- The Washington Times - Friday, January 14, 2005

It starts with a scraggly-haired Canadian and often ends with a punished rim, courtesy of the NBA version of Plastic Man. The Phoenix Suns, built for speed, are running laps around the rest of the league.

Point guard Steve Nash leads the NBA in assists while piloting the Suns to a staggering 110 points a game — a pace that hadn’t been reached by any team in the last eight seasons. All five starters average at least 15 points, but it is basketball “prodigy” Amare Stoudemire who most often finishes a play and, along with Nash, is on the short list for league MVP.

The Suns (31-6) are off to one of the hottest starts in NBA history. Phoenix has risen from the ashes of a 29-53 record last season with an entertaining and relentless offense.

“I have never seen a team that keeps you back on your heels when you make a shot,” Houston’s Tracy McGrady said after a recent loss to Phoenix. “Those guys get the ball and they are gone. They are coming up our backs on made shots and misses.”

Nash, who averages 11.1 assists, dishes the ball to a host of explosive scorers including Shawn Marion, Quentin Richardson and Joe Johnson.

However, his favorite target is Stoudemire, a long-armed 6-foot-10, 245-pounder. The agile power forward is the league’s fourth leading scorer at 26.0 and is known for his fierce dunks. But what separates him is how well he runs the floor, his guard-like quickness and outside shooting ability.

“He’s a prodigy,” said Washington general manager Ernie Grunfeld, whose Wizards play Phoenix tonight at MCI Center. “He plays so hard and with so much power. He is extremely competitive. He is one of the up-and-coming stars in the league. Maybe he’s already arrived.”

It is scary to think that Stoudemire is just 22 and three years out of high school. His 58.2 shooting percentage is behind only Miami’s Shaquille O’Neal. He does all this despite being a natural power forward who is forced to play center much of the time.

Stoudemire, the ninth overall pick by Phoenix in 2002, scored 50 points recently in a win over Portland. Earlier this week, he wore down O’Neal in a blowout of Miami. Stoudemire scored 34 points — the 13th time this season he has reached 30.

“It was the old me versus the young me,” said O’Neal, 34, who couldn’t keep up with the fleet Stoudemire. “I wanted to make him shoot the jumper, and he shot it, and he shot it real well.”

Stoudemire made 13 of 19 shots that night, but he is only one of many Suns scoring threats. Marion averages a double-double of 19.9 points and 10.8 rebounds. Richardson averages 15.6 points, while Johnson averages 15.4 and is among the league’s best 3-point shooters at 45.9 percent. Nash averages 15.4 points and is the league’s best shooting guard at 51.2 percent. The Suns’ 3-point shooting percentage of 38.2 leads the NBA.

Nash is a newcomer who bolted Dallas for the Suns for a six-year, $65.6million deal. Fittingly, the Suns went after Nash the way he attacks on the court. Eight team representatives — including new owner Robert Sarver, CEO Jerry Colangelo, coach Mike D’Antoni and Stoudemire — flew to Dallas to recruit Nash immediately after the league’s free agency period opened July 1. Rex Chapman, the Suns’ director of basketball operations, was in Nash’s home moments after midnight.

“We had a core of young players we thought was not only extremely athletic and talented but had a good, solid core character-wise,” said Phoenix general manager Bryan Colangelo, who cleared salary cap space by trading Stephon Marbury and others last season. “Steve was the perfect floor general to make others better.”

Nash dazzles nightly, with spectacular performances like his 16 points and 16 assists in the win over Miami.

“Nash is reading the game; he is reading what is available,” D’Antoni said. “If they leave him open he is out there shooting, and when he does that he draws attention. He has a nice feel for the game so he finds the open guys. That is why we can play the way we play. He rarely makes any mistakes out there; our team is riding him right now.”

Nash had reservations about leaving a talented Mavericks team with Dirk Nowitzki and Michael Finley, but he took the richer offer along with the challenge of leading the league’s youngest team.

“This is a perfect fit for me,” said Nash, who grew up in British Columbia. “We have a young team, and a lot of these guys in our careers are ascending to the point where I have been.”

The Suns made another significant offseason pickup by signing Richardson to a six-year, $43.5million deal. When the Los Angeles Clippers failed to match the offer sheet, Phoenix had the final piece of its starting lineup. And D’Antoni, a veteran European coach who took over when Frank Johnson was fired in midseason last year, has melded the Suns quickly.

Ultimately, the Suns will be judged by how they do in the postseason. For now, they are enjoying an amazing renaissance.

“We decided to pull the plug on it,” said Bryan Colangelo, who also unloaded the sizable contracts of Tom Gugliotta and Jahidi White. “With a $68million payroll, a team that felt like it was going nowhere and a franchise that was bleeding [last] season, it was probably time to do something fairly radical.”

Phoenix began last season with the third-highest payroll and this season is among the lowest at $43.5 million. The Suns believed they would eventually enjoy success, but having it this soon was about as likely as a snowstorm in their hometown.

“It has surprised all of us,” Bryan Colangelo admits. “But at this point, why question it? Just ride it.”

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