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!….”