Suns raise the roof and have some fun
PHOENIX -- If you want to know how a Phoenix Suns team that was supposed to be finished in April has survived into late May, or why it's still alive after falling behind 2-0 in a series against the heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers, the answer can be found in this video. In retrospect, an off-key rendition of a Lionel Richie song provided the key to one of the four most successful teams in the league.
It was recorded in the early-morning hours of Dec. 12 during the long bus ride from the Denver airport into town. The Suns had beaten the Orlando Magic in Phoenix and were on their way to face the Denver Nuggets on a back-to-back. They had lost four of their previous six games and would lose the next one and then four more before the end of December.
But even in the middle of their worst month of the season, what you see is a group of players who still enjoy each other. In the video skit, conceived by Steve Nash, the Suns are playfully correcting Leandro Barbosa's butchering of the lyrics to "All Night Long," then they all join in to sing the chorus. Instead of picking on the Brazilian for not comprehending the English words, they're helping him out. Instead of feeling persecuted, Barbosa is in on the joke.
"I don't mind at all," Barbosa said. "If we're going to have fun, it's my pleasure to do that."
The Suns get it. They realize the team's goals outweigh the individual agendas. They have veterans such as Grant Hill and Nash who have achieved as much personal glory as they're going to get out of the game and don't feel the need to receive all of the credit. They have young players such as Goran Dragic and Jared Dudley who know their place. And their star player playing for a new contract, Amare Stoudemire, is connected to everyone else.
"I think the guys still believe in each other," Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. "We never wavered at all when we lost the two games out there [in Los Angeles]. And the guys do a good job of boosting each other's confidence.
"The thing that I like best about this team, we got a great start, 14-3. Then we struggled; we went 12-18 in our next 30 games. At no time did we point fingers or there were any negative things said or any cliques developed. I told [general manager] Steve Kerr, 'We're going to be good at some stage because when guys have this kind of attitude, usually somewhere along the line everything comes together for you.' And it did for us after the All-Star Game."
The Suns lost only six games in the rest of the regular season and secured the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference. They bounced back from a playoff-opening loss at home to the Portland Trail Blazers and went on to finish off the Blazers in six games. They overcame all the negative vibes associated with their past problems with the San Antonio Spurs to sweep them out of the second round. And rather than backing down after falling into a 2-0 hole against the Lakers, they fought back in Game 3 to give themselves a chance to even the Western Conference finals at home Tuesday night.
"By nature, we're a pretty loose group," Nash said. "We don't have a ton of experience in this position, but I think our guys have done a great job of just playing basketball, sticking to our responsibilities, pulling together. When you do that, when you worry about the process, and just going out there and doing your job and enjoying it, I think you can overcome pressure. "
Sure, there was the switch to a zone defense in the second quarter of Game 3, the 42-point night by Stoudemire but it all gets back to what you see on the bus.
"I think the chemistry is really tested and the character and chemistry is revealed when we go through tough stretches like we did in December and January, or when we lost Game 1 at home against Portland," Hill said. "That's where the time off the court together, the team building, whatever you want to call it -- that stuff you really can't force, you either have it or you don't -- I think that's when it really shows itself. It's easier to have chemistry when things go well and when you're winning. When you go through a little bit of adversity, that's when you come together, and that's what we did."
During the NCAA tournament, I made the case that chemistry matters more in college than in the NBA. The Suns are doing their best to disprove that theory. It could just be that it's rare that pro teams actually have this much chemistry so we haven't had many examples to test.
"I've been on teams in Charlotte where guys were rooting for other guys not to do well," Dudley said. "They wanted them to do bad so they could play."
Dudley is one of the team's main enzymes, thanks to his "JMZ" videos that have included an analysis of Dragic's 26-point explosion in Game 3 of the Spurs series (highlighted by Dudley's Stephen A. Smith-style pronunciation of Rasho Nesterovic's name) and reaction to Stoudemire's throwdown on Anthony Tolliver.
"They used to call me Paparazzi," Dudley said. "They went from making fun of it to wanting to be in it."
They hang together, including a teamwide movie trip to see "Iron Man 2" in San Antonio. They tease each other, such as when Stoudemire interrupted another dignified interview by a formally dressed Hill to yell "The president!" They're playful, including a square-dance-style arm lock and spin by Hill and Dragic after a post-practice shooting competition.
The most important component is Stoudemire's participation. People throughout the organization have raved about his maturation this season, including his ability to focus on contributing to the team despite a failure to reach an agreement on a contract extension or the Suns' shopping him in trade discussions. At the distractions' peak surrounding the trade deadline in February, Stoudemire still managed to average 25 points and 10 rebounds that month.
On Sunday, he was rewarded for his dedication throughout the season. Gentry told him the offense would initiate through him, and Stoudemire got the ball early and often in a star performance.
Throughout the season, Stoudemire's appearances on both JMZ and in a series of sketches on his own website reveal an ability to play the straight man with an understated sense of comedic timing.
"I guess I don't quite know how funny I am," Stoudemire said. "I'm not really trying to be funny, so it comes off funny sometimes.
"It's been great, and it's been a lot of fun. That's what's great about this team is that we have fun playing -- and it's even better when you win."
Even in an increasingly stats-driven league, there's no way to quantify the link between the fun and the winning. You just have to see the Suns on the court and in the locker room and at practice, then draw the unmistakable connection.