Mike D’Antoni receives his fair share of criticism for a variety of reasons. Maybe it’s because he uses short benches in the playoffs. Maybe it’s because he turned Amar’e knees into silly putty in New York. Maybe it’s because he wasn’t Phil Jackson in Los Angeles. Maybe it’s because he resembles an American institution in his own right – the Pringles chips man. All viable, and to an extent worthwhile, concerns in their own right, but ponder for a second and realize his entire professional coaching existence would be viewed differently had he led a team to one championship.
Chances are you probably see where I’m going with this, but feel free to hop aboard the magic school bus anyway and revisit the spring of 2007. Cassidy’s “My Drink ‘N My Two Step” was a hit (no, really, it was). Trill Entertainment blessed the world the spiritual number, “Wipe Me Down (Remix).” Lil Wayne was on the cusp of one of the most dominating summers rap had seen before or since with a mixtape and/or feature dropping nearly every 72 hours like clockwork. Meanwhile in the NBA, the flood gates had burst open.
Golden State’s defeat of then-number one seed Dallas meant the race for June was completely up for grabs. This brings the story to the second round matchup between the Spurs and Suns. With Dallas going belly up led by MVP Dirk Nowitzki, this was Phoenix’s year. They lost to the Spurs in 2005 – Nash’s first year in the desert – and the Mavericks the next year without Amar’e Stoudemire. The Suns won 61 games in 2006-07 and were the owners of the most exciting offense professional sports had seen since the early 2000s St. Louis Rams. The series – much like any other postseason – predicated itself on runs and momentum shifts. San Antonio would take a game, only to have Phoenix return the favor.
This is around the time when things get tricky. I have no way to prove the remainder of what’s said here, as much will be based 95% around opinion. I ran the following by David D. who proceeded to give me “the Russell Westbrook face” and simple counter, “They were coached by Mike D’Antoni.” True, MDA is a walking case study of Murphy’s Law in 2013, but by then these 900+ words had already been typed and it was nearing one in the morning. The Phoenix Suns should have been the 2007 world champions.
Here’s the logic.
Game 4 was already in the bag. Phoenix had pulled off an impressive victory in San Antonio behind Steve Nash’s 24 points and 15 assists and Amar’e Stoudemire’s 26 points and nine rebounds. Everything was textbook. Run the clock out and hit the showers to prepare for a flight back to John McCain’s stomping grounds (Arizona). Then, “it” happened.
Robert Horry pulled one of the most dastardly, yet brilliant moves in playoff history by hip checking Steve Nash into the scorer’s table. Tensions were already dicey to begin with involving the two-time MVP. Nash had his nose busted open following a collision with Tony Parker and Bruce Bowen hit Nash in the gonads (balls) the game before. Hard fouls were becoming the norm.
Still, Horry’s hip check was brilliant for one reason. In fact, it has to rank somewhere in the top three of his most clutch playoff moments. The move drew Stoudemire and Boris Diaw away from the bench resulting in automatic suspensions for Game 5. Horry was suspended too, but the chess move had already been played. Who mattered to which team more? Phoenix came out firing in Game 5, even leading by double digits in the first half, but San Antonio chipped back into the lead and eventually won by three.
With STAT and Diaw back for Game 6, Phoenix loses by eight and the dream is dead. Should Phoenix have blown their lead in Game 5? No. But there’s not a soul on Earth capable of convincing otherwise the Suns don’t win Game 5 with Amar’e and head into Game 6 with a 3-2 lead. The pressure of being down 2-3 instead of up 3-2 is night-and-day. According to historical numbers, when the series is 3-2, the team with three is 216-36 (85.7%)! What sucks even more? We wasted a perfectly awesome Amar’e series stat line of 26.4 points and 10.6 rebounds – going blow for blow with Tim Duncan – for naught.
In a parallel world known as Sternth (Stern and Earth put together), Phoenix advances to the Western Conference Finals in 2007 facing Utah. They win because largely off the belief the Jazz couldn’t score with the league’s most powerful offense (110.2 points/game). That and the Nash/Stoudemire pick-and-roll trumps the Williams/Boozer PNR. This only leaves LeBron and the Cavs in the Finals. For as fine a defensive team as Cleveland was, LeBron by himself isn’t enough to match offensive juggernaut and the Cavs eventually lose in fix or six games.
That’s the cliff-notes version of the story which has been constructed over the years for the 2006-2007 Phoenix Suns; a D’Antoni-led team which outlasted Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich and Jerry Sloan en-route to the Finals. A smiling Kanye photographed with Kim Kardashian sounds more believable in 2013. But one flagrant foul – that wasn’t even called against them! – altered the careers of everyone involved. Couple that with the Amar’e injury in 2006 which 187′d him for the entire postseason and World Peace’s put back as time expired in Game 5 of the 2010 West Finals, and the belief this squad was cursed by the basketball gods for one reason or another appears more believable by the minute.
Perhaps the bad karma for Phoenix ultimately lands in their owner Robert Sarver’s hands. Because anytime the opportunities arise to resign Joe Johnson, avoid signing Quentin Richardson and/or Marcus Banks, toss away draft picks which could’ve spawned into some combination of Nate Robinson, Andre Iguodala, Rajon Rondo or Luol Dang, alienate the fan base by defecating on what could have/should have/would have been a potential Western juggernaut with financial frugalness…you just have to do it, right?
Of course you do. And then there’s the “Robert Sarver, Stop Destroying The Phoenix Suns” Facebook page because nothing says “you grind my gears” like a Facebook hate group.
Phoenix should have at least one ring by now. At the end of the day, this all boils down to some weird combination of Horry, Sarver, the universe’s apparent vendetta against D’Antoni and, most importantly, being Ben Wallace’s fault.* The first round’s on me. Make that the first two rounds.
* – Conspiracy theory alert: Nearly every weird moment in the NBA for the next five years after the Malice At The Palace can be traced back to Ben Wallace egregiously overreacting to a Ron Artest foul.