Jason Richardson's journey from expendable to essential

J-Rich's dagger sealed the Suns' vengeful sweep of the Spurs. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Jason Richardson's season saw his evolution from zero to hero in Phoenix Suns fans' hearts. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

A year ago, Suns fans were still feeling the sting of a playoff-less 2008-09 campaign.

After such a sad season, everyone was calling for changes. Trade player X to get player Y. Dump so-and-so to make room for Joe Superstar.

One of the most maligned Phoenix Suns then? Jason Richardson, a fairly recent acquisition who made his way to the Valley from the Charlotte Bobcats with Jared Dudley in exchange for Boris Diaw and Raja Bell.

Richardson pulled 16.4 points and 4.5 rebounds per game in 58 contests for the Suns, but Planet Orange wasn’t impressed. Ship him out they said; he’s not worth a starting spot.

Around came the 2009-10 season and the talk died down, but J-Rich still hadn’t been embraced by the Phoenix faithful. After serving a two-game suspension at the start of the season, Richardson started fast, putting up 17.7 points and 5.0 rebounds per game in the month of November, including 34 points against the Celtics and 29 against the 76ers.

December saw a stretch of inconsistency plague Richardson, from games of three and four points to games of 22 and 25. And much like the Suns, Richardson had an up-and-down January, averaging 13.1 points per game, just as he did in December.

Much like the rest of the team, February brought a new fire to Richardson’s game as he heated up that month, notching 17.2 points per game as the Suns went 9-3 in the month. Richardson started to develop a knack for hitting big shots when the Suns needed it most, often shutting down opposing crowds with a statement three-pointer to get the Suns going.

Richardson had his best stretch of the season in March, scoring 20 points or more in eight of 14 games and never scoring less than 11. The Jason Richardson “20 or more” stat started to get noticed, and in the end (including the playoffs), the Suns went an astonishing 31-5 when J-Rich scored 20 points or more.

Finishing the regular season with 15.7 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, Richardson’s visible statistics hadn’t improved, but his 39.3 percent three-point shooting and intangible boost displayed his worth and ability to be the player Suns fans expected when he was acquired.

More than anything he did in the regular season, though, Richardson’s playoff performance endeared him to Suns fans.

Richardson proved most crucial to the Suns topping a pesky Portland team in the first round of the playoffs.

After a mediocre 14-point start while guarding Portland’s Andre Miller, Richardson exploded for 29 points and six rebounds in Game 2 and 42 points and eight rebounds in Game 3. In the series finale, a 99-90 Suns win to advance, Richardson netted 28 points and seven rebounds to bring his series totals to 23.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. No doubt, the Suns needed Richardson in this series.

Richardson wasn’t done, as he kept firing on all cylinders in the Suns’ sweep of the rival San Antonio Spurs. In the whirlwind four-game stretch, Richardson contributed 19.5 points per game and couldn’t be stopped from deep, making 12-of-23 shots from beyond the three-point arc.

The Lakers series brought a slight dip in Richardson’s productivity as he only scored more than 15 points in two of the six games to average 16.2 per game for the series, but his intangibles were a key factor in the Suns challenging the Lakers for a spot in the Finals.

He also, of course, nailed the game-tying three-pointer and then failed to box out Ron Artest on his game-winning put-back in Game 5, but aside from a flubbed dunk in late February in San Antonio, Suns fans became more accustomed with the former kind of plays from Richardson than the latter this season after he memorably left Roger Mason for a game-winning three and was blocked on a game-changing 360 dunk by LeBron last year.

Ask any Suns fan today if Richardson is expendable and few will offer a definitive ‘yes.’ The fire and emotional (not to mention, statistical) boost Richardson provided in the Suns’ incredible run to the Western Conference Finals was without a doubt a necessary piece to the Suns over-achieving puzzle.

Sure, some might say Richardson could still go because his contract is expiring next summer and the Suns might need financial flexibility this offseason, particularly if Amare Stoudemire leaves. But try to find another guy that brings the locker room chemistry, drive to win and emotional stopping power that Richardson does in today’s free agent atmosphere. You likely won’t, and the scoring threat he poses on any given night isn’t something you find in many players either.

With his invaluable contributions to a very special Suns team and its spectacular finish that no one saw coming, Richardson has gone from zero to (quiet) hero in Phoenix. From the guy that underachieved after making his way to Phoenix to the guy who put the Suns over the top (Come on, 31-5?! Imagine if he’d scored 20 points every game).

Richardson evolved into the perfect complimentary player, thriving in the shadow of Stoudemire and Nash. He became the player who picked up the slack of an off night from one of the superstars and he quietly bolstered the Suns’ questionable rebounding abilities from the two-guard spot.

Overcoming all the doubts and diatribes of a disappointing contribution, Jason Richardson became an integral, essential piece of a balanced team with unmatched chemistry. And he never asked for extra praise. In his mind, he was just another cog in the machine that was the 2009-10 Phoenix Suns.

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