When the Chips Are Down

John Paxson. Mario Elie. It’s stung for Suns fans
in the past, but never quite like this.

 

Jeter and Manning have been on both ends of monumental victories and defeats. 

(NBAE Photos)

Phoenix’s elimination to arch-rival San Antonio for the second time in three seasons was tough, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t reason to be optimistic.

I know what you’re thinking – here we go with another “rah rah” Suns.com blog justifying why next season will be different. I’m not here to predict anything but I did want to stop by and share a few stories with you.

It’s hard to call Peyton Manning the most underrated player in football. After all, how do you call a league MVP underrated? It’s simple, Manning carries that team and orchestrates that offense like no player we’ve seen this past decade. He makes reading an NFL defense look easy, and better than any player in the NFL (including running backs) allows his defense to rest on the sidelines for extended periods of time.

For whatever reason, however, Manning just could never seem to take his team deep in the playoffs, particularly when it involved getting beyond the New England Patriots. Even in 2005, after Manning shrugged off his 0-7 record in New England to help improve Indianapolis to an 8-0 regular season record, the Pro Bowler couldn’t appear to get over that postseason hump as the Colts fell, this time to the eventual World Champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

I’ll never forget the night Manning was officially able to get over the hump. It didn’t come in the Super Bowl, but rather the AFC Conference Championship Game against those Patriots. I was working a Suns game that evening and was unable to watch the memorable gridiron contest. I did, however, receive a number of calls from people who wanted to rub it in that my favorite quarterback on my favorite team was again about to come up short to a team which plays near a city I can’t stand. On this evening, I did make a guarantee. To everyone who called to update me on the Colts’ 18-point deficit, I spoke of the events which would follow.

In my best rendition of Paul Westphal’s 1993 Opening Round Series guarantee, I said, “We’re going to win the ballgame. We’re going to overcome the deficit and tomorrow everybody will talk about how Manning was finally able to get over the hump after doing the impossible.”

Manning indeed pulled off the comeback, riding the momentum to an eventual Super Bowl victory over the Chicago Bears. The guy who just couldn’t seem to beat Tom and his Brady Bunch did so when absolutely nobody gave him a shot – well almost nobody.

The tables were turned in 2004 when it was Boston doing what many felt was a mission impossible. Trailing their long-time rival Yankees in the American League Championship Series 3-0, all sports fans heard about was that fun little statistic discussing how no team in NBA or MLB history has ever climbed back to win a series when trailing 3-0. As if that wasn’t enough for the Red Sox, to mount a comeback would mean mounting one against the Yankees, the team which had provided them with a lifetime of wedgies and swirlies.

With the series suddenly tied at three games apiece, I again remained confident. Perhaps biased by my New York blood, I claimed that this was all a marvelous setup, constructed by the Yankees themselves. The team had seemingly ripped out the hearts of Sox fans in every way possible, why not get creative? What better way to hurt a sports fan than by taking one who has gone from hopeless to hopeful and punching them in the stomach?

On this night, however, it wasn’t meant to be as the Red Sox destroyed the Yankees in the house that Ruth built – Yankee Stadium. It was the first and only time in my life I actually had people calling me to see if I was alright due to the result of a sporting event. It should have been a sign that I had become too emotionally involved in the world of sports, but of course it didn’t.

Life as a sports fan is filled with hard times, but it’s those hard times which make climbing the mountain worth it. And there’s no better feeling than doing it when it appears you’ve had your last chance, just ask Peyton Manning or any of the players who were forced to wear Red Sox jerseys in 2004.

A lot of people feel the Suns had their best shot at winning a championship in 202007, but a lot of people also thought Manning could never get past New England and that the Red Sox could never get past the Yankees. When the clouds are darkest are when the great ones rise – and who better to rise next season than a team which calls Phoenix home?

 

Worth More Than a Hill of Beans

A lot of Phoenix Suns fans – myself included – were rather disappointed with the way the 2006-2007 season ended. This past month, however, I think we’ve all gotten plenty or reminders as to just how lucky we truly are.

Hill’s first All-Star appearance was right here in Phoenix back in 1995

Hill’s first All-Star appearance was right here in Phoenix back in 1995.�� (NBAE Photos)

The biggest reminder came in the signing of six-time NBA All-Star Grant Hill. Hill, who was reportedly suited by more than 10 NBA teams, took a significant pay cut to play here in the Valley. The two largest reasons for Hill choosing the Suns – a shot at playing for an NBA Championship and an enjoyable system which fits his style of play. There are a number of teams out there who would love to have just one of those two attributes, let alone both.

“Style of play.” It’s a term I’ve heard a lot since the summer began, particularly from prospects who made their way to the US Airways Center for workouts. It appeared every potential rookie I interviewed brought up the fact that the Phoenix Suns utilize a system which fits their style of play. It’s precisely why Alando Tucker and DJ Strawberry have worn smiles from ear-to-ear since being selected by Phoenix on Draft Day.

People want to play for the Phoenix Suns, everyone from aspiring young rookies to All-Star veterans. I think that speaks volumes about not only the organization, but the city and its fans as well. Anybody willing to put up with summers as hot as the ones in Phoenix are, must really like everything this team and this city has to offer.

For players to turn down offers for more money, and from teams in which they would “be the man”, to play for the Suns should make fans as well as the organization very proud. Don’t take this out of context as a direct comparison, but it really is reminiscent of what players have done for years to play for the New York Yankees (considered by many, the powerhouse of sports organizations worldwide). Players taking pay cuts (although you wouldn’t know it by the Yankees’ payroll) to play for a team they can be proud to say they represent is something not done for many organizations.

As far as the moves the Suns have made this offseason, I definitely say so far so good. Hill is not only an All-Star and an Olympic gold medal winner, but a class act as well. He will be great in the locker room and I think will reap the benefits of having other All-Stars around him. With the exception of Joe Dumars early in his NBA career and a young, inexperienced Dwight Howard later on, Hill has never consistently had other All-Star players around him. Now he’ll have three, including a two-time MVP in Steve Nash. As fans, how can you not be excited about a guy who has played in six All-Star Games joining a team as arguably their fourth option??

I think Mike D’Antoni put it best during last week’s press conference when he said, “Arizona just got better, the Suns just got better, even if he doesn’t play a minute. If you’ve been around him and his family, we just got better.”

My favorite moment of the press conference came shortly thereafter when D’Antoni added, “I think he’s a young 35 and we’re looking forward not only to his leadership, but his playing ability.”

A smiling Grant Hill interjected that he is only 34, to which D’Antoni responded, “See, he’s getting younger all the time.”

Obviously D’Antoni isn’t adding Hill with the aspiration the star won’t log any playing time. But it speaks volumes that a guy can potentially make an impact for a team before even stepping onto the floor. Everything Hill does beyond that will be icing on the cake.

I know a lot of people are concerned with Hill’s age, but weren’t a lot of people expressing similar concerns about Nash a few years back? Hill pointed out that the excellent training staff enjoyed by the Suns also played a part in his decision-making process. Also keep in mind this is a guy who played in the All-Star Game just two seasons ago and was a top candidate to partake in the game just this past winter.
Perhaps I’m so quick to defend the age of the veteran because when people talk about him being “over-the-hill” it makes me feel a bit older too. I first moved to Phoenix from New York in August of 1994, and in desperate need of a hobby, began following the game of basketball. I had first expressed interest in the game during the early 90s after Phoenix had acquired Charles Barkley from the 76ers. Although I knew nothing about the sport, I proceeded to tell everybody in New York I was a Suns fan. As you can imagine, that didn’t go over too well.

