The Phoenix Suns figured losing two starters from a team that finished with the league’s best record would not be devastating. Losing a third might be.
The loss of Stoudemire, though, has to have Suns fans concerned.
The All-Star power forward, who finished fifth in the NBA with 26 points per game, is expected to be sidelined until February following microfracture knee surgery.
“It would be better to have Amare out there creating havoc on the inside,” Suns coach Mike D’Antoni said. “That’s when you have the perfect mixture. Without that, Steve has to find shots and we have to find the combination of guys that can drive the ball, can kick it and still do the things to find enough points to pick up for Amare.”
Nash, who averaged a league-high 11.5 assists, will try to incorporate newcomers Kurt Thomas, James Jones and Raja Bell into the offense. Thomas will try to fill the low post, while Jones and Bell are expected to pick up the slack from 3-point range.
The absence of Stoudemire and losses of Johnson and Richardson, though, will make it tough for Nash and the Suns to put up similar offensive numbers.
They averaged 110.4 points per game, easily tops in the NBA last season and the most by any team in 10 years. Phoenix shot 39.3 percent from 3-point range and led the league with 796 3-pointers.
“We create a lot of open shots for one another, so it’s important to step up and take them and be confident,” Nash said. “If we don’t do that, it takes away from what we’re doing, the style of play that we have and how good we can be.”
Nash and Shawn Marion are the only returning starters for a team that tied a franchise record with its NBA-best 62-20 record. The Suns reached the Western Conference finals, losing in five games to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs.
That series followed Phoenix ousting Dallas in six games in the West semifinals.
The Suns ran the Mavericks ragged in that matchup, averaging 119.2 points and shooting 48.4 percent from the field.
Dallas’ lack of good defense was exposed in that series, something that has happened for many years in thwarted bids to reach the NBA Finals.
Defense, though, is a specialty of coach Avery Johnson and he plans on making the Mavs much tougher on that end of the court.
“It’s a new culture, a different culture, a different team,” said Johnson, who took over for Don Nelson late last season.
Johnson already has seen some positive effects from his coaching changes.
The Mavericks won six of eight preseason games and limited opponents to an average of 91.9 points. They allowed 96.8 points last season and 100.8 points in 2003-04.
It also helps Johnson to have a standout defensive guard in Doug Christie, who may not score as much as the departed Michael Finley but will defend better on the perimeter. The Mavericks have played tougher interior defense this preseason as Erick Dampier and free agent signee DeSagana Diop have been more physical.
“I think the type of player we’re interesting in acquiring might have gone through a bit of a change with Avery’s defensive philosophy,” said Donnie Nelson, Dallas’ president of basketball operations. “I was watching some tape and for the first time in a long time I heard ‘athletic,’ ‘defensive’ and ‘Maverick’ in the same sentence.”
The Mavericks offense will again run through forward Dirk Nowitzki, whom Johnson wants to get more from in the low post. The 7-footer averaged 26.1 points and attempted 708 free throws, but Johnson thinks the double teams Nowitzki draws on the block can help Dallas’ offensive efficiency.
“In terms of 1 to 10, if his post game was a 2, we’re hoping he can move to a 5,” Johnson said. “He’s not Tim Duncan, he’s not Shaq, he’s not Kevin Garnett. He’s Dirk Nowitzki, and that’s good enough.”
2004-05 STANDINGS: Mavericks - 2nd place, 1 GB, Southwest Division. Suns - 1st place, Pacific Division.
2004-05 TEAM LEADERS: Mavericks - Nowitzki, 26.1 ppg and 9.7 rpg; Terry, 5.4 apg. Suns - Stoudemire, 26.0 ppg; Marion, 11.3 rpg; Nash, 11.5 apg.
2004-05 SEASON SERIES: Suns, 2-1.
LAST MEETING: Feb. 26; Suns 130-126, OT. At Dallas, Nash forced overtime with a 3-pointer with 5.7 seconds left and hit another that put Phoenix ahead for good as the Suns eliminated the Mavericks from the conference semifinals. Nash had 39 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds.
2004-05 ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Mavericks - 29-12 on the road. Suns - 31-10 at home.