The future belongs to others
If last year's Phoenix Suns had a more pronounced effect on attitudes around the Association, it was only because the '06 edition is so far ahead of its time. I've never thought it would be cute to call a basketball team "avant-garde," but here the cap fits the daughter; watching that game last night, I finally realized just how revolutionary this squad is. Not for the utter dependance on the three, the undersized line-up, the utter aversion to the static low post, or any of the superficial innovations that the rest of the league has, quite rightfully, been hesitant to adopt in the past. The Suns, like LeBron, are twisting up all the time and space nonsense that's become a given in the art of this sport. But while James forces these laws to collapse, allowing him access to normally contradictory qualities at a whim, the Suns don't even acknowledge the game. Weightless, ghostly, awesome in their ability to pull points out of thin air without any evident effort, the Suns are barely even playing basketball as we know it.
I've said enough on the Nash/Amare/Marion/Q/Joey Johnson team to bloat a thousand corpses, but their central lesson was that an overstuffed offensive machine could succeed if everyone got along. Say what you will about their reliance on Nash's ingenuity, or relative exile of Q and JJ to beyond the arc; the break keyed that team, yet their completeness and complexity as a unit was what made them so hard to contain for a full forty-eight. They scored a ton by playing basketball at a highly accelerated pace, executing as a blur that was as likely to explode as it was gracefully dissolve.
Minus #1 and their wayward wingmen, however, the Suns no longer had that option. Rather than beat basketball at its own game through sheer speed, creativity, and athleticism, D'Antoni now refused to even acknowledge the physical and psychological rules of NBA engagement. Watching them now is like a game-long exercise in the much-beloved "pull out the chair" defense, as the opposition grasps to figure out exactly what it is that goes in the Suns' collective brain during a possession. In last night's loss, it wasn't just that they had a chance to win with forty seconds left—to a man, they really didn't even seem to recognize that things had come down to the wire. Likewise, the dramatic dunks that Marion is wont to conjure up are much more significant for what they don't do; it's almost as if he, and the Suns fans, are mocking simplistic squads who depend on such cheap, primitive cues to get their offensive juices flowing. We've all heard every single announcer on earth point out that it's the three-pointer that really gets their home crowd inspired. Until yesterday, this sounded to me like the utmost curse of weakness and abstraction. Now, I'm convinced that it's proof of what the Suns are: a rational team in a fundamentally irrational sport.
So much of NBA ball rests on certain prized assumptions: control the boards, don't be afraid to penetrate, establish an offensive presence in the post, get stops to assert control of the game, clamp down in the final moments, get in your opponent's head, exploit mismatches to create points or opporunities for them, acknowledge positions, get to the line whenever possible, value the clock, etc. Most of these are either myth or depend on having like-minded foes on your plate. The Suns, however, simply could not give a fuck less about any of these. They play like a bunch of preschoolers on the soccer field, or a hoard of profligate gymnasts auditioning for a celebrity game of HORSE. Some commentors on here and friends over my phone have professed admiration for Phoenix's "elegance" and "crispness." Seriously though, I often feel like I'm watching a shootaround; there's only incidental attention paid to the defense and, even then, it's mostly only treated as an annoyance buried deep in Nash's/D'Antoni subconscious. Diaw and Marion ping-pong around the court at will, sometimes taking advantage of their ability to humble anyone on the floor, mostly just throwing up shots whenever they get a remotely clear look.
Is this such a bad thing, though? The Suns have, in essence, decided that the culture of basketball isn't worth their trouble. And from a Moneyball-ish perspective, it kind of isn't. Phoenix wins not against the odds, but because they just don't care about the distractions that make basketball, especially playoff basketball, what the gatekeepers of myth so prize it to be. It's not just that they're really fast or productive—the Suns aren't fast as a sign of utter determination, or productive as a way of blowing the opposition out of the water (as they were last year).
I hate having to do this, but I can't help but thinking that the Suns deconstruct the value of the time and space-related labels I began this post by talking about. They're redefining winning basketball without acknowledging that they're flying in the face of convention; small, fast, limited in what parts of the court they can hold down, full of "tweeners," in love with the three and unorthdox spacing, they never seem interested in proving their critics wrong by turning these "weaknesses" into "strengths" within the conventional framework of the game, making us recognize them as valid means to an accepted end. Instead, they go out and do their thing nightly, and leave it up to their baffled opponents to figure out if the rest of the Association should follow suit.
That said, they're still losing to Dallas in seven.