NBA Playoffs: Difference in Play Has Helped Suns To Within Six Games of Title

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NBA Playoffs: Difference in Play Has Helped Suns To Within Six Games of Title
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

During the midst of Mike D'Antoni's run as Phoenix Suns head coach—a run which saw the Suns reach two Western Conference Finals in as many years, in 2005 and 2006, and a run which vaulted the Suns from a morbid franchise into one of the NBA's elite—it was widely known that the Suns were a team who practiced a high-paced offensive game, played at a high tempo, and were set on playing with an 8-man rotation.

It seemed as if the Phoenix Suns organization owned the trademark of "high paced offensive basketball" and "8-man rotation", however a change in the team's philosophy of basketball has led them just six wins away from the franchise's first NBA championship.

The Suns still employ a fast-paced offense under current head coach Alvin Gentry, an assistant under D'Antoni, but now, the team has transformed for the better.

Among the changes include Gentry's use of the bench, which was a far cry from D'Antoni's reluctance in going deep into the rotation.

Under Gentry, bench role players such as Jared Dudley, Goran Dragic, hometown hero Channing Frye and fan favorite Lou Amundson, have enjoyed the spotlight, and have been key contributors to the team's successful run in the second-half of the season.

That is a far cry from when the Suns had the likes of James Jones, Jurmaine Jones, an old Jalen Rose, and the 11th and 12th men Sean Marks and Pat Burke respectively; guys who saw little to no action in key situations for the Phoenix Suns.

Instead of having four guys to fill in the back-end of the roster, the bench has seen an increased role.

Could anyone have imagined the Phoenix Suns, of all teams, playing their second-unit during Game Four of the Western Conference Finals, with the prospect of tying the series at two, against the defending champions, the Los Angeles Lakers, who by the way had their first team out?

Could anyone have imagined Jared Dudley—a player who had a small role in Charlotte with the Bobcats—defending Kobe Bryant in the 4th quarter?

And could anyone have imagined the Suns bench shutting down Bryant, and leading and willing the team to a huge Game Four win?

In the old D'Antoni days, absolutely not.

Now, it does feel odd calling the Mike D'Antoni days in Phoenix old—it was just less than five years ago, but under Alvin Gentry and a rejuvenated franchise, it does feel like it's been more than a decade since D'Antoni was the Suns' head coach.

Thanks to the bench, the Suns defeated the Lakers to tie the series at two games apiece, heading back to Los Angeles. The Dudley-Dragic-Frye-Amundson-Barbosa lineup knocked down 20 of 32 field goal attempts, including nine of 20 three-point attempts.

The Suns bench as a whole outscored Los Angeles' reserves 54-20, and had a +/- ratio of 69 (compared to a combined +/- ratio of -24 for the Suns starters). Pretty much the biggest reason by far the Suns are in this series is the bench.

Another key point of success for the Phoenix Suns this playoff run is the fact that the Suns simply are adjusting more during the game and series itself—something D'Antoni wasn't necessarily the master at.

Now, is Gentry a master of a coach?

No, but his willingness to fix things up and make key adjustments have helped the Suns to making their deepest playoff run since the 2005-06 season.

The adjustment from a man-to-man defense in the first two games of the series—a defense which allowed the Lakers big men to dominate the paint and in result, two blowout wins in Los Angeles—to a college-styled zone-defense starting in Game Three has effectively helped changed the series.

In both Games Three and Four in Phoenix, the Lakers have taken a total of 60 3-point attempts, which not what their famed "Triangle Offense" is built for.

Thanks to the zone-defense, the Suns defense has gotten stingier and more efficient, and the Lakers' advantage in size has not been met in Games Three and Four.

There have been less drives to the rim by the Lakers, and both Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol have been less effective.

Instead of watching Gasol and Bynum use their height against the Suns down low, the Suns have effectively forced the Los Angeles Lakers to jack up threes—which simply is not their style of game.

This adjustment by Gentry comes on the heels of the key defensive adjustment made by Gentry during the team's first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers—switching defensive assignments on Andre Miller from Jason Richardson to Grant Hill.

Miller dropped 31 points on the Suns, leading the Portland Trail Blazers to a rare road playoff win—giving Portland a 1-0 series lead.

On the onset of the Game One shocker, Gentry switched the main defender on Miller to veteran Grant Hill from Jason Richardson, and the Suns never looked back.

The change itself took immediate effect—the Suns limited Miller to just 12 points on just 4-11 shooting. Meanwhile, Richardson dropped 29 points on 11-16 shooting, and the Suns eventually won the series in six games.

Unlike the stubborn D'Antoni, Gentry has shown the willingness to make key adjustments and change the team's basketball philosophy, a key factor in the team's renaissance. 

Am I saying D'Antoni was a bad coach per say?

No, a coach that helped turn a team from a 23-win club to a 62-win club the following season is not a bad coach.

However, under Alvin Gentry, the Suns have made key adjustments for the better, and as a result, are now just six wins away from the franchise's first NBA championship—something the state of Arizona has been anxiously awaiting for.  

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