If dreams are more than dreams, and actually can, somehow, come true… then last night the Phoenix Suns lost to the Utah Jazz in the first game of their first round series... and I cried. Luckily, when I woke up this morning, I found out that my dreams are just dreams... and pillows make really good Kleenex.
As the playoffs are about to begin, I started to daydream about the possibilities. The Suns have been on a tear and I have felt that they can beat anyone. I started telling people that I wanted the Suns to play the Spurs, Mavericks, Lakers, and Cavs, in that order, to win the ‘Ship. ‘Why would you want the hardest road possible to win it all?’ My thinking was, to be the best you have to beat the best. …And get as many monkeys of your back as you can at the same time.
While my daydream was plausible, it was no more real than my dream last night. I now see that reality brings much higher probability for ascendancy to victory.
5. The Suns are HOT!
Best team headed to the playoffs. The Suns are 23-6 since the All-Star break. Really? Yes. Really. They’re finally getting production from Amare Stoudemire and Jason Richardson. Leandro Barbosa is finally healthy. And they are finally playing defense. Really? Yes. Really.
Big blowout wins over Denver and Utah. Getting back to back wins pushed them from 5th to 3rd, locking up home court advantage in the first round and giving them loads of confidence. And not only did they win, they won BIG. They handled both teams easily, carrying 20+ point leads throughout both games. Some of you say, no big deal. But winning a game when you need to… I’d say that’s a pretty big deal. And it’s something both Denver and Utah could not do.
4. Favorable Schedule
No back to backs. Arguably the toughest part of playing in the NBA is the scheduling. Road trips and switching time zones. Playing 5 games in 7 days. Playing on back to back nights. Older legs struggle in back to back games, just ask Steve Nash and Grant Hill, as 9 of their 28 losses during the regular season came on those second nights. Take away back to backs and you can take away a lot of losses. Luckily, they will get plenty of rest between games in the playoffs.
Portland in round one. To be honest… The Suns usually struggle against Portland. And a few weeks ago, I said that the only team we don’t want to face is Portland. They play a slow, deliberate game and have, probably, the best crowd in the NBA. (i.e. Utah and Golden State) But then, something happened. It was like Tanya Harding’s skating-ghost sprang from her skating-coffin from 1994 and took out all her frustrations on Brandon Roy’s knee. (Did you know she was a boxer in the early 2000’s?) With Roy out for the season, the Suns should easily advance to round two versus Dallas/San Antonio. (And by ‘easily’, I mean ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if the Blazers steal a game… or two’. Serious. We really struggle against them.)
Dallas or San Antonio in round 2. Either way, the Suns get a chance for revenge. And what is more motivating than revenge? (See #1)
Maybe the Lakers choke against Denver. The Nuggets should have beaten the Lakers last year. This year they have a chance to prove it (if they beat Utah, of course). And if all goes according to plan… that would be a favorable matchup for Phoenix in the Western Conference finals. (PHX would have home court advantage AND an up-tempo opponent, which they prefer.)
And if the Lakers cruise right into the Western Conference Finals like they're supposed to... expect a battle of epic proportions! The Suns have normally owned the Lakers in the postseason... and most remember the Suns historic comeback after being down 3-1 in the series. Now, this is obviously not the same Lakers team... but neither are the Suns. This year, the Suns have a deeper bench, far better point guard, and history is by our side.
Anyone but the Cavs in the Finals. Really… I’m dead with seriousness.
Is a beast. Amare Stoudemire is averaging 26 points and 10 rebounds per game since the All-Star break. He’s in great shape and his defensive effort is steadily improving. He leads the league in points in the paint (with 1,110 or some absurd number like that). And he knocks down his free throws. No one can stop him. (And many have tried. Ask Anthony Tolliver and Kosta Koufos.)
Round 2- Dirk or Tim (remember 2005?) Amare is playing his best basketball right now, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. The Suns missed the playoffs last year after Amare was poked in the eye and missed the rest of the season with a detached retina. The two games right before that the Suns scored 140 points in BOTH games. The Suns are dangerous with a healthy Amare Stoudemire. Neither Dirk or Tim are athletic or quick enough to hang with Amare. In 2005, Amare averaged 37 points per game against Duncan in the playoffs. (Yes, the Spurs won, but Joe Johnson had a broken face.) And that was a much younger, more agile Tim Duncan.
