For a mid-season, midweek game, the Suns’ recent battle with the Wizards in Washington earned a lot of hype. It was billed, in many quarters, as “the Suns vs. the Suns of the East,” which I thought was a pretty telling description.
There is only one Amaré Stoudemire.(NBAE Photos)
The Wizards, like several teams, have decided to use the Suns and their fast-paced, freewheeling offense as a template, trying to build their team to the Suns’ specifications. The game, it was said, was going to be a measure of just how legitimate the Wizards were as a contender, while it would also show what the Suns could do against a team with their full roster of top players, a team that was one of only two to beat the Suns in the prior month and a half.
The first half of the game left little doubt as to the answers to any of those questions and as I watched the Suns hang a staggering 71 points on a pretty fair Wizards club in the first 24 minutes, I realized why these Suns look so different to me from any other incarnation in the team’s history – even last year’s squad, which had basically the same key personnel. And four letters kept repeating in my head:
Famously, John Wooden’s college basketball powerhouses of the 1960s and 1970s spent very little time preparing specifically for opponents, if they spent any time at all. Instead, they spent all their practice time on their own game plan, refining it, tweaking it, drilling it over and over and over until it was flawless. So secure were they in their own system, they didn’t bother scouting or game-planning to combat an opponent’s strengths or exploit their weaknesses.
“Here we are, here’s what we’re going to do,” they seemed to say. “If you can beat us at our game, more power to you.”
And as we all know, they lost very few games (Yes, it certainly helped that many of those Bruin teams were built around Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton, but UCLA under Wooden won titles before, between and after those players). It wasn’t arrogance, per se, but a kind of supreme confidence that if they did their best at what they did the best, it would be enough to better anything that could be thrown at them.
Other basketball teams through history have exuded the same kind of confidence. I think of the Celtics of the 1960s, with their fast break and legion of versatile role players. I think of the Lakers of the 1980s, and their rivals, the Celtics of the same period, both of whom were committed to particular styles of brilliant play, and both of whom made no allowances for the style of any opponent – which made their matchups all the more fascinating.
The Bulls of the 90s had their relentless Triangle Offense (which, by the way, Cotton Fitzsimmons had the Suns running in the early 1970s). In college, Princeton stubbornly rode their deliberate offense of high-post passing and back-door cuts to repeated NCAA basketball tournament upsets in the 80s and 90s.
And there are examples outside of basketball, as well. Bill Walsh’s San Francisco 49er football teams of the 1980s notoriously scripted their offense’s first twenty-five plays.
All of these teams, it’s vital to note, were trend-setters. Teams that followed them looked to their styles and asked, “How can we make that our own?” These teams found successful formulas and then bred imitators, few of whom ever did it as well as the original.
Team sports contests are often decided by which team can impose its will on the other. Can I get you to stop what you’re trying to do and focus on trying to stop what I’m trying to do? Can I get you in a position where you’re not doing what you do best, but rather trying to outdo me at what I do best? Can I force you to try to run with me, or shoot with me? If I can get you out of your comfort zone by executing so well within mine, if I can dictate tempo and style, I like my chances of winning.
That’s what these Suns are doing, on a night-by-night basis – fifteen games in a row, now, thirty of their last thirty-two games. They’re dictating to their opponents, forcing them acknowledge, “Our style doesn’t work against a team like this. How can we become more like them?”
Only to run up against the considerable roadblock of the fact that there’s only one Steve Nash. Only one Shawn Marion. Only one Amare Stoudemire. One Boris Diaw, one Raja Bell, one Leandro Barbosa. And one Mike D’Antoni, one Marc Iavaroni, one Alvin Gentry one Dan D’Antoni and one Phil Weber. Only one team that can combine all of them. That’s a lot of parts you have to replicate if you want to be like the Suns. And, we may find out come June, too many, if you hope to be better.
Even in the “gloriest” of glory days of the franchise – the Westphal-Adams-Davis powerhouses, the KJ-Chambers-Majerle-Hornacek young guns, the Barkley-led juggernauts – I’ve never seen a Suns team like this, with this kind of look in their eye.
It’s a look that barely acknowledges the team right before them, but at the same time doesn’t ignore or take for granted the immediate challenge. It’s the look of a team continually striving to play the best possible game their system will allow – they’ve come scary close already. It’s the look of a team – dare I say it? – that has its eyes on the prize.
Here they are, NBA, here’s what they’re going to do. If you can beat the Suns at their own game, more power to you.
But, fair warning: It’s only happened twice in the last thirty-two games, so I don’t like your chances.