Suns still have to defend against critics

Playoffs will provide test for high-flying Phoenix

Pro Basketball

April 23, 2005|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

The Phoenix Suns have spent the past six months confounding the experts.

Many thought coach Mike D'Antoni's European-style offense wouldn't work over the course of an 82-game schedule. Others believed that Amare Stoudemire was more highlight reel than for real. And even a few predicted that Steve Nash wouldn't be as effective playing without Dirk Nowitzki.

As the NBA playoffs begin today, most of the skeptics have scattered.

After racing through the regular season with the league's best record (62-20), Phoenix is considered one of the favorites to emerge from the top-heavy Western Conference and challenge either the reigning champion Detroit Pistons or the Miami Heat for this year's title.

Yet D'Antoni continues to be asked the same question: Will the approach that made the Suns the highest-scoring team in the league by nearly seven points a game work in the playoffs? No team that led the league in scoring has won the title since the 1996-97 Chicago Bulls.

Can it work as well through June as it did in January?

D'Antoni, whose system is rooted in the nearly two decades he spent playing and coaching in Italy before bringing it to Phoenix after replacing Frank Johnson toward the end of last year's 29-53 disaster, seems confident that the team's success will carry over to the postseason.

"I think it does, I think we've seen it in the past," said D'Antoni, whose Suns open the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies tomorrow in Phoenix. "I think the best players usually win no matter what style you're in. We're trying to play to our strengths. If our strengths are good enough, we'll win."

The two biggest strengths of this Phoenix team are obvious.

In Nash, the Suns have a point guard who when healthy, was such a dominant player that he is being widely mentioned along with Miami's Shaquille O'Neal as the league's Most Valuable Player. Equally impressive has been the emergence of the 22-year-old Stoudemire as a full-blown star.

Yet D'Antoni believes that other moves have been just as vital to a turnaround that is the third-best in NBA history.

Specifically, the signing of the team's other free agent, small forward Quentin Richardson, and moving Shawn Marion to power forward, where he became an All-Star, has allowed Phoenix to flex its muscles among the league's elite.

"There are a lot of little parts that went together," D'Antoni said after a practice last month in Phoenix. "If somebody wants to argue that Steve is the biggest reason, that's fine. But it's also Amare, it's Shawn, we've got a lot of arguments there.

"I don't think you make the kind of jump we've made because of one player."

Early in the season, Nash's absence with a thigh contusion and back spasms caused a team that had won 31 of its first 35 games to lose four straight. It raised doubts whether the Suns could win without the 31-year-old point guard at full strength.

Since missing the first three games after the All-Star break with a pulled hamstring - the Suns won two of them - Nash has played through an assortment of nagging injuries, maintaining a league-leading 11.5 assists and averaging nearly 14 points a game.

Clearly, Nash will have to stay healthy for Phoenix to make a long playoff run.

One more thing: the Suns will also have to play some defense.

"We can outgun guys, outshoot them, but we can't depend on that," said Stoudemire, who finished fifth in the league in scoring (26.0) and second to O'Neal in field-goal percentage. "You've got teams that are great defensively. We've just got to do a little touch up defensively and we'll be OK."

Said Nash: "I think we have to improve defensively a little bit, I don't think we have to improve that much."

If the Suns become the first team since the 1976-77 Portland Trail Blazers to win a championship after failing to make the playoffs the previous season, it will likely be with the same formula they used during the regular season. Their philosophy is simple.

Make the opposition figure out who's going to shoot.

Will it be Stoudemire, who expanded his game to become a proficient mid-range shooter as well as one of the league's most explosive dunkers? Will it be Marion, Richardson or Joe Johnson, who are just as likely to pull up for a three-pointer as they are to dunk?

"That's one of the reasons I think we are rather successful. We're not predictable and it's hard to scout us," said D'Antoni. "It's like any system where you don't have set plays, it's like the Triangle Offense a little bit that way too when they played [with the Lakers and Bulls]. You more or less have situations, they didn't really call plays."

As much as Stoudemire dreams of this year's team winning the first championship in the franchise's 37-year history, he knows that Phoenix will have to get through more experienced playoff teams, one in particular. Stoudemire said the road through the West will ultimately go through San Antonio.

"I think they've been there before, they've won championships, they've been contenders for the last few years, they are one of the top teams in the league and they are the team to beat," Stoudemire said of the 59-23 Spurs, who lost home-court advantage after Tim Duncan went down with an ankle injury.

Until they reach the Finals, something the Suns haven't done in 12 years, a few skeptics will be left.

"I think we've always thought people are waiting to see us collapse or fall," said Johnson. "I don't think nobody believes we're going to do good. It's always that we can't win this way. If we kept working hard and playing hard, we're going to keep winning."

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