The 2007 Suns.com Blogger Summit

With the Suns in Los Angeles last weekend for their first round playoff series against the Lakers, it seemed like the perfect time to convene my fellow Suns.com bloggers for our first annual summit.

The first annual Suns.com Blogger Summit was exhausting.
(Josh Greene/Suns Photos)

I submitted my request to my writer colleagues, but unfortunately, Steve Koek wrote back that he would be busy “washing his hair.” Tom Leander, James Jones and Aaron Nelson likewise replied that they would be doing the very same thing. So did Gary Bender, Brad Faye, Ann Meyers Drysdale, Joe Gilmartin, Marcus Banks, Jeramie McPeek, Jamie Morris, Adam Green, Erik Phillips, Eddie Johnson, Aaron Kimberlin, and the Suns Dancers.

Rather than be suspicious and insulted by this incredible coincidence, I decided to applaud them for their water-conservation efforts, as they are all, apparently, showering together.

Luckily, Suns center Sean Marks proved to be available for the landmark summit I had in mind. Not that I gave him much choice – I staked out his locker.

The following is the transcript of our historic conversation.�

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ADAM BEECHEN: Sean, thanks for taking the time to speak with me.

SEAN MARKS: Sure. Excuse me, though, you’re in my chair.

AB: Oh, sorry. I’ll just sit over here.

SM: That’s Boris’ locker.

AB: Okay, I’ll hop up on this table…

STEVE NASH: (passing by, to Suns trainers) Hey, who’s this on the training table?

AB: Maybe I’ll stand. Okay, let’s get started. How did you enjoy your regular season?

SM: Well, it was tremendous. We played great, everyone gets along really well, and we feel like, with the playoffs here, the best is yet to come.

AB: No, I meant your BLOGGING season.

SM: My blogging season?

AB: Yeah. I mean, personally, I feel like I had a terrific rookie campaign. Sentence construction worthy of a veteran, very few spelling errors… Sure, there are still some things to work on, like making sure I always write in active voice and not passive, but man, I really feel good about it. How about you?

SM: Oh, um… Sure. I enjoy doing the blogs and I feel good about them.

AB: No, I meant how do you feel about MY blogs?

SM: Uh… Great. I think you did really good work.

AB: Thanks! Now, it’s a long season, we all know that. How do you keep from wearing out? How do you keep from hitting “the wall?”

SM: We’ve got the best training staff in the NBA, and they always make sure we’re at our physical peak. Life on the NBA’s courts is so rugged and physical, your body has to be prepared to deliver a 110% effort every night, and –

AB: Actually, I was more talking about “the wall” for blogging. You know, when you just can’t think of anything because you feel like you’ve written everything there is to write, and you stare at the ceiling for hours, and you cry a lot, and you eat four containers of ice cream in a single sitting because man, it just tastes so good, and nothing else will fill the dark, yawning pit of emptiness inside you, and –

SM: (nervous) I just write about whatever’s going on.

AB: Yeah, me too, pretty much. So, how about those blogging injuries?

SM: Excuse me?

AB: Like, back in February? I typed an entire blog with this really painful hangnail on my left ring finger. Hitting those “s,” “w,” and “a” keys was excruciating, but hey, the team needed me, so what was I gonna do, sit on the bench?

SM: You injured yourself BLOGGING?

AB: You’ve got to play through the pain, am I right?

SM: Yeah, that was really… courageous of you.

AB: Thanks! Okay, let’s talk about the playoffs.

SM: Thank goodness.

AB: You’ve been around the league some… What can you tell us about the Suns’ opponents and who we might face down the road?

SM: Well, with the Lakers, first and foremost, you’re talking about Kobe Bryant, who’s such a complete player and can hurt you in so many ways… San Antonio has Tim Duncan, and he’s fundamentally brilliant and so hard to stop. Dirk Nowitzki’s in Dallas, and talk about hard to stop… When he gets rolling, you have to throw everything at him but the kitchen sink!

AB: Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki all do blogs?

SM: I have no idea.

AB: I’m talking about other teams’ bloggers, not players. Are they fluid typers? Can they tap with their left hands? Can they pull up and hit the space bar?

SM: I don’t read other teams’ blogs that often…

AB: Yeah! That’s the spirit! To heck with those other teams! Sure, your quote might make their locker room blackboards, but who cares?

SM: I seriously doubt other teams will care.

AB: Lastly, who do you think wins the MVP this year?

SM: (long, long pause) …You?

AB: (laughing) Dude, obviously I don’t play in the NBA! Come on!

SM: In that case, of course we’re all rooting for Steve Nash to make history and win the award for a third straight year.

AB: Wait, he’s already won it TWICE?!

AMARE STOUDEMIRE: (approaching, to security) Hey, who’s this leaning against my locker?!

