Suns' elders aiming for elusive Finals

LOS ANGELES – When Steve Nash(notes) signed his contract extension with the Phoenix Suns last summer, he wasn’t planning on a trip to the Western Conference finals. Neither was Grant Hill(notes) when he re-signed with the team. Both knew this could be a transition season. The Suns missed the playoffs a year ago and the conference promised to be as loaded as ever.

Nash and Hill weren’t kidding themselves: By choosing to play in the desert, both knew the sun likely would set on their careers without them winning a championship. Even building the Suns into a contender figured to be a stretch.

Ten months later, the Suns’ two veterans can honestly say they didn’t expect to be here. Phoenix has split the first four games of the West finals with the Los Angeles Lakers, and suddenly Nash and Hill are just two wins from reaching their first NBA Finals ever.

“The amazing thing was the expectations weren’t there for this team,” Hill said. “There have been other teams where I first arrived and there were expectations to make it to the Finals, to win a championship. It was always just let’s get better every game, let’s play to our potential every game. But now being in this situation, it’s unbelievable.”

Nash has won two MVP awards and been named to seven All-Star teams. Hill was the 1995 Rookie of the Year, won an Olympic gold medal in 1996 and also is a seven-time All-Star. The only thing missing from their careers is an NBA title – or even a trip to the Finals. While Nash has twice previously made the conference finals, Hill had never advanced past the first round in his 16-year career before this season.

“We know what we are,” Hill said. “We know what’s at stake.”

The Suns hardly looked like championship material at the start of the season. After twice reaching the West finals under Mike D’Antoni in 2005 and ’06, Phoenix was knocked out of the second round in ’07 in a controversial series with the San Antonio Spurs. The following year, the Suns lost to the Spurs in the first round. D’Antoni left for New York and Terry Porter was hired as coach. That experiment lasted just a half-season before Porter was fired and longtime assistant Alvin Gentry was promoted.

“This franchise for five years had high expectations going in and that can build some pressure,” Hill said.

With Shaquille O’Neal(notes) traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Amar’e Stoudemire(notes) trying to return from a serious eye injury, the Suns opened the season with a modest goal: make the playoffs. Still, that didn’t deter either Nash or Hill to committing to stay with the franchise.

“The reason I re-signed was because I believed in our guys,” Nash said. “I didn’t know that we could be in the Western Conference finals, but I believed in our team. We have a group of great guys. I know that sounds crazy because it sounded like I didn’t have a chance to win a championship. I didn’t come back thinking if we could win a championship. I thought it would be a great atmosphere and a great working environment and a pleasure to work with these guys.”

Said Hill: “I don’t think anybody could have seen this happening.”

The Suns entered the playoffs as the West’s No. 3 seed, beat the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round and then swept their longtime nemesis, the Spurs, in the conference semifinals. The Lakers looked capable of whisking Phoenix from the playoffs just as easily, but the Suns rallied to take Games 3 and 4 at home.

The odds of the Suns winning the series aren’t in their favor because they don’t have home-court advantage, but the reality also is the franchise stands just two wins from its first Finals appearance since 1993.

Nash and Hill both know they might not get such an opportunity again. Nash turned 36 in February while Hill will be 38 in October. It’s also uncertain whether Stoudemire will re-sign with the Suns during the offseason. For Nash and Hill, these next two games are the most important of their careers.

“It could be my last chance, but I never think of it that way,” Nash said. “I think of this as the only chance.”

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