Ups and Downs
UNLESS YOU OWNED A CRYSTAL BALL, predicting what the Suns would do next was next to impossible in the 2000-2001 campaign.
The Suns jumped out of the gate with a NBA-best 7-1 record midway through November, but a disappointing loss to the lowly Washington Wizards on January 27, left Phoenix with a mediocre 24-18 record and not among the top eight teams in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
Off court problems to the trifecta of Jason Kidd, Cliff Robinson and Penny Hardaway, and a recurring knee injury that sidelined Hardaway, arguably the team’s top performer in the 2000 Playoffs, all but four games in 2000-01, prevented the Suns from gaining any consistency.
Fighting for playoff positioning on March 7 against the Sacramento Kings, the Suns held a 28-point lead at home, but went on to lose after being outscored in the second half of that game. It turned out to be a catalyst for the Suns, who called a players-only meeting after losing the next game at Utah. The Suns finished the season 15-6 including an NBA-best 13-4 record after March 20.
Igniting the charge was point guard Jason Kidd, who took on more of the offensive load after his teammates encouraged him to be more selfish. Kidd listened and recorded 30-plus points six times on the year and five times in the last 19 games. In one particular hot stretch, he scored 36, 32 and 31 in three consecutive games in mid-March, prior to which he had never recorded consecutive 30-point games.
“He’s just the kind of guy who will do whatever it takes to win,” said Suns Head Coach Scott Skiles. “And if that means more scoring he’ll try to score more. But there’s nothing new about that. He’s always been that way. Right now he’s playing at a level very few people in the league are playing at, and he’s carrying us.”
Finally, Phoenix’s win at Cleveland on April 7 clinched a spot in the playoffs for the 13th-straight season, the fourth-longest streak in the NBA.
The sixth-seeded Suns (51-31) drew the No. 3 Kings (55-27) in the opening round of the playoffs, a team that had beaten the Suns three of four games in the regular season. A tough matchup, but nonetheless the Suns felt confident they matched up well with the Kings, an athletic team that liked to run, similar to the Suns. In addition, the Suns had the edge in playoff experience, including three players who had played in the NBA Finals – Robinson, Chris Dudley and Mario Elie.
An 86-83 Game 1 upset at ARCO Arena appeared to shift the momentum the Suns' way, but Kidd and crew were unable to capitalize on two double-digit leads in Games 3 and 4 in America West Arena and ultimately lost the series 3-1, and did not advance to the conference semifinals to play the Lakers.
"It's tough. We've been through a lot,” said Elie, an 11-year veteran who started 68 games in place of Hardaway after signing a one-year deal with his former nemesis – the Suns. “You have to give Sacramento a lot of credit. They were the better team. We battled through too much. Those guys were too big. We had our chances and didn't put them away.”
Although sophomore forward Shawn Marion struggled in the postseason, “The Matrix” undoubtedly became one of the NBA’s brightest young talents and was even chosen to represent his country at the 2001 Goodwill Games in Australia.
Marion developed a dependable mid-range jump shot to go along with his highlight film dunks. Not even a frightening fall against the Utah Jazz on Feb. 25, where he suffered a Grade 3 concussion, prevented him from emerging as the team’s leading scorer (17.3) on the season.
“Last year was his first year, so it was a learning process,” said Hardaway of his up-and-coming teammate. “He had to go through the rookie bumps and bruises, and he really didn’t know a lot about the NBA game and what to expect. With having a year under his belt, now he understands what he can do and what he can’t do. And his athleticism has taken him over the hump.”
With the addition of free agent pickup guard Tony Delk, the Suns were the only team in the NBA to have five players with 12.0 points or better. After Marion, Kidd had 16.9, Robinson scored 16.4, Delk recorded 12.3 and Rodney Rogers, who admittedly was not his 1999-2000 NBA Sixth-Man-of-the-Year self, averaged 12.2, down from 13.8 from the previous season.
The Suns got an unexpected lift in midseason when 2000 first round draft pick (25th overall) Iakovos “Jake” Tsakalidis, a big seven-footer with raw skills, was promoted to the Suns’ starting lineup at center. While "Big Jake's" numbers weren’t eye-popping (4.8 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.1 blocks 19.3 minutes in 39 starts), he showed enough potential in his first season playing in the United States to be the Suns’ center for years to come.
“Jake had a good rookie year, " Skiles said. "He showed some flashes of things he may be able to do in the future.”
After the season the Suns acknowledged they weren’t content with just making the playoffs.
"I think most of the time when you start a season you want to win 50 games. We felt like we accomplished that, but we wanted to win more,” Kidd said. “Our season was up and down. I think it was a learning experience for everybody. The big thing is we have a talented team here, but it's just a matter of being consistent which we sometimes weren't."