Although the Phoenix Suns didn’t reach the NBA finals in five seasons under Mike D’Antoni, they averaged 58 wins in the last four with the coach’s up-tempo philosophy.
Despite sporting a depleted roster in the midst of a major rebuilding project, the New York Knicks are starting to see why.
D’Antoni makes his first return to Phoenix since his summer split with the Suns on Monday night, with his Knicks looking for a third straight win on their five-game road trip.
The Suns hired D’Antoni during the 2003-04 season, and after a difficult first season, they went 62-20 in 2004-05 and reached the Western Conference finals.
D’Antoni’s high-scoring, “seven seconds or less” offense brought Phoenix similar results each of the past three seasons, but the Suns’ playoff results never improved, as they lost in the first round to San Antonio last spring.
D’Antoni was given permission to pursue other openings and eventually released from the final two years of his contract, with second-year general manager Steve Kerr admitting a difference in philosophy.
The Knicks hired D’Antoni in May to pick up the pieces after Isiah Thomas’ failed stint as coach and general manager, but the new coach said at the time that he wasn’t planning on waiting to start winning.
“I look at the roster and that’s the roster I’m going to win with,” D’Antoni said in May. “My focus is to win this coming year.”
Even though guard Stephon Marbury remains estranged from the team and top scorers Zach Randolph and Jamal Crawford have been traded, the Knicks (11-12) appear to have improved. D’Antoni’s style has quickly taken hold, as the team ranks third in the NBA with 105.0 points per game and second-worst with 106.8 points allowed.
New York has looked good in its last four games, winning three while scoring at least 100 points each time. After a 121-109 victory at New Jersey on Wednesday, they led 43-21 after one quarter and cruised to a 114-90 road win over Sacramento on Saturday.
“Our team is on a mission, we’re trying to win as many games as possible,” guard Nate Robinson said. “This system is the best, we’re having a lot of fun right now.”
Al Harrington in certainly having a good time in it, averaging 25.5 points in 10 games since coming over in the trade that sent Crawford to Golden State. He’s averaged 36 points in the last two contests and was 5-of-9 from 3-point range against the Kings.
“This is a dream come true,” Harrington said. “I’ve been waiting for this my whole career.”
Under new coach Terry Porter, meanwhile, the Suns (14-10) are off to their worst start since they were 8-13 when D’Antoni was hired in December 2003. Point guard Steve Nash, who averaged 17.5 points and 11.2 assists in the last four seasons under his former coach, is averaging 15.2 points and 8.4 assists this season.
Defense was one of the team’s weak spots under D’Antoni, but the Suns haven’t been much different under Porter, allowing more than 100 points in each of the last nine games.
Phoenix’s roster has undergone changes, as the team traded forward Boris Diaw and guard Raja Bell as part of a five-player deal with Charlotte to acquire swingman Jason Richardson last week. Richardson scored 21 points in his debut Friday, helping his new team to a 113-112 home win over Orlando.
“I’m just proud to be a part of this (team),” Richardson said. “When it all comes down to it, you just play basketball.”
Grant Hill’s reverse layup with 2.7 seconds left gave Phoenix the victory as the Suns won for the third time in four games. They also figure to get Shaquille O’Neal back Monday after the center missed the last two games following the death of his great-grandmother.
The Suns have won four straight against the Knicks, and Monday’s game should again feature plenty of scoring. Both clubs have topped 100 points in their last three meetings.