Mon, May 16, 2005 - Page 20 News List

Suns experiment their way through a winning season

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , DALLAS, TEXAS

It is hard to fathom now, but the brainstorm that turned Mike D'Antoni into the coach of the year, made Steve Nash the NBA's most valuable player and turned Amare Stoudemire into an All-Star was belittled when it sprung from D'Antoni's head last fall.

D'Antoni wanted to make Stoudemire, his jumping-jack power forward, into a center. He wanted to make Shawn Marion, his springy small forward, into a power forward. He wanted his five best players in the starting lineup but needed room to play his two shooting guards, Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson, together.

It was a notion, an experiment, not really an epiphany.

"I think that was an ongoing kind of process; it looked good in the short run," said D'Antoni, the Phoenix Suns' coach.

The definition of short may require some reconsideration.

The experiment that looked good in November and December became a phenomenon by February and -- in a scenario once considered outlandish - is still thriving here in mid-May.

The Suns, playing small and living large, have a 2-1 lead over the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals. It is a result even D'Antoni could not have foreseen.

Rival coaches and television talking heads scoffed when the Suns opened the season with Stoudemire (generously listed at 6 feet 10 inches) in the middle and the 6-7 Marion at power forward.

"The big one was Shawn Marion; they said he couldn't hold up as a four," D'Antoni said. "In January, he would die and Amare would die and we'd be done in January. That was the thinking of coaches and everybody else: Don't do it; don't do it."

The critics had a point, but D'Antoni figured: "Well, let's tip-toe in the water and let's see. If it dies, then we'll go back. But it didn't die. It didn't even sputter. And they just took off. And then it was kind of easy after that to convince them."

He meant his players, not the critics. If Stoudemire and Marion would not play out of position, the idea had no chance. And the Suns would have been forced - as some predicted last fall - to trade Marion for a true center.

Stoudemire put aside his own reservations, then became the dominating center the Suns never had. The third-year pro set career highs in points (26) and field-goal percentage (.559) this season while averaging 8.9 rebounds.

He was named to the All-Star team in February and as long as he carries the label of center, he will be considered among the top three in the league, with his childhood idol, Shaquille O'Neal, and Yao Ming.

Through seven playoff games, and six Suns wins, Stoudemire has averaged 28.3 points, 11.7 rebounds and 2.4 blocks. He had 37 points and 14 rebounds in Friday's Game 3 victory here, which restored the Suns' home-court advantage.

Erick Dampier, a true center and a muscular one at 6-11, 265 pounds, has been in foul trouble in both Dallas defeats, leaving Stoudemire free to dunk at will. It is a breathtaking sight.

Breaking free on screen-and-roll plays with Nash, Stoudemire curls into the paint and -- before any defender can react -- he is rising and cocking back his right arm. His dunking motion is swift and powerful and crowd-pleasing.

Nash was named the most valuable player for leading the Suns to a 62-victory season, and his deft passing skills give Stoudemire easy chances around the basket. But the case could be made that Stoudemire, with his incredible leaping ability and power, also made Nash look good.

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