Besides the free-agent signings, the pivotal personnel move was installing the 6'7", 228-pound Marion at power forward. He's more athletic than most small forwards, never mind most of the big guys he's matched up against. That's why D'Antoni shuns the Smallball label applied to his team, preferring Skillball. True, Marion has trouble guarding the marquee fours, such as Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, but who doesn't?
The Suns' fast break doesn't come with a detailed how-to manual; they may be a science project, but their go-go O is more art than science. Spacing is mentioned but nobody obsesses about lanes. "The ball seeks out where it should go," Nash says. The key is relentlessness. Jim Jackson, a 6'6" veteran acquired by the Suns last month, played in 2002-03 with a team considered reasonably up-tempo, the Sacramento Kings. "But no matter how much we talked about getting out and running in Sacramento, we ran to spots," says Jackson. "Here, you just run." And never stop. "The Suns are determined to run the ball [down] your throat," says Portland Trail Blazers guard Damon Stoudamire. "Usually a team that likes to run slows down and gets more conservative if they go cold for a while. But Phoenix doesn't let a couple of misses deter them from doing what they do."
The Suns believe that with Nash running a read-and-react transition attack, they are essentially unscoutable. "I don't know how you script against something when the offensive team isn't even sure what it's doing," says D'Antoni. That doesn't mean some teams aren't good at stopping the break, the Spurs (who are 2-0 against Phoenix) being the best of all. But besides curtailing Nash and coping with the rim-rattling finishes of Stoudemire and Marion, Phoenix opponents have to contest with transition three-pointers--what Richardson calls "arriving with the second fleet." Nash will often penetrate deep just to kick it back to Marion (66 threes), Johnson (96) and especially Richardson (139), who at week's end was on course to break the NBA season record for attempts from beyond the arc. "Perimeter shots and threes are easier in transition than in the half-court," says Johnson. "You're in rhythm, the juices are flowing, and if you're in your spot, you won't be surprised to get it, because Steve will find you." In fact, some coaches, like the Chicago Bulls' Scott Skiles, believe the way to stop Phoenix is to stay home with the shooters and not double Nash in the lane. " Nash may get 30 on you," says Skiles, "but it's his 14-assist games that kill you."
If the break is cut off, the Suns go right into "drag," a simple pick-and-roll that defines their secondary break. " Nash and Stoudemire have developed almost a Stockton-to-Malone relationship," observes Minnesota Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders. If drag drags, the Suns are still effective with their set-up offense, as long as Nash is on the floor. "What makes the Suns so tough," says Heat guard Damon Jones, "is that they do all that running, but they can still get a solid shot in the half-court because Nash will get them one." Phoenix can isolate Stoudemire, clear a lane for Marion, Johnson and now Jackson, or find Richardson for a Q-ball from beyond the arc. "Even if we walked it up," said D'Antoni, "we'd still be a pretty good team."
Perhaps that's all they are now. Perhaps their lack of depth (the five starters all play big minutes, and the Suns traded three players to get Jackson) or their inexperience (their average age is only 26.7) will ultimately derail them. Perhaps their propensity to give up offensive rebounds (they allow more than any other team in the league since they're most interested in getting out and running) will be fatal in the postseason. Or perhaps the D'Antoni paradigm is simply ill-conceived in today's NBA. "You have to have a go-to guy when the game slows down in the playoffs," says Warriors guard Derek Fisher, who won three championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, "because it always does."
D'Antoni was out of the country in the 1980s, when the NBA gradually turned from a graceful track meet into a heavyweight muck in the mud. He finds today's conventional wisdom alternately irritating and amusing. "If we don't go very far, it's because our team isn't good enough," D'Antoni insists, "not because our basic philosophy is flawed." He can't resist adding, "And certainly not because I didn't do enough frowning." ?
AT WEEK'S end the Suns led the NBA in scoring, and their margin over the second-place Wizards was the largest such differential in 20 years. They also had a better record than any of their high-scoring predecessors.
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