The Italian Job
With Head Coach Mike D'Antoni having such strong ties to the country, Italy seemed the perfect place for the Phoenix Suns to begin Training Camp in 2006. The all-time leading scorer for Olimpia Milano, and voted the best point guard in Italian League history in 1990, D'Antoni was hoping his Suns would experience similar success overseas.
In between team dinners, a number of court dedication ceremonies and a little sightseeing, the Suns did manage to get in a little basketball. The team began the preseason with a victory in Rome and days later were in Cologne, Germany taking on Allen Iverson and the 76ers.
After accumulating tons of frequent flyer miles, the Suns finally tipped off the regular season in Los Angeles on Halloween night against their arch-rival the Lakers. Without LA superstar Kobe Bryant in the mix, many expected the Suns to roll over the Lakers, but that didn't prove to be the case. Although able to jump out to a big lead early, the Suns failed to execute late and fell in the opener, 114-106.
Starting off the campaign 1-5, questions immediately began to surface around a team many had favored to take home its first NBA Championship in franchise history. Following a 119-112 loss to the Dallas Mavericks at home, D'Antoni let it known that the play of his team was not to his expectations either.
"It should have been a playoff game for us, it was for them but not for us and it should have been which is inexcusable," the coach said after the loss. "We're going to figure out what is wrong and we're going to fix it… That's it, we're done playing around."
From that point on, the Suns played with a newfound fire which helped them reach two franchise best winning streaks before the All-Star Weekend. The first of which began in Golden State on November 20, during a nail-biting contest against the Warriors.
Tied with 4.1 seconds to go, Steve Nash hit a three which brought the Suns a big 113-110 victory. A team which struggled in close contests during the 2005-06 regular season had already captured one on the road thanks in large part to their two-time MVP.
"That one wore me down," All-Star Shawn Marion said with a grin. "They played just as fast as we did. They got an athletic team. We made a couple more shots, and that was the only difference."
Victories over the Hornets, Nets, Blazers, Rockets and Bucks followed, with the Kings making their way to US Airways Center on December 5 looking to dethrone the Suns from their six-game win streak. Phoenix, however, had other ideas and managed to make it look easy in a 127-102 win. Nash led the way with 11 points and 20 assists, while Marion and sixth man Leandro Barbosa contributed 23 and 26 points respectively. Pat Burke also provided a big performance off the Phoenix bench with three shots from beyond the arc. But perhaps no statistical line was more exciting to Suns fans than that of Amaré Stoudemire's, who finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds in just over 30 minutes of play.
Following his return from two separate knee surgeries which kept him sidelined for most of the 2005-06 season, many weren't sure what to expect when STAT returned for the start of the 2006-07 campaign. In just the second month of the season, the All-Star was beginning to provide answers while earning himself additional playing time in the process. Those extra minutes would certainly prove to be of use in Phoenix's next contest, a December 7th matchup against the New Jersey Nets.
The contest began a five-game Eastern Conference road trip for the Suns, whose win streak had now reached seven games. Like he had in Golden State to begin the streak, Nash again kept the ball rolling thanks to some late game heroics. His remarkable three-pointer as time expired forced the first of two overtimes in a game which would see 318 points, 34 lead changes and 21 ties before all was said and done. When the dust finally settled, it was the Phoenix Suns who remained standing with a 161-157 victory.
"I think we can go home and turn on Classic NBA," D'Antoni said following the affair. "It will be on there already. That's the best game I have ever seen."
Nash, who finished with 42 points and 13 assists, agreed the contest was one for the ages.
"It was a crazy game. They decided to run with us tonight. Both teams deserved to win, we were lucky to come out on top."
The Suns would finish the road trip a perfect 5-0 and returned to the US Airways Center on the heels of a 12-game win streak. Ironically enough, the team there waiting for them was the Golden State Warriors, the same team Phoenix had begun their streak against nearly a month ago. As it had been in November, the December 20th matchup was one not decided until the game's final moments with Boris Diaw's triple-double and Stoudemire's 25 points and 10 rebounds the difference in yet another victory.
A home win against the Toronto Raptors would mark a 15th-straight win overall for the Suns, surpassing the franchise mark they had set during the 1992-93 season. While the Raptors provided some bite early, it was apparent late that nothing could stop the Suns' date with destiny en route to a 115-98 win.
"We're really happy with the 15 wins, they're excited and they should be," D'Antoni said of his ballclub. "I know it's something that has never been done in 37 years and we are still on the streak."
STAT agreed, "It's the best thing I've ever been a part of in my career and it's definitely a great sign of us improving and playing well together. A great accomplishment."
While it appeared nobody could stand in the way of the Suns extending their streak to 16 in Denver, Mother Nature managed to do just that. Nearly two feet of snow in the Mile High City forced Governor Bill Owens to declare a State of Emergency, the act prompting the NBA to postpone the Suns-Nuggets game scheduled for that evening.
The blizzard not only delayed a potential 16th-straight win, but even worst, forced the Suns to temporarily play impromptu Gilligan's Island castaways in their hotel.
"We were definitely stranded and I got to know our hotel like none other," assistant coach Phil Weber laughed. "We never left, stranded at the Westin Hotel and there was definitely no Ginger."