AB: Well, Sean, looks like we’re about out of time. Thanks for participating in the first annual Suns.com Blogger Summit!

SM: It’s been a pleasure, I guess.

AB: (being dragged away by security) We’ll do it again next year!

AS: Who was that, Sean?

SM: No idea.

Mr. Beechen Goes to the Playoffs

The first thing I notice is that�I have no locker.�

STAT chats with the media after Thursday night’s game.
(Josh Greene/Suns Photos)

With the Suns in Los Angeles to play the Lakers in the first round of the 202007 NBA Playoffs, Suns senior staffers Jeramie McPeek and Julie Fie have generously finagled me a press pass for the game. “We figure it might give you some ideas for future blogs,” they tell me.

So here I am, completely through the looking glass, technically press in that I write for Suns.com, but not exactly a respected member of the media corps, more of a typical fan given an incredible opportunity to see a pro basketball playoff game featuring his favorite team from an unbelievable angle – from inside. And I’m in the Suns’ visitors’ locker room at Staples Center before the game, feeling about as much a part of the team as a typical fan can possibly feel. And there’s only one problem: I have no locker.

What’s up with that? Don’t these people know I’m Superfan?!�

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A short time before, I went to the press entrance at Staples, and asked the gentlemen at the desk if there might be a credential with my name on it. Indeed there was. So I affixed it to my belt, entered the arena, and hopped on an elevator down to the Chick Hearn Press Room, where I found Jeramie and fellow Suns staffer Josh Greene in line for their pre-game meal. Act like you’ve been here before, a little voice in my head said. So I complained about the food.

The only seats available to us happened to be at the same table as Lakers Assistant Coaches Frank Hamblen and Tex Winter. Act like you’ve been here before. So I mumbled something about the Triangle Offense by way of greeting, and sat down. I took a casual look around the room. There was former NBA No. 1 draft pick Mychal Thomspon, now a color commentator for the Lakers. There was TNT broadcaster Doug Collins. There was former Suns great Paul Westphal, now serving as a studio analyst on Laker broadcasts (and I can’t begin to tell you how that makes me feel). And there was TNT sideline reporter Craig Sager, noted for his, um, eclectic taste in suits, tonight wearing an eye-meltingly blue number with alligator shoes to match and a luminescent orange tie, flitting around looking for tidbits and anecdotes he could use during tonight’s broadcast. He asks Tex Winter his age, and Winter replies, “Eighty-five.” I’m genuinely shocked. “You shouldn’t lie to the press,” I admonish the coach. “You don’t look more than sixty.” (Which is true) He smiles politely and goes back to his food. Maybe he didn’t hear me.

After dinner, we head for the dark tunnel underneath the stadium so Jeramie and Josh can get shots of the players arriving. Sager’s hanging around down there as well, his blue pants providing us with illumination to film by. We follow the Suns to their locker room (at the far end of the hall, past the Lakers, the L.A. Kings dressing room, and the Laker Girls’ locker room – Jeramie has to pull me away from that door, and doesn’t seem to buy my excuse that I mis-read the nameplate next to the entrance).�

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And then, there I am, in the Suns’ locker room before a big playoff game, players changing into their game gear, Assistant Coach Marc Iavaroni scribbling game instructions on a dry-erase board, locker room attendants scurrying this way and that, and press everywhere, trying to get a few pre-game quotes as the players stretch and loosen up. So I figure I better do the same – stretch and loosen up, that is. After all, I have a strenuous night of blogging ahead of me.

I look around for my locker…but there isn’t one. Probably just an oversight, I imagine. I consider pulling a diva act and complaining, but… Act like you’ve been here before. So I play the good soldier, drop my bag at an empty chair and sit down. I’m about to unpack my stuff when a locker room attendant taps me on the shoulder. I look up to turn down the inevitable autograph request when he gestures to the uniform hanging behind me in the locker. “Stoudemire,” it reads.

Oh.

So I get up and move to the next unavailable seat, but apparently Boris Diaw has claimed that one for himself. I’m about to ask Shawn Marion if I can share some of his space when the locker room attendant chases me away. I should’ve known the Staples Center Lakers staff would be unfriendly.

Okay, no locker for me. I can take it. I drop my bag in the middle of the locker room and go about my pre-game ritual anyway. I strip down to my shorts (I don’t want to get my game gear all sweaty ahead of time) and start into my stretches right there. I’m starting to feel good, feel loose, when I look up and see the players, coaching staff, trainers and media all staring at me with wide, wide eyes. I don’t blame them – I’ve seen this look before. I’m pretty flexible, and proud of it.

After being escorted outside by security, I quickly dress and follow Jeramie and Josh out onto the Staples Center floor to get a few shots of Suns players doing early shooting warm-ups. If you’ve never been down on the floor of an NBA arena before a game, it’s pretty impressive. The lights, the glitzy fans filing in, the players starting to put on their game faces…I look around and wonder how players can keep their focus with so much going on around them. The place isn’t close to half full yet, and it’s already loud down here.

