- The Washington Times - Friday, December 24, 2004

For NBA fans interested more in good basketball than the tabloid-TV antics of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, fun things are happening out west.

The Phoenix Suns and Seattle SuperSonics are playing an unselfish, wide-open, esthetically pleasing brand of basketball absent, to this point at least, of any significant angst, anger or psychodrama. And they’re winning. The Suns (23-3) and Sonics (19-5) own the best records in the league.

“We’re playing the right way,” Sonics president and CEO Wally Walker said. “Talking to the Suns’ people, they’ve heard a lot of the same comments. People really enjoy watching these teams play. You watch the Suns and ourselves, you see great player movement. That’s the beauty of this game.”

Other teams are playing fast and well, though not at the pace Phoenix is setting. The surprise is how much the Suns and Sonics have improved. Defying past success, both failed to make the playoffs last season. The admitted goal of both organizations this season was to somehow sneak into the postseason as one of the last seeds in the difficult Western Conference. Now the sights have been adjusted.

“It’s been a fun couple of weeks,” Walker said. “I was pretty sure we’d be better than the prognosticators thought we’d be, but no one thought we’d have this kind of record.”

The teams met for the first time last week in Seattle. In a game that brought back memories of their hot Pacific Division rivalry in the early 1990s, the Suns won a tense, tight game 112-110 amid a playoff-like atmosphere.

“Speaking for the Sonics, we were thrilled to have a game in December people cared so much about,” Walker said.

Phoenix, winner of 10 straight, is off to its best start, better than in 1975-76 and 1992-93 when the club reached the finals. It’s also the best NBA start since the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls went 41-3.

“When does the start officially end?” Suns general manager Bryan Colangelo asked rhetorically.

Given that nearly one-third of the season has elapsed, this seems about as good a time as any.

“Hopefully we’ll be considered a good team when all is said and done,” Colangelo said.

Said coach Mike D’Antoni: “We’d like this to go on forever. We’re still young, and we need to get better as a team. There are teams a lot better than we are, but we have a heck of a potential to do some things — a lot more than what people thought. Obviously, we’re ahead of where we thought we’d be.”

The Suns are a throwback bunch, employing a hurry-up pace reminiscent of the racehorse NBA days before banging and plodding became the prevailing style. They have a chance to be the first team to average 110 points since 1995.

“My biggest thing is to go for speed instead of traditional thinking,” said D’Antoni, a former player and coach in Italy who had a brief, unhappy fling as Denver coach in 1998-99. A Suns assistant last season, D’Antoni replaced Frank Johnson, who was fired a year ago.

By “traditional thinking,” D’Antoni said he means having two big guys, someone to do the dirty work inside and rebound; keeping a talented player on the bench as sixth man; and starting a role player.

“I’ve never liked that,” he said. “We decided to go with the five best players.”

All of whom are scoring well into double-figures. The Suns lack a traditional, post-up big man, but so does most everyone else. What they do have are quick, athletic, interchangeable parts. Amare Stoudemire, a former NBA rookie of the year, is the nominal center at 6-foot-10, but he plays all over the court. So do Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson, none taller than 6-7.

Richardson was a key free agent acquired during the offseason, but the big move was landing point guard Steve Nash, also via free agency. Nash, who began his career in Phoenix before achieving stardom in Dallas, runs the offense at full throttle. He is averaging nearly 12 assists a game, can score when needed and, with Stoudemire, is among the early candidates for league MVP.

“He’s playing as well as any point guard in the league and giving me a good John Stockton imitation,” ESPN analyst and former Seattle and Milwaukee coach George Karl said.

Said D’Antoni: “I knew Steve was good, but I didn’t know how good.”

Colangelo was criticized for giving the 30-year-old Nash a five-year, $65million contract. But dodging bullets is nothing new for him. In his 10 years as Suns GM, the Ivy League-educated Colangelo has suffered from comparisons with his father, Jerry Colangelo, the former principal owner of both the Suns and baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks and a charismatic, imposing figure.

The heat on the younger Colangelo intensified last year when he basically tore down the franchise, getting rid of flashy point guard Stephon Marbury, among others, to create the cap space needed to facilitate the signings of Nash and Richardson. The Suns went 29-53, their worst record since the 1987-88 season, when a drug scandal tore the team apart.

“We were down about as far as you can go,” said Colangelo, who drafted Marion and Stoudemire and stole Johnson from the Boston Celtics. “We knocked the wall down last year. We moved about $130million in contracts out of the franchise and brought back what people called nothing. We knew it would net us cap space. The risk was what to do with it. Nash and Quentin Richardson, those were the right pieces for us. We knew all along we had the core.”

The makeup of the Sonics, whose 37-45 record last season was their worst since 1986, changed less than that of the Suns. They added reserve forward Danny Fortson, a tough inside player, but the big difference “is the internal growth of the players who have taken a big jump in their careers,” said Walker, a former star at Virginia.

One of those players is forward Rashard Lewis, who has improved steadily since he was drafted out of high school in 1998 and now is playing at an All-Star level. And the development of second-year point guard Luke Ridnour allowed Sonics coach Nate McMillan to speed things up.

“We haven’t had a true point guard who could extend defensively and set the tempo offensively,” McMillan said. “The last few years, we just played with guards. With Luke, we’re able to play the way I want to play. He pushes the ball and puts pressure on you.”

But the marquee player still is guard Ray Allen, a four-time All-Star having a terrific all-around year. Allen and six other Sonics are set to become free agents after the season.

“Ray has always been on the outside of being a top-five or top-10 player,” Karl said. “Whether it’s his maturity or commitment to a new contract, he’s playing a bigger and better level.”

So is everyone else.

“You can take almost every sports cliche and apply it to this group,” Walker said. “They accept their roles; they play together. Teamwork still does matter. It’s a group that enjoys playing together. Talent is important, but in reality, the best teams are the ones that do it together.”

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