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LAKERS VS. PHOENIX

Taking a shine to success

Suns' fast-paced system is no longer such an anomaly, but it's working better than ever under the guidance of Nash and the dominant Stoudemire

March 04, 2007|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX — The Suns rise annually these days with so little mystery, assistant coach Alvin Gentry, greeting San Antonio assistant P.J. Carlesimo before a recent meeting, doesn't mind giving up their game plan.

"We're going to run high pick-and-roll," says Gentry, laughing, "wing pick-and-roll."

Not that this is a surprise to the Spurs, who may be No. 1 in defense but couldn't stop the Suns if Steve Nash told them what they were going to run.

One hundred and three points later (eight under their average in a subpar performance after scoring only 16 in the first quarter), the Suns win by 16.

The Suns have been doing this so long (only Dallas and San Antonio have more wins over three seasons) -- amid so much skepticism about doing it in the playoffs (while they and the Miami Heat were the only teams to make the last two final fours) -- it's easy to forget all that they overcame and how good they had to be to do it.

In 2004-05, the Suns won 62 games, coming off a 29-53 season in which management traded Stephon Marbury and melted the team down to start over.

In 2005-06, they won 54 after losing three starters, ignoring an internal tremor as new owner Robert Sarver showed general manager Bryan Colangelo the door.

This season's team, considered their best, had its own issues, starting with Amare Stoudemire's brief comeback last spring while teammates seemed to roll their eyes.

This was followed by Stoudemire's brief training camp while teammates seemed to roll their eyes.

Then came their 1-5 start with Stoudemire opening the season on the bench and seeming to roll his eyes.

"We didn't have a great training camp, but I knew that would change once we got a couple weeks under our belt," Coach Mike D'Antoni says. "What I didn't know was Amare. At the time he wasn't 100%....

"I was worried to death. I was worried, what if he doesn't get back into form until January, February, are we going to be under .500?"

They've gone 44-9 since and if you throw out the games Nash missed, it's been 42-5. All eyes are on the prize with everyone else gulping at the thought of meeting the Suns in those playoffs they aren't supposed to be any good in.

"Good basketball teams are good basketball teams," said San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich, whose Spurs eliminated the Suns in the 2005 Western Conference finals. "First of all, I think they're playing better defense now than they've ever played before. Offensively, I think they're more dangerous than they've ever been and tougher to guard than they've ever been. And I think their confidence level's higher than it's ever been."

The Suns may not be defying tradition as much as pioneering a new one, as hidebound defensive stalwarts such as the Heat, the Detroit Pistons and the Houston Rockets open up their offenses.

Two seasons ago, when Nash returned to the team, the Suns were No. 1 in offense at 110.4 points a game with five more teams over 100.

Now they're No. 1 at 110.7 with nine more over 100 and a league average of 98.7, the highest in 12 seasons.

Of course, nobody ever said it was easy to be a pioneer, as the Suns also learn annually.

Gentlemen, start your engines

"Nash is the system. I don't mean to shortchange anybody else, but he's the best basketball player on the face of the earth. ... I don't think it's even close."

-- Chicago Bulls Coach Scott Skiles

There is no mystery as to how this started. It was July 14, 2004, when Nash, a 31-year-old former Sun who'd spent six seasons in Dallas, re-signed with Phoenix.

Nash was a two-time All-Star but the Mavericks, facing bigger, better teams such as the Lakers, Spurs and Sacramento Kings, made the conference finals only once.

With owner Mark Cuban already regretting Michael Finley's new deal and Dirk Nowitzki coming up next, Nash asked Cuban to match or approach the Suns' six-year, $63-million offer.

Cuban offered $39 million over four years, later writing in his blog, "It was Steve's choice to leave for money. It was my choice not to pay him the money."

The post is no longer on the site, but one that Cuban wrote that summer is still there. It began:

" 'How could you let Steve Nash go?' It's a question I'm going to hear for a long time."

Cuban didn't know the half of it. Nash has since won two consecutive MVPs and is now posting even better numbers (19 points, 53% shooting, 48% on three-pointers) than he did in those seasons.

In Phoenix, Nash found two super-athletes who could play a position (or two) bigger than their size: 6-foot-7 Shawn Marion, a 20-point scorer and a top-10 rebounder, and 6-8 1/2 Stoudemire, who dunked over centers and anyone else.

Now Nash and Stoudemire run their pick-and-rolls with teammates arrayed on the three-point line, spreading opposing defenses too thin to bring help.

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