Overwhelmed by the spectacle, and by the simple fact that I’m actually here, I plop down in a chair near the Suns’ bench to catch my breath. But before I can, I’m tapped on the shoulder by an usher. “You can’t sit there,” he tells me. “That’s Jack Nicholson’s chair.”

Oh. At least that explains all the gold statues under the seat.

I retreat to the tunnel that serves as the players’ entrance onto the court, as well as the VIP entrance to the seats of the highest-rolling fans. The Suns sprint past me toward the floor. I stick my hand out and get a few slaps. I’m still reeling from the excitement of that when I notice Queen Latifah about to pass me by, on the way to her seat. Act like you’ve been here before.

“How’s it going, Queen?” I ask, friendly.

Maybe she didn’t hear me, and only made that face because she had something stuck in her teeth.

I climb into the elevator that will take me to the press box, from where I’ll watch the game. The press box at Staples Center is high above the court. Very high. Higher than the cheapest seats. So high that, if it were any higher, the press would actually be watching the game alongside late Lakers announcer Chick Hearn.

I’ve never been to a press box before. But I’m prepared. I’ve watched movies. So, after reaching my seat, I pull out my fedora (the one with the card that says “PRESS” sticking out of the brim) and a tweed sport coat with patches over the elbows. I set up my manual typewriter. And I pull out a handful of thick, smelly cigars. I can’t decide which one to smoke first, so I light three of them. Then I get a tap on the shoulder.

You can’t smoke in press boxes anymore? Really? When did they make that change?

Anyway, after a wondrous first quarter in which the Suns look like they never got the memo that Game 2 actually ended, the Lakers gamely battle back, chipping away at the Suns’ lead to take command and protect their home court with a win. The Suns still lead the series 2-1.

After the game, I head back down to the Suns’ locker room, digital recorder in hand, to try and get some quotes from Suns players. The atmosphere is quiet, more subdued than pregame, and understandably so. But we members of the press still have our jobs to do, so we crowd around players and jam our microphones uncomfortably close to their faces and ask questions like, “What happened?” Again, I marvel at the players’ ability to keep their control. Personally, I’d bite someone’s arm.

As it is, I can barely get a microphone anywhere near the players, so fierce is the battle among cameramen and reporters to get good “spots.” I’m reduced to snaking my arm through a tangle of torsos and hoping my recorder is in the general vicinity of a player’s mouth, and not directly beneath a cameraman’s nose, or something worse. In this manner, I get quotes from Raja Bell, Boris Diaw, Shawn Marion, Kurt Thomas, Leandro Barbosa and James Jones.

By the time I get to the crush around Amaré Stoudemire, I’ve been battered, bruised and bumped. I finally have a good “spot,” and my microphone is right up (way up) where I can get Amaré’s deep voice loud and clear. But that’s when a veteran NBA reporter shows up and crowds me over so he can get his recorder close to Amaré. He’s only doing his job. I shouldn’t get mad. I should act like I’ve been here before, but I’m as frustrated as the Suns after a loss, so I do my best Pat Burke imitation and, like I’m fighting for position underneath the basket, I block out for all I’m worth, forcing the reporter back, back, back…until he falls over a pile of sweaty towels. Flush with success, I pound my chest, kiss my bicep, and I wag a finger in his face, Dikembe Mutombo-style. “How ya like me now?” I scream. Then I look around, smiling, expecting to be offered a three-year contract as a power forward.

After security escorts me out, I move across the hall to where Steve Nash is meeting with the media. He’s tired. I’m tired. The “PRESS” card in my hat’s brim has completely wilted. But I suspect I’ve had a lot more fun than he has tonight. As the press conference winds down, I whisper thanks for this incredible opportunity and farewell to Jeramie, wishing the team well on what I hope will be a long journey through the playoffs. I’ll be with them in spirit, sending blog dispatches along the way.

Steve Nash rises from his stool behind the podium, having answered the last question. He smiles wearily. “Buenos noches,” he says.

Good night, everybody.

L.A. Dreaming

Just about a half-hour away from heading to Staples Center for Game 3 (on MY-45!). Thought I’d pass along a few musings before Gametime.

The Suns and Lakers tip off tonight at 7:30 p.m. on My45.
(NBAE Photos)
  • I have a sneaking suspicion we will see some rough play from the Lakers, who want to send a physical message along to the Suns especially in front of their home fans. Odom (and Charles Barkley) have said L.A. needs to put Leandro “down.” Phil Jackson said the Lakers were “punked” in Game 2. And Ronny Turiaf was visibly upset at James Jones for going in for a monster slam in the final minute of the blow-out. Don’t be surprised to see the chippiness return between these two teams–maybe even an ejection or two tonight.

