Down for The Count (cont.)
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.
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.
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.