When the Knicks qualified for the NBA Finals in 1994, the whole city of New York was in a frenzy. I couldn’t help but get caught up in the hype and quickly found myself going from basketball novice to basketball thinks-he-knows-it-all. It was a great series which went the distance of seven games, and while my home team came up short to Houston, the NBA had definitely captured my interest.

I moved out to Phoenix shortly afterwards and the 1994-95 season was the first I planned on following from the beginning. While I appreciated the veterans of the game in Reggie Miller, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing, it was the young up-and-comers who most sparked my interest. I loved watching the future of the league in guys like Anfernee Hardaway, Alonzo Mourning and Gary Payton. Perhaps it was because I had never really gotten to see guys like Magic, Bird and Michael (at least not at this point), I liked to believe I was watching the quintessential in these younger renditions.

To me, the 1994-95 season produced two of the most anticipated rookies in memory (perhaps due to the fact it was my first season following basketball, I’m not sure) in Duke’s Grant Hill and Cal’s Jason Kidd. Hill was so popular in fact, he became the only rookie ever to lead any sport in All-Star voting (for a game which ironically enough took place right here in Phoenix). While Kidd didn’t qualify for the contest, in no way did he take a backseat to Hill in terms of spotlight. Night after night, the two produced some unbelievable highlights and their play ultimately helped them to co-Rookie of the Year honors.

For Alando Tucker and DJ Strawberry meanwhile, their NBA journey is just beginning. And if summer league is any indication, their marriage to Phoenix should be a beautiful one. Having seen Tucker play, I can honestly say he’ll be among the most exciting rookies to watch this upcoming season. He plays hard and does a great job of getting ahead of the pack which makes the Suns even better in terms of their ability to run (which to me is like somebody saying “Yeah, he’s kind of like Superman only stronger”).

As long as the Suns can find ways to consistently rebound underneath the basket, Tucker will often find ways to show off his speed. Is he as fast as Leandro Barbosa? No, but not many are. I think Tucker makes up for that, however, with his ability to think fast. He’s got great reaction speed and in this system, that’s equally if not more important than being fast physically.

Strawberry meanwhile surprised many in the 202007 Summer League, but surprising people is anything but new to the former Maryland guard. The son of former Major League All-Star Darryl Strawberry first began turning heads as far back as the workouts in Orlando, Florida. His defensive toughness matched with his quickness is not a combination seen often in this league. While he’s still obviously a ways away from the overall ability of Shawn Marion (not to mention the All-Star appearances), his play reminds me of the Matrix nonetheless. If Strawberry plays at the two-guard position, his long arms are going to provide many headaches for opponents. It’ll be kind of like when Marion had the task of guarding Sam Cassell in the playoffs a couple years back. The only question right now is whether or not Strawberry’s feet will be able to keep up. On offense, those feet have not been a problem, particularly in Phoenix’s contest against Portland where the New York native contributed a game-high 27 points.

As a Mets fan, I’ll be the first to admit I may be a little biased when it comes to Strawberry. But I’ve seen first hand how dominant those athletic genes can be, especially in Major League Baseball. It’s actually the son of former slugger Cecil Fielder currently leading the National League in homeruns. Just behind him is former Mariner and current Red Ken Griffey Jr. who is of course the son of former star Ken Griffey. Where the children of former Major League Baseball stars rank in terms of NBA stardom, I’m not too sure. Guess we’ll just have to wait until the 202007-08 season to find out.

Summer School Set to Begin For NBA Newbies

Yesterday marked the first day of the Suns Summer Camp, and while I certainly enjoyed my time out there shooting video, it sure feels good to get out of the heat.

Stoudemire’s summer sessions in 2006, helped him to another All-Star appearance in 202007.
(NBAE Photos)

Making their way out as guests to the camp were the newest members to the Phoenix Suns roster, rookies Alando Tucker and DJ Strawberry. It worked out well as you couldn’t have asked for two guys more excited to be spending time with the kids. Of course I’m sure it also felt good for them to get away from the press conference podiums and back around basketball as well. I’ve had time now to talk with each of the two rookies and think both will be great fits for the organization.

Strawberry, while soft spoken, got along really well with the kids once he got more comfortable in his environment. As time went on, he got pretty vocal whenever one of the kids took Tucker to school. I joked with Steven Koek, “I thought we got this guy cause he could play defense.”

While we did draft Tucker in large part because of his ability to guard perimeter players, there is certainly more to the Wisconsin Badger than meets the eye (you knew I was getting a Transformer reference in there at some point). Tucker is quick, smart and experienced. He is also a lot better a shooter than people realize.

On Friday, I had the opportunity to speak with Tucker one-on-one for an article I was working on for Suns.com. I’d done a lot of research on his collegiate career and asked him about the improvement his shooting saw throughout the years. To be honest, I was hoping maybe he could refer me to a specific cereal or magical refreshment beverage which could improve my game, but I wasn’t so lucky. Tucker’s response was simple:

“When I came from high school I was a perimeter player, but when I went to Wisconsin, I felt it better to play a four down low. Because of that, I spent so much time in the post that it ended up being a struggle adjusting when I was back on the perimeter. As I continued playing outside, though, the more and more confidence I got and the better I felt. Of course, it always helps putting in a lot of practice off the court, too.”

Practice is something I don’t see being a problem for either rookie as both are in love with the game of basketball. I’ve never been big on watching the Summer League, but will definitely be tuned in the upcoming weeks to see how these guys do.

Of course there is also some interest in seeing this Greg Oden guy I keep hearing about (I think he’s a center or something, I’m not sure) and some guy named Kevin Durant (who probably only did as well as he did in college having Vince Young as a teammate). All jokes aside, Corey Brewer who went to Minnesota and Al Thornton who will be playing for the Clippers will also make things interesting as far as rookies go.

The Summer League isn’t reserved for only NBA freshmen, however. Orlando’s Dwight Howard and Phoenix’s Amaré Stoudemire and Leandro Barbosa have participated as non-rookies and things turned out fairly well for them. Howard is obviously one of the league’s top players, while STAT used the 2006 Vegas Summer League to rehab the knee injuries which forced him to miss most of the previous season. The “Brazilian Blur” meanwhile participated in both the 2004 and 2005 versions of basketball summer school and eventually sped his way to the 202007 Sixth Man of the Year Award.

For the most part though, the summer league is about the rookies. And with a draft class consisting of names like Oden, Durant, Tucker and Strawberry; it certainly should be a lot of fun to watch.

Kerr Brings Winning History Back to Valley

I’ve attended my fair share of Phoenix Suns press conferences these past couple of seasons, but none that I can remember had the buzz that today’s had.

Kerr was able to capture five NBA Championships as a player with both Chicago and San Antonio.
(NBAE Photos)

Everybody in the Suns family appeared to be down on the practice court to welcome new general manager Steve Kerr to the organization, from employees to coaches to TNT broadcaster Doug Collins. All were on hand to see a very good guy receiving a very good position with a very good franchise.

Standing with Kerr following the press conference, I began having flashbacks of all the times he’d aggravated me as a player in the past. I thought about how he had helped two of the teams I like least in the NBA to title after title after title. Sure guys like Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan contributed, but make no mistake – it’s no coincidence Kerr is the only non-Celtic in NBA history to win four consecutive NBA Championships. In fact, Kerr is only the second player ever to win back-to-back titles with two different teams.

