Back On The Right Track
Coming off a 29-53 season which saw them missing the postseason for just the second time in two decades, not many knew what to make of the Phoenix Suns heading into the 2004-05 NBA season. While All-Star Steve Nash was welcomed back to the Valley with open arms, the question remained just how much he could turn around a struggling ballclub. The answer would come in the form of one of the most remarkable turnarounds in NBA history, as the Phoenix Suns would become only the second team in league history to post a 60-win season following a 50-loss season.
It did not take Nash long at all to be acquainted with his new teammates in Phoenix. The Suns started off 4-0 on the season, racking up victories over Atlanta, Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Chicago despite playing three of those games on the road.
"I told guys back before the season started, buy season tickets," Suns forward Amaré Stoudemire said following the Nets victory. "I had a feeling how this team was going to be. It's the best offense I've witnessed and ever been a part of. It's not just high-scoring and fun to watch, but it's fun to be around these guys."
There was no question the Suns were off to a hot start thanks to their abilities on the offensive end of the floor. With credit for that primarily going to Steve Nash whose distribution of the basketball had a number of players off to career years. Among those players was offseason acquisition Quentin Richardson. The man who would ultimately earn the nickname 'Q' had quickly become a fan favorite in the Valley, thanks to his sweet touch from behind the three-point line. Guard Joe Johnson was also off to a great start, scoring 18 or more points in three of Phoenix's first four games. No player, however, was off to a better start than Nash who a game after scoring 29 points against the Kings, racked up 18 assists against his former Dallas Mavericks teammates. The win over Big D the first of nine consecutive for the Suns who were quickly 13-2 on the season – their best start since 1980.
"We're pretty happy where we are right now and how we have come together," said Head Coach Mike D'Antoni following the Nov. 9 victory over Chicago. "It feels good and the guys have a real good chemistry right now. There will be some tough times ahead, but so far so good."
After a loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Suns managed to string together another impressive winning streak of 11. The most impressive of those victories came in Seattle where two of the league's top teams faced off. The two entered the Friday night affair with a combined 37-7 record, good for the top two records in the league.
Up late in the fourth, Seattle seemed destined to snap Phoenix's then-six-game win streak before the Matrix reloaded and took over. After a 10-4 surge gave the Sonics a 102-95 lead with just over three minutes left, Shawn Marion's three triggered a 10-1 scoring burst which ultimately helped the Suns to a big 112-110 victory.
"It was just my turn," said No. 31 after the win. "We have so many weapons on this team, but it was my turn tonight."
While the victory over Seattle may have been Phoenix's best team effort in the early going, the best individual effort no doubt came less than a month later against the Portland Trailblazers. At just 22 years of age, Amaré Stoudemire enjoyed the game of his career, racking up a career-high 50 points while also pulling down 11 boards.
"Tonight was a pretty good all-around game for me," STAT said. "I wasn't thinking of scoring 50; it just came to me in the flow of the game. It is great to be able to do it against the best players in the world but I think it is just the tip of the iceberg."
Stoudemire became the fourth Sun to score 50 points and the first in exactly four years. At 22 years and 47 days, he had also become the sixth-youngest player to reach the 50 point plateau in NBA history.
"He looked like Wilt Chamberlain out there," Quentin Richardson said. "I've never seen any one hit 50 and miss only seven shots. He also missed seven free throws, so if he learns how to hit free throws, he could get 60. The whole ESPN Top Ten highlights should be his tonight."
Stoudemire and the Suns were rolling and following a 122-107 win over the Eastern Conference-leading Miami Heat, were 31-4 on the season. The 31 wins were two more than they had managed the entire previous season and it was only January. The drastic improvement was a key to why many were hailing Nash a midseason MVP. Against the Heat, the point guard contributed 16 points and 16 assists, but more importantly was helping every player around him.
That's what made losing the point guard to a thigh injury so tough for Phoenix. Without the playmaker in the lineup, the Suns lost six straight games. In just his second game back from the thigh injury, Nash scored a career-high 30 points as Phoenix defeated New Jersey 113-105. STAT pitched in 30 and the Suns finally had that winning taste back in their mouths. It was one which would last as they would go on to win eight of their next nine games.
"It seemed kind of unnatural for us to be on a six-game losing streak," said Stoudemire after the win over New Jersey. "I knew it was just a matter of time before we got to where we were."
