In Saturday's win over the Thunder, Suns (interim) coach Alvin Gentry did something we've been looking for since the first games of the season. He played his bench and they won him the game.
It is bitter-sweet irony that this win over the cellar-dwelling Thunder came in the way it did. This got me thinking about the bumpy road that led the Suns to a place where fearlessly benching starters and playing for the future is the name of the game for the final weeks of the season.
Think back to those early days in the fall when Porter-led games saw deep rotations and we heard a promise of reduced minutes for the aging starters. Here's an excerpt from our own basketball analyst and former international
super star point guard Panama Sun talking about the Suns bench back on October 31st after a loss to the Hornets:
I can see why The Suns went through so much trouble to get Goran Dragic. The kid is doing a good job, sometimes he seems very nervous but that's understandable. His defense is decent, he even bothered CP3 on several plays, even causing Paul to lose the ball. He was an important part of that mini comeback in last night's game and if he continues to play with that intensity Potter will be nothing but pleased.
The Suns will get better as the season moves along, The second Unit will improve. I'm sure of that. Every championship team has great role players and a good bench and I give credit to Porter for trying to develop our bench and trying to provide some rest to the starting crew.
Terry Porter is doing what D'Antoni never did: making everyone feel like they belong on the team and that they can contribute. No matter what role they have. As a player, it motivates you to work harder, you feel frustrated after a loss and happy after a win because you actually played.
To me, that's more important than winning a few games at the beginning of the season. The 2nd Unit will gel...We sure need them.
That got the season rolling to a nice 6-2 start but then the complaints from the vets came who despite winning and despite all the talk over the summer of needing to change didn't seem pleased with their new roles:
Nov 14 - The Suns big men are lobbying for one style. Center Shaquille O'Neal maintains that championships are won from the inside out and would not mind getting about 15 shots every game.
The Suns perimeter players are lobbying for another style. Shooting guard Raja Bell, who was scoreless Wednesday, says the Suns are built to be a running team and are playing with uncertainty.
A couple of losses later, Terry Porter gave in and tightened his rotations and tried to appease his struggling point guard. Just a few weeks from the start of the season the reigns had been loosened but as we all now know that didn't help.
At the time, I pleaded for patience and suggested the Suns to stick with the emphasis on defense, rebounding and a hybrid offense but instead by early December we had this:
Dec 5 - Instead of continuing to work towards a balanced half court offense we've put the ball back in Steve's hands and told him to go create. We've tried to feature Amare more but have allowed his defense and rebounding to suffer. We are even seeing Shaq come out of the paint and switch pick and rolls and then he is completely out of position to control the glass.
We've traded one set of problems that should have been expected and solvable with patience and time for another set of old familiar issues. Poor rebounding. Weak interior defense. Over dependence on Steve Nash.
Only a few games later Bell, Diaw and Singletary were shipped out for JRich and Dudley and it seemed for awhile that the "cancer" had been excised.
Next came a brief period of rejuvenation, chemistry, hustle and wins in which the Suns were 9-3 with all three losses coming on last second buzzer beaters. There were late game break-downs but overall the defense was improving and things were trending in the right direction. The team looked good.
Dec 19 - Best of all. If you didn't notice. Perhaps you were watching the Blazers fans slap ass with each other. Or maybe you were fixated on Robin Lopez hair or Nick Batum's very very long arms....but the Suns. Had. Fun.
When was the last time you saw our guys have that much fun playing basketball with each other. Slapping hands. Pumping fists. Laughing.
I don't exactly know if the exorcism of the Bell-Diaw Cancer was the cure or if Terry Porter turning the dogs loose to run did it but this is the happiest I have seen a Suns team in two years. If you don't think that bodes well you are on Planet Crack Pipe.
Well, turns out I was in fact on Planet Crack Pipe but before we hit rock bottom there was yet another high to be had in the form of Shaq's Team as 2008 ended.
