Phoenix rising because defense has caught fire
It sounded like a good idea. General manager Steve Kerr, in an attempt to change the fun-’n’-gun reputation in Phoenix, gave Terry Porter another opportunity to coach in June 2008 after he was unjustly fired in Milwaukee.
But Porter was fired by Phoenix with a 28-23 record in February 2009. Under him, the Suns weren’t themselves — putting an emphasis on defense — and the players showed their disdain for Porter’s style, which stressed a slower-paced offense that did little to entertain the fans or help the team rise in the Western Conference standings.
By the time Porter was fired, Shaquille O’Neal was in the fold. And although the Suns worked Shaq into shape where he resembled his vintage self — he had a 45-point outing against Toronto — his presence was clogging the paint on offense and Porter’s defensive principles were clogging the mind.
So Kerr opted for coaching retread Alvin Gentry, who was unable to lead Phoenix to the postseason last year but as a former Mike D’Antoni assistant has put the fun back in Phoenix basketball this year. He got the Suns to understand that defense, even from Amar’e Stoudemire, was a must to change their playoff fortunes.
The Suns still like to run, launch ill-advised shots, and fast-break after baskets, but they sliced through the San Antonio Spurs in four games in the Western Conference semifinals because they finally accepted defensive concepts. Entering tomorrow’s conference final opener against the Lakers, the Suns have allowed an average of just 95.9 points in the postseason, and while they will never be considered a shut-down team, they are in the final four, and that likely saved Kerr’s job.
Kerr had been an average GM who staked his reputation on O’Neal, and it didn’t work out. So he moved O’Neal to Cleveland for expiring contracts, signed Channing Frye, and stayed with the remaining core, which has flourished this postseason.
“The thing people forget is we won 46 games last year with a lot of turmoil,’’ Kerr said. “The coaching change, along with Amar’e Stoudemire’s eye injury, we had all kinds of problems and things that went wrong, and still we won 46.
“So, to me, when we came into this year, what we needed to do is find a confidence level and a comfort level. And if we did, we’d be a playoff team. Beyond that, I didn’t know what to expect.’’
How could he have anticipated that Steve Nash and Grant Hill would play as if they were auditioning for “Cocoon 3’’? Or that Stoudemire would finally use his impressive physical skills to improve his on-ball defense and stop trying to block shots from the weak side? Or that Frye would shake his disappointing tag and become a 3-point threat? Or that former Boston College standout Jared Dudley would understand that the way to make the most impact as a reserve is by playing defense?
“If you said at the beginning of the season we’d be in the conference finals, I wouldn’t have believed it,’’ Kerr said. “I knew we’d be pretty good. We didn’t have depth and didn’t have much defense, and we’ve got both of those things now, thanks to the job the coaches have done.
“It takes time, and Alvin stressed it from Day One when he took over. We knew we had to get better defensively but it takes more than just talk, obviously, and I would say it didn’t really click until maybe March.’’
Stoudemire, for some reason, had been on the trading block for more than a year. Kerr and Suns management believed he was a cinch to opt out of his contract, Stoudemire believed the Suns didn’t think he was a franchise player.
The two sides talked after the February trade deadline and came to an understanding. Stoudemire stayed, and he has indicated that he wants to stay. And Kerr said they want to re-sign him.
“It was only going to be a distraction if Amar’e made it one,’’ Kerr said. “But the thing that I love about Amar’e is that this year he has really, really matured as a leader, as a human being. He understands the way the league works.
“He, [owner] Robert Sarver, and I spoke the day after the deadline at dinner and kind of explained why his name was out there because of the opt-out and the possibility we could lose him and get nothing in return. It was just business.
“We want him back. We told him we will deal with that when the season ends.’’
By drafting Earl Clark and Robin Lopez the past two seasons to go along with Dudley and Goran Dragic, the Suns have a younger core to support the veteran base. Dudley was a throw-in from Charlotte (joining the more heralded Jason Richardson), but he has turned himself into a defensive menace, so much so that earlier this season Celtics coach Doc Rivers said he would have preferred Gentry to play Hill instead of Dudley.
