D'Antoni could leave instead of change

SAN ANTONIO – The ball, along with the Phoenix Suns’ season, floated just two fingertips away, and Steve Nash stretched out only to find his old nemesis, Bruce Bowen, had once again beaten him to both. Bowen deflected the pass enough to glance off Nash’s hands out of bounds. Nash pleaded with an official, but it didn’t matter.

For the Suns, their season was done, their seven seconds were up.

By the time Tuesday night had begun to bleed into Wednesday morning, the Suns were exchanging hugs with the San Antonio Spurs and walking off the AT&T Center floor, trudging into an uncertain future. Once again, the Spurs had taught the Suns that defense wins. This time, the Spurs had done more than close out the teams’ first-round series with a 92-87 Game 5 victory; they very well may have closed out this chapter of the Suns’ go-go-go era altogether.

Even before Tuesday's tipoff one member of coach Mike D’Antoni’s staff said he didn’t see any way his boss would return next season, regardless of whether Phoenix won the game or even miraculously recovered to win the series. D’Antoni, he said, was too upset, too proud to come back because he thought the franchise’s front office no longer supported him. One assistant coach was already talking about landing a spot on another team’s staff. Within two hours of the game’s end, Sports Illustrated’s veteran NBA reporter Jack McCallum, who spent a season with D’Antoni to write the book Seven Seconds Or Less… reported that D’Antoni would leave the team.

D'Antoni told reporters in Phoenix on Wednesday that he hasn't made a decision on his future.

The Suns don’t want to fire D’Antoni, if for no other reason than they don’t want to pay the remaining $8 million-plus he has on his contract. But one franchise source said team officials would demand changes from D’Antoni if he were to come back. They want him to make defense a greater priority. They could even set a minimum for how much time he would have to devote to it at each practice. They want him to hold his players more accountable. They also could ask him to make changes or additions to his staff.

Late Tuesday, Suns GM Steve Kerr would say only that he planned to meet with D’Antoni. “We do have some things,” Kerr said, “that we need to discuss.”

Tops on that list: philosophy. D’Antoni has stubbornly insisted that his system works, and considering he has a 232-96 record with the Suns, it’s hard to argue otherwise. But the Suns also have now lost to the Spurs in the playoffs in three of the past four seasons, so that same system obviously doesn’t appear to be working against the team’s biggest rival. Kerr has never wavered in his belief that the Suns won't win a championship until they become a better defensive team. When I talked with him in November, he made that point very clear.

“I think defensively we’ve got to improve,” Kerr said then. “We make strides, but it’s sort of one step forward, two steps back sometimes. When our focus and our attention is there, we can be really good…but it’s sort of sporadic. We’ve got to get more consistent defensively. Again, I think it’s attention to detail.”

Asked Tuesday night what he thought proved to be the difference in the series, Kerr was succinct in his answer: “Attention to detail.”

That was evident in the final 1 minute, 14 seconds of Tuesday’s game. Clinging to a one-point lead, the Spurs picked up their defense and forced Phoenix into three turnovers: Robert Horry stripped the ball from Nash; Boris Diaw threw away a pass out of a double team; and Nash couldn’t corral Raja Bell’s pass after their inbounds play disintegrated.

Tim Duncan’s three-pointer at the end of the first OT of Game 1 is credited with changing the entire complexion of the series, and it did. But Duncan would have never had the opportunity to take that shot had Michael Finley not also made a three-pointer in the closing seconds of regulation. And Finley likely wouldn’t have been open to shoot had Leandro Barbosa and Amare Stoudemire properly switched on the Spurs’ pick-and-roll. Here’s one reason why they may have failed to switch: The Suns don’t work on it much in practice.

“They beat us with the intangibles, they beat us with the little things, they beat us with the gamesmanship, they beat us with the attention to detail, the game plan, doing all the little things that win games,” Bell said. “That’s why they’re the champs.

“We’re just as good if not better than them as a talent, and as a physical team, but they were way ahead of us mentally. That’s a tough pill to swallow, that somebody outsmarted you, outwitted you.”

