Posted by Sekou Smith
PHOENIX – When they lost Mike D’Antoni two years ago, Suns fans thought it was the end of an era.
And for a good while, most of Terry Porter‘s tenure as D’Antoni’s replacement, that’s exactly what it looked like. The Suns watched the playoffs from home last year, not knowing if and when they’d get things right and get back to playing at the breakneck pace that made them crowd favorites at the US Airways Center and beyond.
Then along came Alvin Gentry, a man who ranks fourth on the list of high-profile coaches still working this season. The Lakers’ Phil Jackson, the Celtics’ Doc Rivers and even the Magic’s Stan Van Gundy all have bigger names and have all coached teams to the NBA Finals.
But are any of them doing as good a job, to this point, of guiding their team?
Praise the Suns’ bench all you want for their handy work in that Game 4 win over the Lakers. Just remember that it was Gentry that showed the trust in them all season, and especially during that crucial nine-minute stretch in the fourth quarter when they snatched control of the game from Kobe Bryant and carried the Suns to even in these Western Conference finals at 2-2.
It was Gentry that opened the door for the likes of Jared Dudley, Goran Dragic, Louis Amundson and Channing Frye to play with the freedom we all saw Tuesday night.
Leandro Barbosa called this the “best bench” he’s played on since he’s been with the Suns. That’s a telling statement since for a long time Barbosa was the Suns’ bench.
But he’s part of a five-game rotation now that’s capable of driving these Suns for long stretches in crucial situations. That kind of chemistry and confidence for a second unit cannot be without the empowerment of a head coach willing to risk his own hide for the sake of the collective.
Gentry’s not just coaching his starters and stars, a fault of so many of his peers around the league. He’s coaching them all.
You didn’t even know Dudley’s name when he played in Charlotte. Now he’s a specialist any team in the league would love to have wearing their colors.
What coach would keep going to Frye after he missed 19 straight shots before finally making one in the second quarter Tuesday night? (Frye and Barbosa scored 14 points each as the Suns’ bench combined to outscore the Lakers’ reserves 54-20.)
Not many coaches could call his All-Star center “ridiculous” (for calling Lamar Odom‘s work in Game 1 “lucky”) and then coax a 42-point, 11-rebound effort out of him after that.
Give the man the credit he deserves for molding this team into a cohesive unit tight enough to bounce back properly during a postseason when so many other outfits rolled over and played dead when they got down.
The Suns didn’t lose two heartbreakers at the buzzer in Games 1 and 2 in Los Angeles. They got handled by a team that looked superior in every way. And yet Gentry didn’t leave Staples Center with a sense of despair. He vowed that his team would come home, regroup and come back with a renewed sense of purpose for Games 3 and 4.
Gentry wasn’t afraid to use that zone, the defense he called “girly,” to try to rattle the Lakers (a tactic that doesn’t look good when you consider the Lakers have shot the ball at 48 percent or better in every game, but one that’s actually worked pretty well in conjunction with the Suns’ improved play).
He didn’t have to remind his players, one through 14, that he believes in them.
They already know. They also believe in themselves. And the Suns believe in each other.
“In a way, ” Suns veteran Grant Hill said, “they’re really the ones who have given us our identity.”
You can tell from all the fun they have on those team flights and the way they carry on in the locker room after big wins.
You can tell by they way the All-Star starters and even the two-time MVP (Steve Nash) root wildly for them when they are in the midst of changing games.
And you can certainly tell by the way Gentry embraces them and the role he makes sure they play on his team.
Make no mistake about it, this all starts with Gentry!