Beat the Spurs: Steve Kerr Completes Mike D'Antoni's Mission

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IMay 6, 2010

PHOENIX - FEBRUARY 6:  Phoenix Suns General Manager Steve Kerr and Head Coach Mike D'Antoni (R) speak in a pregame interview in regards to the Suns' acquisition of Shaquille O'Neal before Suns host New Orleans Hornets in an NBA game played at U.S. Airways Center February 6, 2008 in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Domenic Centofanti/Getty Images)
Domenic Centofanti/Getty Images

Tim Duncan hit another three-pointer.

This one didn't break any hearts. It just prolonged a 110-102 final result no one could have anticipated seven months ago.

Then, Phoenix Suns GM Steve Kerr put the finishing touches on a confusing off-season that seemed to confirm his roster management ineptitude.

The Suns up 2-0 on the San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs? Pigs will do more than fly this week. They'll also walk on the moon.

When the Suns fell to the Spurs again in 2008, fans flooded message boards to curse Kerr. Any failure they couldn't hang on the GM, they saved for head coach Mike D'Antoni.

The hysteria and virulence pushed D'Antoni to the brink. Weeks later, he accepted an offer to coach the New York Knicks.

D'Antoni found his escape route. He grew tired of losing to the same poised team every year. As his relationship with Kerr and owner Robert Sarver soured, so did his zest for the job.

Impalement causes bad decisions. Given his druthers now, D'Antoni might prefer the Spurs and tiffs with Kerr and Sarver over cleaning up the mess Isiah Thomas left.

The Knicks represent the NBA's neverending oil spill, and D'Antoni will need more than prayers and government assistance to make the problem go away.

As the former Suns coach imploded, the GM did the opposite.

Kerr's continued friendship with Sarver saved his job. The two remain neighbors in San Diego.

Now, his perceived incompetence has the Suns two wins away from history.

Kerr fielded a roster that could beat the Spurs by doing the unthinkable. He gave up on the task for which he had been hired.

D'Antoni allowed the numerous playoff defeats to warp his judgment. He spent each offseason slaving over potential pieces that could help his squad get over its Texas-sized hump.

In Kerr's first year as an executive, he did the same. He executed a controversial trade for Shaquille O'Neal, sending versatile forward Shawn Marion to Miami.

D'Antoni and everyone else in the organization convinced themselves the plucky idea could work.

Kerr did it because he thought the Suns' porous interior defense trumped its first-rate record.

O'Neal had battled Duncan all those years as a Laker. He also brought with him four championship rings, same as Duncan.

What Kerr should have anticipated was how a clogged lane, a jumbo-sized stick figure on defense, and an opprobious foul shooter would limit the effectiveness of Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire.

Nash's shooting percentage and assist numbers dipped. He became more of a turnover machine than a ballhandling wizard.

The end result of Kerr's first year and several months as a GM: a first-round exit and a trip to the lottery.

Midway through last season, though, he took irrationality to a new level.

He traded Boris Diaw and Raja Bell—Nash's best friend and the roster's best defender—to the Charlotte Bobcats for Jason Richardson.

Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili would no longer have to face a noted perimeter stopper in an April or May rematch.

The Suns had plenty of scorers but no defenders. In a must-win situation at Dallas, Phoenix surrendered 140 points and its postseason hopes.

What Kerr did next befuddled the few outside of the organization still on his side. He signed Nash, 36, to an extension. He re-signed a 37-year-old Hill.

The decision to retain two aging stars to anchor a deficient roster packed with 20-somethings was a real head-scratcher.

Nash and Hill's loyalty was as curious.

Kerr also brought back reserve center Louis Amundson. He told Goran Dragic to get ready for an expanded role.

He signed a diaper-soft Channing Frye when no one else wanted him.

In his most imporant move of all, Kerr removed the "interim" tag from Alvin Gentry's job title.

Gentry, another Larry Brown disciple, looks like he belongs on the same court as Gregg Popovich.

D'Antoni might not have triumphed the way his successor did with this odd cast of characters.

The star of Wednesday's game: Jared Dudley, a spare part in the Richardson exchange dealt away by the Bobcats to make the numbers work.

His tenacity on the boards in the second quarter changed the game.

Amundson and Dudley were the only players on the team, when it convened for training camp, who had ever been recognized as standout defenders.

But, Dragic prospered with more playing time, and Robin Lopez emerged as a worthy starter.

The Suns, however, did not suddenly change. Frye, Nash, and Stoudemire would still deservedly make any list of the NBA's worst defenders.

Phoenix also relies too much on long-distance heaves. San Antonio GM R.C. Buford spent big last summer so his squad wouldn't have to do that as often.

The Suns dominated the offensive glass 18-7 and owned the battle of the boards 49-37. Dudley's effort played a large role.

Another reason for concern: The Spurs shot 50 percent. The Suns shot 42 percent.

With the free-throw advantage on its side (37 attempts to 22), Phoenix won by eight two nights after winning by nine.

Would D'Antoni have trusted Dudley, Dragic, or Frye to play significant minutes in such an important game?

Gentry did, and it paid off handsomely.

The Suns were unconscious from beyond the arc. All nine of those triples changed momentum in favor the home team or built on it.

The Spurs' once impeccable spacing is off and their aura has vanished.

Of all the Phoenix rosters assembled in the Duncan era, would any have picked this one to take a 2-0 lead on San Antonio?

Therein lies the misunderstood genius of Kerr.

He stopped chasing the Spurs as D'Antoni once did. He put three-point gunners around Nash, and told Gentry to encourage his squad to run, run, run.

If the team played some defense, too, that was gravy.

Gentry looked to his bench for a newfound spark, and the former benchwarmers responded.

Leandro Barbosa, once considered by D'Antoni's detractors as the extent of the Phoenix bench, was a non-factor with three points on 1-of-3 shooting.

What can the Spurs do when they block seven more shots than the Suns and Frye hits five three-pointers, four of them with a hand in his face?

When Grant Hill decides to make long jumpers over Duncan, the cause looks more hopeless.

The Suns haven't become the Spurs of old, and that's why Kerr's bizarre plan now seems like it was always the right one.

An imitator rarely lives up to the original. Even the best Elvis impersonators cannot recapture his magic or recreate his presence.

Mimicry drove D'Antoni to insanity. It made Kerr smarter.

Like a deviceful scientist in a lab, Kerr concocted a mix that works.

These Suns do play better defense, and yet, they still give up wide-open threes the Spurs role players should be knocking down.

They still allow more layups than any of the previous editions did.

Kerr, then, made a necessary concession when he began an offseason with more questions than answers.

No one can clone the Spurs.

The Suns can beat them, though, when Frye shoots as if he's in a video game with the three-point accuracy cheat set to "100."

Phoenix won this way 54 times, and all Nash has to do to exorcise three series worth of demons is win two more games.

Maybe D'Antoni watched this game from afar and wondered if he could have done the same.

Duncan hit another three. Instead of losing their composure, their aplomb, and the game, the Suns sealed the outcome with one more free throw from Nash.

Kerr, the former Spur, had accomplished what the former coach could not.

The U.S. Airways Center crowd chanted "Beat the Spurs," and the team on the floor did it.

Crazy? That was seven months ago.


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