Mike D'Antoni, Steve Nash evolve
Return to Phoenix is a reminder of how distant the good old days have become
It took a few months for the magnitude of his decision to fully sink in, for Mike D'Antoni to understand everything he'd left behind when he left the Phoenix Suns for the New York Knicks in the spring of 2008.
He was frustrated, sure, with the Suns' sad playoff fates, with the way things ended and the way things were heading. But he should've waited a little while, taken a month to cool off, to think, to process, to heal from another painful playoff ending.
Because by leaving Phoenix, D'Antoni was really leaving Steve Nash and walking out on the closest thing to the perfect basketball marriage between coach and player the game has seen in decades.
In the five years since -- including this one, in which they've been awkwardly reunited with the Los Angeles Lakers -- D'Antoni has been trying to recapture some of that old Nash magic to no avail.
The Knicks had neither the talent nor the will to play as D'Antoni wanted them to. Now these Lakers have the opposite problem: too much talent and too much will to give D'Antoni's system a real shot.
It has been a painful process to watch, much less live through. Dante couldn't have written a journey into basketball hell as ugly as the one D'Antoni has lived through since leaving Nash.
But now, finally, they come home again. On Wednesday night, Nash will be in Phoenix for the first time since the Suns paid him the ultimate compliment by letting him finish his career on his own terms, even if it was with the Lakers.
Both Nash and D'Antoni are a little battered and broken from a season that has been too hard for a team this good. Both have recently come to an understanding that while it may never be the same as it was, it can still be OK.
The Lakers aren't really running D'Antoni's system right now -- not the way it was meant to be run. If you see glimpses of his old style, it's mostly when the Lakers' second unit is on the court.
The starters, the four future Hall of Famers, aren't even running it in spirit, even with Nash at the helm. The Lakers might occasionally space the floor as D'Antoni likes, but they don't run or gun or have nearly as much fun as his old Suns teams did.
"We don't really have a system," D'Antoni said. "We play basketball. ... But it doesn't matter. Once you have a chemistry among your players, and they're all happy with their roles and they play hard, it's 'Who has the talent?' And we have the talent. So now it's coming out."
It's come out over a three-game win streak that has breathed some life back into a team and a franchise that was on the verge of imploding just a week ago.
It's come out, because if the players didn't all start to bend, the team was simply going to break apart.
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For his part, Nash has taken the changes in stride. Kobe Bryant is handling the ball more than he is these days. When Bryant is facilitating, Nash becomes more of a spot-up shooter. He's a deadly marksman, of course, but he's so much more than that as a basketball player, it almost seems wasteful to use him in this way.
For now, and for as long as this style of play translates into wins, he's happy to oblige. In fact, a lot of these changes were borne out of late-night conversations between Nash, Bryant and D'Antoni.
"It's important that I try to embrace it and really adjust and be ready to do both and help the team in different ways," Nash said. "With all the offensive players we have, it's impossible for it to look like our past.
"It's not going to be like Phoenix for me. It's not going to be like Orlando for Dwight [Howard] and so on and so forth. We have to try to emerge and embrace the changes that are going to make this team a new entity and a successful one."
D'Antoni, of course, was looking for it to be as things were in Phoenix when he got a chance to reunite with Nash this season in Los Angeles. Instead, it's been a series of disappointments, beginning with Nash's seven-week recovery from a broken left leg, just when D'Antoni needed him the most as he was installing his offense.
Things improved for a while when Nash first got back, but the Lakers' problems were too deep for even him to fix.
To run D'Antoni's system, you need to have an initial buy-in. D'Antoni has never truly gotten that. And so the Lakers have never truly run his system.
"There's just a certain rhythm and tempo to the offense that it needs to be run at for it to really work. And it's been tough for guys to really comprehend that," said Lakers guard Chris Duhon, who also played for D'Antoni in New York.
"I think you have guys who are used to having the ball a lot. They're not used to going three or four possessions without touching the basketball. In this system, that can happen for a whole quarter, depending on how the defense is playing. So their first instinct is, 'S---, I haven't touched the ball. I need to get the basketball.'
"So now you have three or four guys posting up and it's clogging up the lane because they haven't touched the ball. It's just something they're not used to."
For weeks, D'Antoni seemed to think his team would eventually come around. That one day it would just click. That one game they'd just start to go.
But as the losses mounted and the pressure on both him and the team grew, he had to compromise.
"You win like we did against Oklahoma City [on Sunday] and it feels good," D'Antoni said, when asked if this new style of play felt like a compromise to him. "That's the only thing I feel."
Still, it's obvious this is hard for him to swallow.
At his core, D'Antoni is a purist. He sees the game the way a genius computer programmer writes code. Among his coaching peers, he's still regarded as something of an offensive genius. Every summer he gives seminars to dozens of professional and college coaches.
But now is not the time to fight for his principles. It's time to win by any means necessary. To save what's left of this season. To have any chance of it ending well.
"He wouldn't be good at what he does if he didn't have his beliefs," Nash said. "There's a certain amount you've got to hold strong and a certain amount that you've got to be willing to adapt.
"I think in some places he's happy to adapt. But in other places he's still trying to hold on to what he believes."
It won't get any easier Wednesday night. The setting, the old arena, will make them nostalgic for what they had and what they left behind.
But in a way, that's as it should be. An old home doesn't always feel like home again. The place changes. So do you.
"Yeah, but if you know that it can be great in a different way," Nash said. "But if you're looking for the exact same thing, you might be disappointed."