It’s even tougher considering these Suns were specifically built to beat the Spurs. They gambled their season on Shaquille O’Neal, and the Spurs spent the entire series exploiting him. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich sent O’Neal to the free-throw line time and again with his Hack-A-Shaq strategy, culminating with O’Neal’s painful 9-of-20 showing in Game 5. D’Antoni downplayed the strategy’s impact, but Nash admitted the Suns’ offense was disrupted.

O’Neal also isn’t any better a pick-and-roll defender than Nash, and Tony Parker took advantage of both, averaging just under 30 points for the series. His 41-point performance in Game 3 proved to be Phoenix’s undoing, and at least two Suns starters were stunned by the team’s lack of an in-game adjustment. D’Antoni found some help by starting Boris Diaw the final two games and the Suns began aggressively herding Parker and Manu Ginobili into their help defense. By then, though, the Suns were in too big of a hole.

Suns owner Robert Sarver was the first to suggest trading for O’Neal, but D’Antoni quickly warmed to it and the two eventually sold Kerr on the idea. In truth, the Suns weren’t going to win a championship with Shawn Marion; Nash and D’Antoni had both tired of him. But even when Kerr and D’Antoni sat side by side at the February news conference trumpeting the trade, the disconnect between them was obvious. Kerr said then he thought the Suns had only a “puncher’s chance” of winning the title the way they were presently constructed. D’Antoni looked miffed and said he thought the Suns could have won with his small-ball system even if he also thought O’Neal would make them better.

The rift between coach and GM began three months earlier in an early season meeting when Kerr suggested D’Antoni post up Stoudemire more often. D’Antoni bristled and told Kerr not to tell him how to coach offense. Over time, one source said, the coaching staff grew to distrust Kerr and assistant GM Vinny Del Negro.

It’s telling that both Kerr and Del Negro played under Popovich, who has long had one edict for his team: You defend or you don’t play. Kerr also played for Phil Jackson in Chicago, and both coaches are among the best at keeping their players accountable. Said one former Sun who played for D’Antoni: “Mike just doesn’t like confrontation.”

For too long, D’Antoni allowed the Suns to make too many excuses for their struggles against the Spurs. Kerr has rightfully tried to change that culture. When O’Neal complained that the Spurs won Game 1 only because of their flopping, Kerr quickly countered by saying the Suns needed to get rid of their “persecution complex.” After the Game 2 loss, Nash and D’Antoni said the Suns need only improve their offense. Kerr insisted defense was the problem.

Nash still thinks D’Antoni “deserves a chance to coach this team.” Nash also faulted himself for the loss, as well he should. With the Suns often running their offense through Diaw, he missed 12 of his 16 shots.

But Stoudemire made it a point to praise the Spurs three times Tuesday night for being “well-coached.” He also didn’t seem happy that the Suns had leaned their offense toward his French teammate. “Even though your style may change a little bit, you should still have your same go-to guy,” Stoudemire said. “That shouldn’t change at all. That’s what the Spurs have.”

Despite any shortcomings, D’Antoni remains an excellent coach. Dallas and Toronto could soon get in line with Chicago and New York to talk to him if he becomes a free agent. At least a couple of those teams also could offer a brighter future than Phoenix. Nash and O’Neal are both on the decline and the Suns are capped out to the point that they have few tradable assets aside from Barbosa and the No. 15 pick.

Kerr could face another substantial hurdle: If D’Antoni leaves, he'll have to find a replacement. Kerr said earlier this season he would like to coach once his children get older, and he likely will stick to that timetable. Some of his friends tried to talk to him out of taking the GM’s job; they’ll do the same if he expresses even the slightest interest in coaching now.

But whether GM or coach, Kerr has made one thing clear: Under him these Suns will learn to defend.

D'Antoni? For the third time in four years, his seven seconds again up, even he was forced to admit the obvious.

“We went up against a team,” he said, “that knows how to win.”

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