Posted May 6 2010 2:30AM
PHOENIX -- The world is changing.
That was evident on the downtown streets of the Arizona capital, where Rev. Al Sharpton led a protest march and candlelight vigil against the state's controversial new immigration bill.
Perhaps it is even more apparent on the court of the US Airways Center, where the NBA's former frustrated pretty boys have learned to get ugly and thrive.
The different look is deeper than a wardrobe change, more than just slipping on those "Los Suns" jerseys for one evening. It's about the Suns having transformed themselves over the entire season into an entirely different kind of team -- one that can win games with defense, rebounding and grit. Not to mention win them over San Antonio.
Nowhere is the cultural shift more obvious than in the Suns' 2-0 Western Conference semifinal series lead over the Spurs, the team that has been their demon, their own personal collection of Freddy Kruegers who have haunted their nightmares on Elm Street and the playoffs for most of the last decade.
Phoenix followed up their 111-102 win in the series opener with a 110-102 win, and though the scores were nearly identical, if you put both games down on a lab table and sliced them open for dissection, they were about as widely divergent as both sides of the immigration debate that the Suns organization had jumped into with both feet.
These are now the Suns who can slice you and dice you with sharp jump-shooting knives in the transition game, but can also run you through an old-fashioned, hand-cranking meat grinder and still serve up a win on a dish.
"We're not out here to win pretty," Steve Nash said.
Ah, but in the past they were. Former coach Mike D'Antoni tried to turn his "Seven Seconds or Less" philosophy of breakneck offensive basketball into an art form and at times the Suns seemed intent on trying to paint a Sistine Chapel masterpiece.
Now under Alvin Gentry, the Suns are content to dip their rollers into ordinary wall paint and simply cover up the blemishes.
"It wasn't the start we were looking for, that's for sure," Nash said. "I felt like maybe it was nerves, because I know it wasn't for a lack of want or energy. But I think sometimes you get passive and we lose our rhythm and that makes us more passive and we almost scare ourselves and we get on the back foot."
Previous incarnations of the Suns might have frightened themselves to death with a 7-for-21 shooting first quarter, a 34.7 percent first half or even 42.4 percent for the entire game.
This edition finds other ways to accomplish the job, whether it's Grant Hill harassing Manu Ginobili all over the floor, Nash doggedly pinballing through the defense to make plays or Jared Dudley coming off the bench to make more racket than a firecracker in the silverware drawer.
"We kind of willed ourselves to victory," Hill said.
It's like watching ballerinas turn into bulldogs, seeing a few delicate snowflakes pile up to become a blizzard.
The transformation is real and could be lasting because it grew gradually over the course of the season as the Suns steadily embraced what Gentry was preaching about offense, about using a deep bench, about each man being accountable to the whole.
The Suns flew out of the starting blocks in November to a 14-3 record, but then stumbled, fell and nearly broke upon the rocks. From Dec. 1 through Jan. 26, they went 12-18. But instead of gagging them, the experience galvanized them.
"I thought early on in the season we kind of were frontrunners," Hill said. "When things were going well and we had leads and were rolling and in our flow, we kind of took care of business. But once we hit some adversity and once another team went on a run, we'd kind of hang our heads and lose leads and lose games in a lot of cases.
"We've kind of developed some toughness, some mental toughness, some grit and the ability to weather those storms, the ability to regroup and the confidence that we can do it. So we did it in Game 1 and we did it tonight to start the game. We've done it in a lot of games the last half of the season, where we're up, a team makes a run, we keep our composure and we refocus and get the win."
The Suns closed out the season with a 23-6 record after the All-Star break and went from a team on the playoff bubble to claiming the No. 3 seed in the rugged West and have now backed their long-time torturers from San Antonio into a corner
"I think we feel confident that we can win in different ways," Nash said. "Tonight it might not have been the prettiest of offensive displays that we have had. But I think we have confidence that we can win these games. There is a satisfaction in that.
"We will take them any way we can get them...If we don't have a smooth night offensively, there definitely is a strength that we didn't have in the past."
"We're a little finesse team that plays hard," he said.
And has learned how to grind out ugly wins.
The world is changing.
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