A lot of people will state guys like Steve Kerr and Robert Horry were able to enjoy so much success in their careers simply because they joined teams that were already champion contending teams. Not once do they usually point out, however, that it’s no coincidence champion contending teams wanted guys like Kerr and Horry involved with their organization for a reason.

Talented players who double as good, hardworking teammates don’t grow on trees. Kerr may not have been putting up the numbers that All-Stars and future Hall of Famers like Jordan and Duncan were, but he was a key component nonetheless.

The former University of Arizona Wildcat, who was drafted by the Phoenix Suns in 1988, began his title reign in Chicago with three consecutive championships. None of which gained him more personal accolades than in 1997 when he nailed the game-winning jumper in the decisive Game 6 against Utah. Following the dismantling of the Bulls, Kerr ventured to San Antonio where the Spurs were able to capture their first title in franchise history. After a stint in Portland with the Trailblazers, Kerr returned to San Antonio prior to the 2002-03 where he would again be instrumental in the postseason – this time in the Western Conference Finals. After having dropped Game 5 against the Dallas Mavericks, the Spurs would come from 15 points down in the fourth quarter of Game 6 thanks in large part to Kerr’s four shots from beyond the three-point arc. San Antonio won the contest 79-71 and advanced to and won their second NBA Finals in franchise history. For Kerr it was his fifth and final NBA Championship as he retired at season’s end.

Winning is often an attitude well before it is a result. The Chicago Bulls teams Kerr was a part of were still to this day as good a team I’ve seen in any professional sport. The Gregg Popovich-coached Spurs may not match the Bulls in terms of dominance, but they share the same exact attitude – the attitude that if we play as a team, there isn’t anybody on this planet that can stop us.

Kerr now brings that winning attitude to Phoenix, and while the last impression you get of him is that he’s arrogant, how can you not be a little cocky when you’ve got as many championship rings as fingers on your shooting hand?

He may not have been the best player on the court during those NBA Finals games, but Kerr perhaps said it best when the Suns drafted him nearly two decades ago:

“I think I’m obviously a good shooter, that’s what everyone notices when they watch me play. What they don’t notice probably as much is the fact I know the game of basketball. I’m a good passer; I tend to make good decisions all the time on the court.”

Now with a front office position with a team on the verge of winning its first championship in franchise history, I’m sure Kerr is already thinking about making those good decisions off the court as well… Not to mention getting to work on decorating that other hand.

Rooks and Kings

People always ask what we at Suns.com do during the summer when the team isn’t playing. As much as I would like to tell them about the Monday afternoon movie and the hopscotch tournaments, I usually just reply “rookie stuff.”

There isn’t a rookie guard out there who wouldn’t love the opportunity to pick Steve Nash’s brain.
(Barry Gossage/NBAE Photos)

“Rookie stuff” began today at the US Airways Center as NBA hopefuls worked out for Mike D’Antoni and the coaching staff, new general manager Steve Kerr and a host of other front office employees.

I had the opportunity to speak with each of the four young candidates who put forth their efforts (a task which made me feel incredibly old), and saw the glimmer in their eyes when I mentioned the possibility of running with this Suns team. It’s a style anybody in good shape would love to play, particularly young guards such as USC’s Gabe Pruitt and Nevada’s Ramon Sessions. When I asked Sessions how he would feel about picking Steve Nash’s brain, the 20-year-old replied, “To learn from him would be learning from the best.”

Sure it’s a lot easier to dream of being the first overall pick in the NBA Draft when you’re a kid, but you’ve got to admit, going number 24 certainly has its advantages. Unlike the team picking in the one slot, you’re most likely going to a title contender. And odds are the team picking first overall in the draft doesn’t have a player of Steve Nash’s caliber to learn from.

The best part of day one workouts was no doubt when Boris Diaw made his way onto the practice court just after things had finished up. “Am I too late to try out?,” he asked with a smile. Diaw wasn’t trying out of course. By the looks of it, he was there to get in a little bit of summer practice which is always good to see from players. It’s easy – especially at the beginning of summer – to procrastinate working on your game. Diaw has apparently wasted little time in showing how dedicated he is to returning to the form which helped him win Most Improved Player honors in 2006.

IT’S GOOD TO BE KING

I’ve made a lot of changes in my way of living these past several months, among them a personal promise to stop being so thick-headed all the time. That decision certainly paid off during Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Tired of keeping my arms folded and pouting about how I didn’t want to watch the Playoffs anymore, I kicked back and watched Cleveland’s LeBron James put on an unbelievable show in Detroit.

From about the eight-minute mark in the fourth quarter through both overtime sessions, no player other than James hit a field goal for Cleveland. You see a statistic like that and think, “No way were the Cavs able to beat the Pistons.” But that’s just how good King James was on that night, finishing with 48 points, nine rebounds and seven assists.

It was an MVP-type performance and definitely raised an interesting question as to why James wasn’t more seriously considered for the award. I’ve said all along and I truly believe that Steve Nash was the 2006-2007 NBA MVP. At the same time, I didn’t disapprove of Dirk Nowitzki taking home the honor. I didn’t buy into the, “But his team got kicked out of the first round” philosophy because to have done so would’ve been hypocritical. I didn’t like people not voting for Nash because he had yet to win a Championship because postseason accolades aren’t supposed to affect voting. Many felt the same way but quickly changed their tune after seeing the Dallas Mavericks eliminated in the opening round by the Golden State Warriors.

While I had no problem with Nowitzki winning the award – his numbers were spectacular – I will always have a problem with why I believe he won the award. With statistics as close as he and Steve’s were, I believe voters used Dallas’ 67-win season as an unofficial tie breaker.

If you’re undecided between two MVP candidates, how in the world do you base your vote on the fact one player won six more games during the regular season? For starters, Nash missed that precise number of games for Phoenix (the Suns going 2-4 in the process). Were the award called “the best player on the team that finished the season with the best record”, Nowitzki would be the winner hands down (the award would also have to be much large to fit all that on it). But the award is Most Valuable Player and I don’t believe because one player wins more games with his team than another, the interpretation should be that he is therefore more valuable.

The Cleveland Cavaliers won 50 games during the regular season. Not a win total to sneeze at, but it was only good enough for second place in an Eastern Conference Division. But while 50 wins may not earn you any number one seeds, can you imagine where this team would’ve finished without James running the show?

LeBron James was hailed the “next Michael Jordan” when he made the jump from high school just a few years ago. Strange that I couldn’t help but wonder during rookie workouts today, “Maybe one of these guys could end up being the next LeBron James.”

2006-2007 Season In Review

You’ll excuse me if this blog isn’t up to regulation standards, I wasn’t quite expecting to do a 2006-2007 recap of the 2006-2007 season until later in June.

Jessica Alba is a Warriors fan, hence she can’t be part of the “Fun-tastic Four.”
(NBAE Photos)

That said, I’m going to forge ahead anyway, and I’ll do so without trying to paint a pretty picture avoiding the fact we failed to reach our ultimate goal of winning an NBA Championship. I will, however, take a page from Mike D’Antoni’s book and state that the season was anything but a waste because of that.

 

Again, there isn’t a Suns fan or employee on this planet who didn’t want to capture a title. But at the same time, there isn’t a Suns fan or employee out there who can say they didn’t enjoy the ride this season.

