Although falling two wins short of reaching the NBA Finals for the first time since 1993 surely wasn’t how the Phoenix Suns wanted their season to end, the way they took the league by storm and exceeded everyone’s expectations was nothing short of spectacular.
The regular season was a roller-coaster ride full of highs and lows, but the Suns turned it on down the stretch and surged through the postseason as they handled the Trail Blazers and dominated the Spurs before falling an offensive rebound or two short of defeating the Lakers.
It was a special season to say the least, and an even more special group. Here’s a closer look at the Phoenix Suns’ 2009-2010 season:
The 14-3 start
The Suns have always played better with a chip on their shoulders, playing the role of the underdog, and the lack of respect they received in the preseason predictions fueled their 14-3 start to the season.
Head coach Alvin Gentry joked that nobody picked the Suns 11th in the West like they had said in interviews all season long, but they were picked around 8th by most experts and Phoenix used that to come out and shock the NBA world and set the tone for such a special season.
During the early run the Suns didn’t exactly knock off the NBA greats, but they did capture eight wins on the road and show a grit that the franchise had been lacking for so long. Aside from defeating the Celtics on the road, the best team the Suns beat was probably the Heat.
But the Suns have always been a team that can lose to any given team on any given night, but when they surged to the top of the NBA’s standings through November they took care of business against the middle-of-the-road clubs.
Channing Frye burst onto the scene as he shocked the nation with his shooting prowess, and the Suns vets showed that the gas light hadn’t come on quite yet. Although the Suns didn’t knock off the Lakers or Magic early on, they took care of business and set the tone for such a special 2009-2010 campaign.
Ugly December/Januarly, blown leads galore
In a matter of days the Suns did a complete 180 and fell to mediocrity as they struggled through December posting a 7-9 record. They started off the month being embarrassed in The Big Apple by Mike D’Antoni’s Knicks and followed that up with a lackluster performance in Cleveland.
They continued their struggles through the middle of the month and began blowing every single lead imaginable. They led by as much as 17 in Denver on Dec. 12, but pissed it away to lose by six. Two games later the Suns built a 15-point-lead against Portland only to eventually stall and hand the Blazers the victory.
The Suns finally saved themselves a bit at the end of the month with back-to-back wins over the eventual finalists, the Lakers and Celtics. But the struggles continued into January and the blown leads continued, but to an even greater degree. No matter how big of a lead they built, the Suns were bound to blow it.
They started off January losing six of their first nine games and from Dec. 11 to Jan. 15 blew leads of 12, 13, 15, 16, 17, 19, 20 (twice) and 24 (twice), which was capped off by a heartbreaking loss to the Hawks thanks to a Jamal Crawford buzzer beater. Phoenix once again blew a 17-point-lead in a loss to the Jazz on Jan 25 and fell in OT to the Bobcats the next night.
And amidst all of this lead blowing Amare Stoudemire was battling whirling trade rumors to seemingly every team in the league. One day he was close to being a Cavalier, the next a 76er, the next a member of the Heat. All of the trade speculation got to Amare’s head, he admitted, and he was even benched for the fourth quarter of a win over Dallas at the end of January, which set him up for his unbelievable stretch run.
Amare explodes, Suns near flawless during February and March
Whether it was because he was benched in the fourth quarter of the Dallas game or not, STAT woke up from his haze and played some of the NBA’s best basketball from Jan. 31 on, which in turn led the Suns to a 21-5 record through February and March.
He exploded for 36 points and 11 boards against the Rockets the night after his benching and made a stat line like that a normal occurrence. Robin Lopez became comfortable in a starting role after he made his first start on Jan. 18 and everything was clicking for the Suns.
Meanwhile STAT averaged 25.3 and 10.1 in February and 27.3 and 9.9 in March as the Suns closed out the month with nine straight victories and were playing as well as any team in the league since the All-Star Break. The bench, propelled by Goran Dragic and Jared Dudley, was rounding into form and building on leads instead of giving them up, while the Suns rode Amare to the final stretch.
Five-game conference tournament
After the Suns split their first two games in April to finish a five-game Eastern road trip, the West was a logjam with five games left in the regular season, and the Suns had the Spurs, Thunder, Rockets, Nuggets and Jazz on tap to close out the year. They couldn’t falter if they wanted home-court advantage, and falter they did not as STAT led the team in scoring every game.
Their only loss during the stretch came to the Thunder and their season-finale victory in Utah allowed them to play Portland and eventually the Spurs rather than having to play Denver then the Lakers in the second round.
Suns handle Blazers
The Brandon Roy-less Trail Blazers swung the series in their favor after Marcus Camby stifled Stoudemire and Andre Miller went off for 31 en route to a Game 1 victory. But Grant Hill put the clamps on Miller as J-Rich took charge in the next two games, scoring 29 and 42, respectively.
Roy returned and gave the Blazers an emotional lift on their way to a Game 4 victory, but Frye and Dudley combined for 39 points in a Game 5 blowout win and the Suns ultimately closed it out in Portland behind J-Rich’s 28.
Suns end curse, sweep Spurs
Although everyone on ValleyoftheSuns’ staff predicted that the Suns would come out victorious, nobody expected the Suns to sweep the Spurs and deliver the ultimate “F you” after all those years of heartbreak.
The Spurs jumped out to an early lead in Game 3 and looked like they were on their way to protecting home court until The Dragon went into beast mode, scoring 23 fourth-quarter points and lifting the Suns over the Spurs. He was unstoppable and showed the fearlessness that Steve Kerr now uses to describe him.
After Dragic’s amazing performance it was Nash’s turn in Game 4. He was elbowed in the eye by Tim Duncan in the third quarter and received six stitches before coming back to score 10 points in the fourth quarter while he struggled to even see out of his right eye. It was a boxer-like performance from the two-time MVP, and the Suns finally rid themselves of their San Antonio demons.
Suns show fight, come up short against Lakers
With both teams riding high going into the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers proved to be the stronger team through two games as they throttled the Suns at home while shooting 58 percent and dominating the paint.
But the Suns made it clear they still believed, and it showed in US Airways Center. After being shut down through the first two games, STAT went off for 42 and 11 in Game 3, Gentry implemented a zone defense and the bench exploded for 54 points in Game 4 to tie things up. Frye finally burst out of his 1-for-20 shooting slump and Dudley, Dragic, Lou Amundson and Leandro Barbosa helped lift the Suns over the Lakers.
Game 5 was all Lakers early, but the Suns battled back to tie things up at 103 thanks to a banked three from J-Rich with 3.5 seconds left. When Kobe Bryant hoisted an air ball it appeared the game was headed to overtime, but J-Rich went from hero to goat as he missed a box out on Ron Artest, who grabbed the board and finished as the buzzer sounded.
That took all of the air out of the Suns, and Phoenix was never able to get closer than three down the stretch in Game 6 as Kobe nailed clutch shot after clutch shot late to seal it.