Phoenix Suns hope continuity makes a difference during shortened season

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PHOENIX — In the short month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we’ve gone from thinking there would be no NBA season to enjoying a made-for-TV quintuple-header.

In that time general managers have cobbled together rosters on the fly and coaches have rushed through training camps that were equal parts conditioning and implementing new schemes.

Franchises have been completely rebuilt (I’m looking at you, Clippers) and free agents have rushed right into drills before the ink was dry on their contracts.

Along the way the NBA drew up a taxing 66-game schedule that will be crammed into four months of furious NBA action that features a plethora of back-to-backs and a handful of back-to-back-to-backs.

We have no way of knowing which teams will benefit from the compact schedule, but the Phoenix Suns feel their continuity should give them a leg up on the competition.

After stumbling through an inconsistent 2010-11 season that was broken up by a pair of chemistry-killing trades after an offseason of upheaval the summer before, the Suns return eight potential rotation players in 2011-12, including their entire starting five (Nash, Dudley, Hill, Frye, Gortat) and three reserves (Lopez, Childress, Warrick).

“I think the difference between now and Media Day last year is we don’t have as many new faces,” Grant Hill said. “I think we had a lot of changeover from the year before. Now you have some familiarity, some guys who have been here for a while, and then you have I think guys who are more comfortable. I have higher expectations for guys.

“I think that helps. I think having some continuity, having some chemistry, having some trust in one another, you don’t have that luxury of an entire preseason to build that, and hopefully that will be one of our advantages that we have a majority of guys who have been here.”

However, you would have hardly known that watching the Suns in the preseason when they looked every bit like a team trying to find its sea legs. Sure, part of that is the nature of the preseason as head coach Alvin Gentry experimented with a handful of different rotations yet it was hardly encouraging that the Suns looked like they could use another handful of preseason games before Monday’s season opener.

Without as much top shelf talent as in prior years, Nash laid out the Suns’ path to success after the preseason finale.

“We’re not an ultra-talented team,” he said. “We’ve got to work hard, we’ve got to play with fire and we’ve got to have great cohesion and chemistry. Those are things that take time. We can play hard right away, but to find that cohesion to get really effective and efficient at both ends of the floor it can take time. We’re showing improvement, we’re incorporating the new guys here and we’ll get better.”

It could be one of those seasons when chemistry beats talent, and the Suns have that in spades.

Many players at Media Day pointed out how well this team gets along, from newcomers like Ronnie Price to Hill.

This team must become a “parts greater than the sum of the whole” kind of team if it wants to surprise the experts who think so low of them and sneak into the playoffs as a No. 7 or 8 seed. The schedule is such that this is the kind of year when crazy things could happen, and the Suns wouldn’t be the first team that rides superior chemistry to a “nobody believes in us” kind of year.

“(We’re) not only returning a lot of guys but returning a lot of guys who get along together,” Childress said. “That’s not something that a lot of teams can say, and when you have that chemistry it makes the season, it makes the game so much more fun.”

Internally the company line is that the Suns are thinking playoffs; externally critics wonder why the team isn’t blowing this up and playing for a draft pick.

The Suns’ optimism rests upon a belief in the new defensive schemes instituted by Elston Turner and the fact that they weren’t far from the playoffs last season despite the disruptive trades. Heck, it’s not a stretch to think the Suns would have made the playoffs if not for untimely injuries to Nash and Channing Frye near season’s end.

The pundits who don’t expect much see a roster that lacks scoring punch despite Nash’s influence and a defense that never has been very good. But some Suns players are surprised they have been pegged so low.

“It’s the first time I’ve been here that people haven’t really talked a lot about our team,” Hill said. “I think from the outside the expectations aren’t as high, but at least internally we still have goals and things we want to accomplish and expectations for us are high.”

Added Robin Lopez, “I think that’s almost beneficial for us. I know two years ago in my second season that was almost a plus for us. People came in here, kind of slept on us a little bit, and we were able to use that to our advantage.”

NBA players are creatures of habit. They are accustomed to playing several weeks of pickup ball with teammates before training camp to work their way into basketball shape and then eight preseason games afterward.

They are most definitely not used to 66 games in four months, back-to-back-to-backs or the kind of rushed atmosphere that has characterized the league since the lockout ended, and thus Hill said many players are in “uncharted waters” so far as preparation time goes.

During the last lockout-shortened campaign, a No. 8 seed (the Knicks) reached the Finals and after the Spurs won it all Phil Jackson said the title should come with an asterisk due to how much the lockout impacted that season.

If the Suns want to take advantage of the quirks of this season, their continuity, chemistry and potential depth will lead the way.

“I think this year is just going to be a little unusual for all teams and all players because of the amount of games,” Hill said. “It’s really going to be the team that manages the schedule, stays healthy, those are the teams I think that are going to do well.

“Hopefully we’ll be one of them.”

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