Mike D'Antoni almost had paradise in Phoenix. But one person kept getting in his way: Gregg Popovich, whose San Antonio Spurs eliminated Phoenix in the playoffs three out of four seasons and ensured the run-and-gun Suns would remain just a sidenote in NBA history. Now, D'Antoni has a chance for revenge, but he'll have to do it with a team that stumbled into the playoffs without its top player.
After washing out with the Knicks, unable to mesh with Carmelo Anthony, and spending most of the season taking the brunt of criticism for a hyper-talented Lakers team that rarely rose above .500, people forgot about why Mike D'Antoni was once a constant coach of the year candidate. And it's easy to forget, because, you know, no rings. The reason he has none is because he kept running into a fundamentally sound, defensively dominant hacksaw with an unbelievably fun and talented Phoenix team, and the stoic, but ever-successful Spurs kept coming up on top.
This was the first year we were forced to perk up and watch D'Antoni's grab-the-rebound, run-it-up-court, heave-a-three-or-run-a-pick-and-roll brilliance. The Suns had won just 29 games in 2003-2004, D'Antoni's first season as the team's coach. Amar'e Stoudemire was in his second year, and he seemed an ill fit with Stephon Marbury, both of whom needed the ball. The Suns traded Marbury and signed Nash - a good point guard, seemingly, but not a great one - from Dallas and the offseason, and it was perfect. The Suns won 62 games - best in the league - Stoudemire averaged a whopping 26.0 points per game, mainly off of Nash's 11.5 assists, and Quentin Richardson and Joe Johnson established themselves as a gunner and a pure scorer. And they breezed through the first two rounds of the playoffs.
And then, the Spurs. It would be mean to call it a gentleman's sweep -- I mean, Amar'e AVERAGED 37 a game -- but for every high-paced punch the Suns threw, the Spurs had a methodical answer. The Spurs won in five and ground their way to their third of four NBA titles in a mucky series against the Pistons where the over/under for an average game was somewhere around 170.
The Suns would win 15 games in a row at one point, and 17 games in a row at another. The team seemed primed for a run to the NBA Finals after the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks were eliminated in the first round. By this point, the run-and-gun was no fluke - they'd been doing it for three years - but teams still hadn't found an answer.
And then, the Spurs. They met in the Western Conference Finals, with San Antonio winning game 1, a game where Steve Nash couldn't play the last few minutes with a profusely bleeding nose. They split the next two, and Phoenix was running out the clock on a win to tie the series at two, when things went bad. Robert Horry hip-checked into the scorer's table, and when some of his teammates got up off the bench to protect him, the league office ruled they'd left the bench in an altercation -- if only by a few steps -- and ruled them out for Game 5. The Spurs would take the last two games of the series and move on to the Finals, but it wasn't without giving everybody a bad taste.
For an impartial fan, this was so infuriating. The Suns were everything that was right -- the effervescent Nash, a high-flyer in Stoudemire, gunners everywhere -- and the Spurs were Tim Duncan, plus some goons like Horry, Bruce Bowen, and people generally dedicated to making sure nothing fun happened. But they won games, and they'd stomp LeBron James in the finals.
At this point, the small-ball dream was dead. Steve Kerr traded for an aging Shaquille O'Neal in hopes an inside presence would help his team against the Spurs. It wouldn't. The Suns looked primed to win Game 1 of the series, but Michael Finley nailed a three to force overtime, and when the Suns led again by three at the end of overtime, Tim Duncan of all people hit a three to force double overtime. They'd win the game and the series, gleefully hack-a-Shaq-ing on the way to a 4-1 series win.
His team foiled at every turn by Popovich, D'Antoni would leave the Suns for the Knicks in 2008, and that's that.
There are vestiges of those D'Antoni-Pop series in this matchup. For starters, San Antonio is ageless, with Tim Duncan and Tony Parker still killing everything eight years after these teams first met. (Manu Ginobili is hurt, but still.) Steve Nash, if he's healthy, is still doing things for Mike D'Antoni. Boris Diaw's the same threeve he was on Phoenix, only now with San Antonio. And like the 2008 series, Gregg Popovich will foul D'Antoni's center -- then Shaq, now Dwight Howard -- to lead to low-percentage possessions.
But the feel is different. D'Antoni's squad isn't a giddy success story-turned-underdog anymore. They're just an underdog. And instead of an arsenal of Nash, Stoudemire and gunners, his team in 2013 was Kobe, Kobe, Kobe, with a side of whoever was open because Kobe was dominating -- and now Kobe's out.
And while Popovich's teams used to be slowpoke defensive beasts -- bottom 5 of the league in pace, top 5 of the league in defensive efficiency -- they've somehow become less ornery with age. In fact, while the Lakers were fifth in pace this year, the Spurs were sixth, just .2 possessions per game slower, a far cry from the wildly divergent Suns and Spurs teams of the first D'Antoni-Popovich matchups. Pop took the same core and adjusted to the times to remain successful, while D'Antoni is going to have to scramble with a makeshift Lakers squad.
The names are the same, but the styles have shifted -- and in all likelihood, the result will end up the same, with D'Antoni flustered.