 

  • Raja Bell and his wife Cindy need a short series. She’s expecting their first child any day now.

 

  • We may have some fun tonight with Phil Jackson and his “throne.” He sits with extra cushions after the hip replacement surgery. So for those that say he sits on his high horse…

 

  • I enjoyed seeing EJ present Leandro with his NBA Sixth Man Award trophy on Tuesday night, but I’m very disappointed in Eddie after he refused to go up on stage last night at a local night spot and sing karaoke for us here in Los Angeles (I even tipped the deejay $20 to slip EJ ahead of the others waiting to show their “Idol-like” skills!)

 

  • I have constant thoughts of how sweet a Suns run to the championship would be for Jerry Colangelo, who has been quietly watching from the shadows – but is always at the forefront of our minds.

 

  • A recent survey of GMs around the league gave the MVP award to Dirk. Think they may want to take those votes back?? He doesn’t look like an MVP after their first two playoff games. To me, Josh Howard has been their most valuable Mav!

 

  • Finally, I still feel strongly that our training staff (Aaron Nelson, Mike Elliott, Jay Gaspar and Eric Phillips) should collectively win Dan Majerle’s Hustle Award. Nobody works harder, hustles more than this group. They NEVER have a day off!
Later, from L.A.

Now THAT was Phoenix Suns Basketball

No impostors in this one. For one of the few times in the last two postseason match-ups between the teams, the real Suns and the real Lakers showed up.

Amaré Stoudemire’s defense sparked the Suns’ open-court game.
(NBAE Photos)

Okay, maybe the surreal Suns. I’ve seen them play this well in spurts during the Nash Era, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen them sustain such excellence at both ends of the court for such a prolonged period. Four periods, actually.

 

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many Suns at the top of their game at both ends of the court at the same time either.

 

Steve Nash had only two fewer assists in 25 minutes than the entire Lakers team had in 48, Leandro Barbosa had another 26-point microburst, Shawn Marion had another double double, and Amare – well, Amare not only scored 20 points but also was the backbone of a superb defense that helped turn this into an open-court game.

 

“Amare’s not known as a great one-on-one defender,” said Kobe Bryant in the post-game press conference, “but he’s an excellent help defender.”

 

Exactly!

 

Amare’s spectacular blocks (four in all) and hovering presence not only short circuited the only strength the Lakers have other than Kobe (i.e. — the power game), but keyed a running game that netted 39 fast-break points.

 

Barbosa continues to be a revelation. Talk about the rich getting richer. The Suns already had a roster that included a two-time MVP plus two other All Stars, and now Barbosa is emerging as a full-fledged star in his own right.

 

Once known mostly as The Fastest Sun, he has morphed into The Unstoppable Sun, a point Lakers coach Phil Jackson underscored when he called him “the difference in the series to this point.”

 

In the process of running circles (and even a few squares and rectangles) around the befuddled Lakers, Barbosa also made the voters who made him the runaway choice for Sixth Man of the Year look good.

 

This 26-point performance was even more impressive than the one in Game 1 of the series because of the potential additional pressure put on him by the pre-game ceremonies in which he received the award and highlights of his season were played on the arena screens, while the Lakers stood around watching.

 

Sometimes in those circumstances the honoree experiences a letdown, and when Barbosa missed his first three shots it appeared as though this might be one of those times. But not to worry. He hit seven of his next eight, and was the driving force behind a 37-22 second period that blew the game wide open.

 

And while not to put to fine a point on it, on several occasions he seemed to be wearing sneakers while all the Lakers were wearing ski boots (and on a couple of occasions, skis).

 

So far in this series I’ve been mildly surprised twice. Game 1 was a little harder to win than I expected, and Game 2 was a little easier. But ONLY a little.

 

The Larkers are trying to shrug this off as something of an aberration and shrugging that a 30-point loss in the playoffs is no more significant than a one-point loss, and in fact, actually is less painful.

 

Ordinarily I might agree with them.

 

In fact, the last time I remember the Lakers falling more than 30 points behind in a playoff game was in Game 1 of the 1985 Finals in Boston. I was in the Gah-den that night and saw the Lakers lose to the Celtics, 148-114. But they went on to square the series in Game 2 and eventually close out the Celts in Game 6.

 

But there was no noticeable talent gap between those Lakers and those Celtics, whereas there is a huge one between these Lakers and these Suns. I’ll grant you it’s not 28 points wide, but it’s in the 15-20 range

 

Which basically means that in order to salvage even one game in this series the Lakers will have to somehow let all the air out of the ball, put some glue on the soles of Barbosa’s sneakers, and hope an exhausted Kobe (hey, if you’d been carrying a whole NBA team on your back for the last six months you’d be tired too) locates his suddenly gone-missing touch.