 

SEPT. 30 – The Suns enjoy their first practice in Treviso, Italy. Europe was the home for training camp in 2006, the team bonding greatly because of it. Friendships were born and it was kind of like one of those buddy films only instead of two guys you had like 14. The trip had more highlights than lowlights, but the worst moment perhaps came in a Steve Nash-planned trip to a Milan soccer game. As Sean Marks stated, “Unfortunately we were on a bus that’s top speed led little to be desired and I am sure that a Suns fast break would have passed it by.” The group arrived at halftime to watch a game which ended in a 0-0 tie.

 

OCT. 17 – The Suns are back in their rightful home of Phoenix, Arizona for a contest against the Clippers. With D’Antoni preparing for the team which took them the distance in last season’s Conference Semifinals, I have the task of updating him on the Mets-Cardinals playoff game taking place. I ultimately have to tell him the disappointing news that the Mets fell in Game 4 by a final of 4-2. There is no joy in Mudville for Mets fans, and even worst, the Suns fall to the Clippers.

 

OCT. 31 – The Suns opened the regular season against the team they opened last season’s postseason against, the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers were without their star Kobe Bryant and as expected, the Suns took advantage early. A late comeback, however, was led by forward Lamar Odom and Los Angeles found themselves 1-0 on the season. The Suns meanwhile were 0-1 but quickly came back the following night against the Los Angeles Clippers and captured a 112-104 victory.

 

NOV. 9 – Trouble in paradise. Following a 112-119 loss to the Dallas Mavericks, the Suns quickly find themselves 1-4 on the season. D’Antoni is irate during the postgame press conference and states, “I guarantee the next game we will have some passion and every game out.”

 

NOV. 17 – As predicted by the Head Coach, the Suns improved their play instantly – a big win coming without the services of Nash against Philadelphia. It is during Phoenix’s 106-94 victory I take notice of Leandro Barbosa. The “Brazilian Blur” is a different player than he’s been in the past, confident and most importantly, poised. He scores 26 points and a la Wilt Chamberlain grabs 10 rebounds in the win.

“I have been playing with a lot of confidence right now,” said Barbosa after the game. “I’ve been comfortable. Everybody has been helping me. The coaches have made me comfortable and I think it’s been good for me.”

 

NOV. 20 – The Suns play a huge contest against the Golden State Warriors. No, not huge because the California team has found a way to reunite Chris Webber, Tim Hardaway and Chris Mullen. Huge because it is a chance to prove they will bring it each and every night regardless of the opponent – something they’ve failed to do against subpar teams in the past. In a tied ballgame, Nash hits a tiebreaking three-pointer with just 4.1 seconds remaining. Phoenix hangs on for a 113-110 win in ORACLE Arena.

 

“Our record isn’t where we want it to be, but it’s only 10 games, and we’re still learning how to play with this mix,” the two-time league MVP said after the win improved Phoenix’s record to 4-6 overall.

 

DEC. 7 – Boy those Suns sure do learn fast, don’t they? After Nash’s comment about learning to play with this new mix of players, the team wins its next six straight contests and is looking to stretch their win streak to eight in New Jersey. Again it is Nash carrying the Suns on his back, finishing with an incredible line of 42 points, 13 assists and six rebounds. It was a performance reminiscent of Reggie Miller in my NBA Live 96 video game, back when I would go out of my way to have one player do everything. As if the statistical line wasn’t enough, Nash would also hit a three-pointer which would force the first of two overtimes in East Rutherford. In a score which was also reminiscent of something you’d see in a video game, the Suns outlasted the Nets for a 161-157 win.

 

DEC. 8 – Ignoring my request to give the Suns a night off following the double-overtime affair, the NBA keeps the Suns-Celtics contest slated for the very next evening. Unsure of how the team will perform, Shawn Marion shoulders the load and finishes with 29 points and 12 rebounds as the Suns are again victorious. His big shot with approximately 40 seconds remaining, sparks an argument between my friends and I about what point in the ballgame a shot can truly be called “clutch.” Either way, the Suns are looking good, and unless the league can clone the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s, it doesn’t look as if they will be challenged any time soon.

 

DEC. 20 – A night after winning a franchise-record 15th-consecutive ballgame, the Phoenix Suns have their contest against the Denver Nuggets cancelled due to snow.

 

DEC. 22 – Just hours after returning from Denver, the Suns face off against the Washington Wizards and fall in overtime. I make the mistake of heading to the Suns’ tunnel in the third quarter to watch some of the game and eventually find myself standing there a lot longer than I’d anticipated. The results stink, but I do get one of my favorite quotes of the year from assistant coach Phil Weber. Writing a story about both the streak and the team being stuck in Denver, I ask the coach about his time in the Mile High City.

 

“We were definitely stranded and I got to know our hotel like none other,” the coach laughed. “We never left, stranded at the Westin Hotel and there was definitely no Ginger.”

 

The quote was definitely a lot better than the one I got from Jalen Rose, who looked at me a little funny when I asked whether or not the trip was a “bonding experience” for the team.

 

JAN. 2 – With the winning streak over, the Suns begin a new streak to start the New Year. Who better than Barbosa to stretch the new streak to three after his game-winning three-point shot in Chicago? My favorite memory of the shot was no doubt the look on Barbosa’s face. It was hard to tell whether he was grilling the Bulls or in shock. My first interview after joining the Suns organization in 2005 and an overall great guy, I think it is the latter. Loving the fact that Phoenix is winning ballgames they did not the previous season, something about Barbosa is apparent: The “Blur” is no longer just one of the nicest guys in the NBA, he’s one of the most talented. His efforts would be recognized at season’s end when he is named the Sixth Man of the Year. Another amazing story from this game was the Suns receiving another sold effort from big man Amaré Stoudemire. The All-Star finishes with 24 points, 18 rebounds and four steals and has already made the two separate knee surgeries a distant memory.

 

JAN. 21 – The Suns are hosting a contest against the Minnesota Timberwolves. A win would be their 13th straight, but all I can think about is the fact I’m missing the Conference Championship matchup between my Indianapolis Colts and some team that plays in New England. With Indy trailing big at the half, a friend calls me to rub it in that my team will again be on the short end of the stick. I tell him in my best Paul Westphal voice, and I quote (hence the quotation marks), “We’re going to win this game. Peyton Manning is going to come out the second half on fire and lead us to victory. Then tomorrow everybody will talk about what a great game it was and how Manning had to do the impossible in order to finally get past New England.” The Colts win the contest, 38-34 and two weeks later defeat the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl.

 

JAN. 26 – The Suns are still enjoying their second amazing streak of the season and are in Milwaukee for what I’m seeing a potentially dangerous contest. I hope the guys keep their focus on the Friday night contest against the Bucks and not on the Cleveland Cavaliers who they’ll play in a nationally televised contest that Sunday afternoon. Shawn Marion pulls down 23 rebounds as the Suns remain hot in the cold Milwaukee weather, winning 98-90.

 

JAN. 29 – In Minnesota, the new franchise record of 17-consective wins is snapped. Kevin Garnett is unstoppable and scores 44 points in one of the Timberwolves’ few bright moments of the season. Raja Bell leads the Suns with 26 points, including five shots from beyond the three-point arc. He would ultimately go on to tie Gilbert Arenas for the league lead in that category in addition to receiving All NBA Defensive Team honors.

