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God Bless the Phoenix Suns

By Adam Hoff

I tuned into the Suns-Cavs game on Thursday night and watched every minute of it, even though it was a blowout from the middle of the second quarter on, which is really saying something.

Part of the reason was that LeBron was playing, I won't deny that. But the real reason is that I will watch any game involving the Suns. It doesn't matter if it involves the incredibly boring Spurs, the incredibly horrible Hawks, or the incredibly compromised Joey Crawford. If the Suns are on TV, I'm watching.

Why? Because they are fun to watch. It is as simple as that. They run and gun and pass and cut and share the ball. They dunk and drain threes and throw 40-foot bounce passes (well, Steve Nash does that last part). They have arguably the best fantasy player of this decade in Shawn Marion, a top candidate for the Sixth Man of the Year Award and the Fastest Basketball Player Alive Award (an unofficial award to be certain) in Leandro Barbosa, and the guy that clotheslined Kobe Bryant in Raja Bell. And they have one of the great transformation stories in NBA history in Boris Diaw. Oh yeah, and a miracle of modern science in Amare Stoudemire. And the two-time reigning MVP Steve Nash.

In short, the Suns have a lot going for them. Best of all, they are becoming a seriously influential force in the NBA. Not only are more and more teams being forced to match up with the Suns when they play Phoenix (on account of the Suns getting better and better while almost every other team keeps getting worse), which results in fantastically entertaining games, but more teams are starting to emulate the Suns as well. So now Raptors games and Bucks games and Grizzlies games and Warriors games are good times, even if the teams suck. The Nuggets and Wizards are probably the second and third-most exciting teams to watch in the entire league. Everyone is playing fast and plodding centers like Ilgauskas (it looked like he was trying to play a different sport on Thursday) are literally being run out of the game. Precision and athleticism and skill are being prized above size. It is a glorious, glorious time.

Of course, the NBA is like any other pro sport in that it constantly evolves. Trends come and go, the rhythms of the game change seemingly overnight. So the fear is that we will wake up one day and this tremendous version of professional basketball will be in the rearview mirror and we will be back in the mid-90's when the Knicks and Heat were grinding their way to 72-71 victories.

How can we prevent this from happening? The answer seems to be that the Suns need to win it all. While rule changes and a dearth of great big men and the desire to market perimeter stars all play a role in this mini revolution, there is no denying that it centers around what Phoenix is doing. They have been winning big the last few years by letting Nash orchestrate the attack and trying to simply get up more quality shots than the other team. They stress the avoidance of fouls, try to take a few charges here and there, look for opportunities to trade threes for twos, run on made shots, and generally do everything possible to increase the overall number of possessions in a game, so that their superior offensive basketball skills will have more chances to win out.

Because Phoenix is winning, other teams are following suit. Even the Heat pushed the pace last year and stressed offensive efficiency in route to a title, which brought Pat Riley back full circle to his Show Time days in L.A. and helped wipe away the memory of those awful years in New York. Yet there are still holdouts. Teams like the Pacers, Bulls, and Rockets insist on grinding out wins despite rosters that are just screaming "run!" The Mavs are now the favorite to win it all and at least part of that is because they've abandoned the carefree spirit of the Nellie days in favor of Avery Johnson's commitment to defense. The conventional thinking is that by becoming more traditional (read: more like the Spurs), the Mavericks have a much better chance to win it all. Which brings us to the crux of the issue.

On the one hand we have the Suns, who are mostly undersized, favor creativity and offense, and play some of the prettiest basketball you will ever see (and generally inspire/require/allow their opponents to do likewise). On the other hand there are the Spurs, who clutch and grab and pound it inside and specialize in winning the old fashioned way. In other words, the Suns are exciting and the Spurs are boring. And then we have the Mavs, stuck somewhere in the middle of the two, but becoming more like San Antonio every day.

