D'Antoni back in playoffs, 3 years after Suns' end
Mike D'Antoni has sat out the playoffs the last two years, his season ending just when it's supposed to get going.
That's left plenty of time for his last postseason appearance to linger, a first-round flameout in 2008 that put an ugly ending on what had been such a rewarding run with the Suns.
D'Antoni was quickly gone from Phoenix and soon landed a huge contract in New York, which has been good for his bank account but horrible for his win-lost record. He knew the Knicks would be rebuilding, and even though he always said the goal was to make the playoffs, everyone knew there was little chance of that happening.
''Mike's an unbelievable competitor and wants it as badly as anybody. He knew what he was getting into, he knew it was going to be a couple-of-years project, but that doesn't make it any easier, especially in New York,'' said Steve Kerr, the former Suns president and general manager whose differences with D'Antoni were one of the reasons the coach decided to leave a team he loved.
Now D'Antoni finally gets another postseason chance, leading the Knicks into Boston on Sunday for the opener of a first-round series, New York's first playoff appearance since 2004.
No matter what happens, things can't go any worse than they did in his last playoff opportunity.
The Suns opened the 2008 postseason against the San Antonio Spurs, the team that had ended their season in two of the previous three years. Phoenix had made a surprising trade at the deadline, dealing the versatile Shawn Marion for Shaquille O'Neal, who seemed the worst fit possible for D'Antoni's small-ball schemes.
But they had surged into the playoffs, believing they had figured out how to play with their changed roster. And things were going well when they led the Spurs for much of Game 1 in San Antonio and were seconds away from seizing the home-court advantage.
''We should've won the first game and we blew it,'' D'Antoni recalled Saturday. ''We lost our confidence the way we lost Game 1 in double-overtime. ''We should have beaten them like three times that game ... it just kind of unraveled.''
Tim Duncan made his first 3-pointer of the season with 3 seconds left to force the second overtime, then Manu Ginobili made the winning basket with 1.8 seconds left to complete the comeback. San Antonio won the next game, then things really went bad for the Suns.
Tony Parker scored 41 points as the Spurs rolled in Game 3 in Phoenix, and suddenly the criticisms about D'Antoni's approach to coaching defense grew even louder, along with the questions about whether his system could ever win. Kerr, the boss he couldn't quite see eye-to-eye with, had some of them.
''I think Mike was great, he was a hell of a coach and that team made great runs in the playoffs, getting to the conference finals twice,'' Kerr said in a phone interview, ''and I think there was a lot of pressure on Mike and the organization to get over the hump and frankly we swung for the fences with Shaq and we struck out. It just didn't work.
''And I think Mike was feeling a lot of pressure, I think he was ready to move on. I could've handled some things differently for sure, but it's just one of those things. Some times in the NBA things kind of run their course and I think that's what happened with that situation.''
The Suns lost in five games, and with D'Antoni not interested in making the changes Kerr sought to his style or his staff, he was granted permission to talk to other teams with two years still remaining on his contract. He said Saturday perhaps he should have gone to the Bahamas for a month to relax and give him time to reflect on what he had in Phoenix, where he averaged 58 wins in his four full seasons and had won a coach of the year award.
''What happened was when you make rash decisions right after you get beat ... then sometimes you don't make great decisions,'' D'Antoni said. ''And not saying I did or didn't, but what I'm saying is your feelings are much more raw at that point and those are times you've got to reflect and step back and let it die down a little bit.''
He landed in New York with a $24 million, four-year contract, but he lost 50 games in each of his first two seasons while the Knicks slashed payroll, and some impatient fans called for his job. He has a year left, but his future in New York could be uncertain since team president Donnie Walsh isn't guaranteed to return next season.
No matter. Now that D'Antoni is back in the playoffs, he isn't concerned with what the future holds.
''I'm going to enjoy this and I hope we have a heck of a series and that's all I'm worried about. The other stuff I've never really worried about,'' D'Antoni said. ''A time will come when you have to do business and we'll do it. But that doesn't even enter my mind, it really doesn't.''