 

FEB. 1 – A great night as the Suns defeat the San Antonio Spurs 103-87 at home. I rush to the arena following my night class at ASU just in time to watch us put on the finishing touches in the blowout victory. It’s a great occasion as I have always had more venom towards the Spurs than any of our other rivals. I guess it’s a case of Yankees-Red Sox syndrome of hating the team that seems to put you on your butt more than the others. Ever since Stoudemire and Stephon Marbury raised eyebrows against them a few years back, I have disliked San Antonio more than any other NBA franchise. They wouldn’t end up doing themselves any favors come May of this very season.

 

FEB. 18 – Three Phoenix Suns represent the team in Las Vegas for the All-Star Game, although Nash is unable to participate due to injury. Marion and Stoudemire help the Western Conference and their coach Mike D’Antoni to a victory, STAT nearly capturing the game’s MVP Award in the process.

 

MAR. 14 – I watch the NBA’s game of the year at the Rokerij – a restaurant ran by my good friend Clark. With the Mavericks seemingly having the game in hand, Clark grabs his “lucky charm” in the form of a flashing Phoenix Suns hat. The headpiece is beyond ridiculous but somehow manages to get the job done. Nash helps too I guess, scoring 10 points in the final minute of regulation and like he did in Jersey, forces the first of two overtimes with a clutch trifecta in the closing seconds. The Suns go on to win a nail biter 129-127 and the hat is immediately sent off to the Basketball Hall of Fame. Our hope is that it can find a home next to the basketball used the night Chamberlain scored 100.

 

APR. 14 – In what would prove to be one of the longest days of our lives, my friend Wes and I watch the Suns blowout the Jazz from a restaurant in Tempe. It would also prove to be the last regular season win for the Suns who would drop their final two contests against the Houston Rockets and Clippers. Even with the two-game skid to end the season and the slow start which began it, the Phoenix Suns still finish with an impressive 61-21 record overall.

 

APR. 22 – The Suns open up the 202007 NBA Playoffs against their long-time rival, the Los Angeles Lakers. I’m immediately reminded of what my biggest gripe with the team is – their pushy media. Following the Suns 95-87 win, I wait outside the Lakers locker room for reaction. The doors are open and a member of the Los Angeles media literally shoves two people out of his way to be the first inside. I wear a wide grin as he realizes that all he’s rushed into is an empty locker room as players haven’t finished showering.

 

APR. 24 – Another win over the Lakers, this one in blowout fashion. Phoenix burns Los Angeles 126-98 and I almost find myself sympathizing with the losing ballclub following the game (I repeat, almost). When I ask Kwame Brown what this Lakers team can do to slow down Phoenix, the center morbidly responds, “I was hoping you could figure that out and tell me man. Hopefully the coaching staff will figure something out because whatever it is, this isn’t working.” The mood in the locker room leads me to believe this thing will be over in four.

 

MAY 2 – It ends up taking five games, but the Suns to dispatch the Los Angeles Lakers after a 119-110 victory in Phoenix. The best moment of the day is when Bell – a new proud papa – tells me he enjoyed my Suns.com story about his being named to the All-Defensive Team. I ask him if this means I can have the trophy he received for his three-point efforts. He declines.

 

MAY 6 – The San Antonio Spurs make their way into town. Perhaps it is my subconscious dislike for the boys in black and silver, but it’s apparent early I won’t become friends with anyone on this team soon. Bruce Bowen gets aggravated at my holding the microphone too close to his mouth while Michael Finley asks me if a question of how to slow down a Suns team clicking on all cylinders is a “trick question.” I wanted the Lakers out of this building because of their media, I want this team out of this building because they’re making me feel like a rookie.

 

MAY 14 – The game which changes the series in favor of the Spurs comes after a Suns victory (go figure, right?). Robert Horry’s flagrant foul on Nash ends a 104-98 Phoenix victory, but leads to the suspensions of both Stoudemire and Boris Diaw who left the Suns bench during an altercation.

 

MAY 16 – One of the most heroic displays in NBA history takes place in the US Airways Center during Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals. Undermanned, the Phoenix Suns hold their own with the Spurs through three and a half quarters of play. The game gets away from them late, however, and they fall by a score of 88-85. With a nation now rallying behind this team, it’s as close to a moral victory as one can get in the postseason. Nevertheless, the team now faces elimination.

 

MAY 19 – I report to the arena after a long night of Game 6. The Suns players will be cleaning out their lockers and it is the last chance for members of the media to get reaction on a season which didn’t meet expectations. The guys are as cool as you can be after being eliminated from the postseason, questions already surfacing on what changes – if any – the team will undergo during the offseason.

 

Today – I realize the importance of keeping a journal. This way next season’s “year-end wrap up blog bonanza” won’t be as difficult to write. It’s also a pretty good idea because it very well could chronicle a season which sees the Suns win their first NBA Championship.

 

A while back fellow blogger Adam Beechen issued a challenge to find a nickname for this scrappy, never-say-die Phoenix Suns team. After watching the effort they give while short-handed in Game 5, I think I have one. Comic book characters are notorious for never saying die. They’ll give you every thing they’ve got and even when they do fall short, still manage to make a return issues later (sometimes they do these “clone” storylines which drive me crazy, but that’s besides the point).

 

Anyway, this Suns team has battled as much adversity as one team can these past three seasons. Joe Johnson missing a crucial part of the 2005 postseason, Stoudemire missing nearly all of last season including the playoffs and the suspensions this year which cost them two of their top players. But the Phoenix Suns never bow out easy, they keep fighting, keep scrapping. And being that Beechen is in the business of writing comic books himself, I think it fitting to name them after a comic book team. To me these Suns will always be “The Fun-tastic Four.”

 

The Fun-tastic Four – Nash, Stoudemire, Barbosa and Marion – the four players who have remained constants on this roster since the two-time MVP made his way back to Phoenix. Nash is of course Mr. Fantastic himself and like the super team’s leader, never seems to disappoint. Stoudemire is The Thing, at times an unmovable force down low and this season proving to be a rock in terms of stability. Barbosa’s speed make him a Human Torch in his own right, Lakers Head Coach Phil Jackson stating the nickname “Blur” doesn’t begin to do his speed justice. Finally you’ve got Marion who in terms of the national media has at times been Phoenix’s underappreciated Invisible Man. When you do something so good for so long, it’s funny how people begin to take you for granted.

 

But while it’s okay to be disappointed that this team didn’t bring Phoenix its first NBA Championship (yet), let’s realize that at times the grass has been greener on our side. I’ll take a ring in a second, but would you want it done any other way? The recap you just read provided double-overtime thrillers, amazing performances and team with a heart the Wizard of Oz himself couldn’t provide. There are a number of NBA fans who would kill to have that excitement surrounding their team day in and day out, so let’s not take that for granted.

 

A perfect example of this perhaps coming in the fact the San Antonio Spurs failed to sell out their Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against the Utah Jazz. While I don’t mean to imply winning a championship any way possible is fun, you can’t fail to see the irony. The Suns sold out every game of the 2006-2007 season, but ultimately fell short. The Spurs meanwhile didn’t play in front of a sold out crowd when just eight wins away from the title themselves.

 

One who loves metaphors, I’ve got one which sums up the juxtaposition between these two teams perfectly. The Spurs are like the movie “The Piano.” Sure it wins all kinds of fancy awards, but does anybody really leave the theatre in ecstasy of what they’ve just seen? Do you call your buddies like, “Dude, you’ve got to see The Piano, you’ll have a blast.” The Suns – for these past three seasons anyway – have been more like Spider-Man. Everybody who sees it seems to enjoy themselves and everybody tells everybody they know it’s a must see. I’d much rather watch the latter.