In essence, we are on a collision source to see which Western Conference power can take home the next title and put their stamp on the game. If the Spurs win it this year, then Dallas will definitely go to the dark side and all hope will be lost. Every other team will go back to trying to be like the Spurs, which will never work because they don't have good GM's or good coaches or good players or the ability to get almost every call. But if the Suns win, it will be a whole different story.

Over the past couple of years, we have continued to hear that while Phoenix's style is great to watch and a perfect method for racking up regular season wins, it will never bring home a title. You can't win a championship simply outscoring people, or so the thinking goes. If Phoenix can break through and win it all, that argument will go away. Kind of like when Detroit won in 2004 and stomped out the theory that you had to have a superstar to win the NBA Finals. Or when the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series this past season and proved you didn't have to be good to win it all in baseball (sorry, couldn't resist). If the Suns actually get the rings, they will only influence more teams and we will continue to see more exciting basketball. This is important stuff.

The bad news is that the Suns are pretty much the only hope we have of an "offensive" team winning it all. It is possible that the Mavs could take the title and do it primarily on the offensive end, but even if it goes down that way, the majority of pundits will attribute it to their improvement on defense. The Wizards can't win it all. I doubt that Denver can do it, even if the Melo-AI pairing works out better than anyone could possibly dream. And there really aren't any other true Suns clones out there with any realistic shot of doing much damage. So it is Phoenix against the world.

The good news is that I think the Suns can actually take the title this year. They have a tough road through the West but if they can get the number one seed and avoid Dallas or San Antonio until the Western Conference Finals, I think they can do it. Nash is playing better than ever (he honestly might win yet another MVP Award, unless LeBron kicks it into another gear), Barbosa has transformed the bench through his own individual improvement, and Diaw seems to be back in shape and making plays. Perhaps most importantly, Amare Stoudemire is a force to be reckoned with.

When it comes to Amare's impact on the Suns and their title chances, I'm not just talking about the fact that he's come back so quickly, or has improved his jumper, or even the way he's revitalized their half court offense. No, I think the biggest thing about Stoudemire is that he is quietly becoming a fantastic defensive player. I've seen him play five times in the past few weeks and each time I have been shocked at how good he's been defensively. I keep waiting for him to have major mental lapses, or forget to grab rebounds like he did back in the 2005 Playoffs. But that isn't happening. He's holding his ground, rotating perfectly with his help defense, keeping rebounds alive, and swatting and altering a healthy amount of shots.

In the game against the Cavs on Thursday, Amare had a few sweet jumpers and more than his share of dunks and three-point plays, but it was his work on the defensive end that turned the affair into a blowout. When Phoenix went on a 20-0 run in the second quarter, it was spurred by Stoudemire's dominance on D. He blocked shots, deflected passes, snared rebounds, and generally intimidated the Cavs to the point where they ceased coming in the lane. It looked like he took the best aspects of Dwight Howard and merged them with his previous skill set. It was scary.

And it may just be the difference between a big regular season and a title for the Phoenix Suns. And while I know that goes against my entire argument that we need the Suns to win purely by outscoring teams, I can live with that. Because even if Amare blocks 10 shots a game and turns into a modern day Bill Russell, we are still going to view Phoenix as an offensive team. Plus, Stoudemire's type of defensive work is in keeping with their frenetic style and desire to run and then run some more. In other words: there is zero risk that the Suns will go back to the drawing board, pull the plug on the fast break offense, and suddenly start slugging out games behind the strength of their interior defense.

Now that Amare is learning how to be a force on both ends of the court, I honestly think that Phoenix is the best team in the NBA. They might have proved that to be the case back in 2005 if not for Joe Johnson landing on his face, or in 2006 if not for Amare undergoing the most terrifying surgery in all of basketball. But Johnson did land on his face and Stoudemire did have the surgery and so the myths lived on, awaiting the day when a running and gunning offensive juggernaut might come along and turn convention on its ugly, boring head.

Here's to hoping that sometime in June of 2007 is that day and the Phoenix Suns are that juggernaut. The fate of the NBA depends on it.

Adam Hoff is the columnist for WhatifSports.com.

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