PHOENIX – It was getting late into the evening, and Steve Kerr leaned against a counter in the locker room and took one last gulp from the longneck in his hand. He smiled and nodded, admitting the obvious. Yes, this was the grittiest, the toughest, he had ever seen his Phoenix Suns play. They had won with defense and rebounding, out-Spurring the San Antonio Spurs, and now they controlled their Western Conference semifinal series.
Throwing themselves into the political fray with their "Los Suns" jerseys, the Suns had taken a stand off the court and then made one on it, grinding out a 110-102 victory on a night when their shots weren't falling. Kerr won't say it himself, but never has a single victory so validated his rule as the Suns' general manager. He won two championships playing for the Spurs, and to beat them he knew he'd have to construct a team that could scrap and defend. He'd finally found a coach who shared his vision, and the results of their work were on display Wednesday night: The Suns shot less than 40 percent for the first three quarters, yet won because they penned in Manu Ginobili(notes) and Tony Parker(notes) and took 18 offensive rebounds.
The old Suns team did fold. Two years ago, Tim Duncan(notes) threw in a 3-pointer at the buzzer, and the Suns never recovered, eventually losing the game and their first-round series. Mike D'Antoni, whose seven-seconds-or-less offense made Phoenix one of the NBA's most exciting teams, left the franchise nearly as quickly after the season, bolting for the New York Knicks because he felt he didn't have enough support from Kerr and the front office.
In truth, all Kerr ever wanted from D'Antoni was a compromise. He asked D'Antoni to hire a defensive-minded assistant or, at the least, set aside time at each practice to work on defense. He wanted D'Antoni to hold his players more accountable. He wanted him to develop a longer bench. D'Antoni didn't want to hear any of it. He stubbornly clung to the belief that his go-go-go system didn't need tweaking. Rather than change, he left. From Phoenix to New York, the criticism remains the same: D'Antoni's teams can't defend.
Kerr, too, has made his share of mistakes. He admits the Suns "panicked" when they traded for Shaquille O'Neal(notes), a move initially championed by the team's owner, Robert Sarver, and D'Antoni, but one he also supported. Kerr's replacement for D'Antoni, Terry Porter, barely lasted half a season. Porter prioritized defense, but with O'Neal weighing down the roster, he also slowed the Suns' pace, distancing them too much from their success.
"I had a vision for how this should work," Kerr said. "I just executed it the wrong way."
All along, Kerr had the right man for the job already on staff. Alvin Gentry had head-coaching jobs in Detroit, Miami and Los Angeles with the Clippers before he joined D'Antoni in Phoenix. He had also worked for Larry Brown and with Gregg Popovich, and he combined the best of both his worlds when he took over for Porter. He returned the Suns to D'Antoni's up-tempo style, but he also demanded they defend.
"He knows this team better than I do," Kerr said of Gentry. "He knew what we needed, too. He shared that vision."
Gentry pushed the Suns in training camp and before long Amar'e Stoudemire(notes) was stepping up to take charges. Asked why he had waited eight seasons into his career to become a more dedicated defender, Stoudemire gave a simple answer: No one had ever taught him.
D'Antoni had a warm, engaging personality, but he never liked confrontation, and this weakened the Suns both in the locker room and on the court. After Phoenix lost to the Spurs in the 2008 playoffs, nearly every player – and this included Steve Nash(notes) – privately expressed the same concern: The Suns needed more discipline. Gentry has provided the tough love, holding even his stars accountable.
"Alvin has that kind of personality when he can be in the meetings watching film and he can call out Steve, he can call out Amar'e. A lot of coaches are scared to do that with their star players. He can do that. He can call out anybody."
D'Antoni didn't have the same level of personnel the Suns now have, but he also never worked to develop his bench the way Gentry has. Phoenix's two most important contributors in Game 2 were both reserves: Dudley and Channing Frye(notes). When the Suns couldn't hit a shot, Dudley outfought the Spurs for rebounds to extend possessions. Frye made five 3-pointers, all of them timely, while drawing Duncan out to the perimeter and away from the basket.
"I can't remember really being a part of a team that's had so many guys step up and play well," Nash said.
Frye has proved to be one of last summer's best bargain signings while last season's trade for Dudley continues to pay off. Kerr shipped Boris Diaw(notes) and Raja Bell(notes) to the Charlotte Bobcats for Jason Richardson(notes) and Dudley, a deal that had many of the Suns' rivals smirking at the time. How did the Suns expect to improve defensively by exchanging the rugged Bell for Richardson, a chucker who did his best work under Golden State's Don Nelson? Dudley, however, has helped Phoenix do just that, developing into a defender versatile enough to guard Parker down the stretch.
Hill also has reinvented himself, albeit at age 37. He has become the Suns' most dependable perimeter defender, routinely assigned the task of taking on the opponent's most dangerous scorer. In Game 2, he helped limit Manu Ginobili to just two baskets. Like Dudley with Parker, Hill teamed with the Suns' mobile big men to disrupt the Spurs' pick-and-rolls, cutting off Ginobili's angles to the basket. The defensive adjustments have left even the Spurs' staff impressed.
"I think we've evolved into a team with more depth and more ways to win games," Hill said. "Before, we sort of had to win pretty."
Not now. The Suns scrapped and pushed and stood tall under the pressure. Had they lost, they also knew they would have felt heat from the firestorm they started a day earlier. In a Cinco de Mayo tribute to the city's Latino community and a symbolic protest of Arizona's controversial immigration-enforcement bill, the players wore their "Los Suns" jerseys. Sarver, Kerr and Nash all denounced the bill, and while the Suns have received national praise for the move, they've also been, in the words of one staffer, "absolutely crushed" at home. Polls suggest nearly 70 percent of residents support the bill, spurring angry callers to jam the Suns' switchboard all day. Kerr admitted the team will lose some level of season-ticket holders.
The Suns hope a little winning can heal some of the wounds. Not since 2000 has Phoenix won consecutive playoff games against the Spurs – and Duncan didn't play in that series. Two more wins and the Suns are back in the conference finals for the first time since 2006. The season's success figures to earn both Kerr and Gentry contract extensions.
Kerr isn't ready to celebrate. Not with the next two games in San Antonio. The Spurs have been through enough of these battles to believe they can still win. Two years ago they won a second-round series against the New Orleans Hornets after trailing 2-0.
"We have a long way to go," Kerr said.
He smiled. His team had gutted out a win like few in recent history, and deep down Kerr knew the other truth: This night showed just how far these Suns have already come.