By Brad G. Faye, Suns.com
Following a franchise-tying-record 62 wins and a trip to the Western Conference Finals the season prior, the Phoenix Suns headed into the 2005-06 campaign with even higher hopes.
Sticking with the All-Star core of NBA MVP Steve Nash, Shawn Marion and Amaré Stoudemire, the Suns had reason to remain optimistic with offseason acquisitions like defensive specialist Raja Bell and big man Kurt Thomas joining the organization. Critics were a little less than enthusiastic, skeptical that a team with only a handful of returning players would gel right off the bat.
The Suns encountered their first major hurdle in training camp when it was announced Stoudemire would miss at least half the season due to knee surgery. Groans of "Wait until next season" were heard all across the Valley as experts on the national scale debated whether Phoenix could win 20 games, let alone quality for the postseason. Suns Head Coach Mike D'Antoni – who still predicted a 50-win season - had other ideas.
With a 4-5 record to tip off the season, the Suns went on a nine-game winning streak to close out November and get off to a hot December start. With victories over the likes of Toronto, Houston, New Jersey and Indiana, Phoenix's 97.8 points per game scoring average may not have been at the same league-leading pace as the previous season. The bottom line remained, however, they were getting the same results.
"I think we've played some good games," said Shawn Marion, following the win over the Pacers. "I think we go out there and take the challenge of manning up and guarding each other's man. The offense is clicking, so it's definitely a plus when the defense is clicking on all cylinders."
The streak also featured the Suns' first blowout win of the season – a 130-85 win over the Trail Blazers that saw eight players score in double figures. Much of the scoring was thanks to newcomer Boris Diaw, who dished out a career-high 13 assists.
Diaw – acquired during the offseason trade that sent Joe Johnson to Atlanta - was a relative unknown who only logged 4.8 points, 2.3 assists and 2.6 rebound averages the prior season with the Hawks. The Frenchman quickly showed the league and Suns fans he was not the same player. With a newfound confidence, a strong supporting cast and most importantly minutes, Diaw quickly became a viable option to Suns Head Coach Mike D'Antoni and his up-tempo system.
"It is important that Raja and I take over the point when Steve is out of the game right now," said Diaw, following his big-time performance against Portland. "Leandro will be back soon though, and take over that position again."
Thankfully, injuries weren't what Leandro Barbosa would most be remembered for during the 2005-06 season. Despite missing 25 games due to various injuries, the third-year point guard put together a career year in Phoenix, averaging new career highs in points, assists and rebounds. His improved play was in large part credited to new assistant coach Dan D'Antoni, who took the Brazilian Blur under his wing.
All season long, someone would step up to the challenge when a teammate was forced to miss time due to injury. In a December victory over the SuperSonics, newcomer Eddie House came off the bench and burned Seattle for 20 points, helping the fast-shooting guard quickly become a fan favorite in the Valley.
"I'm just out there playing and trying to contribute," said House after the victory. "I just want to help our team win. Coach always encourages shooting the basketball, and when you're making shots, you're inclined to take even more."
In a New Year's Eve overtime victory in Chicago, it was Raja Bell doing his best to help the team win, scoring 19 points - nine of which came from beyond the three-point arc.
When Bell signed with the Suns during the offseason, he was hailed as a defensive straightjacket capable of shutting down the most dangerous of opponents. In a conference with sharpshooters like Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen and Jason Richardson, that reputation was certainly more than welcome. Little did many know that Bell would soon put himself among those names in terms of three-point shooting capability, as well, finishing third in the league in three-pointers.
Riding high off their overtime victory in Chicago, the Phoenix Suns continued what was one of their longest road trips of the season in New York. As they ended 2005, the Suns would begin 2006 with another overtime affair – this time against the Knicks. This one proved to be a triple-overtime effort, one which found the Suns on the losing end, 140-133. The night still proved a career night for a number of players despite the loss. Steve Nash finished with a new career-high 22 assists to go along with his 28 points. Marion meanwhile contributed a new career-high 39 points, as well as 14 boards. Efforts like this from Phoenix's dynamic duo kept both on a number of All-Star ballots as well as involved in MVP talks.
