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The Big Question
Jack McCallum
April 25, 2005
Everyone is asking if freewheeling Phoenix, league leader in points and victories, can win in the playoffs. Recent history, and a lot of experts, say no. Then again. . .
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April 25, 2005

The Big Question

Everyone is asking if freewheeling Phoenix, league leader in points and victories, can win in the playoffs. Recent history, and a lot of experts, say no. Then again. . .

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2004--05 SUNS





1991--92 WARRIORS




Lost in first round

1982--83 NUGGETS




Lost in Western semis

1976--77 SPURS




Lost in first round

1981--82 NUGGETS




Lost in first round

1979--80 SPURS




Lost in first round

1998--99 KINGS




Lost in first round

1980--81 NUGGETS




Missed playoffs

1983--84 NUGGETS




Lost in first round

1990--91 NUGGETS




Missed playoffs

The phoenix suns began the season as a nullity, quickly evolved into a novelty and wound up winning more games than any other NBA team. Into a likely first-round matchup against the Memphis Grizzlies they take an MVP candidate in point guard Steve Nash, a Coach of the Year candidate in Mike D'Antoni and a Most Improved Player candidate in center Amar� Stoudemire (not to mention a Blogger of the Year candidate in offbeat forward Paul Shirley). Yet many around the league still wonder whether the Suns, who had won 61 games through Sunday after going 29--53 last season, are too much the arrivistes, with their full-throttle offense--"blitzkrieg basketball," Minnesota Timberwolves general manager and coach Kevin McHale calls it--destined to fizzle in the playoffs. � Just how far can fast-breaking Phoenix go? That tops the list of compelling questions as the postseason gets started this Saturday. Among the others: Can Shaquille O'Neal, after leading the Los Angeles Lakers to three straight titles as Finals MVP, work similar wonders for the Miami Heat? Are the Detroit Pistons, seeded second in the Eastern Conference, ready to tighten up and play the disciplined style that earned them a championship in 2004? Will San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan shake off a late-season right ankle sprain and win his third ring (and his first without David Robinson)? Can one of the dark horses--the Dallas Mavericks or the Houston Rockets in the West, the adversity-tested Indiana Pacers in the East--conquer a field that lacks a prohibitive favorite?

Despite their record, the Suns are not generally viewed as the team to beat. Indeed, for every positive about Phoenix there's a negative. The Suns average more points (110.2 at week's end) than any team since the Orlando Magic's 110.9 in 1994--95. But they don't play lock-down defense. The Suns run better, off makes and misses, than any team since the Showtime Lakers of the 1980s. But they don't have a reliable half-court attack. The Suns had more three-pointers (9.6 per game) than any team in NBA history. But they also attempted the third-most threes (24.6) in NBA history, and their shot selection was often suspect. Phoenix hasn't been stopped all year, except for brief stretches in January and February when Nash had leg and back injuries. The playoffs, however, are different.

A true fast-breaking team hasn't won it all since the 1987--88 Lakers, and they could go to an indomitable half-court force, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, when the action slowed down. Yet some team, some time, is bound to change the paradigm--or, rather, return it to what it was when Magic Johnson relentlessly pushed the ball (as Nash does now) and Pat Riley stood on the sidelines waving his hands and yelling, "Go!" (as D'Antoni does now).

Certainly, Phoenix has a chance to be that team, to emerge victorious from what Nash calls "a battle of styles." Here are a few reasons why the Suns might prevail--and why they might not.


On the Sunny side: It's not so much that teams can't run in the playoffs; it's more that they seldom get easy baskets when they do. Defenses tend to sprint back into the paint in transition, then administer punishment to those who dare seek a gimme. But the Suns' break doesn't have to get all the way to the hoop to be successful; their secondary break is the best in the league. All of their starters can stop and pop. Or with Nash on the dribble, they can run a superb pick-and-roll for an open jumper--often from beyond the arc. "It's impossible to stop a team from shooting 18-, 20- and 25-footers in transition," says McHale, "and that's what those guys do."

On the cloudy side: Because they don't have a go-to scorer in the half-court, the Suns need to make those transition threes. But can they keep up their long-range accuracy (39.2%, best in the league)? Small forward Quentin Richardson, who through Sunday had made a franchise-record 219 three-pointers while attempting a franchise-record 610, is a notorious streak shooter. If he misses his first one or two, he may clang 10 in a row--and even that won't stop him from firing away.


On the Sunny side: Phoenix has an unshakable belief in Nash, akin to how the Lakers felt about Magic. "Steve will find a weakness in the defense and do whatever is necessary," says 6'7" power forward Shawn Marion. "That's the way we've been doing it all year." And though there has been much talk about his wearing down, the 6'3", 195-pound Nash said last week that he's feeling fine. "In many ways it's easier to [stay fresh] in the playoffs because there are no back-to-backs," he said.

Even if Nash, who signed a six-year, $60 million free-agent contract in the off-season, doesn't win the league MVP award (he's in a neck-and-neck race with Shaq), the Canadian Kid is having a truly magical season. Remember how a generation of youngsters began drying their sweaty hands by wiping them along the soles of their sneakers because Larry Bird did it? Watch how many budding point guards begin making an exaggerated shooting motion before launching a free throw, and licking their fingers between dribbles. ( Nash even does that while leading the break.) As far as copying Nash's moppish hair style? Not a good idea.

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