Posted Apr 24 2010 3:18AM
PORTLAND -- LaMarcus Aldridge gets the ball down in the low post, turns and runs into an Amar'e Stoudemire he has rarely seen before -- active, aggressive, more vigilant than a guard at an old East German border crossing.
Andre Miller starts out with his dribble on the wing and tries to do one of his hip-shaking dancing-with-the-stars routines into the lane where he can finish with an easy shot. But before Miller can find an opening, he's surrounded and his path blocked as if a timber truck has just dropped its load on a two-lane highway.
Yikes! The Trail Blazers have fallen down the rabbit hole into a strange new wonderland. The Suns are playing defense.
"As long as you have Steve Nash and Amar'e (Stoudemire) and surround them with some shooters, you're gonna be a pretty good offensive team," said Suns coach Alvin Gentry. "I just thought that in order for us to be a serious contender and to have any kind of situation in the West where we were going to be a factor, we were going to have to be able to come up with stops."
Through the first three games against Portland, the Suns have limited the Blazers to just 43.2 percent shooting from the field, which ranks sixth among all playoff teams, and given up an average of only 94.7 points a game, which ranks seventh.
"People don't usually associate the Suns and defense in the same sentence," said Grant Hill. "But we really have improved and, I guess, surprised some people."
It's like finding out that the swimsuit model cover girl can cook, too.
After being whipped at home in Game 1 by giving up 49 points mostly to the penetration of Blazer guards Andre Miller and Jerryd Bayless, the Suns have done a much better job with their weak-side rotation, one-on-one pressure and cut off the wide lanes to the basket to regain control with a 2-1 lead in the series.
"Alvin, from Day One, said, 'I don't buy into the idea that we can't be a good defensive team,' Hill said. "We just have to want it. So we worked on it every day. It got to a point around February, late January, where instead of thinking, it became an instinct, it became a habit."
It was Jan. 28 in Dallas when the Suns picked up a gantlet that had been thrown down during a nationally-televised TNT game.
"Jason Terry made a statement against our team as he went off the floor at halftime," Gentry said. "I played it for them in the locker room. He said, 'These guys are terrible defensively and we should score on them every time.' I think they took that to heart. I told them, 'Hey, this is the perception of our team in the NBA. This is what they're saying.
"I think everybody has a little pride. We went on to win that game and I thought that was in the back of our players minds. If that's the perception that (people) have, then we better start working to change it."
When the change started working, the Suns shifted into high gear. They put up a 23-6 record after the All-Star break and won 14 of their final 16 games to rise up and claim the No. 3 seed in the West and for the first time in recent memory are regarded as more than a playoff novelty act. Though there is one long-haired holdout.
"Our teams in the past could have won regardless of what our defense was," Nash said. "We had a lot of bad breaks. We had suspensions. We had injuries. Without some of those breaks we could have won a championship. I think we could have proven all that talk wrong.
"But obviously the safe path to a bright future is a college education and defense. So hopefully our defense has improved a little bit this year."
After the All-Star break, the Suns held 10 teams under 100 points, under 90 points in five of them and began to grow claws and teeth.
Not that they'll ever turn down a chance to flash down the court on a fastbreak or turn up their noses at an open 3-pointer, no matter how early in the shot clock, gone are the days of the Suns as strictly the 7-seven-or-less offensive circus. Things have changed so dramatically that even Stoudemire has bought into the program.
"I will say that he asked to guard LaMarcus Aldridge," Gentry said. "He said, 'I'll guard him. I'll take him.' To me, that's a huge step, because that's never happened before where he's asked to guard a good offensive player."
Stoudemire's efforts have flustered and neutralized Aldridge in the past two games, getting him into early foul trouble. Aldridge missed his first six shots from the field in Game 3 and by the time he finally made a bucket, the Blazers were already down 49-26.
"He's the main threat. He plays my position and I figure if I talk away the main threat, we'll be in good shape," Stoudemire said.
"Previous years I really had no clue how much fun defense is because we were such a great offensive team. 'We never talked about defense. Now with Alvin's defensive strategy, it's helped us."
Gentry's strategy was to simplify the Phoenix defense. The Suns are now assigned specific spots against the pick-and-roll and to provide weakside help on drives from the wing. If you're not in your proper spot, you get called out.
"Guys started holding each other responsible and that's when you become pretty good," Gentry said.
All of which might make you wonder why the run-and-gun Suns never tried to mix this defense stuff in with their previous incarnations?
Stoudemire the Stopper laughed.
"I don't know," he said. "But I think now we've got it going at the right time."
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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