still effective with their set-up offense, as long as Nash is on the floor. "What makes the Suns so tough," says Heat guard Damon Jones, "is that they do all that running, but they can still get a solid shot in the half-court because Nash will get them one." Phoenix can isolate Stoudemire, clear a lane for Marion, Johnson and now Jackson, or find Richardson for a Q-ball from beyond the arc. "Even if we walked it up," said D'Antoni, "we'd still be a pretty good team."
Perhaps that's all they are now. Perhaps their lack of depth (the five starters all play big minutes, and the Suns traded three players to get Jackson) or their inexperience (their average age is only 26.7) will ultimately derail them. Perhaps their propensity to give up offensive rebounds (they allow more than any other team in the league since they're most interested in getting out and running) will be fatal in the postseason. Or perhaps the D'Antoni paradigm is simply ill-conceived in today's NBA. "You have to have a go-to guy when the game slows down in the playoffs," says Warriors guard Derek Fisher, who won three championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, "because it always does."
D'Antoni was out of the country in the 1980s, when the NBA gradually turned from a graceful track meet into a heavyweight muck in the mud. He finds today's conventional wisdom alternately irritating and amusing. "If we don't go very far, it's because our team isn't good enough," D'Antoni insists, "not because our basic philosophy is flawed." He can't resist adding, "And certainly not because I didn't do enough frowning." ‚ñ†
AT WEEK'S end the Suns led the NBA in scoring, and their margin over the second-place Wizards was the largest such differential in 20 years. They also had a better record than any of their high-scoring predecessors.