Requiem for a bench


The Pacers-Heat series has been the best matchup of the second round, hands down. With Phoenix’s season over, I have no vested interest in any one team, but I still find myself pulling for the Pacers every time they take the court. At first, I dismissed this as the anti-Heat sentiment that seems to have permeated every corner of the NBA landscape save South Beach.

But as I watched Louis Amundson, Leandro Barbosa, and the rest of the Pacers’ reserves hold their ground against the surging Heat on Sunday, I flashed back to the 2010 playoffs and suddenly understood my support of Indiana.

Though there have been more talented squads during the Steve Nash era in Phoenix, the 2010 Suns team that made a surprise run to the Western Conference Finals is the sentimental favorite of many Phoenix fans. That team, which had missed the playoffs the previous season, wasn’t expected to do much that year. They ended up grabbing the third seed in the West and finished just three games behind the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers.

That team won a first-round playoff series for the first time in three years. Then they exorcised the demon that was the San Antonio Spurs with a stake-through-the-heart sweep. Then they came within a Kobe airball-Ron Artest putback of taking a 3-2 lead in the conference finals before losing Game 6 at home. To say that team overachieved is an understatement, but that only explains part of the fans’ love for them. Another major factor was the bench.

The reserves, the second unit, or “the other guys” — you can call them whatever you want. The five-man bench of Channing Frye, Louis Amundson, Jared Dudley, Leandro Barbosa, and Goran Dragic was one of the biggest reasons the Suns were so successful that year. What made them special was how they played as a unit. There are few teams in the league that can sit all five starters for periods of the game without totally imploding on the court. That Suns’ bench was different. They could not only hold a lead in an important game, they could extend it.

The best example of this was Game 3 of the second round against San Antonio. The Suns had taken the first two games of the series at home, but trailed by one heading into the fourth quarter. The second unit was on, spelling the starters (in researching this column, I realized that Grant Hill was on the floor in the fourth instead of Louis Amundson. Amundson was no doubt waving a towel very vigorously on the sidelines, though.)

Goran Dragic proceeded to score 23 points in the quarter. The Suns pulled away from the Spurs and won the game by 14. Though they still needed to notch another win to advance, the bench’s performance in that quarter won the series for Phoenix. San Antonio watched its lead slip away with Amare Stoudemire, Steve Nash, and Jason Richardson on the bench. The Spurs knew right then and there they couldn’t win and bowed out of the postseason just one game later.

For Phoenix, that game took the team’s confidence to a whole new level. Sure, they had won six playoff games already, which was five more than they had won in the previous two seasons. But to finally best the Spurs and do it with an outstanding effort from 10 guys as opposed to just the All-Stars was a revelation to that team. That performance was what spurred them to make the series with the eventual-champion Lakers so hard fought. It was games like Game 3 in San Antonio that forever endeared that team to Phoenix fans everywhere.

Despite how you feel about the break up of that team the following summer, if you’re like me, you still enjoy watching all five of those guys play. Jared Dudley and Channing Frye have moved into the Suns’ starting lineup. Dudley has truly maximized his abilities and become a solid wing in the NBA. He had his best year as a pro this season, setting career highs in points, assists, and rebounds per game (for those of you who hate per game stats, he surpassed or came close to his career highs in the per-minute stat categories as well).

Channing Frye is still the rare combination of size and range that helped the Suns stretch defenses in 2010. However, he just had his worst season in a Suns uniform as his stats and shooting numbers were down across the board.

Goran Dragic aka The Dragon is about to make a lot of money for a skinny kid from Slovenia. Dragic played incredibly well for the Rockets this year especially when Kyle Lowry was hurt. He had career highs in points, assists, and PER. His play was almost enough to keep Houston in the playoff picture without their two best players. Goran will be the third-best point guard in this year’s free agent class behind Steve Nash and Deron Williams. He is also the youngest of the three.

And finally, as I mentioned before, Louis Amundson and Leandro Barbosa are still doing the things that made them fan favorites and integral members of the Suns’ squad. They just do them in Indianapolis now. Barbosa is still one of the fastest players in the league with the ball in his hands. He, along with teammate Darren Collison, provides speed, ball handling, and scoring off the bench for the Pacers. Amundson is still a gritty and energetic big man who grabs rebounds and throws the occasional elbow (sorry, Udonis). It’s a pleasure to watch these guys to continue to play hard as the Pacers fight to advance past the vaunted Heat and their pair of superstars.

Looking forward, the Suns should look to recapture the magic of that memorable bench unit. If this season has proven anything it’s that depth is king in the NBA. The Spurs, who have been the most dominant team in the postseason by far, go 10 players deep almost every single night. This depth allows them to save the legs of their older superstars.

If the Suns bring back Steve Nash and Grant Hill, the San Antonio recipe would be a good one to follow, and the Suns may already have some of the ingredients. Sebastian Telfair has shown he can be a solid backup point guard. Robin Lopez is a former starter who brings toughness and rebounding to a team much in need of both. Both players will continue to mature and carve out their roles on the team.

Michael Redd, if he returns, is a good bench scorer. He showed this season that he has recovered from the injuries that cost him almost three full seasons. Though he’s not back to the form that earned him a spot on the 2008 Redeem Team, he can still shoot, score, and compete in the NBA. Markieff Morris had a strong rookie campaign. He was definitely inconsistent, but that’s nothing new for rookies in the NBA. I think he’ll be a factor in Phoenix for a long time and could challenge for the starting PF spot this year.

This is where the questions about the Suns’ roster start to rise. Is Channing Frye better coming off the bench? The answer is most definitely maybe. Will the Suns keep Shannon Brown? Probably not. Brown played just well enough this season to get a multi-year deal from some team. If Lon Babby is true to his word about the franchise’s new spending strategy, that team will not be the Suns. Will Grant Hill reprise his role as defensive stopper/small forward? There is no way to tell. Injuries sidelined Hill for the last month of the season, and he is staring 40 right in the face. His future with the team will likely be tied to Nash’s, but that’s another column for another time. In the interim, I’ll be cheering for the Pacers, pulling for Dragic to land with a good team, and happily reminiscing about the most memorable bench there ever was.

And 1

  • Suns assistant coach Bill Cartwright will not be returning to the team next season, according to this report by Paul Coro, as the Suns have decided not to renew his contract for next season. This news will perhaps impact Robin Lopez the most. Cartwright was a mentor to the Suns’ young center, and Robin credits him with the improvements he’s made as a player. “I think actually it’s mostly come from Bill Cartwright,” Lopez said. Cartwright won three championships as a player with Michael Jordan and the Bulls. He has been an assistant coach in the NBA for 13 seasons.
  • Be sure to catch Amundson in Battleship. For some reason he’s credited as Taylor Kitsch.