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A New Sunrise

Despite turning its roster over, playing without Stoudemire and even losing its general manager, Phoenix hasn't slowed down a bit

April 13, 2006|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX — If it's spring, the Suns must be rising from their ashes once more, like the mythological bird this city was named for.

Of course, even the bird didn't have to do it annually, much less monthly.

Yes, the Suns are back although no one (ever) believes it, because they're still too small, don't play defense, and, of course, Can't Win That Way in the Playoffs.

Even so, they won 62 games last season, reached the Western Conference finals, swapped out half the franchise, ran away with the Pacific Division again and may be headed for a first-round matchup with the Lakers.

Not that the Lakers would be looking forward to it. The last time they beat the Suns, Shaquille O'Neal started at center. Since he left, the Lakers are 0-7.

No matter which version, the Suns' offense is in a league of its own. No. 2 Seattle is six points behind their 108.5 a game. No. 2 Golden State is 2.2 three-pointers behind the 10 a game the Suns make.

After losing to them twice, by a total of 27 points, Miami Coach Pat Riley announced, "I don't have a game [plan] for them, not this team.... I tried to make one, believe me."

The Suns have done it the same way, just without some key people

Amare Stoudemire has been sidelined for all but three games. His replacement, Kurt Thomas, is on crutches, hoping to be back for the West finals, assuming, of course, they reach them.

Two of last season's starters, Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson, are gone, along with current Lakers Jim Jackson and Smush Parker, not to mention Yuta Tabuse, the NBA's first Japanese player, executive of the year Bryan Colangelo and America West Arena.

Actually, the arena is still here but is now US Airways Arena. This isn't part of the general housecleaning, but the result of airlines merging.

Nevertheless, by March 15, the Suns, who had started 4-5, were 45-19, having averaged 112 points since Jan. 1 while awaiting Stoudemire's return from knee surgery, after which everyone else was really going to be in trouble ...

However, the comeback ended almost as soon as it began. Stoudemire underwent an arthroscopic procedure on his other knee last week. Pretending they weren't really counting on him, the Suns announced he wouldn't return this season.

"When you don't have something and you play really well even though he hasn't been here -- we're fine," Coach Mike D'Antoni said. "It's not like we struggled to get to the playoffs and we're struggling to play and oh, now he can't play.

"We're pretty confident of who we are and how we've done against teams without Amare."

They use "pretty" a lot. Owner Robert Sarver said he was "still pretty optimistic."

Of course, when you have overcome what they have, there's a pretty good chance this may not be over yet.

Fathers, Sons

and Interlopers

To show how fast things have been moving, three seasons ago, D'Antoni was an assistant on Frank Johnson's staff, having gone 14-36 in his one stint as a coach in Denver.

Now D'Antoni is the Suns' coach, general manager and executive vice president of basketball operations, and the reigning coach of the year.

"I kinda go home and look at my wife and we just start giggling a little bit," he says in his West Virginia drawl. "That kinda sums it up."

From their birth in 1968, the Suns were run by Jerry Colangelo. A University of Illinois point guard, he started as GM, was interim coach twice, acquired controlling interest after a drug scandal in the '80s and became a local political power, spearheading the construction of the arena that revitalized the sleepy downtown, leading the group that brought in baseball and got Bank One Ballpark put up a block from the arena.

A shrewd infighter, Colangelo was also a paterfamilias. His Suns were even more family-oriented than the Lakers, with former players all up and down their directory: Mark West, Dick Van Arsdale, Connie Hawkins, Neal Walk, Alvan Adams, John Shumate, Tom Chambers, Eddie Johnson, Cedric Ceballos. Faithful retainers such as Cotton Fitzsimmons had jobs for life and were as much family as Colangelo's son, Bryan, who rose to become the GM.

The Diamondbacks' 2001 World Series championship in their fourth season after a dramatic, Game 7 ninth-inning rally against the New York Yankees' Mariano Rivera marked the peak of Jerry's power. However, the team faded and with loans from Major League Baseball due and tens of millions committed to such players as Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson, Colangelo was ousted by his partners.

In the summer of 2004, with the Suns rebuilding yet again, Colangelo sold the team to Sarver, an energetic banking magnate, cashing out for an NBA-record price, $401 million. Sarver gave Jerry Colangelo three seasons of operational control and Bryan a new contract as GM to ease the transition.

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