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THE PHOENIX SUNS team that had wreaked havoc on the NBA for much of the past four seasons briefly reappeared in the playoffs on Sunday afternoon. But at press time it seemed mostly a face-saving performance. Indeed, the only clear conclusion to be drawn after the Suns' 105--86 Game 4 thrashing of the San Antonio Spurs at US Airways Center was that Phoenix would not be swept. To emphasize that point, the Gorilla, the franchise's iconic mascot, stood at center court during a late timeout and broke a broomstick in half. At this juncture boasting, Dammit, we will not lose four in a row! was a little lame. But that was the fate that befell the Suns after a heartbreaking defeat in Game 1 and poorly played efforts in Games 2 and 3.
By the time you read this, the significance of their win will be known; Game 5 was scheduled for Tuesday night back in San Antonio. But whether the series ended or not, the larger story is the possible breakup of the NBA's version of the Fun Bunch and the potential departure of coach Mike D'Antoni, whose hand pushed Phoenix's throttle toward the red zone for the last four years.
D'Antoni's run-and-gun style produced the league's third-best record over that span, back-to-back MVP awards for point guard Steve Nash (2005 and '06), a Coach of the Year nod for himself ('05) and a spirited following of aficionados who appreciated the return of fast-break basketball to the league. "Mike should be given credit for re-revolutionizing offensive basketball in the NBA," says ABC/ ESPN commentator and former New York Knicks and Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy. "And if he never won it all, it wasn't because of his philosophy. It was because his teams weren't quite as good as those that did."
A parallel situation, meanwhile, was playing out in Dallas, where the New Orleans Hornets' 97--84 Game 4 victory on Sunday night put the Mavericks in a 3--1 hole, further proving the eternal mutability of the NBA. Dallas, like Phoenix, had a recent MVP and Coach of the Year (forward Dirk Nowitzki last season and Avery Johnson in '06), yet will probably also undergo a makeover.
It won't be easy. Neither franchise is stuck, in the Knicks sense of the word, with vastly underachieving and untradeable players collecting extravagant sums of money. But neither has a lot of wiggle room either. The Mavericks are hamstrung by big contracts given to players they may want to move, such as forward Josh Howard, who made headlines last Friday by publicly admitting his off-season affection for marijuana and who is due $20.8 million over the next two years. The Suns have a huge albatross in center Shaquille O'Neal, who is due a flat $20 million in each of the next two seasons.
But change will take place, and it will probably start, as it usually does, in the seat where X's and O's are drawn. Dallas's run was also not quite over (Game 5 in New Orleans was scheduled for Tuesday), but well-placed sources, not to mention logic and precedent, say that Johnson, the Little General, will be gone even if the Mavs pull a minor miracle and make it to the second round.
There was still a chance that D'Antoni would remain in Phoenix, a chance that no doubt would increase if the Suns were to stay alive. But the best guess is that D'Antoni, who has two years and about $10 million left on his contract, will step down, either to sit out for one season (and recharge his batteries) or to take another head job (with New York, Toronto or Chicago as possible destinations). A 232--96 record over four full seasons with the Suns? Two Western Conference finals appearances? The No. 1 offense in three of the last four years? Doesn't matter. D'Antoni hadn't been able to get by San Antonio, which through Sunday had beaten Phoenix in 11 of 15 playoff games going back to 2005.
So what happened in the Valley of the Sun? Why couldn't an enlivening coach with the perfect point guard ( Nash), an athletic big man ( Amar� Stoudemire) and the affection of the media and the masses keep it going? The first and most obvious answer, of course, is the Spurs, who played an exquisite series. But the Suns are a textbook example of what happens when Successful Team can't make the final jump to Championship Team. Here are some of the reasons they were unable to.
Tension at the Top
Steve Kerr was the first major hire made by Robert Sarver when Sarver became majority owner of the franchise in 2004. After serving as a consultant, Kerr took over as president of basketball operations and general manager last summer. Kerr and D'Antoni are two of the most pleasant, intelligent and nonconfrontational men in the business, but that doesn't mean they get along. In public comments each has expressed respect for the other, and they are civil enough that few in the organization noticed there was a problem. But they had an angry early-season row about D'Antoni's use of Stoudemire, whom Kerr believed would be better served with more postups on offense. "Whatever you want to criticize me for," D'Antoni told Kerr, "don't tell me how to coach offense!" D'Antoni believes that Kerr subtly knocks his coaching in the press and feels that Kerr spends too much time away from the office, at his home in San Diego. Kerr, for his part, believes that D'Antoni is stubborn about his own principles and never listens to any of Kerr's ideas. There is some truth in both of their assessments.