Where they were was atop the NBA's Pacific Division thanks to a balanced scoring attack led primarily by the 2003 Rookie of the Year. Stoudemire – who would've been a junior in college had he not made the jump to the NBA - was enjoying his best year to date and gaining notoriety as one of the best players in the league. It's precisely why he was one of three Phoenix Suns invited to the 54th NBA All-Star Game held in Denver.
STAT joined Nash and Marion at the annual midseason exhibition, scoring six points while grabbing nine rebounds in his first All-Star appearance. Phoenix was well represented at All-Star Weekend, as Nash took home honors in the Skills Competition and Richardson edged out Suns teammate Joe Johnson and the rest of the competition in the Three-Point Shootout.
Preparing to head into the second half of play for the season, not everybody was convinced the Phoenix Suns were favorites to take home the title. Fewer, however, argued there was a more entertaining team in the league to watch. They were leading the league in offense and doing it with a fast pace that everybody enjoyed – everybody other than opposing coaches, of course.
The Suns were doing it thanks to a number of weapons, not just Nash, Stoudemire and Marion. Joe Johnson in his fourth year was enjoying a phenomenal season averaging new career-highs in both points and rebounds. Quentin Richardson was money from behind the three-point line and was on pace to break the franchise record for three-point field goals in a season held by Dan Majerle with 199. His accuracy had already set a franchise record for trifectas in a game, that number now standing at nine after his performance at New Orleans on December 9.
The two sharpshooters stepped up in a big way in the February 23 contest against the Los Angeles Clippers. With Nash nursing a strained left hamstring, Johnson scored 22 points for Phoenix, while Richardson pitched in 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Second-year point guard Leandro Barbosa was also instrumental, scoring a season-high 22 points for the Suns in one of his six starts on the year. Six players scored 13 or more points for the Suns in total, including newcomer Jim Jackson who had recently come over in a trade with the New Orleans Hornets.
"This was my best game," Barbosa said. "I learned a lot from Steve and I tried to do some of the things that he does. I just played like I know how to play. I can score when I have the ball, but right now it is more important to make plays for the guys."
Getting that total team effort was an emotional lift that would help Phoenix win 16 of their next 20 games. The hot streak helping the Suns to a 57-17 record overall, good for a 1 ½ game lead over the Heat for the league's top record.
The incredible season being enjoyed by the Suns all seemed secondary on the night of March 18, 2006, as three-time Head Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons posthumously entered the Ring of Honor amid the biggest ROH turnout ever. The likes of Kevin Johnson, Alvan Adams, Tom Chambers, Connie Hawkins, Dan Majerle, Joe Proski, Dick Van Arsdale, Paul Westphal and Charles Barkley all paid homage to the legendary coach who was at the helm in Phoenix in 1970-1972, 1988-1992 and again in 1996.
Although the Suns ultimately lost 110-100 to the Golden State Warriors, the Suns still liked their chances as they headed into the season's home stretch.
"We need every game to keep our race for the No. 1 spot going," Richardson said after a 125-99 April 5 win that knocked out the Lakers from postseason contention.
The Suns' 62-20 record was the best in the league and tied a franchise record. The high-octane offense helped the Suns to the third-greatest turnaround in league history, thanks to the league's highest scoring average (100.4) in a decade. But while their accomplishments were certainly many, the Suns knew there was still work to be done as they headed into the 2005 NBA Playoffs.
With Steve Nash at the controls, the Suns cruised to a 114-103 victory in Game 1 of the opening round vs. Memphis. The playmaker notched a double-double with 11 points and 13 assists while Marion and Richardson scored 26 and 22, respectively.
The Suns went on to average 114 points per game as they went on to sweep the Grizzlies.for the series and were ready to take on their next opponent, whomever they may be. As if scripted perfectly, that opponent would ultimately come in Nash's former team – the Dallas Mavericks.
There were plenty of storylines to enjoy for this Western Conference Semifinals matchup as Nash was not only playing against his former teammates, but one of his best friends in Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki.
"I don't think I would have made it through those (early) years without Steve," Nowitzki said. "He was like having a brother."
Things only got more interesting when the announcement was made official that Nash - who Mavs owner Mark Cuban failed to resign during the 2004 offseason - was named the 2005 NBA MVP. Before Cuban and a sold-out America West Arena, Nash received his award, the first Sun to accomplish the feat since Charles Barkley in 1993.
"I just really want to share this with my teammates," Nash said. "This has been an incredible year for me and for our team. And for me to come to a new situation and be accepted the way I have been by these guys and for us to form a bond of a team the way we have, it has been special."