 

I knew Peyton Manning would come through for Indianapolis because I know the way it usually works is that the great ones come through only after having their hearts torn out. It seemed to take Michael Jordan forever to get past the Pistons. The Boston Red Sox were crushed after their 2004 defeat to the Yankees and found themselves down 3-0 to New York the following year before getting over the hump. Great athletes never say die. Just like the “Fun-tastic Four.”

Suns vs. Spurs an Epic Battle

I don’t know about you, but I slept pretty good last night. In fact, I even had to stop my viewing of “Seven Samurai” prematurely because I was so ready to hit the hay.

Spurs forward Tim Duncan is a large, intimidating, serious presence.
(NBAE Photos)

A combination of Spiderman 3 midnight showings and night-after-night of watching the Mets beat the Diamondbacks played a factor, sure. But in large part, my full night of sleep had to do with how good I’m now feeling about this Western Conference Semifinals series. In fact, if anything, I’m feeling even more confident than I was before the series began.

You look at everything that went against the Phoenix Suns and you’ve got to be amazed they were even in this ballgame. Amaré Stoudemire struggles, shooting just 6-for-19 and still finds a way to finish with 20 points and 18 rebounds. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker shoot lights out and finish with 33 and 32 respectively. The Spurs as a whole seemed to come up with every loose ball and a number of critical rebounds which led to second and sometimes third-chance opportunities. And finally you’ve got Steve Nash who found himself finishing a game without a double-double for the first time this postseason – and, oh yeah, missing the most crucial moments of the ballgame with a busted nose.

Everything seemed to be working against the Suns in Game 1 and still the game was undecided with just seconds to go. You’ve got to expect Stoudemire to get better as the series improves. You’ve got to expect Mike D’Antoni to find ways to slow down Duncan and Parker. You’ve got to believe Duncan and Parker will come back to Earth and are not each going to each average 30 points per game for the entire series. And you’ve got to expect Nash to be able to keep his face in one piece. Would just one of those things happened on Sunday, the Suns would find themselves up 1-0 in this series rather than the other way around.

I had the opportunity to take in both Suns practice and Spurs practice today, definitely a cinematic-like experience. The juxtaposition between these two well-run ball clubs is just amazing. The Suns are loose, friendly with the media – even referring to some members by name. Watching the Spurs with their Head Coach Gregg Popovich patrolling the court… well let’s just say the 1980 Russian hockey team came to mind. These guys are the perfect antagonists, I mean, they even wear black. You talk about a series of good versus evil, had Spiderman 3 had half the intrigue as this match up, it probably would’ve made for a decent movie.

Popovich is the no-nonsense coach, somebody you don’t want to ask the wrong question to. D’Antoni meanwhile is accessible and easy-going, there isn’t anybody in the world who doesn’t like him.

Nash is personable, the kind of guy who would help a little old lady across the street – a Luke Skywalker or Peter Parker if you will. He’s also got a lot better sense of humor then most people know. Case in point was during his post-game press conference following Game 1. Walking away from the podium after answering questions, Suns Vice President of Basketball Communications Julie Fie informed the media that Nash had required a total of six stitches. Nash – exiting the room – shouted back towards Julie, “Tell them it was 17.” Keep in mind this was after a loss, you can only imagine the good times following a victory.

Duncan on the other hand is large and intimidating, a guy not known as a jokester. In fact, you’d have a better chance of seeing Russell Crowe doing standup than you would the former league MVP.

There are lots of good guys on this team. Michael Finley – my favorite Sun growing up – has been a standup guy whether in Phoenix, Dallas or Houston. Manu Ginobili is also a personable guy who at times is hard to dislike. But despite all that, the San Antonio Spurs are in my eyes, the Evil Empire of the NBA… Only instead of Storm Troopers and Death Stars they’ve got All-Stars and fancy iced-out rings.

The bottom line is that playoff series are about adjusting, and after watching Game 1 it doesn’t take a genius to realize these two teams aren’t that far off. With that being the case, I think we’re in for a very long series ahead of us. One in which the good guys will hopefully find themselves on the winning end of.

Day-Long Blog and I Want To Go Home

It probably wasn’t the wisest decision to wait until 2:30 in the morning to write the intro to my day-long blog. The right words are difficult to come by at this time (as is a decent meal), but what a day it was. Here it is from start to finish:

It’s a new baby and a new playoff series for Raja Bell.
(NBAE Photos)

8:00 a.m. -�The day begins. My iPOD – one of the greatest inventions, not to mention Christmas presents ever – awakens me as it usually does to the glorious sounds of Frank Sinatra, the Supremes and Jay-Z. It only takes me three songs to get out of bed on this glorious morning, two below the average.

9:30 a.m. -�Stop for gas. It’ll be a late night and the last thing I’ll want to do is stop at Circle K to refuel at three o’clock in the morning. I pat myself on the back for thinking ahead and treat myself to an energy bar and Rockstar drink which I will save for this evening. While I’m at it, I think I’ll even drive through the car wash. My car is silver, not brown, it’s about time I reminded people of that.

9:50 a.m. – Stop at another Circle K as fellow blogger and VP of Interactive Services Jeramie McPeek has requested a couple of Socko drinks. The location does not have Socko so he’ll have to settle for Rockstar. The beverage is sugar free and contains zero carbohydrates. I’m confident he’ll be quite pleased.

10:00 a.m. -�I have arrived at the US Aiways Center. An e-mail is sent to employees stating the Lakers will be holding their practice on the main court beginning at 10:30. The e-mail reminds employees that they are not to watch the practice from the higher levels of the arena. I guess the team is real secretive about their top secret mission to get the ball in Kobe Bryant’s hands for tonight’s Game 5.

10:15 a.m. -�I’m waiting for the Phoenix Suns to finish their shootaround so I can find out what the status is of guard Raja Bell. With his wife Cindy is the hospital preparing to give birth to their first child, his status for tonight is uncertain. As I wait outside the practice court, I read the e-mail my friend Alex sent me. He’s finished the next two issues of the comic book we’re working on and wants to know if I can review them. The timing is perfect.

10:20 a.m. -�Arizona Republic writer Paul Coro approaches and informs me he found the answer to the trivia question I was asking at practice the previous day. With Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks down 3-1 to the Golden State Warriors, I couldn’t help but wonder who the last MVP was not to participate in the semifinal round of the playoffs. Coro informs me it was Moses Malone who in 1982 captured the honor just to fall in the Opening Round to the Seattle SuperSonics. I mention that after picking the Warriors to win their series over the Mavericks prior to Game 1, I have now switched my pick to the Mavericks. I am informed that sort of thing doesn’t fly.

10:35 a.m. -�Suns Head Coach Mike D’Antoni is unsure of Bell’s status. Should the defensive specialist not be able to go, Leandro Barbosa would start in his place. Members of the media question what this means in terms of Kobe Bryant enjoying a little bit more offensive freedom. My mind wanders to another scenario: Forward Shawn Marion, snubbed from the NBA All-Defensive Teams is given the assignment of guarding Kobe Bryant. To show the world how wrong it was to exclude him from the team, Marion gives us a defensive display like we’ve never seen. Bryant shoots a mediocre 2-for-16 as the Lakers fall, 119-97. I like my scenario but realize I’ve been so caught up in it, I’ve failed to get reaction from both Amaré Stoudemire and Shawn Marion. Luckily, the “Brazilian Blur” has just become available.