 

The only thing that worries me is that the Suns might have blown their cover. They came into the series as a team allegedly bogged down with chemistry and focus problems, and did nothing to dispel that misread in Game 1.

 

But Game 2, alas, unmasked them as the explosive force they really are, and in fact have been all along.

Reflecting Back and Looking Ahead

I don’t know about everyone else, but this season has flown by very quickly! We are already two games and two wins into the 202007 NBA Playoffs and potentially only a couple of months away from a NBA championship. Now is a good time to reflect on some of the key moments of the season.

  • September began with informal workouts, including extra workout sessions with our Sports Medicine staff trying to keep up with Nash(Camelback, parking garage, etc.).

 

  • We travel with the team, staff, family, owners, administration, and NBA personnel to Italy and Germany for a very memorable training camp.

 

  • I found out after coming home from a preseason road game that my wife is pregnant with our first child. Several weeks later I found out we’re having a boy!

 

  • The regular season started out slow, but ended up with 61 wins(3rd best in Suns history), including win streaks of 17 and 15 games!

 

  • Ben Roethlisberger came to a shootaround and participated in the entire workout(including the film session). Steeler Nation, baby!

 

  • Jerome Bettis attends the Suns/Pistons game and come back to the training room for a visit. Did I say Steeler Nation baby?!

 

  • Cal Ripken Jr. made a tour through the locker room before a game. Not part of Steeler Nation, but not a bad athlete to put in with a couple of Super Bowl Champs!

 

  • Amaré plays in all 82 games after 2 knee surgeries last season—unbelievable accomplishment.

 

  • We end up with the 2nd best record in the NBA!

 

  • Leandro Barbosa wins 6th Man of the Year! I still think he should have received all of the votes!

Those were only a few of the highlights of another great season. Of course there have been ups and downs, but we seem to be hitting our stride again at the right time.

Now, we need to look ahead. We have 2 wins under our belts and need 14 more to win a NBA Championship.

First, we need to win this series as we travel to LA for games 3 and 4. Los Angeles can be a hostile territory during the playoffs as family and friends can attest from last years playoffs against the Lakers and the Clippers.

As long as we keep building momentum and playing hard, great things will probably follow. We have a group of guys that are starving for a shot at the title, but everyone knows that the West is a difficult conference.

All of us (players, coaches, and staff) have friends working or playing for the other playoff teams, so there are calls, texts, and emails almost daily between everyone. The anxious anticipation builds daily as we get closer to meeting those individuals in a playoff series.

Friendships can become tense, but that is the nature of the game. I will assure all Suns fans that our team is ready to dig in deep and make a run to what we all want to see—the championship trophy hoisted high above our heads!

Playoffs Already "Really Exciting"

This morning I was informed by the friendly neighborhood Circle K cashier, Cheryl, that a local radio sportscaster was urging that fans get behind the Suns now, “before it gets really exciting.”

� 

Raja Bell, Amaré Stoudemire and the Suns have already helped make the 202007 NBA Playoffs exciting.
(NBAE Photos)

Before it gets really exciting? This postseason, only one game in, is already beyond “really exciting.” For me it is anyway.

This team, this season, these playoffs, have the feel of something spectacular already. I think a win tonight would do more than put the Suns in the driver’s seat of their opening round series with the Lakers.

With the Spurs and Mavs both losing their opening games, and the Suns’ penchant in recent years for letting Game 2s slip away after Game 1 victories, going up 2-0 will show that this team has the focus and determination to go all the way.

This is not a “must win” scenario, of course. The Suns will dispose of the Lakers regardless of tonight’s outcome. But it is a game that champions win.

I understand some fans’ reluctance to jump fully on board after coming close so many times, but not yet achieving the NBA pinnacle in hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy. I grew up a Chicago Cubs fan so I know about getting close and winding up devasted by another year without a title.

But I also grew up a Bulls fan. I watched, sometimes up close and personal as a sports TV producer, when the Jordan era began (“Jordan Scores 40, Bulls Lose”) and then when Chicago grew into a contender as Michael matured, honed his skills and bought into the team concept.

Those Bulls lost two straight Eastern Conference Finals to the Pistons before starting their first championship run. They learned how to win by losing.

This Suns team has also come close and seen what it takes to become a champion. They have learned those valuable lessons and have all the pieces in place to make it happen.

If you’re not already beyond excitement, like the crazed sellout crowd at US Airways Center became on Sunday, you need to hurry up and get there. You won’t be disappointed, no matter what happens.

But if all you’re after is a title, hang on tight. In my opinion, if the Suns prevail tonight, and I predict they will, they will go on to win their first-ever NBA Championship.