To earn the honor, Nash had posted the NBA's highest assist average since John Stockton in 1995 and was the only player in the league to average double digits (11.5). When not passing it off to a teammate, the point guard had also proven himself a scoring threat as well, finishing the year as one of only three guards to shoot 50 percent or better from the field.
Nash was not the only Phoenix Suns award winner for the 2005 season. Just two days after he was announced the league MVP, Suns Head Coach Mike D'Antoni was named the 2005 NBA Coach Of the Year. In just his first full season with the Suns, D'Antoni guided the team a remarkable 33-game improvement over last season's record, as well as helping them finish with a league-best and franchise-best 31-10 record on the road - the seventh-best road winning percentage in league history. He was the first Sun to receive the honor since Fitzsimmons in 1989 and said the award symbolized a total team effort.
"I can just remember lying on the coach in Italy at four in the morning and watching the Phoenix Suns play basketball," D'Antoni said. "I was excited to watch them. And I know it is easy to say because I'm here in Phoenix, but it's true. They had the small-ball strategy back when (Danny) Ainge was coaching and (Paul) Westphal. It was a little unconventional, but it was fun to watch."
To round out the trophy hat trick, the man largely responsible for assembling that cast would also be recognized. Bryan Colangelo, in his sixth season as Suns President and 11th as General Manager, was awarded the 2005 NBA Executive of the Year Award.
"I'm just happy to be a part of such a magical season," Colangelo said. "It really was a great situation. All the pieces came together at the right time. A lot of things came together as far as our staff—I really think we have a tremendous coaching staff and they deserve all the credit."
Back on the court, the Suns and Mavericks swapped victories in the first four games of the series. Phoenix was led offensively by Stoudemire who was having a series for the ages. In the first three games of the Western Conference Semifinals, the youngster scored 40, 30 and 37 points for the Suns grabbing 14 or more rebounds in each contest as well. In Game 4 it was Nash taking over offensively, putting up a career-high 48 points albeit in a 109-119 loss. Heading home for Game 5, the Phoenix Suns knew they would need a total team effort if they wanted to take a commanding 3-2 lead in the series.
Without the services of Joe Johnson who suffered a displaced fracture of the left orbital bone in Game 2, the Suns turned to veteran Jim Jackson in Game 5 who got the starting nod. Jackson responded, scoring 21 points while pulling down five boards. Stoudemire meanwhile enjoyed yet another career night scoring 33 points and pulling down a monstrous 18 rebounds. But perhaps no Sun shined brighter than the league MVP who did it all in the 114-108 victory. Nash finished with 34 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists.
"I wasn't expecting Steve to pull down 13 boards tonight," Stoudemire said. "That's impressive on his behalf. He had a great game out there. With the rebounds and the assists and the 34 points as well, he's showing you why he's the MVP."
The Suns were just one game away from the Western Conference Finals, a game which would no doubt be one for the ages. The Mavericks came out red hot on their home court, at one point leading the contest by 16 points in the second half. Steve Nash and the Suns refused to go quietly into the night, however, as Nash caught fire himself in the second half. After cutting the lead to five with less than three minutes to play, the MVP scored an amazing eight points in the final minute of regulation. The brilliant clutch performance sucking the energy out of Big D as Phoenix emerged victorious, 130-126.
"This was an unbelievable series and both teams played great basketball," D'Antoni said. "They showed a lot of heart and played as hard as they could. There were so many big plays, but there were so many little things that made the difference too. Obviously, we had a few guys step up and play big. I can't wait to watch this game on the DVD and enjoy it, because I couldn't enjoy it live."
While the victory was sweet, the Suns knew they didn't have much time to celebrate as they'd be hosting the Spurs and Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals less than 40 hours later.
Despite 37 ppg from Stoudemire, the Suns quickly fell 0-3 in the series before taking their lone win in Game 4, 111-106, thanks to STAT's 31 points and a key defensive stop down the stretch. His numbers improved in Game 5 with 42 points and 16 rebounds, but it wasn't enough as the Spurs advanced to the NBA Finals.
Disappointed but no less determined, the Suns would have to be content with knowing they had plenty to look forward to in 2005-06.
"I hope, I think, we hope that it's just the first step and we got to keep building," D'Antoni said. "We understand that by now San Antonio is a better team, a couple of other teams that are maybe a little bit better. But there's no reason why us being so young and just new together that we can't improve and next year have a better year than this year."