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#ThrowbackThursday - The Sad Tale of the Phoenix Suns’ last trip to the NBA Playoffs

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Los Angeles Lakers v Phoenix Suns, Game 3 Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Since Dave is talkin’ ‘bout playoffs in his article today, I thought I would throw it all the way back to 2009-10… the last time the Phoenix Suns made the NBA playoffs. 7 years isn’t all that long ago, but in internet years, it’s forever. It’s so long ago in fact that Dave King wasn’t even writing for Bright Side then, never mind running it!

In 2008-09, the Suns had to endure several travails:

  • a season-ending eye injury to Amare Stoudemire
  • the Great Shaquille O’Neal Experiment.
  • Terry Porter as head coach (so hated they fired him halfway through the season with a winning record)

The 2009-10 edition had rebuttals to all of those:

  • Alvin Gentry replaced Porter as head coach
  • Amare would spend his final season with Suns completely healthy. He didn’t miss a single game!
  • Shaquille O’Neal was dealt to the Cleveland Cavaliers and replaced with… Channing Frye.

The Season (54-28)

And it all worked! The 2009 Phoenix Suns team roared out to a 14-3 start. Steve Nash played like a man gunning for his 3rd MVP award. Amare Stoudemire, having acquired a silky jumper as he rehabbed from injuries, had become a legitimate offensive threat from almost anywhere within the 3-point line. With a full off-season to integrate, Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley were providing solid contributions at the 2-guard in the starting lineup and off the bench respectively. Grant Hill was showing few signs of slowing down at the 3-spot. And Goran Dragic shed the Goran Tragic label to emerge as a competent backup to Nash.

The biggest roster surprise though was the emergence of Channing Frye’s three-pointer. Prior to signing with the Suns, Frye had been an average NBA big man: a reasonable center who didn’t really catch the eye. However somewhere between his old home on the Portland Trailblazers and his new home in Phoenix, someone got the idea to turn him into a 3-point bomber. In his first 4 seasons in the NBA, Frye had attempted 70 3-point shots. In his 5th, he would shoot over twice that many, 172, making them at a clip of almost 44%.

The Suns’ offense hummed like freshly tuned Hemi. With 6 rotation players (and LOL, Earl Clark as a 7th but definitely not rotation player) shooting at or over 40% from outside the 3 point line and Amare Stoudemire still capable of having his way on the inside, the Suns were a nightmare to defend. Phoenix would lead the league in points per game and offensive efficiency.

Defensively, however… this Suns team could never quite get it together. The same issues from the Mike D’Antoni era lingered. Whether it was coaching or personnel issues, this Suns’ team was doomed to give up points. Lots of them. Like 105.3 per game, good for 5th worst in the league. Not surprisingly, they ranked in the bottom thrird of the league in defensive efficiency (23rd) as well.

Phoenix was blessed with a relatively injury-free season. The notable exceptions were wrist surgery for Leandro Barbosa and Robin Lopez’ continued recovery from -- and eventual aggravation of -- an earlier back injury. And while there was a flurry of trade deadline speculation involving both Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire, none of it was enough to prevent the Suns from having a terrific season. They ended up in second place in the Pacific Division behind the Los Angeles Lakers and 3rd overall in the Western Conference.

First Round - The Portland Trailblazers (Suns win 4-2, Seth starts a holy war)

The Sun’s first round opponent was the Portland Trailblazers. Despite needing 6 games to put away Portland, the outcome of this series was never really in doubt. With Robin Lopez missing time with an injury, Channing Frye was promoted to starting center. Surprisingly, Phoenix took the game to Portland with a bullying, aggressive series, prompting head coach Nate McMillan to beseech the refs to rein in the Suns’ physical play.

Also bullying and aggressive? Bright Side of the Sun’s then head honcho Seth Pollack who went hard at the Portland fanbase calling them:

…the most biased fanbase in the league. And while it's pretty cool to see fans that care that much about basketball, it's worth noting that they're often full of crap.

There was even a whole thread dedicated to Suns and Blazer fans hating on one another. You can Google it if you want but... it did not end well and we have enough sadness and hatred ahead of us on this journey. But the Suns won the series 4-2 and went on to meet…

The San Antonio Spurs (Suns sweep, 4-0, exorcise some demons)

The Spurs had basically been the Borg, the Bogeyman and Darth Vader all rolled into one for the Phoenix Suns. They had ended 4 of the Suns previous 5 trips to the playoffs. That streak was about to end. After needing some serious defense to handle the Trailblazers, the Suns’ league best offense returned against San Antonio. They blitzed the hapless Spurs, scoring at least 107 points in all four contests as they swept the once and future champs.