The Brazillian Superman

Before Game 1 of the playoffs, the Suns’ Amare Stoudemire stated, “the regular season consists of great professionals, but the playoffs are where stars are born.” Well… after Game 1, the Suns have a newborn star in Leandro Barbosa.

 

Leandro Barbosa led the Suns to a 95-87 win in Game 1 of the playoffs on Sunday.
(Barry Gossage/NBAE Photos)
 

He “toasted” the Lakers tying his career playoff-high with 26 points.�L.A. had no answer for LB, who is unguardable with his warp speed. Coach Mike D’Antoini in the press conference following the victory said, “to play at that speed must be fun.”

Barbosa,�like the rest of the team, appeared “tight” early in the game, but then exploded for 15 points in the 3rd quarter, including a huge three-point shot to energize the Suns heading into the 4th.

After the game I asked Suns Chairman Jerry Colangelo who Barbosa reminded him of; who could he recall in his almost 40 years with the Suns played at his blurring speed? He couldn’t come up with anybody. That’s what is exciting and so promising about the Brazilian Blur. He’s so unique, he’s an original. He should soon be named the Sixth Man of the Year, and I believe he will end up being named an All-Star in the near future.

LB’s metamorphosis started on January 2nd in Chicago, when he hit a�three-pointer to beat the Bulls. Since that time his confidence has grown. As D’Antoni put it, “he thinks he’s Superman.”

Coach may just be on to something. After all, Superman is faster than a speeding bullet and can leap tall buildings in a single bound. The Suns’ Superman does that at times, plus a few�things the other Superman never thought possible.

Suns Not Pretty, But Effective in Win

That’s One! Not a pretty One, but then when were the playoffs ever about pretty? The real question is what to take out of this unpretty One? And for me the answer is nothing I didn’t take into it.

 

Shawn Marion and the Suns pulled out a 96-87 win in Game 1 vs. the Lakers.
(Barry Gossage/NBAE Photos)
 

Before the series started I thought the Suns had too much talent, speed and firepower for the Lakers to handle, and that it would be a short series. And I saw nothing Sunday to change my mind.

I know the Suns trailed most of the way, but even when they were down by 12 I never really felt they were in danger of losing the game or certainly the series — although I’ll admit there were stretches in the first half when I felt they might have to limp into the second round still suffering from all those self-inflicted bullet wounds in their feet.

Those first two periods had an upside down feel. So upside down that a fan who just returned from a vacation on Mars, and thus was not au courant, as they say, would have thought he was watching the scrappy, undermanned Suns making a game bid to upset the powerful Lakers instead of vice versa.

Still, even with the Suns shooting as poorly as they have all year, and Kobe going off for 28 first-half points, the Suns were only down nine at intermission. And even though that deficit would grow a tad before starting to shrink, I never had a sense of impending doom. I never sensed that in the stands either (although there is a tendency in these point-happy parts to think that any time the shots aren’t falling the sky must be).

Once you get past the almost shockingly bad shooting and early jitters, there were a lot of things that in some ways made this win almost as impressive as the blowouts sure to come in the series. Things like rebounding, defense, grit and the ability to make outside-in adjustments on the fly when their offense sputters, not to mention taking Kobe’s best shot.

Maybe the Lakers walked off the court thinking, “Hey, we can definitely play with these guys.” In fact, Coach Phil Jackson said as much in his post-game press conference. But that’s them.

If I’M the Lakers, I’m walking off the court saying to myself, “Man, if we couldn’t beat these dudes today we’ll NEVER beat them,” and I’m thinking the Lakers’ stock went DOWN, not up. But that’s me.

I’m further thinking, “We might be able to do SOMETHING with Nash and Amare and Marion. I mean we can at least catch them. But we can hardly SEE Leandro Barbosa, let alone catch the guy.”

Barbosa, easily the fastest thing on two sneakers, not only blew past the Lakers for lay-ups but hit a momentum-building 31-foot three as time ran out in the third period. And he scored 15 straight Suns points in a blistering 4:33 span at the end of the third period and beginning of the fourth en route to 26 points.

We’ve all been saying for the last two years he’s probably the fastest player in the NBA, but he’s a blur beyond fast. “He’s so much faster than anybody else it’s unbelievable,” said Coach Mike. Combine that sped with three-point range outside and an uncanny ability to bank in soft shots high off the glass from improbable angles while on the fly and you’ve got an unguardable package.

Oh, and did I mention he’s only now beginning to fully understand how to exploit those skills. Once he really gets the hang of it…

He was the best story Sunday, but certainly not the whole one. Steve Nash was his MVP self, both by the numbers and through his ability to subtly shift gears as the game situations change, and Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire were dominating on the boards.

As for the Lakers, once Kobe’s shot went missing (he was 1 for his last 11) the Lakers went losing. But give them credit for some solid defense and all-out effort.

