Despite a 128-108 lost at the defending World Champion Celtics on Sunday, the sun seems to be slowly rising on Planet Orange lately. With more emphasis on running under new coach Alvin Gentry, the Suns seem to playing with a renewed sense of vitality and energy. Although they’ve lost Amar’e Stoudemire for the rest of the regular season and struggled as a team at times throughout the year, one gets the feeling that this team has a run left in them. So it got me to thinking, where have I seen this all before?
In America, we love the underdog. It is woven into the fabric of our consciousness.
It’s the reason adults still flock to PG movies and it’s why in the darkest of times, people possess unshakeable hope and optimism that the future will get better. The most remembered fables in our nation’s history are of the protagonist that overcame adversity and chased down his dream. A Phoenix that rose from the ashes… so to speak.
America’s most iconic fictional character, who seemed to personify that Horatio Alger-like ideology more than anyone, was Rocky Balboa. Rocky was an affable, blue-collar, average Joe from the streets that took a shot at uplifting himself above the social status he was born into by using his passion and spirit to accomplish that goal. Everyone doubted him, but every time he was knocked down, he got back up.
When he stepped into the ring, he had a slugger’s chance. And Americans embrace that.
Well, the Suns aren’t much different from that beloved folk hero. They’ve been knocked down a lot in the last few years… literally.
First they lost Joe Johnson to broken eye socket in the 2005 Playoffs, then Steve Nash couldn’t re-enter a 2007 playoff game against the Spurs because of a bloody nose, which was then followed a few games later by the infamous suspensions of Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for leaving the bench.
Now fast forward to this year. Actually, check that, fast forward to this week.
Coach Terry Porter was relieved after just half a year on the bench, Shaquille O’Neal was said to be on the trading block, former assistant coach Alvin Gentry took over the reins, the team found its stride with two blowout wins and then lost its leading scorer for the season… the day after the trade deadline passed, leaving no time to find a replacement for him for the rest of the season. You couldn’t write a soap opera with more twists and turns.
But here’s the thing.
An underdog always fights its hardest when its back is against the wall. Not only because they have something to prove, but because they have to survive. The collective pressure on Planet Orange to make the playoffs has changed its gravitational pressure.
So the implementation of a style change isn’t so much indicative of team running back to past days of greatness, but more of a team that is running for its life. Kind of like Rocky in Rocky II.
First, he almost went blind in the first fight (Amar’e symbolism anyone?), so then his wife, Adrian, didn’t want him to fight anymore. After being relentlessly heckled by sub-par fighters around the gym (see teams under .500 that have beaten the Suns), Rocky received that jolt to get back into the ring and take another shot at Apollo.
So what did he do? To protect his eye and implement a surprise attack, the famed southpaw fighter switched to become a right-handed fighter (see a running team becoming a half-court team). After struggling in the early-goings of the fight, Rocky then befuddled Apollo by switching back to being a southpaw (see the last four games).
There’s no doubt that the change of style is significant enough to catch teams off guard. Just listen to what Clippers’ guard Eric Gordon had to say after he saw the new-look Suns.
“They are going to be a really hard team to beat now that they are running up and down the court and moving at a fast pace,” Gordon said. “We’re not that bad, the Suns are just really good.
“They are running up and down, and guys are just really flowing together,” he continued. “They are playing better team ball. Last time we played them it was more of a half court offense, and now they are running up and down. They’re more effective when they are running.”
Suns guard Jason Richardson believes the heightened pace has discombobulated opposing defenses too.
“I think we do catch them by surprise a little bit,” he said. “We got so many guys that play the same position, the same height and the same size so we’re doing a good job of switching and helping each other out.”
Going southpaw is the move for a number of reasons.
Teams haven’t seen them play small ball like this for a while. They can’t study tape of Phoenix because the club has only played this way for four games.
Opposing teams also have no idea what the Suns are going to do because when they play like this, they make decisions on the fly. The offense is just centered on some guiding principles and good decision-making instincts.
Even Gentry believes that teams will have a more of a difficult time preparing for the Suns now that they’re playing unconventionally.
“I think we do a lot of stuff randomly,” the new Suns Head Coach said. “So if you do a lot of stuff randomly, I think it makes it a little difficult to stop.”
Everybody cheers for a team that gets unabashedly hosed. When the perception around a person or team is that they aren’t catching any breaks, people in America innately root for them.
Like the underdog Dodgers and an injured Kirk Gibson hitting a game-winning home run against a seemingly indestructible Oakland A’s club during the 1988 World Series. No one wanted to see him strike out on a bum knee.
That’s what has inspired so many people from around the country to become Suns fans over the last few years. Not only are they renegades that have refused to conform to the conventional NBA style, but they’ve been repeatedly beaten down by tough breaks.
It makes me think of my friends who work for other teams around the NBA, but cheer for the Suns above everyone else. Or my buddies back East who should be cheering for the Knicks or Nets, but would rather slap on a Nash jersey for every nationally televised game.
“Seven Seconds or Less” appears be releasing a sequel, which is yet another direct parallel to Rocky II. If you remember correctly, Rocky didn’t defeat Apollo in the first movie. He defeated him in the sequel.
I’m not saying that the Suns are going to be the World Champions. It was obvious after playing the defending champs today, that they’re a lot more work to do.
But like Rocky, the Suns have a puncher’s chance. And sometimes, that’s all you need.