Days after the Phoenix Suns were eliminated by San Antonio in the Western Conference semifinals, the brain trust went back to work with the idea of ascending to the next level — the level currently inhabited by the very team that sent them home on the way to a third NBA title in seven years.
If the Suns were going to go any further, the road went through The Alamo.
But six tumultuous months later — filled with soap operas, trades, free agent tug-of-wars and key injuries — the Suns are just another distant car in the Spurs' rear-view mirror as the two teams meet again tonight in San Antonio.
With a new core group, weakened tremendously by the long-term loss of Amaré Stoudemire, struggling for an identity, the 3-4 Suns are currently more concerned with treading water than scaling mountains. Meanwhile, the Spurs, stronger than ever thanks to the off-season pickups of Nick Van Exel, Michael Finley and Fabricio Oberto, are 7-2 and rolling as usual.
"We're just trying to find ourselves right now, so fighting the Spurs is way off the radar screen right now," guard Steve Nash said. But back in June, the Spurs was foremost in Phoenix's mind — and the target.
"Clearly, they were one of the league's premier teams and it seemed like that core unit would be around for some time," said Suns president and general manager Bryan Colangelo, looking back at the mind-set. "After not only having the experience of playing them, but watching them win the championship. . . not every decision is made with the idea of matching up with them, but keep them in mind in terms of decisions that you are making."
Unable to stop the Spurs defensively in crunch time, Phoenix's first two moves addressed that specific need. Quentin Richardson, a big key to the Suns' boffo regular season but largely ineffective in the playoffs, was shipped to New York for center Kurt Thomas — with the idea of moving Stoudemire (power forward) and Shawn Marion (small forward) back to their natural positions and providing more resistance to Spurs star and leader Tim Duncan. "It was a team weakness that the Spurs exposed," Colangelo said. "That series showed we need to be bigger, more effective in rebounding and better defensively."
Looking for a defensive stopper to slow down the top shooting guards in the West — from Kobe Bryant, to Peja Stojakovic to, yes, San Antonio's Manu Ginobili — the Suns also signed free agent Raja Bell and felt they had bolstered two major weaknesses significantly.
But as the summer wore on, the plan started to unravel. A summer of discontent between the Suns and guard Joe Johnson — whose eye injury was seen as a major blow to Phoenix's chances of upsetting the Spurs — ended with the team completing a sign-and-trade deal with Atlanta. Phoenix obtained Boris Diaw and acquired James Jones from Indiana a day later, but two of the five starters from a 62-win team were now gone.
The Suns tried to plug the hole created by Johnson's absence by wooing former Sun and free agent Finley back to Phoenix. But Finley not only went elsewhere, he joined the Spurs — adding to a backcourt that already included Ginobili, Van Exel and point guard Tony Parker.
"There was obvious disappointment we didn't wind up with Michael Finley, and perhaps further disappointment he was going to our rival," Colangelo said.
Finley, currently on the injured list, cited the chance to win a title as a major factor in his decision — picking a team that had been-there-done-that over one that hasn't.
"He called me and told me he was sorry it didn't work out," said Nash, Finley's close friend and former teammate in Dallas. "But it's hard to turn down Tim Duncan."
Despite the setbacks, Suns management said their moves plus further additions (Brian Grant, Eddie House, Pat Burke) made Phoenix deeper, tougher and better. Then Stoudemire's knee surgery a week into training camp changed everything. Colangelo said the moves made during the season make the Suns better equipped to survive without their star, but early results aren't promising.
"We feel we're a better team (than last year's), but we can't answer those questions until Amaré comes back," coach Mike D'Antoni said. "We think we can be a team to beat by the end of the year. We have great pieces. We'll see. Right now, we just have to win basketball games."
The Spurs aren't dismissing Phoenix as a threat to their throne — at least not publicly.
“Any team that is run by Steve Nash is going to be a heck of a team," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "I don’t care if it’s the Budweiser League. Whoever is playing with him he’s going to make better.
"This happens to be a talented group he’s got with him. They don’t have Amaré, and that makes it tougher on them, but there’s a lot of good players there that do a great job."