Both Nash and Marion represented the Suns in Houston for the All-Star Game, Nash getting his first nod as a starter in the affair while the Matrix was making his third appearance overall. Both made good of their minutes, Nash dishing out six assists while Marion nearly had a double-double with 14 points and eight rebounds. After the East victory, the two fielded questions not only on Phoenix's hot play but the idea that Nash could be heading towards his second straight MVP trophy. After many had dubbed the Suns a sub-20 win team, critics now had Nash the top candidate for league MVP along with Detroit's Chauncey Billups and long-time friend and former teammate Dirk Nowitzki. Nash insisted, however, his focus was not on MVP hardware but on closing out the season strong in route to an NBA Championship trophy.
The second half of that quest began against the Celtics in Phoenix following All-Star Weekend. Marion again huge in the victory with 44 points and 15 rebounds. The win marked the fifth straight for Phoenix and would be one of 11 consecutive victories overall. Marion led the Suns in scoring in six of those 11 wins and led them in rebounding in all but one.
"We are coming together more now with the injuries and all and we're just playing ball," said Marion, following a victory over Milwaukee. "We are playing good ball right now and we just got to keep it going."
The Suns were the hottest team in the NBA and again its best on the offensive end of the court. Little did anyone know at the time, however, even more help would be on the way.
Prior to their March 3 contest against the Orlando Magic, the Phoenix Suns signed veteran Tim Thomas to bolster their bench. The forward not only played his first game in a Suns uniform, but managed to score 20 points, as well. The performance was a surprise to everybody, including the league's MVP.
"The addition of Tim Thomas was pretty seamless," Nash said. "He's going to get better and better as understand what we're trying to do. I'm amazed that the guy can come in after not playing for so long and not even practice with us and get 20 points. I think he'll get more and more comfortable with what we're trying to do."
The Suns got another shot in the arm just a few weeks later. Stoudemire, who had yet to play all season, announced he would return to the Phoenix lineup in a March 23 matchup against the Blazers. Excitement seemed to be at an all-time high in Phoenix as a team which was already sitting atop its division was now awaiting the return of one of the league's most talented superstars.
STAT did not disappoint in his return to action. Against the Portland, STAT posted 20 points and nine rebounds in his first action since the 2005 NBA Playoffs. The balanced Suns ballclub was now 46-21 and looking to once again bring home the Pacific Division title.
"I felt good out there, I felt real good," Stoudemire said. "When I first started, I just wanted to get myself going. I was a little hyped right before the game started, and once the adrenaline got to pumping and I got that first shot to go down, everything was pretty cool from there."
Stoudemire's return, however, was short lived. After just three ballgames, it was announced he'd be shut down for the season. So while Phoenix indeed appeared playoff bound for a second straight season, they knew they'd be without the superstar for the duration of the 2006 campaign.
Still leading the Pacific Division, optimism was still high for Phoenix. Instead of lowering their heads and calling it a season, the Suns bounced back with victories in Indiana and Toronto, scoring a combined 254 points in the ballgames.
"I'm going to say something pretty prophetic," smiled D'Antoni after the win over Indiana. "We played pretty well. I thought Shawn Marion came out and played an incredible game. And it was good to see James Jones come back here and get out of his slump. I think tonight we got over the hump. I thought we did a hell of a job tonight."
Marion added, "You can't win every game. We want to come out there and leave it on the floor, you don't know what the outcome will always be, but we came out the last two games with energy, ran the floor and forced the tempo of the game and played our style of play."