10:37 a.m. -�As he always is, Barbosa is accommodating in letting me speak to him about tonight’s game. A group of reporter’s spot us and we are quickly surrounded. I feel guilty that what went from an early leave for LB has now turned into a game of 21 Questions. As always, Barbosa says all the right things. He discusses that the important thing for Raja right now is to be with his family and regardless whether he comes off the bench or starts tonight, he’ll be ready for Game 5 against the Lakers. Caught in the huddle with tons of Los Angeles press, I can’t help but think about how nice a win would be tonight so the circus can finally leave town.

11:00 a.m. -�Back at my desk, it is time to take care of something very important – checking the status of tomorrow evening’s Spiderman 3 premier. There’s nothing better than waiting on line with a bunch of grown men in Spiderman costumes at 11:30 pm, but I decide to get my tickets off the internet instead. To my surprise, a number of shows have already sold out, including the IMAX presentation at Deer Valley 30 I had so hoped to be a part of. I instead op for the standard screen and hope it still does Venom justice.

11:30 a.m. -�I put my finishing touches on the article I wrote about Mike D’Antoni’s appearance in “Phoenix Metropolitan.” The magazine discusses who will be the future face of Phoenix, listing candidates which include Mayor Phil Gordon and Dean of ASU’s School of Design Wellington Reiter. I can’t help but appreciate the fact it is D’Antoni who is chosen as the cover boy for the publication.

12:00 p.m. -�Community Relations Coordinator Chris Mallory and I enjoy lunch at Cooperstown. The Mets game is being televised and the team is currently enjoying the lead over the Florida Marlins. We are both Mets fans. Life is good.

3:40 p.m. – We’ve just received word – Cindy Bell has just given birth to a baby boy. Congrats to the Bells, it is indeed an accomplishment worthy of exclamation points!!! Hopefully Raja will get here and score 50 tonight so he can brag to his son about the night he scored 50 and eliminated the Lakers from the playoffs the day he was born.

4:03 p.m. -�I check to make sure the Mets were able to hang on in their contest against Florida (their bullpen really appeared to be struggling). They did hang on and my dream of watching the Colts, Mets, Suns and New York Rangers capture Championships in the same year is one step closer to being realized. Tomorrow and Friday I’ll have the chance to watch the Mets up close and personal over at Chase Field. At this point, that seems like a long way away.

4:10 p.m. -�Word is that Suns guard Raja Bell is on his way to the arena. I am off to capture video with my trusted Panasonic DVX100B and will check back when possible.

4:30 p.m. -�Hanging out in the player’s parking lot waiting for guys to start showing up. With stuff like this you could sometimes find yourself waiting a really long time but luckily they’ve got the ESPN Braves-Phillies game on.

4:32 p.m. -�I’ve just seen one of the worst cases of base running at the expense of Philadelphia. Today just keeps getting better and better.

4:50 p.m. -�Guys are showing up. What are the odds that Raja is the first guy I get on tape? He’s brought his mother to the game which is great. I’m sure it’s always nice having an extra fan out there cheering for you.

5:15 p.m. -�I’m supposed to go capture Phil Jackson’s pregame media session and get the health status of Kobe Bryant. I’m hoping one of the other reporter’s asks because I would hate to be the recipient of one of those patented Phil Jackson stare downs. I heard there’s a reporter from 1996 who’s still trying to recover from one of those.

6:00 p.m. -�Well my Spidey-sense was tingling and with very good reason. I was waiting around for Phil Jackson just outside the Lakers locker room located just next to the Suns practice court. I thought about how Raja was unable to practice with the team today and how he was one of the most dedicated players in the NBA. I check out the practice court and there he is shooting by himself, didn’t even have anybody rebounding for him. I start shooting video, hoping the stress of what he’s gone through today doesn’t kick in and he gives me the boot. Always the professional, he just kept on shooting and I was able to capture some great stuff.

6:10 p.m. -�I rush out of the practice court just in time to get Phil Jackson. He talks about something, I’m not really sure what, I’m too busy thinking about the great video I just captured.

7:30 p.m. -�The game is finally underway and Raja Bell starts off the contest on fire! He hits his first three shots from the field and a headline pops into my head. For a guy who has a reputation of not handing in headlines with his work, this is big. I’m getting a vision of a Raja Bell pic, maybe him holding up his Suns jersey with pride for the camera. The headline: “Who’s Your Daddy?” In the words of Kenny Bania, “It’s gold Jerry, it’s gold.”

8:00 p.m. -�Mmmm “Negozio del Formaggio.” I have no idea what it means, but they make the best chicken Caesar pizzan ever!

8:25 p.m. -�I’m told to interview Jeremy Piven of “Entourage.” I’m instantly reminded of how uncool I am because I have no clue who that is. Jeramie informs me he’s the guy who played George on the pilot episode of “Seinfeld.” All is well.

9:13 p.m. -�Just about 12 hours after purchasing it, that Rockstar sure is sounding good. Sugar free and zero carbohydrates…. I’ll be right back. Mmmm tastes like gummy worms.

9:21 p.m. -�I was just informed that photos are beginning to make their way in from the game. It’s time to organize them and add some captions for our gallery.

9:42 p.m. -�The Suns are looking to pull away as things have gotten fairly tight. My Shawn Marion philosophy hasn’t taken to form as I’d hoped. Bryant has 26 points but the Suns have the lead 100-91 so I’ll take the trade off (not to mention the free tacos).

9:54 p.m.�-�Gary Bender just mentioned that Bryant is now 2-of-11 in the second half. My 2-for-16 philosophy could somewhat hold true. Great success!

10:05 p.m. -�Suns win! Suns win! Suns win!

10:20�p.m. -�Just got reaction from the Lakers locker room and while I bleed Suns orange, it’s always a downer seeing a team is disarray – yes, even the Lakers. My post-game responsibility for this series primarily had me in the Lakers locker room and the guys were usually accommodating despite coming up short. Guard Jordan Farmar particularly, which is cool because I’m a big UCLA fan.

10:35�p.m. -�I’ve chronicled the adventures of Raja Bell all day and am pleased to report I’ll get to close out his story with a happy ending. On his way out, I made sure to grab him to wish him congratulations on the new son. He let me know he appreciated it before stopping himself and asking, “Were you the one that wrote the article about me being on the All-Defensive Team for Suns.com?” When I informed him I was, the guard responded, “Good looking out man, that was a great article.” Perhaps it means I need to get my priorities in order, but getting the vote of confidence in my writing from Raja Bell was better than getting it from Shakespeare himself. While he didn’t score 50, Bell no doubt set the tone early with his hot shooting and was a big part of tonight’s win.

10:59 p.m. -�Just got back to my desk and our television has already been tuned into “Seinfeld.” It’s not the Keith Hernandez episode but it’s “Seinfeld.” ‘Nuff said.

11:10 p.m. -�Will now work on posting the notes and quotes from tonight’s game.

11:47 p.m. -�Two notes that jump out at me, one from each side:

• Phoenix improved to 5-1 (.833) under current Suns Head Coach Mike D’Antoni when it has had an opportunity to close out a playoff series.

• For only the second time in the post-Shaq era, two Lakers scored 30 or more points.

12:00 a.m. -�It’s Midnight on the dot. Seinfeld is over meaning it will either be MASH or really bad science fiction movies the rest of the night. Twenty-four hours from now, however, I will be seated comfortably at Deer Valley 30 ready to watch my favorite web-slinger in action.

