PHOENIX — In previous years the Phoenix Suns were expected to win the NBA championship.
In 2007 the team the went so far as to gear its whole marketing plan around a “Trophy Guy” who was considering paying Phoenix a visit in June, and prior marketing slogans have promised the the team had its “Eyes on the Prize.”
This year the Suns are just ORNG.
In the past the Suns have suffered from the weight of expectations. Although they are now expected to beat a depleted Portland squad, after that the Suns are playing with house money in a season that started with the goal of just making the playoffs even though experts like ESPN’s John Hollinger have picked the Suns to reach the Finals (and by that I mean Hollinger’s numbers give the Suns the best odds of a Finals run).
When Grant Hill re-signed with the Suns this offseason, he thought the Suns would be better than the team that missed the playoffs last season, but he didn’t know what they had. He even admitted that conventional wisdom would have dictated that signing with Boston would have given him the best chance to win and that a big part of his decision had to do with mentoring the Suns’ young guys.
“There still were a lot of questions to our team,” Hill said of the Suns at the start of the year. “I thought we’d be a playoff team. I thought we’d be better. It’s good to prove all the people wrong.”
After tasting the bitterness of missing the playoffs, head coach Alvin Gentry said his players made a conscious effort to become better to prevent it from happening again. Hill had never seen so many players back before Labor Day in his 16-year career, and the Suns started to develop that playoff chemistry early.
That pre-training camp set the tone for a season that saw its peaks and valleys through the first half of the year before the Suns settled into a groove in February and broke off that 28-7 tear to end the season.
Of course, everything didn’t come together like that. The Suns suffered through that 12-18 middle of the year, but have become a different team since then with an offense that’s clicking and a defense that’s getting just enough stops to allow the victories to pile up.
“It’s just kind of figuring it all out,” Hill said. “J-Rich’s role is more defined. We have more things to get him involved (which is important because the Suns were practically unbeatable when he scored 20). Everything’s kind of clicked. Alvin made some adjustments, done some things a little differently. There’s just a trust that’s out there and going through the whole stuff with Amare, we’ve come together. I think going through that last year, you know, kind of set the stage for this year.”
Hill reflected on the fact that last year at this time going into the final game of the season the Suns’ biggest goal was to get Hill 24 points so he could get a bonus from Nike (Hill scored 27 on Kobe-like 7-for-25 shooting while only LB joined him in taking double-digit shots).
Now Hill, who has never made it out of the first round, could be poised for the playoff run he’s always dreamed of.
“It would mean a lot,” he said. “It’s something that hasn’t happened for a number of reasons. To have gone through everything and to be in a situation where I am now where maybe your role is different it’s just more fulfilling, more enjoyable.
“Like anything, something’s taken away you appreciate it more when you get it back, so it would be fun, it would be a lot of fun. There’s a chance. We look at the teams and we feel like we can play with anybody.”
The Suns could be better built for the playoffs than the teams earlier in the Nash Era that just could never get past San Antonio (Side note: Those teams were 5-1 in the playoffs against teams not from San Antonio, so the whole “can’t win in the playoffs” thing isn’t wholly accurate).
As Nash noted, the Suns have won in a variety of different ways, outlasting the Blazers in a slugfest the day before running past the Warriors in a shootout on back-to-back days in March. The Suns are now a rhythm team more than a running team, and they’ve improved to 11th in defensive field-goal percentage.
“We’ve won in different ways this year,” Nash said. “We’re not the same team we used to be. We used to be an explosive offensive team in the open floor, and we relied on that. We relied on three-point shots and transition.
“Now we can win in different ways. We’re deeper, we have better size. Adding some of those elements to our team has given our team a chance to win ballgames in different ways.”
You could say this Suns team is built for the playoffs better than Phoenix teams of recent vintage considering how adept they have become at winning in different ways.
Last year could have helped also in lowering expectations for this squad. Instead of this being billed as potentially the last run of the Nash-Stoudemire Suns, this is just a team that nobody believed in at the beginning of the season.
There’s a quiet confidence about this group, and in a year without a dominant team in the Western Conference (the Lakers won just 57 games), this could finally be the year that the Phoenix Suns break through to the Finals.
“I think this year is something special,” Stoudemire said. “I think there’s a special feel around us where we feel that we’re first of all back in the playoffs, and second of all we think we can make a run. We think we’ve got something special going, and we’ve got guys who are playing well enough to make some noise.”
And then there’s this. The Phoenix Suns reached their first NBA Finals in 1976. The franchise returned 17 years later in 1993. And what year comes 17 years after ’93?