- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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PHOENIX -- The noise was definitely rising, louder than a Phoenix crowd had cheered for Mike D'Antoni in a very long time, when the arena lights and the big screen overhead were suddenly switched off.
Who knows how loud it would have gotten if the darkness that signals the start of introductions for the home team, D'Antoni's old team, didn't snuff out a standing ovation warmer than the former coach of the Suns ever imagined?
The warmth clearly surprised and moved D'Antoni, who made sure to keep his expectations modest Monday evening when he returned to the scene of one of the more emotional, awkward breakups of recent NBA vintage. He certainly dreamed of the comeback win that his New York Knicks nearly pulled off, but D'Antoni otherwise came in guarded, comparing this difficult night to Christmas morning.
A bittersweet Christmas morning.
"A lot of times you're disappointed," D'Antoni cautioned beforehand. "You don't always get what you want."
This, though, really wasn't one of those times. The Knicks' horrific 3-point shooting (5-for-37 is no misprint) and a couple of late daggers he absorbed from his all-time favorite player, Steve Nash, prevented D'Antoni from making a triumphant return, with the Suns doing just enough to secure an unconvincing 111-103 victory. Yet it was hard to see this as anything other than D'Antoni's night, given how much difficulty Phoenix has found moving on from the relationship and, of course, how the fans reacted.
"I was proud to be a Suns player and a Phoenician to hear the response Mike got," Nash said. "I thought it was a classy response after a little bit of controversy in his exit. People really needed to brush that aside and really look at what he contributed to this city and franchise and how much fun we've had over the last four years."
That's actually easier for D'Antoni than anyone, fiery and outspoken (and sensitive) as he remains to this day. He spent a decent chunk of the past 24 hours of pregame buildup publicly chastising himself for continuing to talk too much about his old problems with Suns owner Robert Sarver and team president Steve Kerr, but D'Antoni has the luxury of going back now to what looks like an incredibly sweet gig, especially when you compare it to the norm in a business that has seen one-fifth of the league's coaches fired before Christmas morning.
The security of a $24 million contract and the privilege of having a personal chauffeur ferry him in and out of the city from the suburbs for home games are only part of what we're talking about here. True luxury in the coaching game is working for a legendary franchise and a free-spending owner that have been bad for so long that Gotham's famously demanding fans are suddenly willing to tolerate pretty much anything until the summer of 2010, so long as the Knicks turn their anticipated reams of salary-cap space into a marquee free-agent haul. D'Antoni certainly wasn't going to find anything close to that sort of patience by staying in Phoenix, where standing ovations had become scarce after all those playoff heartbreaks.
Implausible as it sounds with its Northeast winters, suffocating media coverage and Stephon Marbury headaches, New York is legitimately more comfortable for D'Antoni than the cozy desert living he vowed Monday to come back to in his twilight years. "I'll definitely be back in retirement," he said.
Implausible as it sounds, D'Antoni insists that you can't come up with a better landing spot for him than the Knicks.
But wouldn't taking the Chicago job have been so much better, where he could have started out with a top-flight young QB named Derrick Rose? What if Toronto had fired Sam Mitchell after last season and the dear friend who brought him to Phoenix -- Raptors president Bryan Colangelo -- offered him the Raps' job? Wouldn't D'Antoni have preferred to relocate to Nash's homeland?
D'Antoni waved off all of those questions when we tried to ask them Sunday.
"I chose New York," he said, "because I like New York. This is the one I wanted."
The Suns, to this day, say they wanted D'Antoni to stay. Sarver and Kerr contend that the only condition they put on D'Antoni was the hiring of a defensive specialist as an assistant, after D'Antoni resisted the hiring of Tom Thibodeau following the Suns' crushing second-round exit to San Antonio in 2007. Thibodeau wound up going to Boston and helping the Celtics win the championship in 2008; D'Antoni was already convinced he had to leave by the time he was asked again to hire a defensive coordinator from the outside when the Spurs ousted the Suns in Round 1.
"I think you always have regrets," D'Antoni said. "I could have handled things differently. Maybe I didn't handle it right."
He continued: "It's got to be, 'til the day you get fired, you've got to think you have 100 percent full support [from management]. I didn't think that, right or wrong. Maybe I was wrong, but you make a decision and go on from there.
"If everyone took a step back and waited a month [after the first-round loss to San Antonio], it'd probably have been different. But we didn't have that luxury and it didn't happen."
Said Nash: "You have to look at Mike's record. It's not like we were doing something drastically wrong, but people got really desperate and greedy for a championship.
"We didn't win a championship, but it wasn't really any fault of our own, to an extent. We played well. We had some injuries or we had some bounces or suspensions that made it difficult for us to win. ... [then] I think everyone felt like there's got to be a change. Sometimes that pressure pervades an organization and things happen.
"So there's a lot of second-guessing that can go on now. But I'm going to look back on it and just say we had a great four years and changed the face of the franchise."
Yet surely you know by now that nothing's that easy for the Suns these days in their transition from D'Antoni to new coach Terry Porter. Surely you've heard how Nash, reflecting on how much has changed in the Valley of the Sun over the past eight months, said on the eve of his game-clinching triple with 28.2 seconds left that he feels "like I've been traded" somewhere new.
The changes aren't over, either. Even after the likes of Nash, Grant Hill and Raja Bell (before last week's trade to Charlotte) initially supported Kerr's contention that Phoenix needed to spend more time working on defense, Porter is now putting more emphasis on offense and has reinstalled several of D'Antoni's old offensive sets after in-house grousing about the Suns' departure from their trusty running game. The acquisition of the athletic Jason Richardson, meanwhile, has only amplified the volume of local pining for D'Antoni and his controversial system.
With what amounted to a seven-man rotation -- few of whom are expected to be part of the Knicks' presumed nirvana starting in the 2010-11 season -- D'Antoni managed to make the Suns look tired in the fourth quarter. Down 17 early and still down 12 with 9:13 to play, New York (11-13) cut the Suns' lead to three points twice in the final five-plus minutes in a game where Nate Robinson scored a team-high 27 points despite shooting 1-for-10 on 3s.
You could tell how badly D'Antoni wanted it, too. After a rare triple that connected from newly minted Eastern Conference Player of the Week Al Harrington (24 points), briefly slicing the Suns' lead to five points early in the third quarter, D'Antoni bounded onto the floor to slap hands with Harrington as if they were teammates.
The look of head-rubbing anguish in the fourth, furthermore, was vintage D'Antoni as Shaquille O'Neal (23 points, 12 boards) sank five huge free throws in the final period that might have saved the Suns (15-10) ... with Shaq claiming he had "changed my form a little bit."
"He was killing me," D'Antoni said.
Not that he's looking for sympathy, knowing he has it pretty good.
Knowing that, so far, he appears to be winning the rebound game in this breakup.
"These guys, you [media] guys, Phoenix ... you're great," D'Antoni said, giving thanks for the ovation.
"It was really nice."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
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