The Suns did ultimately make it back to the Valley, literally just in time to come up short of continuing their win streak against the Washington Wizards. The streak was over, but D'Antoni and company still had plenty of reason to be optimistic.
"It was a great game and you have to take your hats off to them. Now it's just a matter of going out there and starting another streak."
As if he had seen it in his crystal ball, the prophet slash head coach truly hit the nail on the head. Following a defeat in Dallas, the Suns began another win streak on December 29 against the Knicks – this one even more impressive than the first.
As was the case with the prior streak, this one didn't come without some late-game heroics as well, particularly during a January 2nd contest in Chicago. Trailing at one point by double digits, the Suns battled back and found themselves within two with 5.2 seconds remaining. While everybody expected the ball to go to Nash, it was Phoenix's other point guard, Leandro Barbosa, taking and making the game-winning shot from beyond the three-point arc. Barbosa's teammates tackled him towards the Suns bench as the "Brazilian Blur" wore a look of shock after having hit the biggest shot of his NBA career.
Fitting that the shot would come in what was a career-year all around for Barbosa, who averaged highs in points, assists, rebounds, steals and minutes played. Having scored 20 or more points just 13 times in his first three NBA seasons, LB broke the barrier a career-high 33 times, helping the Suns to a 25-8 record in those contests. His contributions off the bench would ultimately help him become the fourth player in franchise history along with Eddie Johnson, Danny Manning and Rodney Rogers to capture the Sixth Man of the Year Award.
The Suns rode the momentum of "Starbosa's" big shot, as victories against Toronto, Miami, Golden State, Seattle, Cleveland and Orlando followed. While new heroes seemed to emerge on a nightly basis for Phoenix, the usual suspects were also making key contributions.
In a 109-90 victory over the Cavaliers, Nash dished out 21 assists in just over 30 minutes of play. In Memphis on January 15th, Stoudemire dominated the paint and finished with 42 points in just over 36 minutes of work. By the time the Suns reached Washington on January 23, they had won 13-straight contests. They had also grown some pretty impressive beards thanks to a locker room bet which insured players wouldn't shave until the streak came to an end.
"It was something we talked about doing during the first streak in December," Head Athletic Trainer Aaron Nelson said. "Sean Marks had brought it up to us as something he'd done in San Antonio, but we didn't want to change anything that far in."
The Suns gave it a go this time around, however, with participants not only including the training staff, but players Raja Bell, Pat Burke, Boris Diaw, Jumaine Jones, Sean Marks and the two-time MVP Steve Nash. Dropping out before the streak had come to an end would cost players more than just flak. Those who shaved before the team's next loss would be forced to pay $20 to those still maintaining their new look.
"Some of the guys can't really grow a beard, so it gets a little sloppy," Burke said. "We've nicknamed them 'Patches', those guys who just have patches of hair. Our trainer Mike Elliot though, his was phenomenal. He's a Chuck Norris look-a-like."
Guard Raja Bell laughed, "Nobody looked good. A bunch of guys looked scary. Anybody with a full beard to me is scary."
The Suns had become scary in more ways than one throughout the streak, thanks in part to their high-speed offense and "razor-sharp" shooting. On January 28, the Suns again defeated the Cavaliers, the new franchise mark standing at an astounding 17 – a mark which tied the Suns for seventh best on the NBA's all-time list.
"We have fun with it, we talk about it, proud of what we're doing," D'Antoni said. "But if it gets broken up, it gets broken up. I just think we're happy with the way we're playing and the camaraderie and the chemistry is good."
The streak would officially come to an end in Minnesota, following a 44-point performance from former league MVP Kevin Garnett. Although disappointed with the loss, those still in the contest did not wait long to reach for the clippers.
"We were going to work on those beards within five minutes," strength-and-conditioning coach Erik Phillips said. "It was me, equipment manager Jay Gaspar, Mike and Aaron at the end, and we definitely didn't hesitate to get rid of the Fu-Manchu look."
Following the elimination of the Fu-Manchu look, the Suns proceeded to be roundhoused into the All-Star break, losers of three straight. While injuries had taken their toll on players like Nash, the Suns still managed to send a number of representatives to the All-Star Game in Las Vegas, including Head Coach Mike D'Antoni, Amaré Stoudemire and Shawn Marion.
The front court teammates played well in the West's 153-132 victory, STAT nearly earning himself MVP honors with a 29-point, nine-rebound effort. The Matrix also finished in double digits in his UNLV homecoming with 18 points and eight rebounds of his own.
The Suns entered the second half of the season healthy and hungry, earning victories in 11 of their first 12 contests following the break – none of which was more impressive than a March 14th showdown in Dallas against the Mavericks.
For months now it had appeared Phoenix's December 7th matchup against New Jersey would go down in the books as the NBA's game of the year. As they had all year, however, the Suns somehow managed to outdo themselves with yet another double-overtime thriller for the ages.
Much like the aforementioned contest in New Jersey, the Suns again appeared to be heading towards a defeat on the road, trailing by double digits with just a minute remaining. Nash, however, donned his superhero cape late as the "Canadian Kid" caught fire and forced the first of two extra sessions.
