The collapse of a contender in 2,500 words or less

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Did Cheap Shot Rob change the course of a franchise?

Did Cheap Shot Rob change the course of a franchise with this forearm shiver?

A championship never seemed closer to the Phoenix Suns than on May 14, 2007, a day that should have been celebrated for finally slaying the San Antonio dragon in enemy territory.

With the Suns poised to forge a 2-2 deadlock in a best-of-seven series that felt like a championship bout, it seemed like Phoenix had finally broken through after injury excuses (Joe Johnson’s face in 2005, Amare Stoudemire’s knee and Raja Bell’s calf in 2006) and playoff inexperience doomed the team in prior years.

Before the final buzzer had sounded on this potentially franchise-altering victory, Cheap Shot Rob delivered a forearm shiver to Steve Nash so disastrous its reverberations are still being felt around the Valley.

From the aftermath of that despicable play to Amare’s likely season-ending eye surgery on Friday, not much has gone right since for a Suns team whose championship window appears to be all but shut.

The following is a timeline of moves and circumstances from the past 21 months that has taken the Suns from the verge of a title to the verge of the lottery.

Don’t leave that bench

When Horry sent Nash hurtling toward press row, Stoudemire and Boris Diaw did what was only humanely natural after seeing their meal ticket sprawled out on the deck: They took a few steps toward the action before stopping as assistant coach Marc Iavaroni grabbed them to prevent them from joining the fray.

They did not get close enough to escalate the situation and after initially darting toward the scene of the crime, they sauntered back to the bench trying to avoid the catastrophic consequences that ended up befalling them anyway.

No Malice in the Palace or any such fracas ensued, and once the heat of the moment passed Amare and Diaw were safely anchored to the Suns’ bench (as if Diaw was really going to go all Ron Artest, right?)

That didn’t prevent David Stern from following the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law because technically Amare and Diaw did leave the immediate vicinity of the bench.

Of course, so did Tim Duncan and Bruce Bowen when James Jones and Francisco Elson got tangled up earlier in the game, so if only Jones had escalated that situation into an “altercation,” then Stern would have been forced to suspend them as well instead of hypocritically letting it pass.

The suspensions effectively ended the 2007 Suns’ season, as a gritty effort fell just short in Game 5 when Bowen of all people hit a dagger and then San Antonio closed this thing out at home in Game 6.

It’s shocking that a cheap shot by one team would result in such dire consequences for the recipient of the cheapie, and that the old towel thrower dished out the hit makes it even tougher to swallow.

There’s no saying the Suns would have won Game 5 at full strength (or even with just Diaw, which I believe would have been the case) or even a Game 7 against the playoff-tested Spurs not to mention the later two series San Antonio won to take home the crown.

But to this day, a legitimate case can be made that Cheap Shot Rob cost the Suns a championship.

The Big Style Changer

After falling oh so close in the playoffs for three consecutive years culminating in the 2007 defeat, the Suns decided they could not win it all in Seven Seconds or Less so they completely altered the composition of their roster on Feb. 6, 2008, by trading for exactly the player they usually tried to run off the court, the Big Diesel himself, Shaquille O’Neal.

By dealing away their Swiss Army Knife of a defender and lightning quick fast-breaker Shawn Marion for the plodding Shaqtus, the Suns were saying they could not win a title in such an unconventional manner.

Despite the Suns being at the top of the West at the time, Phoenix apparently did not think it could win so severely deficient in post defense and rebounding and without a tried and true half-court game built to win in the playoffs.

Shaq brought the credibility of four championship rings, but the Suns were no longer the Suns. Yes, they won 15 of 20 to end the year and still pushed the issue in the running game, but it wasn’t the same.

Duncan's dagger hastened D'Antoni's departure and made Shaq's first season in the desert a failure.

Duncan's dagger hastened D'Antoni's departure and made Shaq's desert debut season a failure.

A trey heard ’round the world

Entering the playoffs hot and dangerous, the D’Antoni Suns still may have made some noise had they not left Tim Duncan wide open for three in the final seconds of overtime of Game 1 of their 2008 playoff series.

Duncan, of course, nailed the shot, his first three-pointer of the season.

