TUCSON - It wasn’t quite Hickory High coach Norman Dale tossing the basketballs aside to start his first practice in the movie “Hoosiers,” but it didn’t take long for his charges to understand this is a whole new ballgame under Terry Porter.
There were your Phoenix Suns, spending more than half of the first workout Tuesday on defensive principles and the basics of a motion offense as training camp began at McKale Center.
“Yeah, it’s a little different approach,” said Suns general manager Steve Kerr, who admitted he was excited to see a plan that had been on the drawing board for months begin to take shape. “It’s just Day 1 of a long road, but you could feel everyone’s energy today.”
In one drill, the ball was little more than a prop as one player after another went from denying the ball, to switching on defense to forcing a dribbler away from the middle and toward the baseline. No shot was taken.
Even the evening practice set aside for scrimmaging was going to feature competition drills and other teaching opportunities.
“We don’t just want to throw up the ball. It’s too early for that,” Porter said.
Mike D’Antoni’s “Seven Seconds or Less?” Gone in 60 seconds.
The Suns knew they were in for a change. They fully expected what was waiting for them. But after four years of shoot-’em-up, there was still a fair bit of culture shock. After getting his feet tangled with an orange cone during a three-man weave drill, Shaquille O’Neal leaned up against the basketball support and pushed out an expletive between deep breaths.
“These types of practices are a lot different from Mike’s,” guard Raja Bell said. “We did a lot of offense with him. That was the focus. Guys will have to get used to this.”
Bell has been a member of the NBA’s all-defensive team for the last two years, and he spent two years under Jerry Sloan in Utah — so he knows all about practicing defense. But even for him, it’s nothing to look forward to.
“To be honest, I’ve never been a big fan,” he said. “But that’s because defense takes a lot of work, and practice is no different from games. That’s why a lot of guys don’t necessarily want to do it in games, because it takes a lot of energy and it takes work.”
The work has a track record of paying off. Porter was an assistant in Detroit last year, where the Pistons led the NBA in defense (90.1 points allowed per game). That was just a tad better than the champion Boston Celtics (90.3) and the Suns’ annual nemesis, the San Antonio Spurs.
Porter’s lofty goal is to lift the Suns, who finished 25th in defense (up a bit from previous years under D’Antoni) and allowed 105 points last year among the top five.
“That’s where you have to be,” Porter said.
The scoring differential between Detroit (plus-7.4 points) and Phoenix (plus-5.0) wasn’t nearly as dramatic, because the Suns put up their usual 110 points a night with an entertaining style that made them league darlings — but didn’t add to their jewelry collection.
So while finishing in the top five in defense would be great as far as Bell is concerned, even a boost into the middle of the pack would represent a titanic shift.
“We have the whole crew back. We’re going to have a potent offense,” Bell said. “If we add something to that on the other end, it can only help.”
Kerr is quick to mention the Suns still plan to be a running team, and aren’t going to suddenly start scoring in the 80s. But when it was suggested at Monday’s media day that Porter’s approach might be a tough sell in these parts, the coach rolled his eyes.
“So winning is not good enough, you’ve got to have excitement?” he asked, mixing in a mischievous giggle. “You’d rather lose with 110 than win with 80 points? Fans don’t like that?”
For all the regular-season wins and highlight-reel plays, the fans ultimately tired of exits from the playoffs, and a team that couldn’t make defensive stops when it mattered. And at the end of last season, the grumbling got a little louder in the locker room as well.
“We have great talent on this team, but we’ve been playing a certain way for the last four years and we didn’t win a title,” forward Amaré Stoudemire said. “And when you look at the teams who do, defense is at the forefront. It’s time we added that to our résumé.”