2. Style of Play
Efficient Offense/Solid Defense. The Suns lead the league in points per game 110, FG 49.2% and 3FG 41.2% and they’re 4th in assists per game. Yes, they are their usual offensive-juggernautish selves. But more importantly, their defense has improved incredibly. They’re 6th in rebounding and 11th in blocked shots. Surprised?
Second Unit. Everyone knows about Leandro Barbosa after his 2007 Sixth Man of the Year campaign when he averaged 18 ppg off the bench. But what about the rest of these guys? Jared Dudley and Channing Frye are among the league leaders in both 3 point% and 3 pointers made. Louis Amundson has become a force in the middle, and is ranked 10th in the league in blocks per 48 minutes played at 3.00. And probably most improved is Goran Dragic. He still struggles through growing pains, but he has improved his shooting and decision making. This scrappy bunch’s job is clear. Hold the lead. But when they’re on top of their game and are actually extending the lead, you will not beat the Suns.
Chemistry. (From Bill Simmons) Wednesday night, Phoenix at Utah. If the Suns lose, they land a 4-seed and a preferable matchup with Denver (who plays an open style that favors Phoenix). If they win, they jump to a 3-seed and a tougher matchup with Portland (more size, slowdown style, great crowd). General manager Steve Kerr heads to the locker room that night thinking, "We should bench the older guys (Nash and Hill), play our subs and settle for the 4-seed." What happens? Everyone wants to play. Better yet, they're excited to play. Kerr talks it over with Alvin Gentry; they decide to go for it and end up winning by 20. In their euphoric locker room afterwards, Grant Hill tells Kerr that the Suns have better chemistry than any team he's ever played for. And he means it. … Those are the stories I need to hear about my title contenders.
1. Steve Nash
Past Playoff Pains. Steve Nash has been through a lot in recent years. In 2005, the Suns star shooting guard Joe Johnson suffered a displaced fracture of the left orbital bone in Game 2 of their second round series with Dallas. They limped into to the Western Conference Finals to take on the San Antonio Spurs. The Suns lost 4-1.
In 2006, Amare Stoudemire had knee surgery and was shut down for all but a few games of the season. A run to the Western Conference Finals ended against the Mavs.
In 2007, the Suns played the Spurs again, this time in the Semifinals. Nash's nose split in game one. A Robert Horry flagrant foul on Nash in game 4 earned him an ejection from the ballgame and caused Amaré Stoudemire and Boris Diaw to leave their seats on the bench. For his actions, Horry would be suspended for each of the next two contests in the series. STAT and Diaw were suspended for the pivotal Game 5 back in Phoenix. Without two of their primary low-post players, the Suns put on one of the gutsiest performances the game has seen in quite some time – at least for three quarters that is. They ran out of gas in the 4th quarter, lost 88-85, and eventually lost the series.
In 2008, the Tim Duncan 3 pointer. Just mentioning it makes me shake my head in disgust.
In 2009, the Suns failed to make the playoffs after losing Amare Stoudemire to a season ending eye injury.
In 2010,… please… just no more injuries and no more Duncan threes. Please.
4th MVP. First of all, look at these numbers: 16.5 PPG, 11.0 APG, 51% FG, 43% 3FG, 94% FT. Now tell me who is even close? (Maybe Chris Paul, if he hadn’t gotten injured.) Steve Nash is STILL the best point guard in the NBA. He’s led the league in assists 4 times, all after turning 30 years old. Did I mention he’s now 36? The guy is magnificent. He’s won two MVP awards (should have won a 3rd) and I could argue he’s in the top 5 this year. He makes everyone around him better. He’s the ultimate teammate and an even ultimate-er competitor.
Remember at the beginning of the year how all the haters said the Suns wouldn’t make the playoffs? Remember how all the so-called experts said the Suns were bound for the lottery or would maybe get the 8th seed? To all of you at ESPN I say, Remember how we have Steve Nash?
So, can the Suns win the Championship? You tell me.