SINCE WHEN DOES STAT HIT THREES?
Each day the coaches go a little harder on the players. They are pleased with their pace and effort but not necessarily with their execution. The fast break, for example, looks good in five-on-none drills but ragged against opposition. Mike knows that running is risky with so many new players, but he's adamant that the Suns have to score to win and have to push the tempo to score. "We've got to find a way to get to 110," he says. ( Phoenix averaged a league-leading 110.4 points last season.) "We don't score 110, we're Dallas." He means a good but not great offensive team doomed, in all likelihood, never to get out of the Western Conference.
Some of the new players feel like they're racing around without a destination in mind. "Coach, you have to help me out there," Bell says to Dan during a break. "I feel like I'm speeding. I need to find some focus." While Dan is pleased that Bell has put his trust in him, the coach at times feels overwhelmed himself. "We always ran in high school, but not with athletes like these," Dan says. "They get up and down so fast that it's much more difficult to break down what happened. Plus as a head coach I always watched the ball, and now I've got to train myself to watch off the ball. That's where an assistant can really help."
Even within my limited duties things sometimes move too fast for me, and the intensity is too great. On this day Iavaroni and I have backups Thompson, Tischer, and 6'11" Pat Burke with three balls in play at a side basket for a shooting drill, the results of which will factor into how many down-and-backs this group will have to run at the end of practice. Coaches have to rebound or chase balls that roll away, then toss one to a passer, who then feeds a shooter. It's a bit of a juggling act and, during one particularly manic sequence, I turn into a clown. I get rapped in the head by a few shots and throw a couple of balls to the wrong player. "Come on, man," Thompson says after I throw a pass at him as he's shooting.
I must be thinking like a coach, because the Mustard Man (remember, his first name is Dijon) is starting to get on my nerves. A second-round pick out of UCLA, Thompson doesn't always work hard and has an I-don't-need-any-help attitude. I'm not the only one who notices, which is bad news for him. "That's why he's going to be in Albuquerque," Gentry says later, referring to Phoenix's National Basketball Developmental League affiliate. "He should study Raja Bell. Raja's got $24 million in the bank, and look how hard he plays."
One of the positive signs has been the blending of Nash and Thomas. The former Knick isn't nearly the runner and jumper that Stoudemire is, but he knows where to go on the break, and Nash knows where to find him. I mention that to Dan.
"No question," says the older D'Antoni. "But I worry if we start going too much away from Amar�." Dan has already learned one verity about the NBA: Behind every silver lining is a cloud. One player's touch is cause for another's unhappiness. The ingredients that go into team chemistry are forever flammable.
Concern over the condition of Stoudemire's knee has grown. He practices only sporadically, and then seems a little mopey when he's on the sideline. "Come on, STAT, get in here," Marion yells when the team huddles after practice. Stoudemire ambles over and puts his hand in the circle. STAT, by the way, stands for Stand Tall and Talented, a nickname Stoudemire gave himself. The acronym appears as a tat on his right biceps.
The coaches, and Stoudemire himself, have been going on about his increased shooting range. I'm in a wagering mood, so I bet Gentry $20 that Stoudemire will make fewer than 5 of 10 from three-point distance. I tell Stoudemire the bet. "O.J. will take the other side of the action," I say. Stoudemire calls Gentry O.J. believing the coach looks like the celebrated white Bronco passenger. (The other coaches don't see the resemblance but are happy to use the nickname just to ride Gentry.)
Stoudemire makes two in a row, goes cold, makes two more. If he hits the last shot, I lose. As Stoudemire prepares to shoot, Gentry grabs the ball out of his hands. "All right, just pretend I'm Steve Nash," says the coach, dribbling to the foul line. Gentry licks his fingers and brushes imaginary hair behind his ears, replicating the Nash tics, then fires a pass to Stoudemire in the corner. Stoudemire drains the shot. He hit only 3 of 16 three-pointers last season, and he nails this one.