The bottom line: In addition to the talent gap between the teams there is also an energy gap, which is one reason the Lakers wore down in the fourth period, and will wear down even more in the next three games (four if necessary).

Suns in Five Over Lakers, At Most

I’m with Amare all the way on this one!

I know that the sports version of political correctness dictates you’re not supposed to say what he said.

 

Amaré Stoudemire meets with the media after Thursday afternoon’s practice.
(Barry Gossage/NBAE Photos)

And in fact, the same thought must have struck him almost before he finished saying it because he almost immediately tried to sort of unsay it.�

What he said was, “I think we should take care of them (i.e. —the Lakers) pretty quickly.” And about three sentences later, obviously realizing his candor might cause collateral damage to his side in the form of a bulletin board bullet, he tried to atone for his pc misstep with, “The Lakers are playing great basketball right now.”

Nice try, Big Fella! And it would have successful too if only Lakers hadn’t been in the process of losing something like eight of their last seven games at the time.

But the bottom line is he was as right the first time as he was wrong the second.

Hyperbole and history to the contrary notwithstanding, there simply is no logical way it should take the Suns more than five games to dispose of the Lakers. Maybe not even that many.

Yes, I know this is the third time logic suggests a playoff series against these Lakers should be a pleasant walk in the park for the Suns. And yes I’m perfectly aware that on the two previous occasions the “walk” turned out to be not in the park but across a bed of hot coals sprinkled with ground glass.

The first time was in 1992-93 when the 62-20 Suns (still the best team in the history of the franchise in my book) met the 39-43 Lakers in a first-round best-of-five series – and promptly lost the first two games at home! But, thanks in large (sorry ‘bout that, “O”) part to a season-saving effort by Oliver Miller; they rallied for two wins in Los Angeles, and sweated out an overtime victory in Game Five back in Phoenix and eventually moved on all the way to the Finals.

The second time, of course, was just last year when, although the “park” was supposed to be a little less safe, the 54-48 Suns still were expected to dispose of the 45-37 Lakers rather handily. Instead, it took a Tim Thomas three-pointer at the buzzer in a win-or-die game in Los Angeles to save the putative deposers from becoming the dispose-ees.

But that and that, as they say, was then and then. And this is here and now.

And here and now the talent gap between the Suns and Lakers is big enough to drive Charles Barkley’s ego through. In fact, all of Charles.

And the short reason there will be no repeat of last year’s nearly calamitous cliffhanger is quite simply that the Suns are much better this year and the Lakers are not nearly as good.

I mean, does anybody really think last year’s series would have been so tough if the Suns had had a healthy Amaré and Kurt Thomas?

Also, while the Suns were considered to have overachieved last year by winning 54 games with no Amaré and not all that much of Kurt, they were considered by some to have somewhat underachieved in winning 61 this year – which should tell you just how wide the above-mentioned talent gap is.

The reason I say that is that’s amazing how much fretting there was done during the season about this team’s chemistry, focus, and heaven knows what-not. What’s even more amazing is that some of the most frenetic fretting was done while the team was in the throes of a 7-1 “slump.”

In some ways this is the most over-analyzed 61-win team I’ve ever seen.

And at times the analysis angst tends to obscure the fact the Suns achieved all but one of their regular-season goals, missing only on a number one seed – and that only because Dallas topped their great season with an even greater one.

Along the way there have been fears that, while they were in no danger of failing it, their grade in chemistry had dropped from A-plus to C-minus.

But this is a bogus concern – the kind of straw a columnist might clutch at on a slow day. The fact is chemistry doesn’t cause winning, winning causes chemistry. And thus whatever grade the Suns are getting in it will have nothing to do with whether they win it all or not.

Same goes, by the way, for the fans getting the team back in the game myth. It is, of course, the other way around. If the home team is getting wiped out the fans will really start cheering only AFTER it starts to make a move, NEVER before.

But I digress.

Getting back to Suns-Lakers, what we have here is a match-up of an elite team against one that was in danger of falling all the way from the lower middle of the second tier all the way into the lottery in the waning weeks of the season.

We also have a Steve Nash vs. Jordan Farmar match-up and an Amaré vs. – well, actually the Lakers don’t have any match-up for Amaré.

Last year the Lakers were able to impose their will on the games by taking quite a bit of air out of the ball, pounding away inside, and playing excellent defense.

This year they still have the option of taking the air out of the ball, of course. But with Amaré and Kurt on board their inside game won’t be nearly as effective. And they aren’t as good defensively now as they were a year ago.

Speaking of defense, I know Kobe had an off shooting night in the game here last week, but one of the reasons was an excellent defensive scheme that spun a web that made it tough for even him to free himself from.

Finally, by way of formally seconding Amaré’s notion, it should also be noted, the Lakers rolled into the playoffs on an impressive 11-3 run. This year they limped in on more like a 3-11 run.

