PHOENIX — Jared Dudley drove baseline, barely rose up as high as he could and slammed it home with as much authority as an NBA player who refers to himself as “unathletic” could muster Tuesday against the Denver Nuggets.
On the bench, five-time All-Star forward Amare Stoudemire, who makes a living posterizing hapless victims, jumped up and started going so ballistic you would have thought Dudley’s dunk was worthy of YouTube.
That in a nutshell is why this Phoenix Suns team has enjoyed such a special season. No matter if you’re the star making $16 million or the last guy on the bench, everybody is pulling for each other in what has become a collegial-type atmosphere.
“These guys are just in tune to each other,” said Suns head coach Alvin Gentry. “It’s the best chemistry of any team I’ve been associated with or been around ever.”
Gentry could not pinpoint why the chemistry is so much better this year than last year, declining to even mention the Big TV Show Idea Stealer, although losing him and gaining stellar locker room guy Channing Frye had to have made a big impact.
Then there’s Dudley, the quintessential locker room guy, a player always cracking jokes and keeping the locker room loose whether he’s filming a new segment of JMZ or just ripping on what kind of clothes a guy is wearing home. As they say, if only every locker room could have 13 Jared Dudleys.
Steve Nash and Grant Hill certainly set the tone as well with their sense of fun professional. How many future Hall of Famers do you know that make movies on the team plane sticking their balls in another player’s face? Between his legendary work ethic and his silly videos, Nash could be a two-time chemistry league MVP as well, and the good guy Hill is right there next to Nash in terms of professionalism and fun.
But really, those guys have done nothing different than what they’ve done their whole careers. The big difference has come from Amare Stoudemire, a guy who earned a reputation as a mediocre teammate in the past.
When the Suns dangled STAT like a piece of meat I expected that to fracture the team’s chemistry, but instead Amare has gone out and played the best basketball of his career. It might say something about what he means to the locker room that Jared Dudley tried to start a Twitter campaign to keep Amare, a surprise move in that Dudley is as image-conscious as they get and he was speaking strongly against a move management was seriously considering.
STAT has been this way all year, taking the team to a suite to watch a Cardinals game during preseason and spending $15,000-$20,000 on team dinners throughout the year.
“He’s been phenomenal this year,” Nash said. “He’s been a great teammate. Obviously he’s a great player, but he’s really been one of the guys this year I think. It adds to what he brings to the table.
“For whatever reason it seems as though he’s more involved this year. All of us seem to have more of a relationship with him.”
Added Amare, “We’re one of those teams where when a player comes here they go, ‘I can’t believe you guys are so together.’ It’s really all I know is to keep all the guys together so when we step on that battlefield everybody’s with one another, everybody’s willing to dive on the floor for loose balls and really help each other out.”
Hill said that the other day some of the Suns were bumming over the fact that once the season’s over they can’t hang out anymore, they can’t be around each other all the time in the locker room, the weight room, on the bus and even going out to dinner and movies, a frequent occurrence for practically the entire team.
“All that stuff I experienced it in college, not really sure you can do that in the NBA with all the egos and personalities, all that off-the-court stuff,” Hill said. “We do it here, and it does carry over, it carries over onto the court. When you’re honest, when you’re real, when you know each other, when you’re in the heat of the battle you can be honest and real with one another. We have fun, we don’t care who gets the (credit), we just want to go out and play, have fun and win.”
That chemistry also involves everybody embracing their roles. Gentry will often stay with a hot hand or a hot unit, even if that means leaving All-Stars on the bench.
For example, when Goran Dragic was going well in an April win over the Spurs, Gentry kept the two-time MVP himself on the bench. The TV cameras frequently caught Nash shouting words of encouragement and cheering on Dragic’s every move.
“They embrace the role that we give them,” Gentry said. “I think they really pull hard for each other. When a guy’s playing it seems to me the guy at his position is the first one to greet him when he comes off the floor. We didn’t play Steve the entire fourth quarter and all he could do was meet Goran and tell him to do this or do that. I think when you have that kind of chemistry and you have guys who really pull for each other like that, you usually have a pretty good team.”
Whether the Suns have great chemistry because they’re winning or whether they’re winning because of their chemistry boils down to the old chicken and the egg question.
But with a perfect mix of veterans who set the tone and young players who keep the mood light, Nash thinks Phoenix’s biggest strength heading into their playoff run is how well the Suns play together as a team.
“They genuinely pull for each other and like each other,” Gentry said. “There’s just a chemistry and relationship there that you don’t get on many teams.”
Tyler Lockman contributed reporting.