In the Suns' first two games under Alvin Gentry, they put up huge numbers. Forget that it was against a 13-win team with a depleted line up who's only big man was a 20-year-old 2nd round pick. They were energized and motivated and were playing with a joy that has been missing for a large portion of the season.
The Phoenix Suns looked free and easy after deciding to take a trip backwards in time to a style of play that transfixed the NBA, but so far has been unable to win the championship that everyone so badly wants.
In true democratic style, the move came "from the people;" in this case, the players who never bought into the idea that slowing down a bit and becoming less Nash-dependent was a winning formula. Whether unable or unwilling, this team never committed to improving defensively as they promised during training camp.
As Reggie Miller said on TNT, what this team did was a "slap in the face to Terry Porter."
What's done is done. Those players each have to look in the mirror and answer to themselves if they really gave Porter their best effort. Now it's time to see if they were right and if they can answer some key questions.
Can the Suns incorporate Shaq into the running game?
The Suns initially struggled after acquiring Shaq last season, going 3 and 9 as D'Antoni tried unsuccessfully to play Shaq out of the lane to keep the spacing open for Nash and Stoudemire. In those games, Shaq averaged 7 shot attempts and 11 points.
In the next 20 games to finish the season, the Suns won 15 and Shaq's attempts increased to 8.5 per game, his shooting percentage increased from 55% to 65% and he averaged 14 points per game in about 1 minutes less of playing time.
The change came as D'Antoni gave up on trying to fit Shaq into the system and, without fanfare, started playing Shaq in his natural post position. The Suns still ran plenty of pick-and-rolls but they also were feeding the ball into Shaq.
At 4th in the league in Pace Factor, they certainly weren't blowing the doors off like they did in years past. It is interesting to note that Suns are 4th in the league in pace factor this season, as well.
So, when we talk about going back to the running days of the Suns do we mean back to the 04-06 teams that pushed the ball at a breakneck speed and literally ran teams off the court?
Or are we really just talking about going back to last year's D'Antoni-led Suns that were slower but still reliant on having the ball in Nash's hands to create the majority of the offense?
This is a critical question that hasn't been answered. It is very evident, however, that the speed at which the Suns played the last two games against the Clippers, which was far more reminiscent of the 7 Second or Less Suns, is not sustainable for Shaquille O'Neal. He simply will not be able to run up and down the floor for 30 minutes per game and expect to be of any value at all.
Against the Clippers, he tried, but was clearly frustrated on several trips from defense to offense, to find himself arriving at the three point line just in time for a shot to be launched, forcing him to turn back and run back to the other end on defense. This was a very effective strategy for the Suns to use against Shaq when he was in Miami.
He was also playing further away from the rim to allow Amare to work freely against Ricky Davis and Steve Novak. I don't think this strategy will be as effective against the Spurs, Lakers and Celtics, whom the Suns will be facing over the next two weeks.
Gentry will either be forced to cut Shaq's minutes back to 20-25 per game to allow more time for quick firing or will end up slowing his team to avoid running his best rebounder and highest percentage scorer out of the game.
The Suns without Shaq will be a fast but undersized team subject to getting abused on the glass. The Suns with Shaq will be Nash-dependent in the half court, which will be efficient but also prone to being shut down when the point guard's back problems flair up or solid defensive teams are able to game plan against him.
Can Nash sustain the effort?
In last year's playoff series against the Spurs, Nash averaged almost 4 fewer assists and his FG% dropped by 5 points. The Spurs, as they've done for years, were able to take him out of his game and he admitted later that he was tired going into the series from having run a lot of pick and rolls all season long.
The plan this year was to limit his minutes with the drafting of backup PG Goran Dragic. When that didn't work out, Porter's Plan B was to play Nash off the ball more. But, turnovers were up and Nash apparently didn't buy into that idea, either.
Nash will now assume the reigns again and valiantly try to will his body through yet another grueling final stretch and into what the team hopes will be a long playoff run.
Unfortunately, every few weeks we can look forward to watching Nash play a step slow with his shot not falling when his back spasms flair up as they've done on a regular basis for the past season and a half. Instead of being ready to play without him, the Suns will once again suffer huge drop-offs in production.
Nash is "One Tough Canadian" and will do his best to play through it and with the Suns committed to putting the ball back in his hands, he won't have a choice.
Are the Suns built to run?
The two thinnest positions on the Suns roster are behind Shaq and Nash -- the exact two guys that are most influential to the team's success in this style. We've seen what happens when Nash goes down and we've seen how inept the Suns are on the glass without a mobile big man to step in behind Shaq.
Diaw is no longer here to play next to Amare and at least provide a dangerous front court combination and Barbosa, while improved (especially on defense), is not a point guard who can run the read and react or pick and roll sets.
The failure to address these roster holes and instead choosing to fill $13m of the salary cap with another wing gunner is perhaps the most perplexing part of all of this and speaks to the lack of vision and the ad hoc nature of what the Suns are doing.
Robert Sarver talks about the emotional ups and downs and the constant evaluation of the team. That is a great way for a floor leader to fight a battle. It is not the kind of calm strategic view needed from a great General who should be setting a vision and then constantly selling it internally and externally. Great organizations stay consistent to their core beliefs and only make minor course corrections. The constant zig zagging we've seen is a recipe for confusion and inconsistent play.
If it didn't work before, why will it work now?
Think of it this way. With the mastermind D'Antoni at the helm and playing with Marion and Diaw, the Suns weren't able to get past the 2nd round two years ago and with Shaq and Diaw last year, they didn't get out of the first round.
Now, with Gentry running the show, Nash one year older and no Diaw to help take the front court load it is difficult to believe that the Suns will somehow be able to do something they haven't done before.
Some will argue that it wasn't working anyway so they might as well go down gunning. Fair enough, but I would have rather seen the team fight their way out of the funk instead of giving in to excuses.
Will fun over come?
After the Suns traded Bell and Diaw for Jason Richardson, we had the pleasure of seeing a team whose spirits were suddenly lifted. It seemed that a weight had been removed and the locker room cancer had been excised. The Suns went 9-3 and all three of those defeats were on final possession plays. There was joy and fun and the chemistry seemed reignited.
Nash and Hill both talked about the team having "arrived." This was Terry Porter's system for that winning stretch, but then when the Suns lost two in a row to Denver and Minnesota and followed up a .500 road trip with losses to the Spurs and Bulls, the wheels came off and the finger of blame landed on the coach.
What will happen to Gentry's Suns after a couple of losses? Will they be able to overcome adversity or the inevitable injuries that all teams (except the Suns so far) have to struggle though?
This will be the ultimate test of Gentry and the mental make-up of this group. They've proven they can run from the front of the pack but they have yet to demonstrate that they can claw their way out of hole and until they do that I will remain a skeptic. No amount of early shot clock shooting will forge the kind of metal a winning team needs.