On the cloudy side: If teams contain Nash--or if he gets hurt in one of his headlong dashes up the court-- Phoenix is doomed. He not only sets up his teammates (a league-leading 11.5 assists per game, the highest average since 1994--95) but also has an underappreciated ability to create his own shot in the half-court. The widely accepted plan for dealing with Nash is to let him fire away rather than allow him to penetrate and dish to streak shooters such as Richardson and sixth man Jimmy Jackson. "When we played Dallas in the playoffs two years ago [ Nash was with the Mavericks then], we focused on trying to make Nash finish at the basket instead of letting his teammates get into the game," says Portland Trail Blazers guard Damon Stoudamire. "If Nash scores 40, it means nobody else is getting the ball."
THEIR PRECOCIOUS PIVOT
On the Sunny side: The Suns' athleticism is best exemplified by Stoudemire, their 6'10" marvel of quickness and leaping ability who, in the words of Blazers interim coach Kevin Pritchard, "runs like a guard and can get out in front of the posse." Though Stoudemire and Marion regularly give away inches and pounds at the five and the four, respectively, they are capable of beating their opposite numbers down the floor on every possession--a trait shared by Phoenix's other starters. That has allowed the Suns to increase their scoring by 16.0 points per game over last year, the biggest jump in the shot-clock era. "Amar� is big, strong and so athletic, and Nash finds him and gets the ball to him," says Portland forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim. "How can they miss with that combination?"
On the cloudy side: Partly because Nash is a veteran of six playoff series and wise beyond his 31 years, Phoenix's playoff inexperience is often discounted. Not, however, by Shirley, whose blog of a recent road trip for the team's website--funny and candid by the standards of the typical "inside look"--got extensive attention from the national press. "I see [us] going through the same struggles as any team that is new to success, especially one with such young personnel," wrote the much-traveled Shirley, who has scored a total of 31 points in three NBA seasons. "I see players who might be starting to believe what they read about themselves and who are beginning to become convinced of their own importance."
Shirley did not name names, but he may have been referring to one of his poker-playing buds, the 22-year-old Stoudemire. Even though he was tied for fifth in the NBA in free throw attempts at week's end (9.9 per game), Stoudemire frequently barks at the refs when he doesn't get a call and then is often late getting back on defense. He also shows his frustration when the game turns physical by committing silly fouls. Rest assured that teams will look to muscle up and show no amore to Amar�.
THEIR UNDERESTIMATED D
On the Sunny side: While they can hardly be lumped with stalwart defensive teams such as San Antonio and Detroit, the Suns play excellent team D, an extension of the share-the-wealth philosophy they demonstrate on offense. D'Antoni spends much of practice on help drills and relies extensively on double- and triple-teaming during games. At 6'7", Joe Johnson is a decent stopper who can cool off guards and forwards, and Marion is a wild-card defender, able to help in the middle, close out on three-point shooters and still get a defensive rebound.
On the cloudy side: Phoenix has shown signs of defensive complacency in recent weeks. "At the beginning of the season we didn't know how good we could be, so we got down and guarded people," says Nash. "Then, suddenly, we have this great record, and we stopped taking defense as seriously. Our biggest challenge in the playoffs is to get back our defensive intensity."
Further, Stoudemire may be, as one coach who desired anonymity puts it, "one of the 10 worst defenders in the league." He partly masks his deficiencies with shot blocking, but his court awareness is poor; he rarely shades off his man to offer help, even on the strong side. That tendency, if not corrected, could be exploited in the playoffs.
But perhaps this is the year that defense won't matter all that much, and the postseason will be owned by the team that, as Shirley writes, "is a test case for a return to the 1980s' Celtics-Lakers style." His coach is all too ready for the Suns to take that test. "About a million times over the last few months I've heard the question, Can your style win in the playoffs?" D'Antoni said last week. "I don't know the answer. But I can tell you this: I'm relieved that we're about to get one."