PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns are supposed to be an aging NBA afterthought, a franchise that a couple of years ago saw its best title shot slip away.
Few could have foreseen the way this team has bolted out of the starting gate. With Victoria’s Steve Nash as good as ever, Amare Stoudemire on the mend and an array of sharpshooters firing away, the Suns are off to an 11-3 start.
Going into Tuesday night’s action, coach Alvin Gentry’s team was tied for the best record in the league.
“It’s a lot of fun. My teammates are great,” Nash said. “We’re playing in a fun style where we move the ball a lot. We’re not really a fastbreak team like we used to be but the ball still moves I think the guys are just playing hard for one another.”
“We enjoy each other on the court and off and it makes all the difference in the world when you have that singular vision and everyone buys into it.”
Nobody was talking that way a year ago, when many players, including Nash, weren’t buying into new coach Terry Porter’s system. Porter wanted a slower game, a defensive-oriented style, a system that, except for Shaquille O’Neal, failed to match the personnel at hand.
Porter was fired at the all-star break and O’Neal was traded to Cleveland in the off-season. Now the court is wide open for Nash and his teammates to do what they do best.
Stoudemire is back, wearing protective goggles following serious eye surgery that sidelined him the final 29 games last season. He leads the team in scoring at 19.9 points per game.
“He’s probably 80-85 per cent now,” Gentry said. “I still think there’s a little bit more that he can do for us, but he’s getting better and as he gets a little better, our team will get a little better.”
With O’Neal no longer clogging the middle, Nash and Stoudemire again are making the pick and roll the tough-to-defend heart of the Suns’ offence.
Jason Richardson has mostly thrived in this environment.
“This is what I envisioned and we’re having a lot of fun doing it,” he said.
Steady Grant Hill holds down the small forward spot, with the rapidly improving Jared Dudley waiting in the wings.
“The spacing is good. Everybody’s comfortable,” Stoudemire said. “It feels great when guys know where they’re supposed to be and then when the ball comes out to them they’re ready to shoot or pass because the rhythm and flow is perfect right now.”
Gentry promised to return the team to the high-flying style of coach Mike D’Antoni, and while the Suns might not quite be the “seven seconds or less” squad of those days, they still are a highly entertaining bunch.
Phoenix leads the NBA in scoring with a 110.35 average and is the only team that has topped 100 points in each of its games. The Suns are making 44.4 per cent of their three-pointers, a better percentage than eight teams are shooting overall from the field.
At the controls is the 35-year-old Nash.
“I think he’s playing right now better than he did the year he got the MVP, either one of them,” Gentry said.
Nash is averaging 17.1 points and an NBA-best 11.6 assists per game. He already has two 20-assist games and is shooting 52 per cent from the field, 44 per cent on threes.