“I am not the All-Star-caliber player year in and year out, so I have to do the little things,’’ Dudley said. “They let Matt Barnes go, so that basically made me the backup small forward, so it’s my job to come in and play my 20-22 minutes per game.
“As a wing player, I am not athletic, so what I have to do is be an extremely good shooter and play defense. That’s the only way I am going to be able to play 10 years the way I want to.’’
Dudley averaged 19 points per game his senior year for BC, but the trade to Phoenix allowed him to develop a role on a team that’s suddenly more than fun-’n’-gun.
The Lakers are the prohibitive favorites in this series, but Phoenix’s domination of San Antonio stunned those who considered the Suns no threat to win the West.
They get defensive about the naysayers.
“We had to adjust our schemes to get more after people,’’ said Dudley. “We came with a mind-set we were going to make the playoffs. This is a great opportunity to show what Phoenix basketball really is and how it’s changed.’’
Ilgauskas is 34 but missed most of two seasons early in his career with foot problems, so he has less mileage than most veterans his age. He is painfully slow but still a good pick-and-roll player and said he wants to continue playing. But he won’t go back to Cleveland just to appease the fans, which is essentially why he returned this season.
“We have a lot of big guys,’’ he said. “It’s too early to say, but I don’t want to come back and be in a suit or do cardio all season long. I’d rather stay home with my family if that’s the case.
“It’s hard to not play a lot, here and there in spots. I don’t know what I am going to do, to be honest with you. This could have been my last shot. That’s why I came back.
“No one is more disappointed than me. When I look at my situation, I really haven’t played a lot here.’’
Asked if wanted to play longer, Ilgauskas said, “I feel like I have some good basketball in me. I stayed pretty much healthy this season.’’
And he confirmed what many NBA observers have been thinking for the past two weeks.
“The bottom line is, whatever ingredients we put in this soup this season did not work,’’ he said. “We ended up losing. So I am sure they will make some changes.’’
Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, Shaquille O’Neal is their lone free agent, so a major overhaul seems unlikely. If the Cavaliers do lose James, they will have about $11 million to work with, but that might as well be a booby prize for general manager Danny Ferry.
Those long-term contracts are going to haunt Ferry. Little-used Daniel Gibson has three years left. Jamison, who looked elderly at times against Kevin Garnett, has two, as does point guard Mo Williams.
Credit the most disappointing performance to the Hawks, who were absolutely embarrassed by the Magic. The average margin of victory in the four games was 25.2 points, and suddenly a team on the rise looks like a team that’s hit a plateau. The Hawks were overwhelmed by the Magic and all of their weaknesses were exposed, most notably the lack of a legitimate center and a veteran playoff leader.
Joe Johnson potentially damaged himself on the free agent market with a poor series and showed no visible leadership skills or passion during the sweep. Coach Mike Woodson was fired Friday because he was never able to construct a capable half-court offense.
Several NBA scouts said the Hawks beat the Celtics four times because they were able to run — their strength — but they melted in the playoffs because the Magic forced a half-court game. And Atlanta couldn’t free-lance.
“Sometimes in this business, change makes sense,’’ GM Rick Sund said. “It was a difficult decision because Mike’s been here six years. Sometimes the players need to hear a new voice.’’
Woodson was removed because he wasn’t hired by Sund and the Hawks went 4-7 in the playoffs. Look for Sund to hire a less expensive coach because the Hawks are being run on a tight budget with an ownership group in disarray.
Sund was hired because he can run teams on a tight budget, and he may call on his former Sonics assistant Dwane Casey, who took the Timberwolves’ head coaching job in 2005 before being fired in January 2007.
A coach in the class of Avery Johnson, Byron Scott, or Jeff Van Gundy will likely pass on Atlanta because of the money, so Sund will seek a former head coach looking to get back into the game or a hot assistant. Given his team’s defensive prowess, Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau could be a serious candidate.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.