Suns prove they have right formula
Phoenix's run to the conference finals was hardly expected at midseason
The most notable difference in this Suns team is its defensive mentality
Amar'e Stoudemire and Steve Nash get plenty of help from supporting players
SAN ANTONIO -- Sitting in front of his locker Sunday, a towel wrapped around his waist and a half-finished bottle of Becks in his hand, Amar'e Stoudemire soaked in the moment.
Just minutes earlier his team had completed a stunning four-game sweep of rival San Antonio, the same team that had bounced the Suns out of the playoffs in their last four postseason encounters. Across the room, teammate Grant Hill huddled with a group of reporters, a toothy smile creasing his face. A few lockers down, Channing Frye dressed slowly, unwilling, it seemed, to rush through a single second of the celebration of the Suns' triumph.
And it was a triumph. Phoenix's 107-101 series-clinching win over the Spurs on Sunday had all the hallmarks of a hard-fought victory. There was a stirring comeback (the Suns rallied from a nine-point first-half deficit) and fourth-quarter heroics from Stoudemire (12 points in the final period) and Steve Nash (10 points, five assists). The toughness of this game was evidenced by the gash on Nash's right brow, a bloody cut opened by an errant Tim Duncan elbow that required six stitches to close.
"We aren't the most talented team," Nash said. "But we believe in each other and enjoy playing together. It's a pleasure to play with this group."
Of all the candidates for the NBA's final four, no team's journey there seemed more improbable than the Suns'. Just three months ago, Phoenix appeared on the verge of a major overhaul, engaging in intense discussions with other teams about the services of free-agent-to-be Stoudemire. He stayed put, but title expectations weren't packaged in with him. Not with a 36-year-old point guard who had to slow down at some point. Not with a superstar in Stoudemire effectively playing out the string. And not with a vagabond supporting cast of Hill, Frye, Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley.
But something happened to the Suns on the road to mediocrity: They started to win. Not having to deal with constant Stoudemire rumors helped; offering up the same answers to the same questions every day had become a grind. It certainly helped Stoudemire -- his scoring jumped by more than five points per game after the All-Star break.
But it was more than just Stoudemire's settled status. For the first time, the Suns started to defend. The shift to a more defensive mentality can be traced to Jan. 28 in a nationally televised game against Dallas. After giving up 59 points in the first half, the Suns slunk back to their locker room. When they got there, they saw Mavericks guard Jason Terry on TV, telling the world that Dallas "had to score on these guys" because "they are not very good defensively."
"We took that personally," Hill said. "It ticked us off when he said that. We had been working on defense all year, but after that it just started to click."
Added Richardson: "[It was the] turning point in our season. From then on, guys really took it upon themselves to be held accountable, to be a better defensive team."
The changes came slowly. The Suns' frenetic style of play guarantees they will never rank among the statistical leaders defensively. But game by game, they started to get more stops. After the All-Star break, the Suns held teams below 100 points in 10 games, and below 90 in five. They had the fifth-best point differential (plus-4.9) in the league and were 11th in defensive field-goal percentage (45.2), with nine opponents failing to crack 40 percent.
The wins started to pile up. Phoenix won 14 of its final 16 regular-season games and finished 23-6 after the All-Star break.
"It all came together," Hill said. Then he paused and smiled before adding, "So, thanks, Jason."
An improved D has the Suns overflowing with confidence. Nash, for one, was already convinced this Phoenix team was more complete than its predecessors. Those teams didn't have Frye, a 6-foot-11 sharpshooter who haunts opposing centers from the perimeter. Those teams didn't have an explosive guard like Richardson manning the backcourt, or a gritty forward like Dudley spearheading a prolific second unit.
"What people have to understand is that we play a lot differently than we did during that period," said Alvin Gentry, a Suns assistant for 4½ seasons before being promoted to head coach in February 2009. "We're not 'seven seconds or less.' We're '12 seconds or under.' We don't take a lot of quick shots. We don't play with that breakneck pace. It's all about the rhythm."
In a likely conference finals matchup with the Lakers, the Suns will find themselves in a familiar role. Few will believe they will be able to overcome L.A.'s superior size or muster the kind of defensive effort that will be required to contain the Lakers' offensive weapons. Few will give them any shot to win.
And that opinion sits just fine with the Suns. Because even though not many believe they can win, they are convinced -- and have proved -- they finally have the right formula to do it.
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