But regardless whether they indeed beat the Spurs for the first time, this year's Suns team has already proven one very important thing: you can succeed as a fast-paced team and not be a Seven Seconds Or Less team. In other words, they're proving that, maybe, just maybe, Mike D'Antoni let them down after a while and isn't as great a coach as he's made out to be.
Let's be clear: this is not saying Mike D'Antoni's approach to basketball is wrong. Contrary to popular belief, you can win by pushing the pace and being a better offensive team than defensive team. And I'm not here to say that D'Antoni's teams never played defense, because the Suns were always a league-average unit. In fact, the Suns are posting a worse defensive efficiency this year than in any year of the D'Antoni era (though I'll explain later why that's a bit misleading in this case).
However, we now see that D'Antoni was probably a bit too stubborn. The Suns are still, fundamentally, the Suns, in that they score a lot and play fast, but that's where the similarities end. The Suns of Mike D'Antoni always had their foot on the accelerator. They conspicuously avoided fouling because they felt it was better to take the ball out of the basket, in hopes that you'd either wear down or get sucked up into their style. They relied on Steve Nash to make every play, frantically running pick and rolls in hopes of getting that shot up in the elusive seven seconds or less. They didn't trust their bench, preferring to go with a short, seven-man rotation for some reason. They rarely ran Amare Stoudemire into the post, preferring instead for him to get his points off Nash.
That strategy worked, sure. But it also wasn't perfect. Disciplined teams like the Spurs didn't get sucked into their style, and bigger teams dominated the glass and on the inside against them. More fundamentally, no draft picks developed, because D'Antoni really wouldn't let them play. Nash always wore down from playing too many minutes, because the system was too reliant on him. Sure, the real problem with the Suns was that they always ran into better teams in the playoffs, but they also didn't quite get the most out of their roster, and a lot of that falls on D'Antoni.
This year's Suns team, on paper, is not as good as any of D'Antoni's teams. Nash is still going strong, but he's not quite what he was in 2006. Grant Hill has been great, but he doesn't come close to bringing them as much as Shawn Marion did in his prime. Amare is still Amare. Jason Richardson is higher-paid and had more of a pedigree, but he's really just a slightly better version of Raja Bell at this point, stylistically at least. Leandro Barbosa isnt close to what he once was, and there's nobody on the roster that brings Boris Diaw's unique skill set. Finally, as much as Suns fans hate to admit it, that bench was paper-thin coming into the season and has only emerged because Alvin Gentry and the player development staff there has done an unbelievable job cultivating it. These aren't diamonds in the rough we're talking about; these are guys who weren't good until this year. Channing Frye hadn't done anything since his rookie year with the Knicks, Goran Dragic was awful last year, Jared Dudley couldn't get minutes on the Bobcats and Robin Lopez and Lou Amundson spent time in the D-League last year. Give Mike D'Antoni that group, and many of them wouldn't have played.
But while this year's team doesn't approach any of D'Antoni's teams on paper, it succeeds because it does everything D'Antoni's teams never did. This year's Suns team sensibly pushes the ball, killing you in transition after getting defensive rebounds instead of just constantly running. They don't just rely on Nash to create scoring for them - Stoudemire, Hill and Richardson get regular post-ups in their half-court sets, and Dragic is equally capable of running things at times. Their offensive efficiency this year is actually higher than any of the D'Antoni teams, because it's easier to score in transition after a defensive stop than in the half court. They use their bench, more than pretty much any team remaining in the playoffs. Their defense is technically ranked lower than any of D'Antoni's teams, but over the last two months, they've defended at a high enough level to rise seven places in the rankings, so that's a bit misleading. They actually start a conventional center, whether it's Lopez or Jarron Collins now that Lopez is hurt. They're making the Spurs go small to beat them, rather than vice versa.
Bottom line: it's really a different Suns team than we've ever seen, and they're winning just as much despite probably having less talent on paper.
For that, Gentry deserves a lot of credit, but D'Antoni also deserves some criticism. If Gentry can find a way to tweak the Suns' core identity like this and succeed with a worse roster on paper, why couldn't D'Antoni do the same with his stronger rosters? He could have, and it would have helped get his teams over the hump, but it also would have meant admitting his system needed some small tweaks. He wasn't willing to admit that, so instead, they spun their wheels until the Shaq trade. It all could have ended so differently.
But it didn't, and now that the Suns have figured out how to tweak the formula, you have to wonder what might have been. Keep this in mind when the Knicks don't get LeBron and D'Antoni's Knicks teams are always underachieving.
Anyway, onto the game.
San Antonio Spurs at Phoenix Suns: Game 2, 9:00 p.m., TNT
Game 1 in one sentence: The Suns played their style, killing the Spurs in transition and keeping the pace up in a nine-point win.
Problem the Spurs must solve to win: The Big 3 showed up, but nobody else did. In a role reversal from much of their first-round series against Dallas, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker did their thing. George Hill, on the other hand, did not. He was torched by Steve Nash early and his confidence never recovered. Yes, it's true that Parker played well to pick up the slack, but the Spurs need Hill in this series. Maybe they don't get the Hill they got against Dallas, but they need the Hill they got in the regular season.
Problem the Suns must solve to win again: The Suns need to solve San Antonio's small lineup, which outscored them by 11 points in a key fourth-quarter stretch to get back into the game. A big part of that stretch was with Phoenix's bench unit in the game, but the Suns can't simply stop playing their bench, since it carried them so many times this year.
Totally inconsequential thing I want to see happen: Actually, this isn't totally inconsequential, but I want to see something interesting happen in response to the Suns protesting the Arizona immigration law. They're really making an unprecedented statement in professional sports, and I'm very curious to see how fans and others take it. Honestly, I'm expecting anything at this point.