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.