Despite the winning and signs of improvement there were indications of discontent and and disconnect between the two former MVPs:
Jan 2 - After the practice Steve Nash talked about the Suns inside-out system. He reports that his back is fine but sounds resigned to the new style of play saying:
..in some ways we have to go to there where we have an advantage but also there's not a lot of spacing to do anything else - that's what that line up is built to do
You can listen for yourself, but he doesn't sound thrilled with the new regime.
Meanwhile Shaq asserts that the "medium new system" is a mix of both styles and that in his experience is what it takes to win championships.
Then, with the seeds of sorrow having been planted, a loss to Denver was followed by a loss to the Timberwolves which lead to losses to the Knicks, Bobcats, Bulls and Warriors.
There was plenty of blame to go around but if I had to sum it quickly it would be this:
Looking back now, it seems obvious that a team that was never in agreement on how to play would fracture quickly at the first signs of adversity.
By the half way mark of the season that had already happened twice.
Having already gone through two rough stretches and two changes in direction, by early February all talk had turned to the trade deadline and what the Suns could get back for Amare. His level of play was noticeably down as the effort and energy that we so impressive in the first weeks of the season was so obviously lacking. The front office was privately using the "addition by subtraction" cliche to describe what seemed to be an almost certain deal for Amare.
But instead of taking spare parts and chicken wings for the all-star power forward or even moving The Big Post Presence to Cleveland in return for cap space, the Suns rolled the dice once more. They dumped the coach who couldn't get his players to buy into his system and turned the dogs lose. Lord of the Flies had returned to the Valley of the Sun.
Three huge wins (against two 13 wins teams) were followed by the season-ending eye injury and an 3 - 11 stretch that effectively ended all hope of making the playoffs.
I said after the two Clippers wins that it was "fools gold" and never believed that this team could succeed playing at that pace:
Feb 20 - 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.
Now we are left to enjoy a win over the Thunder (no disrespect to a fiery young team with an immediate future looking brighter then ours) and to enjoy the irony of a season ending how it started: with a focus on the bench and developing young players.
It's been a bumpy ride and confusing ride. Here's a quick time line of the key stretches of the season (so far).
Summer - Kerr hires Porter, drafts Lopez and Dragic, signs Barnes and Amundson and promises more defensive effort and toughness
Season v 1.0 - Porter era starts 6-2 as the Suns pace is slowed and the bench is engaged. Predictably with a new system and more depth there are struggles which quickly leads to public and we've since learned not so public complaints by the veterans players about the style of play. Oct 29 - Nov 20
Season v. 2.0 - Porter gives in and tightens his rotations and puts the ball back in Nash's hands more. This doesn't work either as players continue to be unhappy and losses are followed by even more embarrassing losses. The JRich trade is made. Nov 20 - Dec 10
Season v 3.0 - The Suns start the post trade era with a new spark and life winning 9 of 12 as Shaq asserts his dominance on the team. Nash seems resigned to things until a couple of losses lead to a stretch of 10 out of 16 losses going into the all-star break. Trade rumors swirl but instead the coach gets fired. Dec 12 - Feb 11
Season v 4.0 - Gentry takes over and once again the team is happy, energized and this time running with abandon. Defense is an after thought. Three impressive wins get the ball rolling but then Amare goes down and the response is to go even smaller. Feb 17 - Feb 24
Season v 4.5 - With Amare out and Nash sidelined for 3 games with an ankle Gentry tries to continue small ball but gets thrashed by the Lakers. He adjusts and creates the hybrid Seven Seconds or Shaq system which combines inside out offense and opportunistic running with improved perimeter defense and earns wins over the Raptors and Lakers. Feb 26 - Mar 1
Season v 5.0 - Nash returns from injury and proceeds to become super aggressive averaging over 20 shots over a give game stretch and setting a career streak of 7 20 points games. Shaq's role fades during that time. The Suns lose 6 straight and effectively end their playoff chances. Mar 3 - Mar 12
Season Finale - The final chapter has yet to be written but baring an epic collapse by the Mavs or Nugs the conclusion will include more bench play and focus on developing and assessing the young talent with an eye towards a very critical off-season. Do not be shocked if one or more of the teams veterans finish the season on the bench nursing sore....parts. Mar 14 - TBD