Posted May 30 2010 1:55AM - Updated May 30 2010 6:12PM
PHOENIX -- At some point the opportunities run out.
A storybook season in so many respects ended with a crushing blow from an old rival Saturday night. The Lakers closed out Phoenix 111-103 at US Airways Center, allowing the defending champs the chance to preserve their title against Boston in The Finals.
Reaching the Western Conference finals, the Suns went further than even they reasonably expected. General manager Steve Kerr thought he had a playoff team before the season, but admitted this run was surprising. The players honestly had no idea what to expect.
Now they scatter for the summer carrying away a communal sense of "what could have been."
"This is about as special a group as I've been a part of," said Steve Nash, the team's on-court and emotional leader. "To be picked anywhere from seven, eight, nine, 10, 11 in the West, to go through a stretch in the middle of the season where we weren't very good, and to really finish up so strong and get ourselves to a place where we were almost an overtime away from being up 3 2 coming home.
"I got to say, it's a great source of pride for me to get a chance to play with these guys. They're just such great, great people, great teammates. They've committed absolutely to what we're trying to do. You want to say we overachieved until you think about it and say, we're a good team. We had a real legitimate chance to beat the Lakers and go to The Finals and play for a championship."
How many other times can the Suns realistically expect so much to go right and find themselves two wins shy of the NBA's ultimate best-of-7? They're not getting any younger. The West isn't getting any less loaded. It's conceivable the Suns improve next season ... and lose in the first round.
The Phoenix roster can remain intact, though the Suns won't enter next season with an Oklahoma City ceiling of improving talent bursting at the seams. Nash is 36. Grant Hill, 37. Amar'e Stoudemire, a trading block fixture the last few years, remains 50-50 on opting into this summer's celebrated free agency class.
"It's pretty clear I'd like to keep the group together," said Nash, flanked by his twin 5-year-old daughters on the postgame podium. "I mean, it's phenomenal to come to work every day with the group of guys we had, everyone fighting for the same thing, proving when you commit to one another and to what we're trying to do, you really can.
"All the clichés really are true. You can maybe be greater than the sum of your parts."
Just what those parts will be when training camp rolls around depends largely on Stoudemire. He is due $17.7 million next season if he doesn't opt out, and he said any decision made won't be solely about money. Stoudemire expects meaningful conversations to begin with the only franchise he's ever played for when the time is right.
Kerr said that isn't now.
"I don't think about any of that stuff now," he said. "It's for the future."
As much as there is to remember about 2009-10 and its joyride through the postseason, there's that lingering feeling of another opportunity lost. The stars seemed to align for Planet Orange, starting late in the season and throughout the first two rounds.
A relative soft spot in the schedule in March, plus a strong finish, helped the Suns climb all the way to the No. 3 seed. Phoenix opened the playoffs against beat-up Portland and followed against longtime nemesis San Antonio.
Matchups favored the Suns in the first round and intangibles in the next. Given the rugged nature of the West, Phoenix probably couldn't have scripted two better scenarios from which to advance. Dallas had the home court edge over Phoenix had the Mavericks not been knocked out.
For teams that aren't the odds on favorites to go all the way -- Lakers, Cavaliers, Magic -- the right matchups and an emotional dynamic can make up for talent deficiency. Just ask Cleveland and Orlando, both eliminated by a Celtics squad with something to prove.
"Things have to go right, especially if you don't have Kobe or Michael Jordan or Tim Duncan," Kerr said. "We've had a great group of guys who have played so hard together and they've done a great job, but we ran into a better team."
The Lakers were that.
"Bottom line is we lost," Hill said. "We had opportunities and you tip your hat to the Lakers, but we felt as the playoffs went on we were getting better, and we felt we were getting more and more confident. When you have something special, you want to keep it going.
"Unfortunately we can't do that. It was a great year. We made it to the final three."
The Suns didn't have a Boston chip on their shoulder. Nash and Co. came together with championship-caliber chemistry. Alvin Gentry's unorthodox 10-man rotation consisting of two separate five-man shifts made everyone feel important because they were.
Having everyone on the same page, especially the Nash-Hill-Stoudemire trifecta, made it that much easier for everyone to buy into Gentry and his moves. Teams don't commit to zone defense three games into a series unless the players are committed to their coach. Starters don't sit on the bench for the first nine minutes in the fourth quarter -- cheering on backups Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley, Leandro Barbosa and friends -- unless they all believe in each other.
"I really have not been around a team like this that had the chemistry," Gentry said. "Not in my 22 years in the league."
Hill added: "A lot of heart, a lot of hustle, a lot of character. Those are the things that come to mind when you think of the guys on this team. It's been a joy to be around."
Resiliency is more than an adjective with Phoenix. It's Robin Lopez returning for the West finals after missing seven weeks with a back injury. It's Channing Frye not giving up from a 1-for-20 shooting start. It's coming back from 18 points down in the last two games of the series and nearly pulling out wins. It's guys like Nash and Hill continuing on when many successful careers have ended at their age.
"I knew all our guys were going to fight for everything," Kerr said. "I'm really, really proud of them. I'm really devastated for Steve and Grant, especially. Their clocks are ticking, obviously, and this was their best shot at getting to The Finals and we were really close, but we couldn't pull it off.
"There are not two players in the league more deserving of that chance, that opportunity than Steve and Grant. That goes for all our guys, but I'm singling out those two because of the length of their careers and what they've been through, and just the way they battled and because it's near the end for them. Hopefully they've got a couple good years left in them."
Nash, for one, isn't sure what the years ahead hold. He begins a two-year extension next season.
"It was a phenomenal run and we fell short and it hurts," Nash said. "It hurts a lot. We'll worry about next year, next year. The attitude is that you stay in the moment, you stay in the journey. I know it sounds cliché. I don't want to pretend to be Zen or anything, but it's the truth. Especially when you're my age, it's a pleasure to get to this point and have a chance.
"Next year I think we're gonna have another steep hill to climb to get back here, but we can do it if we really work hard."
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