Phoenix Suns season review: A coming of identity

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PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns’ 2011-12 season will be remembered for a frustrating start, a team meeting following the All-Star break and a hopeful push for the playoffs that came to a sudden halt in the second-to-last game of the season.

The lockout reduced, 66-game run was a detriment to all teams, especially those without continuity on their rosters from a season before. Alvin Gentry’s team fell into that category, and their challenge for the final spot in the playoffs and 33-33 final record might indeed be due to the parity caused by the lockout.

Then again, the Suns’ 12-19 start didn’t do them in until they lost against the Utah Jazz in the 65th game of the year, and that stems from a team that, while not rich in pure basketball talent, found its identity and improved.

“The key was, we had a lot of … new guys coming into a system that was very different from a lot of systems,” third-string point guard Ronnie Price said. “So when you have new pieces coming into something a lot different, it takes time. And I think that first part of the season was a learning experience and also a chance for our team to come together and find out what our identity was.”

A lack of cohesion was how Steve Nash often put it. It affected the bench and the starting unit, and Gentry juggled both in the first half of the year, meanwhile implementing assistant coach Elston Turner’s new defensive philosophies.

But those struggles developed into chemistry that turned Phoenix into a competitive team. The Suns’ returned to some resemblance of the offensive identity they’d had branded upon themselves in the Nash era but molded a new defense with it.

“The first (half) of the season, we had trouble scoring 90 points but I thought our defense was really good,” Gentry said. “We did a good job of winning games based primarily on our defense. As the season went on, we started to shoot the ball more — our defense was still pretty good — but we shot the ball and played a little bit more up-tempo, and I think that’s where the success that we had in the second part of the season came.”

In the end, it wasn’t quite enough. Injuries to Grant Hill and Channing Frye might spark what-if scenarios of making the playoffs, but even with that alternate ending, the 2011-12 season can be defined as, potentially, the last of the Nash era.

Pre-All-Star break record: 14-20 (at 13th place in the Western Conference)

Post-All-Star break record: 19-13

Overall record: 33-33 (at 10th in the Western Conference)

The turning point

The Suns held a player-led meeting after All-Star weekend that refocused the starters and bench players alike to form a common goal — make the playoffs.

Backup point guard Sebastian Telfair was a perfect example of a newfound attitude. The winner of the Dan Majerle Hustle Award cemented his role behind Nash and in front of Price, leading the second unit with pesky defense, vocal leadership, and at the very least, a fiery attitude.

While the starters began hitting shots that led to the second-half flurry, the second-unit of Telfair, Markieff Morris, Robin Lopez and Michael Redd and Shannon Brown found confidence playing with one another.

“I think the second half, when we had the goal to make the playoffs after our team meeting we had, I think I got a lot better,” Telfair said. “I think it was playing for something, I think that helped me come out play with some fire up under myself.”

What changed?

Much of Phoenix’s second-half revival came because of the immense offensive jumps in efficiency that NBA.com’s John Shuhmann detailed three games before the season ended.

Of course, those statistics can be credited to coaching decisions and that cohesion Nash had been looking for.

I thought (Gentry) made the right adjustments,” Dudley said. “He switched the starting lineups up, back and forth. We took more days off, trying to rest our bodies for the older men. Defensively, we held ourselves more accountable. Watching film was a lot more intense this year, obviously with the lack of practice time you had to have that.

“Elston Turner did a good job also, just getting everybody, the logistics of how to play defense and the right rotations,” Dudley added. “Igor handled the offense a lot better the second half of the year, when he really took over offensively at practice. You have to give credit to Alvin to making adjustments, letting his assistants coaches help him out.”

The X-factor

Channing Frye was often thought to be the key for the Suns. Whether he was frustrating Blake Griffin and Kevin Love, or raining three-pointers from the outside to stretch the floor, his good games usually ended with a Phoenix victory.

Of course, it was fitting that he injured his shoulder just before the Suns faced the Utah Jazz in a true must-win game. Against a team he’d burned for a season-high 26 points earlier in the season, the Suns couldn’t combat Utah’s big men on either side of the floor without Frye, and there went Phoenix’s playoff hopes.

If not for Frye, however, the Suns wouldn’t have been in that position at all.

The MVP

Who do you think it is? Steve Nash, at 38 years old, made a patch-work of role players into legitimate competition on a nightly basis against all but perhaps three elite teams in the NBA. He combined with Gortat to become the most dangerous two-man game in the league this season, and that helped the Suns’ center end the year with team-leading averages of 15.4 points, 10 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game.

Nash finished with averages of 12.5 points, 10.7 assists (second in the NBA) and 3.0 rebounds per game in his contract year. He also — although with fewer shot attempts — hit 53.2 percent of his field goal attempts, which ties his career high.

Final numbers

Points per game: 98.4 (Eighth in the NBA)

Opponent points per game: 98.6 (21st in the NBA)

Offensive rating: 106.2 (Ninth in the NBA)

Defensive rating: 106.5 (24th in the NBA)

Pace: 92.6 (Eighth in the NBA)

** Numbers from Basketball-Reference.com

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