Nash has Phoenix rising in late surge for playoffs

The Phoenix Suns fired their coach
last year and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

This year, the Suns have ridden a
late-season hot streak back to their customary place near the top of the
Western Conference and could make some noise come playoff time.

Once again, they have done so with
offense. The Suns entered the week leading the NBA with an average of 110.5
points a game, with the masterly Steve Nash conducting the offense and leading
the league with 11.1 assists a game.

Amar’e Stoudemire has been a force
on offense and on the boards. Since being benched amid trade rumours in late
January, Stoudemire averaged 26.4 points and 10 rebounds during February and
March and showed a renewed commitment to playing defense. Phoenix had the best record in the West in
March, winning 12 of 14 games.

A big part of the Suns’ success has
been the steady leadership of Coach Alvin Gentry, who took over last February
when Terry Porter was fired. Gentry was an assistant for six seasons under Mike
D’Antoni and he immediately reintroduced much of D’Antoni’s philosophy.

Although Oklahoma
City’s Scott Brooks and Milwaukee’s
Scott Skiles are favourites to be named the coach of the year, Gentry has
entered the conversation. He took a lottery team that lost Shaquille O’Neal and
has it in the thick of the race for the second seed in the West.

With Denver also in the mix, the margin between
gaining home-court advantage in the postseason and playing on the road is slim.
One of Gentry’s biggest moves this season was to make the second-year center
Robin Lopez a starter.

Although Lopez has been sidelined
since March 27 with a bulging disk, he was a big part of the Suns’ surge since
the All-Star break. He brought energy on defense, disrupting shots and passes
while staying out of foul trouble.

Oft-injured Grant Hill has also
been an asset on the floor for the Suns, averaging 11.5 points and 5.5 rebounds.
Jason Richardson (16 points, 5.3 rebounds) and sweet-shoting big man Channing
Frye also deserve props.

Ultimately Phoenix is one of the surprises of the
league and with a line-up loaded with offense the side might raise even more
eye-brows this month.