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Mike Wise

The Other Beautiful Game

By Mike Wise
Monday, February 21, 2005; Page D01


Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion know the purists hate this game. They wish extinction on the crossover dribble and the off-the-backboard, windmill dunk. It is anathema to the NBA they once knew.

But what to do, wish for the San Antonio Spurs and the Detroit Pistons to close down the lane and perimeter on each other, until the NBA Finals turns into a slog of an unwatchable scrum?

"The most attractive way to play, usually, is probably the way the game was meant to be played," said Steve Nash, shown driving past Gilbert Arenas. (John Gress -- Reuters)

_____From The Post_____
Allen Iverson leads the East over the West, 125-115.
Mike Wise: The Suns' mix of stars create a beautiful game.
Notebook: The Sonics' Ray Allen feels the media trumpets too many negatives in the NBA.
_____NBA Basics_____
Team Index
NBA Schedules
NBA Section

The 54th All-Star Game had its usual lot of uncontested dunks and multimillionaires signing non-aggression pacts on defense. But as the NBA's annual weekend of excess came to a close, it also had perhaps a model team for the future: The Phoenix Suns, a perfect melding of young talent and old-fangled basketball values. Nash finds the open man, Stoudemire and Marion and their teammates cut and move, and together they make up a pretty mosaic.

"I think the league needs diversity and balance regardless, so it's great to have teams that play different styles," Nash said prior to last night's game. "It's the most attractive way for the fans. In my mind, the most attractive way to play, usually, is probably the way the game was meant to be played."

Nash added, "I don't discredit other methods, and obviously in today's day and age where coaching is so advanced, scouting is so advanced, the control factor by coaches is so heightened that they want to control every play offensively and defensively.

"It takes away from the beauty of the game, but maybe not necessarily the effectiveness. The championship teams are definitely good at grinding it out. So there's a balance there to be struck I think, and hopefully we'll find that balance. But hopefully the league will find it as well."

The problem with the aesthetic quality of the game is there are essentially two kinds of NBA teams: no-defense, transition teams like the Suns, the Wizards, the Sacramento Kings and the Seattle SuperSonics, and lock-down, half-court squads like the Spurs, Pistons and the Houston Rockets. The more the running teams can get an important stop and the more defensive teams score, the more the NBA will generate genuine rivalries.

As it is, many of the league's observers think it is impossible for a team like Phoenix to advance very far in the postseason. Playoff basketball is half-court, bump-and-grind basketball, and running teams are often ground to a halt by May.

"Is Steve Nash still going to be there?" Gregg Popovich, the Spurs' coach, asked rhetorically when asked if the Suns could advance with their style. "If they don't trade Steve Nash, they'll play the same way. They're still going to go up and down the court, playing the way they play. I don't see why they can't be successful in the playoffs. There's no rule you have to play a certain way."

Much of the weekend was a referendum on how Phoenix and its players are changing the league. The Suns dominated All-Star Saturday. Nash won the skills competition, a dribbling and shooting exhibition that featured some of the game's quickest guards. Quentin Richardson thrillingly won the three-point shootout on his last attempt, and Stoudemire finished second in the dunk competition to Atlanta's Josh Smith.

Two of the dunks Stoudemire completed were assisted by Nash, who took a pass off the backboard from Stoudemire and headed the ball back to his teammate for one mesmerizing slam. Like the soccer player he once was, Nash used his feet for another pass to Stoudemire.

Nash embraces the angles and the possibilities like a pool shark, turning what has become a power game into a fluid, skill-driven discipline. If the tennis masses want fewer 140-mph aces and more baseline rallies, the knowledgeable basketball fan wants less raw athletic ability and more creativity and improvisation. They want Stoudemire wheeling in the paint, contorting his 6-foot-10 body until he slips past a bigger, stronger center. They want Marion and Richardson flying toward the rim with a mind to do something they've never done before in midair. They want Nash leaving it for all of them on the break.

He found his teammates early last night. Nash was the point guard who gets the ball to teammates in an exhibition the way Isiah Thomas, John Stockton and Magic Johnson used to include everyone. The East closed out the West, 125-115, in what amounted to another occasionally entertaining exhibition. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant avoided each other's gaze, holding onto their resentment more tightly than the basketball. But everywhere else at Pepsi Center it was one big, fraternal gathering, a celebration of what it is to be young, fabulously rich and talented.

Allen Iverson won the most valuable player award, and afterward the players cleaned out their lockers and returned to their teams for the season's final 30-odd games.

Three of those players were Nash, Stoudemire and Marion. The Spurs are probably too good and big. The chances of the Suns getting to the Finals have to be fairly slim. But they will get into one of those wild shootouts over six or seven games with either the Sonics or the Kings, and every hoop junkie will remember that series and wish others were the same. Even the purists who hate all-star games.

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