In the extra periods, it was Stoudemire taking over, adding 41 points and 10 rebounds in the big 129-127 victory. The often overlooked Marion was also a key for Phoenix, finishing with an impressive all-around line which included 15 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots. His biggest contribution no doubt came on the rebound which set up Nash for the game-tying three in regulation.
"When there's still time on the clock, you've still got a chance to win the game," Marion said following the win. "That's something you've got to have, the mentality and focus, and we did."
The Suns would need to maintain that mentality and focus entering the 2007 NBA Playoffs, where they would face off against their rival Los Angeles Lakers for a second consecutive postseason.
Unlike they had in the previous postseason, Phoenix made quick work of Los Angeles, thanks in large part to the brilliant play of Barbosa who scored 26 points in both Game One and Game Two.
"(Brazilian Blur) is a really weak nickname," Lakers Head Coach Phil Jackson said of Barbosa. "Couldn't you call him something better than that? Blur doesn't even designate how fast this guy is. He's even faster than that."
Bell was instrumental in the close-out Game 5 victory, after just hours earlier having become a new, proud parent. Bell provided an emotional lift at the US Airways Center where he had been considered a game-time decision.
"It was great. Obviously I'm very excited for Raja; all of us are all so excited," Nash said. "We'd rather have him out there, but at the same time, his baby is healthy and his wife is doing fine so it kind of worked out perfectly."
Like Barbosa, Bell was also recognized for his regular season efforts during the postseason. The defensive straightjacket was named to the All-NBA Defensive Team for the first time in his career, while Nash and Stoudemire were honored with appearances on the All-NBA First Team.
With the Lakers again having been disposed of, the Spurs were now waiting in the wings – a Spurs team which had eliminated Phoenix from the playoffs in two of their last three appearances. With the Dallas Mavericks having been eliminated by the Golden State Warriors in the opening round, many felt the Phoenix-San Antonio matchup would ultimately decide the winner of the NBA Finals.
That was good news for San Antonio fans who watched the Spurs exit the US Airways Center with a Game 1 victory on May 6. Nash scored 31 for the Suns, but missed a crucial 45 seconds in the final minute because of a bloody cut on his nose. San Antonio took advantage of the captain's absence and emerged 111-106 victors.
With their backs against the wall, the Suns came out hungrier in Game 2, jumping all over the Spurs early and defeating them by 20 points in front of a capacity crowd. Nash finished with 20 points and 16 assists, while Stoudemire pitched in 27 points and nine rebounds.
The Spurs did not appear phased by the blowout, returning home to win a close contest, 108-101. A series which had already been aggressive seemed to only get more physical, as the Spurs found a way to contain Nash and keep him scoreless in the first half of play.
"He struggled early, but at the same time I think he was getting everybody involved," Marion said of Nash's play. "Regardless of what he shot in the first half, we still had a chance to win this game. We were still right there."
The Suns were facing a must-win game when they took the court in Game 4. Players understood that falling behind 3-1 to a team as disciplined and as talented as the Spurs could not be an option. But despite the solid effort, Phoenix still found itself trailing by 11 points late in the ballgame.
As they had all season, the Suns battled back and left the Spurs stunned after an improbable comeback victory. Unfortunately, Phoenix's come-from-behind win would not be the story of the evening. That would come in the Robert Horry flagrant foul on Nash which earned him an ejection from the ballgame and caused Amaré Stoudemire and Boris Diaw to leave their seats on the bench.
For his actions, Horry would be suspended for each of the next two contests in the series. STAT and Diaw were also disciplined, however, and each would miss the pivotal Game 5 back in Phoenix.
Shorthanded without two of their primary low-post players, the Suns put on one of the gutsiest performances the game has seen in quite some time – at least for three quarters that is. In the fourth and final quarter, the Suns simply appeared to run out of gas and were outscored by the Spurs, 32-23. The 88-85 loss was heartbreaking to Suns fans who for three quarters watched their team lay it all on the line. Knowing they would be back at full strength for Game 6 in San Antonio, Phoenicians could only hope they'd be seeing their team return home for a decisive Game 7.
That Game 7 never came in the Western Conference Semifinals. The Spurs took care of business in San Antonio, eliminating the Suns after a 114-106 victory. For the Suns, it was another season in which they fell just short of their ultimate goal – an NBA Championship. But while the season may have fallen short in terms of a trip to the Finals, it wasn't one without many lessons learned. Lessons which no doubt could play a role come the 2007-08 campaign.
"I think we just got to understand how precious each possession is and how we have to play defense as a collective group – we have to know our strategies," Stoudemire said following Game 6. "From this series as a young group, we are ready to take the next step and learn from all angles. It starts now – we have to get over this and get ready for next season. It takes a lot of hard work to get back to the playoffs, it takes lots of dedication and studying."
As he always has throughout his NBA career, STAT backed up his Game 6 words with actions. Within a couple weeks of that tough loss in San Antonio, the All-Star was again working out in Phoenix at the US Airways Center. The center no doubt again looking to be the picture of dedication as the Suns prepared themselves for another NBA season.