The Suns ran out to a 16-point first-half lead and led most of the game. To eventually lose in double overtime after leading in the final seconds of regulation and the first overtime was just a crushing blow that they never recovered from.

Phoenix then fell three nights later in San Antonio, got crushed on its home floor in Game 3 and then came out and won an inspired Game 4, which only prolonged the team’s misery by one game.

If the Suns rotated out to Duncan is this a different series? Who knows the way Tony Parker carved them up all series long and who knows with the way the Suns badly missed Marion with Grant Hill ailing, but we do know it would have been closer to being the seven-game showdown all of us were expecting.

Instead, the series was essentially lost on a missed rotation, which only strengthened management’s case that Mike D’Antoni needed to spend more time working on defense (not to mention developing a bench).

The chasm between D’Antoni and General Manager Steve Kerr gradually became unbearable, and that meant the perfect marriage between a team and a style was headed for divorce court.

Out the door in Seven Seconds or Less

D’Antoni’s impending departure was reported by Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum before the Suns even returned from San Antonio, and it soon became all but official when management encouraged D’Antoni to speak with other teams about employment.

When the Knicks came calling with a four-year, $24-million deal, the only surprise was that D’Antoni didn’t wait until the draft lottery, won by the Bulls, who selected a perfect point guard for D’Antoni’s system in Derrick Rose.

With D’Antoni gone, Kerr turned his attention toward a former teammate known for the defense and toughness the Suns lacked, a man with head coaching experience who spent time as an assistant with offensive gurus Rick Adelman and Flip Saunders.

So Kerr picked Terry Porter to fill the Shaq-sized shoes D’Antoni left behind.

Dumping Diaw to get (J-)Richer

With most of the roster complaining about the changes Porter implemented, the Suns shipped two of the biggest moaners out the door on Dec. 10 by sending Raja Bell along with Boris Diaw and his $9 million a year salary that wasn’t cutting it for a backup big to Charlotte for flashy two-guard Jason Richardson.

Bell whined profusely at the beginning of the season about his role and the offense in general, and Diaw let it be known the 2008-09 Suns weren’t the fun group they always used to be.

Jason Richardson

Jason Richardson

In Richardson the Suns picked up a dynamic offensive force who seemed like he would have fit much better with D’Antoni’s Suns.

The deal didn’t seem to make sense in the context of the Suns’ focus on defense, as Bell is more of a defensive player and J-Rich more of an offensive force, but Phoenix was glad to dump Diaw’s lengthy, expensive contract for a player who would actually start.

J-Rich has been fine although not spectacular on the court, but in two-plus months he’s already twice gotten into legal trouble off of it.

The Richardson trade paid immediate dividends as a muddling Suns squad pushed it into high gear by winning nine times in 12 games, but they lost 10 of 16 entering the break – with seven of the final eight losses coming by double-digits – and all of a sudden they weren’t even a playoff team heading into their city’s All-Star Weekend.

A failed attempt at change

What ensued was more awkward than the dinner party episode of “The Office.”

As the NBA descended on Phoenix for All-Star Weekend, a Peter Vecsey report surfaced that Friday saying Porter would be relieved of his duties.

All the while the Suns vehemently denied the “rumors,” as trade talk involving the Suns’ All-Stars Amare and Shaq also swirled through the desert air.

On the Sunday of the showcase event, word leaked that Porter had definitively been fired, meaning players like Shaq were asked more awkward pregame questions on national TV about the job status of their coach when everybody should just be enjoying the All-Star festivities and the always entertaining “Big JabbaWockee.”

To nobody’s surprise, Porter was officially relieved of his duties sometime Sunday evening.

If you ask ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy, the Suns despicably quit on their coach who was brought in to solve the defensive issues that even the players talked about fixing after the latest San Antonio exit.

The Suns resisted him from Day One in Training Camp, feeling embarrassed by the types of drills he put this veteran squad through. Seemingly weekly team meetings followed, including a Kindergarten-style arts and crafts session in the name of team bonding.

After a failed month or so of putting Nash into “hummingbird trapped inside a sandwich bag” mode by constantly dumping the ball into Shaq, the Suns once again became one of the faster teams in the league, but they still weren’t running like they used to.

