PHOENIX — If you get a sense that the national media largely favors the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, don’t expect that to faze the Phoenix Suns very much.
After all, it’s been like that all season with this team.
Countless times this year Steve Nash has basically said the Suns are “not bad for a team nobody expected to even make the playoffs.”
He’s also frequently described his club as a team that’s not as talented as some others teams but a squad that just plays really well together. He’s repeated the mantra so many times that you almost get the feeling he’s saying it for the benefit of younger teammates’ mental state because it’s obvious this Suns team is in fact very talented.
But for whatever reason the Suns have been better all season with a chip on their shoulder. They busted out of the gates with that 14-3 start after an offseason that saw the entire nation pick the Suns at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff picture. These 10 ESPN experts picked the Suns to finish between sixth and 10th, with only noted Suns lover Marc Stein picking them sixth and four of the 10 picking the Suns out of the playoffs.
I don’t mean to pick on the mothership because Sports Illustrated prognosticated the Suns to be eighth, and everybody else with a basketball opinion had them in the same range.
“That’s how it was at the start of the season,” Amare Stoudemire said. “The national people were saying that the Phoenix Suns wouldn’t make the playoffs, and now we’re in the Western Conference Finals, so sometimes they know what they’re talking about, sometimes they don’t.”
After the snub-filled hot start, the Suns started “reading their own press clippings,” as Grant Hill put it at the time, and suddenly they became the team so many thought they’d be during that 12-18 stretch of mediocrity during the middle of the year.
Since then the Suns, of course, have turned it around with a 36-9 dominant finish, but despite their torrid end to the year they still were the dogs against the No. 7 Spurs even with home-court advantage.
And now, to no one’s surprise, everybody and their mother is picking the Lakers in this one (well, except for noted stat gurus like John Hollinger — who picked the Suns to the Finals from the start of the playoffs — and Wayne Winston). In fact, Stein again and Chris Sheridan are joining Hollinger with a Suns pick among the ESPN experts — which is one more than the number of ESPN experts who joined Hollinger in the last round — but nationally the Suns are the definite dogs, and Alvin Gentry can see why.
“Well, let’s look at it realistically, why wouldn’t they?” Gentry asked. “They’ve had the best record in the West, they’re the defending world champs. If I was a media guy I would probably pick them, too.
“But the problem with that is you have to go out and play the games and you have to see what happens.”
But Jared Dudley doesn’t buy into the hype. Instead, he said, he just listens to Steve Nash, who gave a fiery speech in the Suns’ locker room after their Game 3 win against San Antonio about finishing the job in Game 4.
“Steve’s someone who says when you win don’t get too high, when you lose don’t get too low, stay even keel,” Dudley said.
Just as they used the “nobody believes in us” angle to jet out to their hot start, you know the Suns will be dusting it off for this series. They’re aware of the national perception, the fact that some people think the Suns are just minor inconvenience on the Lakers’ run to another title.
The “nobody believes in us” angle can be very powerful in sports. Look at the Butler Bulldogs just a couple months ago in the NCAA Tournament and certainly the 2008 Arizona Cardinals, the so-called “worst playoff team ever.”
But more importantly the Suns have a strong belief in themselves.
Take Dudley: “We know if we play our game, we should win.”
Richardson: “We’re not satisfied yet.”
And Stoudemire: “They’re definitely a solid team, but you can never have any fear. You always can respect them for what they’ve done and won championships, but when it’s time for battle you can’t have any fear.”
And Gentry as well: “The big thing for us is we have a ton of respect for the Lakers and everything they represent — they’re the past champions — but I think you’ve got to understand that we don’t have any fear of anybody. We don’t fear anyone. That’s the approach we have, respect yeah, but fear no. We don’t fear anyone.”
The Suns respect the Lakers, sure, but they don’t fear anybody, as Gentry so eloquently said. Not even Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson (as we saw this week) and Pau Gasol.
When you combine that “nobody believes in us” mindset with a complete and utter lack of fear of the opposition and blend it with a team that has been counted out since training camp, you’ve got the kind of mentality that could lead to a nation-shocking upset.