The one significant footnote from this series is that it gave us one of our enduring images of Steve Nash. After a collision with Spurs guard Tony Parker, Nash’s face did it’s best Rocky Balboa impersonation. Nash would shoot a free throw with one eye swollen shut before leaving the game.

The Los Angeles Lakers (Lakers win, 4-2, ALL IS LOST)

And then finally, they faced the ever-hated Los Angeles Lakers. The Los Angeles Lakers were the odd-on favorite to win the NBA title. They were the defending champs and had finished the season with the best record in the Western Conference. The 2009-10 squad featured Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum all playing at or near their peaks. Rounding out the supporting cast were proven veterans Derek Fisher and Ron Artest (he hadn’t changed his name to Metta World Peace yet). And of course they were coached by one of the greatest basketball coaches in history, Phil Jackson. This was not a series the Phoenix Suns were supposed to win.

The Western Conference Finals opened as expected. The Lakers trounced Phoenix, 128-107. Despite the Suns returning Robin Lopez from injury, the Suns were outrebounded 42-34. Kobe dropped 40. The Suns were a meager 22% from downtown. It was so bad, even Phil Jackson was shocked:

Well, you know it was a surprise for us. We thought this was going to be a close game.

Game 2 was no different. Phoenix kept it a little closer, losing 124-112. The Suns’ porous defense was again exposed and the offense wasn’t good enough to make up for it. Amare Stoudemire was abused by Pau Gasol and Channing Frye’s deep ball had disappeared.

Returning to Phoenix for Game 3, Phoenix made a big defensive adjustment. They rolled out a zone defense that flummoxed LA’s offense. After receiving intense criticism for a lackluster performance in the previous game, Amare went off for 41 points and 11 rebounds. And though I haven’t mentioned his name at all, Steve Nash was wonderfully consistent throughout the series, averaging a double-double.

In Game 4 it was the bench’s turn to take the spotlight. With none of the Suns’ starters posting a positive plus-minus (including Nash who had his only real stinker game of the series), the bench unit of Jared Dudley, Goran Dragic, Channing Frye, Lou Amundson and Leandro Barbosa combined for 54 points. Barbosa, Dudley and Frye combined to go 9-18 from 3-point range. The Lakers’ bench had no answer and the Suns tied up the series.

Ugh. Game 5. Game 5 is the day basketball died in Phoenix. If you want to tell the story of how the Suns got where they are today, it all starts with this basketball game. The Suns stayed in a game in which they were outplayed for large swaths of, only to find themselves down 3 points late in the 4th quarter. With 1:21 to go in the 4th Ron Artest did his best to give Phoenix the game, taking an ill-advised long 2 and an even worse 3-pointer, missing both.

Over the course of the next 1 minute and 18 seconds, Phoenix would attempt 4 3-pointers, missing each until finally Jason Richards BANKED one home with 3.5 seconds on the clock.

At this point every one knew the ball was going to Kobe. Grant Hill pinned and blanketed Bryant as he threw up a prayer of a turnaround 3-pointer. Airball. Overtime, right?

Wrong.

Lakers win 103 – 101.

The Suns failed to capitalize on homecourt advantage in Game 6. Amare Stoudemire and Steve Nash had average games and Channing Frye posted a double-double off the bench, but the rest of the Suns came out flat. The Lakers had a 15 point lead entering the 4th quarter. The Suns managed to cut it in half, but Kobe Bryant and company closed the Suns out in their own gym.

The Aftermath

And that was it. That was Amare Stoudemire’s last game as a Sun. Steve Kerr and David Griffin left over a contract dispute with Robert Sarver. Lon Babby and Lance Blanks took over the front office and replaced STAT with Hedo Turkoglu, Hakim Warrick and Josh Childress. Steve Nash put this ragtag group of journeymen on his back for another 2 playoff-free seasons before bailing to the Lakers himself. The sun was blotted from the sky. The Salt River ran red with the blood of innocents. Locusts and flies tormented every man, woman and child in the Valley of the Sun.

And to this day, the Phoenix Suns have never been to the playoffs again.

Kind of depressing ending, right? Well cheer up. For as terrible and large as that season looms in Phoenix Suns mythology, it did give us one other hilarious mythological entity. The strange, the awe-inspiring, and the not-at-all-good-at-basketball GRIFFLARK!

Griflark