They were an in-between club lacking an identity, and when Porter chose not to bring back Shaq, Nash and Grant Hill after pulling them in the middle of the third quarter of a winnable game in Philadelphia, you knew he had lost this team.

LB and the Suns are back to their Run and Fun ways. (AP/Matt York)

LB and the Suns are back to their Run and Fun ways after being shackled by Porter. (AP/Matt York)

Enter interim head coach Alvin Gentry, who is trying to bring back the fun in a D’Antoni kind of way.

He certainly did so in the first three games of his tenure – albeit against the Clippers, Clippers again and Thunder – as the Suns racked up at least 140 points in each game for the first time in the NBA since Porter’s 1990-91 Portland squad did so.

The rejuvenated Suns ran with the determination they did at their fastest points under D’Antoni, and the squad looked like a completely different group of players.

After weeks of trade rumors saying the Suns might ship out Amare and start plotting a new path for the franchise, optimism reigned in Suns Land where all of the team’s problems from the first three and a half months of the season were blamed on the bad fit with Porter.

Talk of moving up to the fourth spot in the West ensued, and the Suns’ goal was to finish the year 22-9 at the very worst after the Trade Deadline passed with Phoenix’s roster still intact.

And then the very next day they woke up and learned they had likely lost their All-Star starting power forward for the season without even getting a Tyrus Thomas back to replace him.

Who could have seen this coming?

Nobody thought much of it when Amare Stoudemire kneeled to the ground after being poked in the eye by Al Thornton on a drive to the basket nine minutes into Wednesday’s first quarter against the Clippers.

But then Amare visited his eye doctor whom he had been seeing for regular checkups since being inadvertently poked in the eye during Training Camp by Diaw, who now won’t be anywhere near Phoenix to fill in like he did during Amare’s microfracture year of 2005-06 after being dealt to Charlotte as an overpaid backup.

Even the Richardson trade that looked so good at first blush would be rescinded five times over if the Suns could do it over again at this point to get Diaw back, even though J-Rich is a perfect fit for the fast offense Phoenix is running.

So now the Suns are resigned to a lineup with Shaquille O’Neal being their only quality big while playing a racecar system predicated on spacing and beating the other team down the floor, and how does that make any sense?

For the time being their other bigs minutes will be played by Lou Amundson and Jared Dudley, along with small forwards Matt Barnes and Grant Hill, who is nursing a foot injury that’s put him at less than full strength the past few games.

The Suns have now fallen 1 1/2 games out of the playoff race, and it almost seems high that John Hollinger’s Playoff Odds give them a 71.3 percent chance of reaching the postseason. Yes, we’re talking about just making the playoffs.

After Tuesday’s game against the Bobcats, the Suns will play eight of nine against winning teams, including seven in a row (and four on the road) after Friday.

The Suns are now the Little Engine That Could, and from a fan’s perspective, that could even be more fun. Ask Richardson and Barnes how much everybody involved with the 2007 Golden State Warriors enjoyed sneaking into the playoffs and taking down the No. 1 seed.

Phoenix will be the most fun team in basketball to watch the rest of the season so long as everybody stays healthy, although the Suns are in the tenuous position of being just one injury to a key player away from a sure lottery fate.

After all that, the Suns have in some ways come full circle. They’re back to playing the most unconventional style in the NBA after a few months of deciding that won’t work in May and June, only the pieces don’t fit nearly as well as they did in 2004-05 with a plodding O’Neal instead of a fleet-footed Amare, an aging Grant Hill playing the Shawn Marion role, and Steve Nash four years older.

Four years ago Suns fans didn’t really know what to expect, giddy about a team that raced out to a 31-4 start with a style that captured the imagination of America before puttering out against a more experienced San Antonio team.

Four years later the Run and Fun is on life support, desperate for a last gasp at a mere playoff berth before Robert Sarver potentially takes the hammer to the roster over the offseason.

So many things have gone painfully wrong since Horry connected with Nash, Suns fans must be wondering what could possibly be next.

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Tags: Amar'e Stoudemire Jason Richardson

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