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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

Suns have revived the burn factor

After a brief, semi-disastrous interlude with Shaquille O'Neal, Phoenix has returned, with considerable success, to the fast-spaced, spread-the-court offense that scorched the league earlier this deca

December 06, 2009|Mark Heisler

Reporting from Phoenix — Welcome back, Suns! Where have you been?

Oh, you junked your damn-the-torpedoes offense that no one could guard to play half-court basketball with 35-year-old Shaquille O'Neal?

Gee, whose bright idea was that?

Oh, yours?

If you want to know what a "paradigm shift" is, the Phoenix Suns, once again the NBA's Fun Bunch, just went through two of them.

For two seasons, everything changed on the level of Vince Vaughn in "Wedding Crashers," who announces after receiving advances from several members of the Cleary family one harrowing night: "I'm gonna go see Dr. Finklestein and I'm gonna tell him we have a whole new bag of issues. We can forget about Mom for a while."

For the Suns, it's as if they had a nightmare, woke up screaming, went back to sleep and awoke in the morning to greet a new, bright day!

Of course in real life, they're all two years older, their hair is grayer, and not all of them are still there.

Aside from that, no harm done!

Their cosmic goof started when the call from Miami came straight to owner Robert Sarver, who'd been merrily undoing everything previous owner Jerry Colangelo had done . . . went to General Manager Steve Kerr, who ran video in which Shaq looked as if he had retired without telling anyone . . . but was forwarded to Coach Mike D'Antoni, who figured to hate the idea, but to everyone's surprise, loved it!

D'Antoni, the highest-ranking Colangelo holdover, was in a peculiar situation, having been supplanted as head of the basketball operation -- by Kerr -- and already musing about leaving.

Everyone else regarded their system as if it were 1492 and they wanted to reach India by sailing west.

It was clear you couldn't win a title the Suns' way, since no one had, although they had already proved you could make two Western finals that way, and come within two wins on their home court of a third in 2007, with everything downhill after that, when Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw were suspended for walking off their bench.

Look at it this way: Imagine the Suns with Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant or LeBron James.

Doesn't sound impossible, does it?

Nevertheless, by February 2008, when the Lakers landed Pau Gasol, throwing the rest of the West into a panic, even the Suns had begun to wonder.

Meanwhile, Shawn Marion, aware they wouldn't re-sign him at his big number, was wearing them out, and Miami was willing to take him for Shaq.

The next thing you knew, the Big Cactus was there to put them over the top, at least of the teams that missed the playoffs last season.

"Sometimes, you try to tweak it to win a championship," D'Antoni, now the Knicks' coach, said last week.

"You can't blame anybody. You try to do it. Sometimes when you tighten it up a little bit, it bursts. Then you go back to what worked. I think they did a terrific job."

And sometimes when you drop an anvil out of an airplane, it doesn't fly, either.

Despite all the moving parts that led the Suns to do what they did, it was ridiculous on its face.

Shaq-as-final-piece-of-the-puzzle was a longshot to start with, as it is in Cleveland, since the burden of proof was a title, and there were several other teams as good or better than the Suns were.

Hitting a perfect 10 in self-delusion, the Suns were the anti-low-post team that spread the court, slashed through defenses and shot over them, at least until planting the Big Cactus down there.

The joke now in Phoenix goes: What's the difference in Steve Nash this season and last?

He's lost 325 pounds.

By last February's All-Star game in Phoenix, the league arrived to find the host team trying to melt itself down as Sarver called other owners, trying to unload the 26-year-old Stoudemire for expiring contracts.

Stoudemire, nicknamed "Stat," wasn't exactly distraught, or "caught in the middle," as someone noted tactfully at the All-Star media session.

"In the middle?" Stoudemire said, laughing. "Are you kidding me? I'm on top!"

Happily, the Suns fired coach Terry Porter instead, bumping up Alvin Gentry, who had been D'Antoni's top assistant, to go back to running.

Voila!

They were the Suns again -- briefly -- going 2-0 and averaging 141 points, when Stoudemire was lost because of a detached retina.

Gentry, a former Clippers coach, said a friend told him he had been praying for him -- but stopped when Stoudemire was hurt, just in case.

Of course, there were people who never lost hope . . . somewhere.

As for Gentry's family, when Stoudemire was lost, he says his 9-year-old son, Matthew, told him, "Dad, I don't think you're going to make it again."

Now they're back!

They're not as young and as athletic as they were, but they're bigger, deeper and more skilled with Jason Richardson, Grant Hill and Channing Frye.

What could go wrong now?

Oh yeah, there's Stoudemire, whom they almost traded again to Golden State after the season.

Stoudemire is their main mismatch in their killer pick-and-roll with Nash, a smaller Dwight Howard who can beat anyone his size off the dribble and/or leap over them, except Amare can shoot too.

He's also in his free-agent year. And he doesn't look like Stoudemire yet, perhaps wary of getting poked in the eye again, with his scoring down and rebounds and free-throw attempts near career lows.

What, them worry?

They've seen hard times, and these aren't them. Not everyone gets a second chance, but they are.

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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