PHOENIX — The 2009-10 NBA season has been a wild ride for your Phoenix Suns.
There was the shockingly good 14-3 start, the surprisingly bad 12-18 middle and the focused 28-7 sprint to the finish that vaulted the Suns into the No. 3 spot in the West.
We here at ValleyoftheSuns certainly weren’t alone in not having seen this coming, as the Suns essentially replaced Shaquille O’Neal with Channing Frye and moved up six spots in the West.
There are many reasons why the Suns are favored to win a playoff series when many national pundits didn’t give them a chance to more than squeak into the postseason. Here are the top five reasons the Suns are the No. 3 seed in the West.
1. Amare Stoudemire
Stoudemire has played his best basketball of the season over the course of the past couple months. Since the All-Star break Stoudemire has averaged 26.6 points and 9.6 boards per game while shooting his always efficient percentages from the field.
STAT has turned his game up a notch at both ends of the floor and on the boards, and the Suns’ jump in the standings over the past 35 games goes directly back to him. He has been the best player on this team, the kind of guy who will be making a lot of money this offseason.
“Obviously Amare is playing as well as anybody in the NBA,” said Suns head coach Alvin Gentry. “He’s probably had as close to an MVP season that he’s had considering what he’s done for us after the break. We’ve played well, and he’s been just a beast for us.”
2. The offense
It’s become expected for the Phoenix Suns to lead the NBA in efficiency as they have in all six years since Steve Nash returned to Phoenix. What was surprising this season is how badly they lapped the field.
The Suns averaged 112.7 points per 100 possessions, 3.2 points per possession better than No. 2 Orlando. The rest of the top 10 in efficiency resides within 3.2 pp100 of Orlando; the Suns were that far ahead of the rest of the pack.
The Suns were also the second-best three-point shooting team ever, with shooters all over the floor helping Phoenix knock down the long ball at a 41.2 percent clip. No. 2 Cleveland hit 38.1 percent of its shots, and half the teams in the league were within the 3.1 percent that the Cavs trailed the Suns by in this department. Jared Dudley (No. 4), Channing Frye (No. 6) and Nash (No. 10) all ranked among the league leaders in three-point shooting percentage.
Yes, you are correct in sensing a theme here. The Suns also led the NBA in field-goal percentage at 49.2 percent. Make no mistake, this is a deadly offensive basketball team.
3. The bench
When people ask me for the biggest difference between this Suns team and the Phoenix squad of D’Antoni vintage I immediately mention the bench.
Unlike those squads whose benches consisted of Boris Diaw, Leandro Barbosa and not much else, the 2009-10 Suns go 10 deep, with many bench players often getting time together.
Goran Dragic is the ringleader of the bench mob that also includes Leandro Barbosa, Jared Dudley, Lou Amundson and Channing Frye.
The bench may be one of Phoenix’s biggest strengths against a Portland squad decimated by injuries. The unit keyed a 33-7 run in a March win over Denver, and a 15-1 bench run basically won the season finale in Utah.
Dragic is easily Nash’s best backup since returning to Phoenix, and the overall group provides Phoenix with a defensive presence.
“I feel like I haven’t had to do as much the last few months because of the depth and balance of our team,” Nash said.
The Suns will never remind you of the San Antonio Spurs or Boston Celtics, but they have at least improved from a defensive standpoint.
After ranking near the bottom of the league in defensive efficiency midway through the season, Gentry made the brilliant move of inserting Robin Lopez into the starting lineup. Lopez became the defensive anchor the Suns have always craved, adding a 7-foot athletic presence that has always been missing in the Nash Era.
“He gives us a whole new dimension,” said Grant Hill.
For the season the Suns ranked 11th in field-goal percentage defense (45.2 percent), just ahead of vaunted San Antonio, and they held seven of their last 18 opponents under 40 percent shooting.
The Suns share the kind of special chemistry this year that the great teams often develop.
“We play really well together,” Nash said. “We believe in one another.”
For whatever reason the Suns have become a “whole is greater than the sum of their parts” type of team, and that is why they enter the playoffs as the hottest team in the NBA having won 14 of 16.