12:15 a.m. -�I’m starting to wish I’d been a bit more conservative with that Rockstar. Will probably be making a coffee grab here shortly, we’ve got a nice selection in our break room.

12:35 a.m. -�Just got an e-mail stating 38 more images are ready to be added to the photo gallery for tonight’s game. The night is just beginning. Thank goodness for iTunes and coffee.

1:01 a.m. -�Captain’s Log: Currently working on the photo gallery. We’ve got the Sopranos on. My dad enjoys the show, but I never really got into it. To make sure I’m understanding this correctly, this man is a gangster but he’s receiving psychiatric help? Don Corleone would be ashamed.

1:30 a.m.�-�Still going through photos and haven’t had the strength to grab that coffee I alluded to earlier. There’s a great shot in here of Bell and Bryant following the contest. While it definitely added intensity to the rivalry when these guys were perceived as enemies, it’s nice to see them having buried the hatchet. There’s a mutual respect between these two which is well deserved on both ends. Love him or hate him, Bryant is the most prolific scorer this game has seen since Michael Jordan. Bell’s being appointed to the NBA All-Defensive First Team meanwhile, serves as proof he has gained the respect of not only those in Phoenix, but everywhere throughout the league.

1:33 a.m. -�How fitting that “Hotel California” would play at random via my iTunes. Barring a Western Conference Finals matchup against the Warriors, the Hotel California is a hotel Suns.com will not be visiting again this postseason. Nevertheless (or none-of-the-less as some like to say), it’s a lovely place… Wow, after that tidbit, I’m thinking I should really go grab that coffee.

2:03 a.m. -�Finally grabbed that coffee. I went with the French Vanilla in fear that the French Mocha would be too much for me to handle at this point. With the exception of the Suns.com crew, the US Airways Center is fairly quiet. We’re looking to finalize our responsibilities – Steven Koek editing video, Josh Greene stories and Jeramie working on the Flash intro among other things. Having learned Flash in school this past semester I don’t envy him.

3:05 a.m. -�Well I’m packing it in. No, we’re not quite ready to leave yet, but I need to get this blog to Steve if it’s to be posted (not to mention he’ll have my head if I had any more to it). We probably will be heading out shortly and again I’ll end by patting myself on the back for the gasoline stop from 9:30. The day started with me needing only three songs from my iPOD to get me out of bed. I don’t see that being the case tomorrow.

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!….”

The Inside 'Scoop' on This Season's MVP

Veteran sportswriter Scoop Jackson recently wrote an article for ESPN.com on the topic of whether or not Phoenix’s Steve Nash was deserving of a third-straight MVP Award.

 

Fellow NBA MVPs Steve Nash and Bill Russell pal around during the Suns’ training camp trip to Europe last fall.� (NBAE Photos)

Scoop’s stance was that Nash wasn’t a deserving candidate due to the fact it would put him in an illustrious – not to mention well decorated – group of NBA Champions including Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird.

It’s indeed some elite company to say the least. Russell, a man who owns more NBA Championship rings than fingers, the mythic Chamberlain, arguably the Babe Ruth of basketball, and Bird’s clutch play having helped him become both a Hall of Famer and a two-time Finals MVP. Scoop’s perspective is that since Nash has yet to prove himself in the NBA Finals as these men did, it’s not right to include him with such elite company.

Let me first start off by saying I have all the respect in the world for Scoop Jackson as a writer and, ironically, it was his contributions to SLAM during the mid-1990s which made me want to become a sportswriter. That said, I couldn’t disagree more with Scoop on this one and I think it’s insane to discard Nash as a 2006-2007 MVP candidate because of seasons which took place prior to the 2006-2007 season.

Granted, I may be biased as an employee of the Phoenix Suns, but to deny Nash the honor based on the theory “he’s no Bill Russell” would be a true example of tainting the MVP Award. For starters, the award is based on one’s performance during the regular season and nothing but. What happened in the past and what could potentially happen in the future has no bearing on who wins the MVP Award. Otherwise, Dwyane Wade would have to be thrown into the list of potential candidates, as well. Wade’s play during last year’s postseason propelled the Miami Heat to the NBA Finals, as well as an NBA Championship. Shouldn’t he at least get a little love when it comes to the voting? Of course not. He’s been plagued by injuries this season and everybody knows prior postseason success has no impact on the league MVP Award. Nor does looking at the class that player would join by being named MVP. Would Scoop have denied Allen Iverson the 2001 MVP Award simply because he hadn’t enjoyed the postseason success fellow Philly MVPs Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving and Moses Malone had?

If Scoop believes Dirk Nowitzki is a more deserving candidate based on his production and contributions to the Mavericks this season, so be it. But to give him the award just because Nash hasn’t proven himself as a champion is ludicrous. What happens if Nash leads Phoenix past Dallas en route to an NBA Championship? Do you then take the award away from Dirk and give it to Steve?

And I really hope Kobe Bryant’s name isn’t being seriously considered. If you give the NBA MVP to a guy who has helped his team finish with the seventh best record in your conference, you’re opening up a mighty big can of worms. Bryant’s numbers (31.2 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists) are not too far off the numbers of Cleveland’s LeBron James (27.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and six assists) or Washington’s Gilbert Arenas (28.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and six assists). Maybe you can argue Bryant’s numbers are better, but not to the point where James or Arenas shouldn’t even be considered.

But James and Arenas haven’t been considered because that’s what happens when your team fails to meet expectations. Cleveland was supposed to do big things after their playoff run last year and even in the Eastern Conference still failed to win 50 games. The Wizards meanwhile were struggling to stay in the middle of the playoff pack even before Arenas’ injury took place. You don’t give the Most Valuable Player Award to a guy whose team could be finishing the season below .500. Because of this, Bryant doesn’t deserve to have his name mentioned in the same breath as Nash or Nowitzki.

So what is it that gives Nash the edge over Nowitzki besides a better haircut? When the statistics are as close as theirs are, you look at three factors. The first is the position each has put their team in entering the playoffs. Dirk has helped his ballclub to a higher seed, and most importantly has put his team in a position to avoid a possible second-round matchup with the San Antonio Spurs. Dirk’s Mavs will also have homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs so the edge here easily goes to the seven-footer.

The second factor is leadership. To me, Nash is simply a better leader than Nowitzki. Even putting aside the debate of who makes their teammates better – a debate which really isn’t debatable – look at how many times Nash has carried the Suns on his back this season. Clutch shots against Golden State, New Jersey, Miami and a final minute against Dallas that fans will never forget, are why Nash gets the nod. The two-time MVP always seems to be able to do what needs to be done no matter how daunting the task and most importantly no matter how much time is left in the ballgame.

The final category is true value. You look at what the Mavericks can do without Dirk and what the Suns have done without Steve and again it isn’t even close. Without Nowitzki this season, the Mavericks are 2-0 including victories over the Denver Nuggets and Sacramento Kings. The Suns have lost their last three contests played without the services of Nash, dropping two against sub-.500 teams including the Atlanta Hawks and Seattle SuperSonics.

Some say it is crazy to vote based on games in which a guy didn’t play. That even though you oftentimes don’t appreciate someone or something until you’ve experienced life without them, it is insane for games in which a player didn’t participate to play a factor in the MVP voting.

Me? Insane? Well if that’s the case, with Scoop Jackson already there, it looks as if I’ll be joining some pretty elite company.