(P.A. Molumby/NBAE/Getty Images)

As a proud graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University – this is an extraordinarily difficult blog to write. But it can no longer be ignored . . . the Phoenix Suns are headed to the Western Conference Finals largely due to the work of a group of Wildcats. And I’m not talking about some obvious Arizona grads (owner Robert Sarver, GM Steve Kerr, VP/personnel guru David Griffin), the ones I’m talking about are all players.

So as the Suns bask in the glow of their sweep of San Antonio and await their opponent for the WCF, I present my list of Arizona Wildcats that have the Suns in a place few would have expected back in October . . .

- Jason Terry: The Suns have played 3 seasons over the course of the 2009-10 NBA campaign. Starting the year with a surprising blend of 3-point shooting and chemistry, Phoenix sailed through the end of November with a 14-3 record. They were scoring like mad, defending a little, but winning over the basketball hearts of the Valley.

Suns 2.0 got off on the wrong foot in New York at the start of December, and after blowout losses in successive nights to the Knicks and Cavs, they stumbled through a 12-18 stretch that saw 4 players (J-Rich, Dudley, Frye and Hill) fight shooting slumps at the same time. Very rare for an NBA team to have 4 guys, all who rely on outside shooting, go cold for that long a stretch. Alvin Gentry put Robin Lopez in the starting lineup on Jan. 18th – adding size to the first group and giving the second 5 some added firepower in Channing Frye – and the evolution continued.

Version #3 of this Suns team started 10 days later – at home against the Dallas Mavericks. The Suns were 2-4 since the lineup change and trailing the Mavericks by 4 at halftime. Enter Jason Terry. The former U of A standout had this to say to TNT before he went to the locker room: “We gotta score on these guys. They’re not very good defensively and we gotta make them pay.” Alvin Gentry used the quote as a rallying cry and the Suns found another weapon in their arsenal – the ability to make stops. They locked down the Mavs in the 4th quarter, holding them to 6-of-21 shooting. A new team was born – a team that has gone 36-9 since January 28, including a ridiculous 17-6 on the road.

- Channing Frye: What a difference a season makes. Last May, Frye was the forgotten man on Portland’s bench, logging 36 total minutes in the Blazers’ 1st round exit. Against his former team, Frye came up big in the pivotal game 5. His 20-point outburst (along with 8 rebounds) carried the Suns back to Portland where they closed out the series in game 6. He also gets an assist from former Wildcat Jerryd Bayless, the spunky Blazer guard who has more heart than shooting ability (40% FGs / 8 turnovers in Blazers’ 4 losses vs Suns).

Frye averaged a shade under 10 points against the Spurs, spreading the floor with his 3-point shooting and playing some inspired D against Tim Duncan. As much as anyone, Frye epitomizes the unselfishness on this Suns team. Instead of pouting after being pulled from the starting lineup, he embraced his bench role and became a key element to the Suns’ second wave that has been essential to their 3rd season success. Teams may be able to match the output of the Phoenix first 5, but once the subs enter the game – it’s no contest.

- Richard Jefferson: I don’t even know where to begin with this one. Last summer, San Antonio gave up Bruce Bowen, Kurt Thomas and Fabricio Oberto in exchange for Jefferson and his bloated contract. The idea was that Jefferson would give the Spurs an athletic wing who could get his own shot and be another option when the San Antonio offense invariably stalled (think – Jason Richardson.) In this playoff series, Jefferson sucked the life out of the Spurs with his passive play (1 FG each in games 2 and 4 – all for the low, low price of $14.2 million!) and inability to recognize the Suns’ shooters. Jefferson only took 3 shots in Sunday’s deciding Game 4 and got to the line only 16 times in the series. Not quite what Popovich had in mind.

So as the Suns await their Conference Finals opponent, the Suns’ brain trust is surely watching lots of game tape on the Lakers’ Luke Walton. And can only hope that Phil Jackson gives him heavy minutes in the next round.

  • ryan

    i have always enjoyed watching the suns but have been a little fare weather. i’m in san diego and have no real allegiance to the players or the city. but after their decision to utilize their power as a highly exposed sports franchise to support civil liberties regarding the egregious bill awaiting passage in Arizona, VIVA LOS SUNS and sharpening another edge of the power of sport.

  • JOHN SERPE

    Got some doubt floating around as our Suns prepare to take on LA? Take note fellow fans of the Cleveland/ Boston game #4. I don’t care how great you might be, one or two players are not going to do it for you against a very good and deep opponent, not in the NBA. I see so many parallels with the Cavaliers and Lakers. Both have a superstar and very good sidekick. Both add some good role players. But most telling is that neither has a bench or depth in key positions, especially at guard. Kobe and Co. can use their mystic and bully a shorthanded mediocre Utah. They won’t have that luxury in the next series. These Suns don’t set.

  • JOHN SERPE

    Not that it’s required, but if you need a little more hope going into our Suns playoff with LA here are some interesting stats. Both teams have played ten playoff games so far. Suns lead the Lakers percentage wise over those games as follows: FG, FT, 3ptFG, Points per game. Lakers had only 3 more total rebounds per game than our Suns. However, the minutes played per game for the starters are much higher for LA than our Suns while the bench minutes and scoring are significantly higher for the Suns. Lets also note that the Spurs were without doubt a better team in the second round than Utah. Conclusion, if the Suns play their game at their pace LA is in trouble.

  • JOHN SERPE

    Thought I’d throw a little different subject in this blog. So now I read Lebron James is a slacker, he has no heart, no loyalty, strip him of his crown scream the press and Cleveland fans. Come on people, the guy has single handily carried a so so Cavalier team on his back for two seasons. Put the blame where it belongs on the owner/general manager. Do you really think an ancient Shaq was going to help, please, our Suns went through that nightmare, spare me the smirk. The Celtics have a real “team” you know with chemistry, something resembling a bench and a coach. You can’t win with one or two players!!! Even Jordan needed alot of help. But keep screaming Cleveland, after Boston eliminates you the Knicks will be smiling all the way to free agency.

  • JOHN SERPE

    So, now our Suns are being laughed at, we have no muscle, no height, and according to a Lakers columnist “no chance” in the series. Okay, let me get this straight, the Thunder, an inexperienced upstart with no great “height” had Laker fans and writers alike checking their pants before Gumby tipped one in at the buzzer. Hey, I learned not to fall for the psych stuff before getting in a fight at ten yrs old, but nice try guys. Look, nobody with any B-ball sense is saying the Lakers are not a very good team. Tall, great length,(don’t Frye and Lopez have length) and they have one of the best players in the game. Yes, they may beat the living daylights out of us and Suns might shock them in 6 or 7. If you can predict that head to Vegas now with every penny you have. This series isn’t as easy as writers and experts would have you believe. Not unless of course Suns come in shell shocked, ( which we have done on occassion) Nash dribbles around for half of every posession, turns it over with spiderman passes, or Artest hip checks him into the scorers table. Not unless Amare puts on his guess who I am disguise, Hill ages over night, JRich and Fryes shots quick freeze or the Suns bench players transform from the wild bunch into Gentry’s Angels. Should none of that occur, this fan remains convinced, Suns in 6.