Beginning of the End for Suns?
LOS ANGELES -- Before Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, Houston small forward Shane Battier sent Phoenix small forward Grant Hill a series of lengthy text messages.
They were, in essence, a digital CliffsNotes version of how to guard Kobe Bryant from Battier. Houston's heady player has slowed the Lakers star more than most and was offering statistically-based assistance to the savvy veteran who was now charged with that assignment.
Forty Bryant points and one steamrolling Lakers win later (128-107), it was clear the message didn't get through.
"I didn't seek it; he just sent it," Hill said of the correspondence. "[But] I'm not good with numbers. I couldn't even understand it."
Hill and the Suns couldn't figure out the Lakers, either.
This was the worst sort of start for Phoenix, the kind of loss that not only put them in the historical danger zone but chipped away at the very foundation they built in reaching this point and perhaps even compromised their future.
Improved defense? The Suns -- who have now allowed 100-plus points in four of their last five playoff games -- hadn't given up that many points since March 26 and also allowed an absurd 58 percent shooting. They were soft and disengaged and out of sync as a unit, with forward Amar'e Stoudemire following his tough talk with plenty of scoring (23 points) but not nearly enough on the glass (three rebounds).
Overwhelming offense? They had just four fast break points and hit just 5 of 22 three-pointers. Steve Nash was listless, showcasing none of the impassioned play that forged the Suns' sweep over San Antonio in the second round when he finally let on that so many years of losing to the Spurs had sufficiently lit his inner fire.
Which brings us to the possible problem here.
The Suns didn't look like a team that fancies itself Finals worthy. While Bryant had spoke of revenge for his 2006 and 2007 first-round bow outs and Phil Jackson continued to subtly threaten an exodus if his team doesn't perform to its peak potential (translation: Finals or title), the only Sun who consistently speaks of a passion for the greater purpose -- a ring -- is Stoudemire.
Call him a changed man, or call him a soon-to-be free agent. Either way, he was the one who appeared to have the proper focus, the necessary hunger, coming in. Yet collectively, they starved.
"We've got to do a much better job on the intensity standpoint," said Stoudemire, who has a player option for next season worth $17.6 million. "I was definitely expecting for us to play a lot better, but it happens that way sometimes. Now we understand what type of beast we're dealing with, and guys know that we've got to bring 100 percent effort and I look forward to that on Wednesday (in Game 2)."
Nash, meanwhile, had taken a much different tone. The NBA's only MVP to have never played in the Finals spoke as if titles happen more by chance than by will, even remarking the morning of the game that "You never know. This could be our last chance or we could play in the conference finals the next five years. So who knows?"
While his perspective is certainly the more healthy one when it comes to reconciling past failures, the fact remains that he is 0-3 in conference finals and en route to another such loss. Game 1 losers in seven-game sets have lost the series 78 percent of the time in league history, and Jackson has his own ridiculous dominance in that realm as his teams are 46-0 in series when winning the first game.
The Suns have already beat those odds once, too, falling to Portland in Game 1 of the first round before winning the series in six. And should the Lakers indeed force this Sun-set, it won't make for an effective recruiting tool for Stoudemire.
Before Phoenix became the hottest team in the league in the second half, the notion of Stoudemire staying seemed far-fetched considering the way he was shopped at the February trade deadline. But that changed, and so did the in-house dynamic.
As FanHouse first reported, extension talks resumed and the Suns appeared to be making as much of a good-faith effort to bring him back as the collective bargaining agreement would allow at the time. Still, no extension was signed, and Stoudemire surely continues to weigh the pros and cons of what lies ahead.
For all the justified talk of Nash's profound impact on Stoudemire's career, the two-man tandem has a limited shelf-life. The point guard is 36, the big man 27, and every Suns' competitor with the necessary cap space will come calling with pitches that include 20-something stars to place alongside the one they call "STAT." But a Finals appearance might help bridge that gap from a perception standpoint, making it harder for Stoudemire to walk away once he comes so close to winning it all.
That's the sort of message the Suns should be trying to send here. Yet much like Battier's text to Hill, they don't look ready to figure it out.
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