The Suns worked their way to a second straight Pacific Division title following a Clippers loss to the Lakers on April 9. Qualifying for 16 of the last 18 postseasons, the league's highest scoring team was the club nobody wanted to face in the Opening Round of the NBA Playoffs. That included a Lakers ballclub they had defeated three out of four times during the regular season. Like it or not, however, the Phoenix Suns were precisely who L.A. was going to get to start the 2006 NBA Playoffs.
The US Airways Center was rocking for Game 1 of the Opening Round and with good reason. While the league's top scorer Kobe Bryant had enjoyed personal success all season, the Suns knew as long as they could contain his teammates they had a good shot of advancing to the next round. Bryant and the Lakers came out with a new game plan though, taking not only the Suns but the entire NBA by surprise.
Bryant who'd always had a shoot first, pass second reputation was getting teammates like Lamar Odom, Luke Walton and Kwame Brown involved. That team play helping Los Angeles to a 3-1 series lead and a chance to close out Phoenix at home. With their backs against the wall, the Suns came to the arena ready for Game 5, outscoring the Lakers behind Boris Diaw's team-high 25 points. Three Suns surpassed the 20-point mark as Phoenix avoided elimination – something they would have to do two more times in order to win the series.
That task grew even more difficult when the announcement was made Suns guard Raja Bell would be forced to miss the affair as a result of a Game 5 clothesline to Bryant. The Suns would now be without not only their best defensive player and arguably most reliable outside shooter for what already seemed like a monumental task – winning at the STAPLES Center.
Game 6 in Los Angeles proved to be one for the ages. The sold-out Lakers crowd were ready to see their team advance to what would be an all Los Angeles Western Conference Semifinals against the Clippers. The question was whether or not the Suns were ready to force a Game 7 back in Phoenix. The answer proving to be an emphatic "yes." Down three with just seconds remaining, Marion grabbed a critical offensive rebound and found Tim Thomas outside for a three that not only tied the score, but paved the way for the Suns' eventual overtime victory and a Game 7.
"It just feels good," said Thomas after Game 6. "Just to know that we've got home court advantage going back home, coming here and getting the game that we needed, it just feels good right now."
With the Suns returning home and riding the momentum of Game 6, the Lakers didn't seem to stand a chance. The Suns came out running and gunning early, led by Leandro Barbosa's game-high 26 points. Boris Diaw – who earlier in the series had been given the NBA's 2006 Most Improved Player Award – was also impressive, finishing the contest with 21 points, nine assists and six rebounds en route to a 121-90 win and a trip to the Western Conference Semifinals vs. the Clippers.
"I am going to steal a line from Disney and say it's a small world after all," D'Antoni said during the postgame press conference. "I guess small guys can play. That was as about as good as we could play. Every one of our guys… I can't pick out one of our guys. All of them had an amazing game."
Bell added, "For us to stick together the way we did and come out here tonight and really put it all on display for our home crowd, who has been great throughout the whole season and the playoffs—it couldn't have been written any better."
It especially couldn't have been written any better for Suns captain and All-Star Steve Nash, who took home his second consecutive MVP trophy.
"I have to admit that I feel a little bit uncomfortable," Nash said. "To be singled out amongst all these great players two years in a row, I have to pinch myself. I can't believe I'm standing here today. I couldn't believe it last year. To do it again is even more difficult to understand."
What wasn't difficult to understand were the numbers, almost all of which had been improved upon from Nash's 2005 MVP campaign. The Canadian posted career-highs in scoring, rebounds and field goal percentage and became only the fourth player in NBA history to shoot at least 50 percent or better from the field, 40 percent or better from behind the arc, and 90 percent from the charity stripe while meeting all the statistical minimums. He also joined Hall of Famer Magic Johnson as the only point guards in league history to capture multiple MVP trophies and became one of only nine players to win the award in consecutive seasons.
The award marked Phoenix's second league honor of the season. Diaw took home the league's Most Improved Player Award after nearly tripling his scoring and rebounding numbers over the previous season and almost doubling his assist numbers. The France native headed into training camp listed as a backup guard but would ultimately emerge as a starting power forward and sometimes center. Diaw did whatever Phoenix asked of him all season long and had the hardware as a result.