I know the Lakers think they can beat the Suns, but then, the Lakers also think they are just a player away from rejoining the ranks of the elite.

The bottom line: Suns in Five! At the most!

The Straw That Stirs the Drink

Does a week in sports get any better? The Suns-Lakers Opening Round match-up is finally set in stone, the New York Rangers have advanced out of the opening round via a sweep of the Atlanta Thrashers and the New York Mets are running away with the National League East division.

 

Head Coach Mike D’Antoni and the Suns tip off the 202007 Playoffs against the Lakers on Sunday (12 p.m., FSN AZ).
(NBAE Photos)

For a true sports fan, this season’s 202007 NBA Playoffs really couldn’t have been scripted any better. The Suns and Lakers rivalry spoke for itself even before last season’s memorable seven-game series ever took place. Meanwhile you’ve got Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson going against the San Antonio Spurs in a battle of great offense vs. great defense, and Don Nelson coaching the Warriors against his old Mavericks – a team they swept during the regular season. Back East either the Heat or Bulls will be going home in the first round, Dwight Howard makes his playoff debut against the Detroit Pistons and Vince Carter is playing arguably the best basketball of his career as he prepares to play against his old mates in Toronto.

Looking ahead, (I’m not a player so I don’t have to do that whole ‘one game at a time’ thing) you’ve got even better series potentially shaping up in the second round. I won’t jinx the Suns by discussing the possibility of a Semifinals match-up against the Spurs, but will mention that you could have Ben Wallace and the Chicago Bulls going up against Wallace’s former team the Pistons. The Rockets and Mavericks always seem to provide classic duels in Texas, and the way Tracy McGrady has played to close the season, anything will be possible.

Obviously the series I’m anticipating most is the one which tips off right here in the Valley on Sunday. Going down to Suns practice yesterday, you could definitely tell we are no longer in the preseason. While it definitely makes my job harder in terms of interviewing, I always enjoy seeing the national media at the US Airways Center. It just lets you know something special is happening when the group surrounding Mike D’Antoni has grown from three to thirty.

No matter how many members of the media are pulling him in different directions, Mike always makes himself more than accessible. While that attribute never allows the media to take him for granted as a person, I do feel at times he’s taken for granted as a head coach. Talking to former Suns coach John MacLeod this week, it was really put into perspective how valuable D’Antoni is to what the Suns have done this season.

MacLeod coached the Suns during the 1970s, including the 1975-76 season which saw the team advance all the way to the NBA Finals. MacLeod said in his opinion, D’Antoni should be this season’s Coach of the Year. At first, I thought it was just loyalty to the Suns organization speaking and an example of a good guy saying the right thing.

After all, Sam Mitchell has done an unbelievable job in Toronto. His Raptors come to play every night and nobody would’ve predicted they’d finish as the third seed in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. Speaking of teams who always come ready to play, you’ve got to look at Mavericks coach Avery Johnson as more than worthy of repeating as Coach of the Year. Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan saw his team stumble to the finish line, but even that ballclub overachieved as they battled injuries to finish as the fourth seed in the very tough Western Conference.

But MacLeod made a more than convincing case for D’Antoni who enjoyed his third complete season as head coach of the Suns. MacLeod pointed to all the close games the team has played this season, more specifically the fact that they’ve won way more of those contests than they’ve lost. Sure life is good when you’ve got extremely talented players like Steve Nash and Leandro Barbosa, but let’s not forget somebody has to draw up a play which gets those guys the best shot possible.

Teams scout other teams, particularly good teams like the Phoenix Suns. Because of this, D’Antoni can’t have just one play that he relies on all the time (kind of like annoying people in John Madden Football). D’Antoni needs as many tricks up his sleeve as possible and he came through during the 2006-2007 season time and time again.

In the January 2 contest in Chicago, players weren’t just running around like chickens with their heads cut off in hopes somebody would get open. D’Antoni selected Leandro Barbosa to be the recipient and diagrammed a play which allowed him to get an inch or two against the defense. That spacing ultimately proving to be the difference between a loss and the third of 17-straight victories.

I’m not petitioning for D’Antoni to be Coach of the Year. Between campaigning for Nash, Barbosa and Marion for award considerations, I’m just spent. I’m just suggesting that while everybody has their focus on the match-up involving Raja Bell and Kobe Bryant this week, don’t forget about the match-up taking place along the sidelines between D’Antoni and Hall of Famer Phil Jackson. Two coaches with very contrasting styles will be looking for a way to force their will over the other, a task which will not be easy for either.

So should Sunday’s contest come down to some last-second heroics either on the part of Nash, Bell or a new hero; let’s not forget the straw that stirs the cup. Now let the chanting begin… “Beat LA! Beat LA!….”