Suns Throwback: Part-Time Player, Big-Time Shot

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by Matt Petersen

Part-Time Player, Big-Time Shot

For NBA players, most offseasons last roughly six months. For Tim Thomas, his was more like an 11-month sabbatical with a three-game interruption.

The 6-10 forward had gone from “untouchable” with the Milwaukee Bucks to traded twice in a 16-month span. The second deal had landed him in Chicago just before the start of the 2005-06 season. Problem was, the Bulls were set on a young core that included Luol Deng, Tyson Chandler, Ben Gordon, Kirk Hinrich and Andres Nocioni.

Thomas’ demotion from full-time starter to bench player lasted just three games, in which he played just 31 total minutes. After that, Chicago told him they no longer required his services. He was still under their employ, but the Bulls told him he could stay at his New York home and simply collect his paycheck.

That’s exactly what he did, until Chicago finally and formally released him on March 1, 2006.

“Nice vacation,” he quipped to former New York Times reporter Howard Beck. “Got to spend all the major holidays home.”

Those comments came six days after he was released. That time frame is important, because the events within it allowed Thomas to be cheerful about his prolonged rest.

Chicago’s decision to release Thomas had not gone unnoticed in a different corner of the NBA world. Over in the Western Conference, Phoenix was hurting, even if it didn’t look like it at first glance. The night Thomas was released, the Suns beat Milwaukee for their eighth consecutive victory and 13th out of their last 15.

Yet despite leading the division by a healthy six games and ranking third in the conference, Phoenix felt vulnerable. All-Star forward Amar’e Stoudemire had been lost before the season to microfracture surgery. In late February, starting center Kurt Thomas was shot down for at least six weeks with a stress fracture in his right foot. Boris Diaw had emerged as surprise and quality option at center, but his size (6-9) and Phoenix’s injuries had left them woefully thin up front.

Once Thomas cleared waivers on March 3, he and the Suns quickly came to terms. That night, he donned a uniform for the first time since November – and scored 20 points in less than 20 minutes.

Turns out the unwanted rest had proven beneficial.

“I’ve probably got the freshest legs in here,” he laughed.

Phoenix would need them before all was said and done. Fatigue had begun to set in for short-handed Suns, and they stumbled to a 12-10 finish to the season. Under then-current NBA rules, their Pacific Division championship had earned them the No. 2 seed in the playoffs. That was a mixed blessing, however. Awaiting them were the rival Los Angeles Lakers, who were peaking just as the Suns were leveling off.

For Phoenix, the first four games of the series were a stylistic nightmare. The Lakers had slowed the tempo to a crawl, neutralizing the Suns’ fast break and punishing their lack of size. Thomas was one of the few bright spots, averaging 15.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.8 steals per. His scorching hot shooting (52.4 percent, 56.5 percent from distance) had produced a signature celebration after each made three in which he waved his hand across his face.

Trailing 3-1 and facing elimination, Phoenix rediscovered its fast-and-furious play in Game 5. The 17-point win, however, had come with a cost. Starting guard Raja Bell’s physical matchup with L.A. star Kobe Bryant came to head. After taking an elbow to the face on one end, Bell retaliated on the other grabbing and slamming Bryant to the ground. He was immediately ejected and, upon league review, suspended for Game 6 in Los Angeles.

While Leandro Barbosa filled in admirably (22 points) as Bell’s starting replacement, Thomas was a one-man wrecking crew off the bench. In front of a hostile crowd eager to dismiss Arizona’s team, the once-discarded veteran had his way inside and out against Laker big men Lamar Odom and Kwame Brown.

Bryant, however, was intent on overcoming Phoenix’s resiliency by himself. The All-Star guard, who finished with 50 points, put the Lakers up three with 30 seconds remaining. Desperate to keep their season alive, the Suns moved the ball rapidly on the following possession. An open Steve Nash three in the corner missed short and caromed to the opposite side of the rim. Shawn Marion, Phoenix’s do-it-all forward, recovered the offensive rebound and whipped the ball to a waiting Thomas just outside the three-point arc.

Brown rushed out to contest. Thomas lost him with a pump fake. Despite Nash – one of the best shooters NBA history – standing open and ready to his left, Thomas took the now-open shot himself. It hit nothing but net with 6.3 seconds remaining.

Teammates on and off the court rushed Thomas as soon as the Lakers called timeout. Their newest and least familiar brother, he had suddenly made the biggest play of the season.

Phoenix rode the adrenaline of that play into overtime, where they prevailed, 126-118.

As for Thomas, he didn’t feel too badly at taking the shot instead of passing to Nash. Over-deference, he felt, was why the Lakers ultimately lost the game (and, eventually, the series).

“It felt good when it left my hands,” he said. “I wasn’t concerned about the atmosphere.

“I felt the Lakers were tight down the stretch. They don’t have too many guys with experience in tehse situations. They wouldn’t take the shots – they kept passing to Kobe.”

As for the teams that passed on Thomas, Phoenix could only thank them.