Phoenix Suns' Remarkable Run Provides Newest Blueprint for Success
Kobe Bryant rose, his feet synchronized, and let it fly.
He did not need to see over Grant Hill's outstretched arm to know his biggest shot of the night would drop through the net.
After his heroic hoist, he shook his head in Alvin Gentry's direction and then ran back on defense, pantomiming a bird.
He flapped his arms, and his smile grew larger than California's budget deficit.
All the Phoenix Suns' coach could do was smile. Dan Majerle, one of his assistants, did not look as happy.
Moments later, Amar'e Stoudemire heaved up a three-point brick that bounced off the top of the backboard and fell into oblivion—the same way the Western Conference runner-up likely will for the next three weeks.
The Suns headed for an uncertain offseason, during which Stoudemire and others might leave for new digs.
Saturday might have been the All-Star forward's last as a member of Planet Orange.
It does not help that owner Robert Sarver alienated a number of season ticket holders with his "Los Suns" stunt in the second round, as many in Arizona favor the stringent immigration law that has sparked national debate and intense protest.
Those former fans did not appreciate their hoops squad's political statement.
Yet, those unfazed by the one-time gesture will ache for more games, for more visible progress from the team that came so far in such a short span.
NBA talk in the next month will center on the 11th Lakers-Celtics NBA Finals match and the summer of LeBron James.
The Suns will soon become an afterthought, a distant memory inaccessible to the common fan.
Joe and Jane Smith may even forget Phoenix has a pro team altogether.
NBA minds, however, must avoid an abridged retention of the 2010 playoffs.
Minnesota Timberwolves GM David Kahn and a host of other execs facing tall rebuilding tasks can view the Suns' ascension as a feasible blueprint.
Remember the Suns. It doesn't quite have the same ring as "Remember the Alamo," but it works.
The Lakers—conference champions for a third-straight year—are icons, not models.
Ditto for the Celtics.
The flattering label of "model franchise" suggests you can be copied. No one in a small or mid-sized market can Xerox L.A.
Unless you can find a way to build a second Hollywood and a history that includes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, and 15 titles, all in the span of three months, you can fughedaboutit.
As Kahn tries to repair the broken Timberwolves, he cannot rely on the 13-year tenure of the Minneapolis Lakers for inspiration. That history left town when the franchise did.
What can GMs not named Mitch Kupchak and Danny Ainge do?
Steve Kerr has some ideas, and maybe more people should listen.
The Suns plummeted to the lottery in 2009, and dumped Shaquille O'Neal's mammoth contract to save Sarver some green.
Kerr's first big experiment as a hoops boss was a whopping failure. Phoenix netted the expiring contracts of Sasha Pavlovic and Ben Wallace in a deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
To most observers, the cost-cutting move disguised as a roster improvement signaled the end of the Steve Nash-era in the desert.
That meant no more playoff trips and one of the ugliest rebuilding jobs in pro sports.
Nash and Hill would jet and latch on with contenders. Maybe Hill would play for the woeful New York Knicks and try to make them respectable just in time to make a compelling pitch to James this summer.
Kerr never saw it that way, and the joke is on every non-believer. Nash, 36, and Hill, 37, didn't see it that way, either.
Two of the league's oldest decided to re-sign with one of its youngest rosters.
The word "confused" does not begin to describe how most felt about Kerr's signature offseason transactions.
His other acquisition, Channing Frye, was a diaper-soft jump-shooter masquerading as a big man. No one offered effusive praise when Kerr retained the services of Louis Amundson.
The only people in the country who believed that core could win resided in the Suns' locker room.
The former three-point specialist and five-time champion witnessed the way Gentry connected with his players and took a chance.
After Mike D'Antoni's bitter departure, and the embarrassment of Terry Porter's firing, Kerr threw his support behind Gentry.
The Suns surprised the rest of the league in November and glided to 14 early wins. Then, a dismal 12-18 stretch tested the faith of many in the organization.
For the second straight year, the franchise dangled Stoudemire, one of its cornerstones, in trade talks.
He headed to the All-Star Game in Dallas certain he would wear another uniform by the end of the next week. The Cavs had come calling, and young forward J.J. Hickson seemed to be the only snag in discussions.
Kerr, instead, kept Stoudemire for the stretch-run that would define the streaky Suns' feel-good narrative.
The joviality resurfaced in a Thursday night home game against the Dallas Mavericks. Then, Dallas guard Jason Terry told Craig Sager at halftime that his team needed to take better advantage of the Suns, "because they don't play a lot of defense."
Less than two hours later, a close victory snapped a miserable 18-game losing streak on TNT. From there, the Suns took off and did not land until Bryant forced them to on Saturday.
Phoenix was 35-9 since January entering the conference finals. Make that 37-13.
Not bad, huh?
The Lakers can afford to pay the head coach $12 million, even when the owner offers a mild objection. Phil Jackson can laugh and ride his golf cart all the way to the bank.
Those 12 championships, 10 of those as a coach, help his cause.
Gentry, by contrast, will earn $3.7 million across two seasons.
The Lakers and Celtics looked like garbage outfits in March and early April, when most champions begin to flex their muscles.
Most teams cannot afford rosters talented enough to overcome that obstacle.
The NBA's two storied franchises combined for a winning percentage in the mid 40s in the most important stretch of the regular season and still reached the Finals.
The way the purple and gold and green machines won is a dream. How the Suns almost won seems more realistic.
The Suns, for their part, brought Nash back for a second ride via free agency in 2004 and selected Stoudemire in the 2002 draft.
They shifted from 60-win-and-done darlings under D'Antoni to lottery fodder with Porter. After a full season of Gentry's guidance, they became winners.
Frye became a three-point shooting assassin, Stoudemire matured a bit, and Hill played the best defense of his career.
Why can't another team enjoy this kind of stunning run?
The Suns model isn't sustainable, and it might not produce a championship. The title is what matters, and Phoenix needed six more wins to grab one.
Still, in this rich vs. poor NBA, "six wins away" would be a welcome turn for most teams not in Boston or L.A.
Stoudemire will mute the celebration in a month if he goes elsewhere. Given that the Suns almost traded him in consecutive Februarys, can you blame him for harboring some resentment?
Sarver will benefit from the gate money collected at the seven postseason contests played at U.S. Airways Center.
Fans purchased beer, food, and merchandise. In the second round, they chanted "Beat the Spurs" and watched the team slay those silver and black demons.
In the conference finals, they chanted "Beat L.A.," and their team almost did.
Casual fans who reflect on this series will remember Ron Artest's game-winning tip and Bryant's parade of 30-point performances.
They will never forget the way he flew like a bird.
GMs looking for a way to win again, though, should remember the Suns and hope for similar luck.
They should study how Gentry convinced his players to believe in the importance of defense and details, and how he stood toe-to-toe with the greatest coach in the sport's history and emerged as the victor twice in six games, and how he turned a once weak bench into the team's strength.
Jared Dudley, Goran Dragic, and others prospered thanks to his credence.
The Suns won in ways no one expected they could, beating the once unbeatable Spurs with strong stretches of defense and rebounding.
Another franchise left for dead could soon do the same.
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