Nash, Marion and Defense Equals Suns' Success

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 30, 2005; 3:30 PM

With the Washington Wizards trailing by one point Wednesday at MCI Center, Gilbert Arenas darted into the lane, where Phoenix Suns forward Boris Diaw rejected his shot and batted the ball directly to guard Steve Nash. Nash pushed it up the court, took a few steps past halfcourt and delivered a pretty alley-oop lob from about 40 feet away to the high-flying forward Shawn Marion for a game-clinching dunk.

A little defense plus some heavy doses of Nash and Marion. That has been the equation for the Suns' surprising success without thunder-dunking Amare Stoudemire, who has been sidelined since October after having microfracture surgery on his left knee. Stoudemire, sporting a snazzy dark gray suit, had a front row seat for the 104-99 win. "It's hard just sitting back and watching these guys," Stoudemire said this week in Washington. "I want to compete and play but I'm hanging in there."

So are the Suns, who aren't expecting Stoudemire to return until February. The bigger story, however, might be that it doesn't seem to matter. At 17-10, the Suns are tied with Cleveland for the fourth-best record in the NBA. They have also snared control of the Pacific Division with the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors beginning to cool down. "Even if they are hot, I don't care," Suns Coach Mike D'Antoni said. "They're going to be up there and we're going to keep this thing going until Amare comes back and we'll see what kind of team we have then. But I believe we can win our division. I believed that from the first day."

Phoenix should actually be closer to San Antonio and Dallas atop the Western Conference, considering the Suns are 0-3 in games decided by three points or less (including their 112-111 loss to the Wizards in Phoenix last week). "I think it's a testament to the type of guys we have that we've been able to sustain this type of performance without our big gun," Nash said.

After losing to San Antonio in five games in the Western Conference finals, the Suns realized they needed to get deeper and tougher. They traded Quentin Richardson to New York for Kurt Thomas, signed Raja Bell as a free agent and instead of losing restricted free agent Joe Johnson to the Atlanta Hawks for nothing, they were able to pull off a sign-and-trade deal and steal Boris Diaw. Thomas has helped supply interior toughness, Bell has joined Nash and Marion in the starting lineup for every game and the 6-foot-8 Diaw has provided valuable minutes at every position -- from point guard and center. "We're a new team. We don't have any continuity from last season," Nash said.

Phoenix isn't on the same pace as last season when they started the season 24-3 with Johnson and Richardson burying three-pointers, Marion providing his frenetic all-around game, Stoudemire ascending to second-team all-NBA status at center and Nash winning the league's most valuable player award. "It was a dream season because we had a great team. We had some terrific talent. You add Joe Johnson and Amare Stoudemire to this team and it's phenomenal," Nash said. "My leadership with that group was why I was the MVP and we had such a great season. We were a phenomenal team and I was awarded individually but it was really because of the concept of team basketball. They carried me to that award because we did it together. It wasn't like I'm doing it anything different this year. I'm playing the same basketball."

Nash admitted that Stoudemire's absence has put more pressure on the team and made his job more difficult. But Nash is averaging a career-high 18.4 points and 10.5 assists -- one fewer than last season when could regularly wait for a pick-and-roll, drop off the ball to Stoudemire and let the defense brace for one of Stoudemire's vicious jack-hammer attacks of the rim.

Since starting the season 4-5, the Suns have won 13 of their past 18 games. Not only are the Suns winning without Stoudemire, but they have also played 16 games without third-leading scorer Leandro Barbosa. They are also tied with Philadelphia for the highest-scoring offense in the league at 102.7 points per game. Marion leads seven players averaging double-figures in scoring at 19.8 points.

That doesn't mean that all is well. After the win against the Wizards, Marion went on an expletive filled rant, expressing frustrations with the Suns' offense. "We don't play like we usually play. This ain't us, honestly," Marion said. "We be walking the ball down the court. Even when we were winning, we weren't pushing the ball like we're capable of. We say we want to run, but we don't do it. We're getting stops, so I don't see why we don't run. Nobody wants to push the ball."

Nash didn't argue with Marion. "You have to look at the personnel and realize maybe it's not a great fit," Nash said. "If it is going to be a fit, it takes time. Guys have been playing a certain style for a long time. To come to our team and expect them to run their butts off every single play is breaking a lot of habits."

The scoring may be down, but the Suns are also a better defensive team, allowing just 96.2 points per game -- almost eight fewer than last season. The Suns held nine consecutive teams less than 100 points during one stretch this season and they're eighth in opponents' field goal percentage at 43.2 percent. "We're a tough team, you know. We're not physically tough, but mentally, we can hang in there," Nash said. "I think that's what makes us a contender for the division even without Amare."

D'Antoni was upset that so many decided to write off his team when Stoudemire went under the knife on Oct. 11. Stoudemire averaged 26 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.63 blocked shots, but D'Antoni feels that he has to remind people that the Suns had much more. "I think they were discounting how good Steve is," D'Antoni said. "He is the most valuable player, but I don't know if people really believe that. For some reason, I don't know why. At the same time, he's really good. Shawn Marion is really good. I knew we had players. It'd be nice to have Amare, but I think we can hold our head above water and be pretty good."

Stoudemire has decided to join the Suns during their five-game road trip, which continues in Charlotte tonight. He is limited to shooting free throws and is expected to start working on his footwork, agility and ball handling next week. He is slightly ahead of the four-to-five month rehabilitation that was expected. But it remains uncertain if he will make a return before the all-star break or shortly thereafter. "I'm feeling a little better," said Stoudemire, who has managed to not lose any muscle, despite bed rest and having to walk on crutches for several weeks. "I'm can tell the progress I'm making but I'm not pressuring myself to get back out there. That allows me to be 100 percent."

The Suns' impressive play can also help Stoudemire take his time. "I hope our run comes when Amare comes back," Nash said. "We're just trying to build and get better. Of course, Amare changes the game. It's the Amare equation: Amare plus us makes us better. We make him better as a team and we grow exponentially."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company