Although the Suns finally had the Lakers in their rearview mirror, they were not done with the city of Los Angeles yet - having to contend with the 47-win Clippers. As the Suns would ultimately discover, they also weren't done with seven-game series either. The two Pacific Division ballclubs went back and forth the first four contests, with each team winning once on their opponent's home floor. The scenario set up Game 5 in Phoenix, with the winner taking a 3-2 series lead and bringing itself within one game of the Western Conference Finals.
The contest was an instant classic, providing the quintessential playoff roller coaster ride. Shawn Marion posted a 36-point, 20-rebound effort, but Los Angeles managed to force overtime thanks to their superstar forward Elton Brand who would finish with 33 and 15 of his own. Down three with just five seconds remaining in overtime, Phoenix had the ball and having already nailed more three-pointers than any team in NBA history, fans still had reason to "bell-ieve."
With the Clippers bench right in his ear, the falling-out-of-bounds Bell shot what appeared to be a prayer. With the season on the line, that prayer was answered and after a second overtime, the Phoenix Suns had a 3-2 series lead.
"The Clippers kind of took away our passing lanes, so Mike drew another play up and I just caught it and shot it," Suns guard Raja Bell said. "I didn't have a whole lot of time to think about it, but if felt good as soon as it left my hand.
"I'm not one of those guys who asks for the ball, but when he drew it up for me, I was excited. I thought I was going to hit it."
Nash added, "What can you say about the guy, he is a warrior. He plays so hard, he is such a great competitor and his game is improving offensively. He is a great shot maker and he wants the ball in the fourth quarter when the game is on the line, which is a tribute you can't give to everybody. And he is a great teammate."
With L.A. bouncing back to win Game 6, the Suns found themselves playing a second Game 7 in as many series. From the opening tip-off, the Suns ran away with the contest and the series with a 127-107 win. Next up for the Suns were the Dallas Mavericks in the Conference Finals.
It didn't take long for Nash to catch against his old team, hitting everywhere from outside the three-point line to banking unbelievable shots inside. His hot streak couldn't have come at a better time for the Suns after a three-point play by Mavericks guard Devin Harris gave Dallas a 114-105 lead with 3:43 to go. Nash then scored Phoenix's next 10 points before Diaw provided the icing on the cake with the biggest shot of his young career. A 10-foot turnaround jumper by Diaw with under a second remaining put Phoenix up for good and earned them a Game 1 victory in Dallas.
"Another normal night in the NBA," joked D'Antoni after the victory. "A heck of a game and both teams up and down and we really wanted to make the last shot. And that about sums it up. They played well and we shot the ball pretty good. You know 55 percent, but we can shoot it better. Played a lot of heart and desire, came up with the big plays at the end."
The win did come at a price, however. The Suns lost Raja Bell late in the fourth quarter with what was feared to be a series-ending injury. Without the feisty guard in the lineup, Phoenix dropped the next two contests to Dallas and trailed 2-1 in the series. Facing the possibility of a 3-1 deficit, Game 4 had a very strong do-or-die feel at the US Airways Center. That coupled with the last-second announcement that their star shooting guard was back helped brighten the mood in the Valley.
Raja Bell not only dressed for Game 4 of the Conference Finals, he started. The emotional kick start helped the Suns to yet another blowout Phoenix win, this time by a final score of 106-86. Nine players scored for the Suns, including Kurt Thomas who received his first taste of postseason play in purple and orange. The victory was huge emotionally for Phoenix, but would unfortunately be their last of the 2006 campaign. The Suns dropped the next two contests against the Mavs, falling to them in six games en route to elimination.
"I think we laid it on the line and we just ran out of juice at the end," said Marion after Game 6. "It hurts. But at the end of the day, we have to hold our heads up high. We accomplished things that everybody said we couldn't."