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Rockets-Warriors brings Suns fans’ pain of last decade-plus full circle

(AP Photo/File)

Early one Monday morning seven years ago, Steve Kerr sat in a Tulsa, Okla., airport with little to worry about.

The former Phoenix Suns general manager had three days to prepare for his next assignment as a college basketball analyst. Nine months earlier, he’d stepped away from his job after Phoenix’s surprise 2010 Western Conference Finals run — the Suns’ last playoff appearance — and maintained it had everything to do with his family.

Kerr’s oldest son, Nick, was a senior in high school, and his Arizona alum father seemed at ease having just called a second-round game involving the Wildcats.

“I’ve gotten to see a lot of (Nick’s) games this year, and my younger two kids as well, and all their stuff that they have going on,” Kerr said of his career move. “It’s definitely a family and a personal decision more than career-related. But that said, I really love what I’m doing and really enjoying the broadcasting.”

At some point, the coaching profession came calling.

Had it not, it’s hard to imagine what the NBA landscape would look like — other than a few more NBA championships for LeBron James.

Kerr’s Golden State Warriors, the 2018 title favorites, will host the top-seeded Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals that begin Monday. The matchup, no matter the results, will be piling on further vindication for Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni and his NBA-altering Seven Seconds or Less era in Phoenix.

For Suns fans, it’s also injected with painful reminder after painful reminder of the past 14 years.

Golden State’s 2015 NBA title run, Kerr’s first-year as an NBA head coach, was only the start.

“Tell Mike D’Antoni he’s vindicated!” Alvin Gentry, then an assistant with the Warriors, said after that win. “We just kicked everyone’s (expletive) playing the way everybody complained about!”

D’Antoni’s style, criticized as it was, led to success in Phoenix from 2004-2010. He won 65 percent of his games with the Suns, and his teams were an orbital bone fracture, hip check or putback away from making the NBA Finals — pick one or multiple.

D’Antoni departed Phoenix in 2008, leaving point guard Steve Nash and a promoted Gentry to continue their success. But what would have happened to D’Antoni after that had Kerr not returned to coaching?

If it weren’t for a beating-the-Warriors obsessed Rockets team led by general manager Daryl Morey, D’Antoni’s career might’ve petered out.

The coach had latched on to the New York Knicks from 2008-12 and the Los Angeles Lakers from 2012-14. The big markets, touchy personalities and micro-managed teams won just 43 percent of their 442 games under him. Their front offices didn’t get close to conforming the roster toward the themes that made D’Antoni successful in Phoenix.

Though D’Antoni and Kerr only overlapped in Phoenix for a year before those more difficult days, the two had their disagreements.

Kerr infamously dealt Shawn Marion, a key figure in the early Seven Seconds or Less days, for the hulking — and aging — Shaquille O’Neal. It didn’t jive with D’Antoni’s system.

Since, Kerr admitted regret over his decisions and the relationship with his head coach. D’Antoni, who had opted to leave the Suns for the Knicks, has openly wished he cherished the moment a little more.

“It was ‘Camelot;’ it cannot get any better,” current Warriors president Rick Welts and Suns president from 2002-2011 told the Mercury News this year. “Steve and Mike had an amazing and successful time together. It was ‘Camelot,’ but then it wasn’t.”

The Warriors’ and Rockets’ playoff matchup goes deeper for Suns fans than reminiscing over Phoenix’s former leaders.

To reach the conference finals, the Warriors defeated the New Orleans Pelicans and a team coached by Gentry, who served as an assistant for both of Kerr and D’Antoni.

When the Pelicans stole Game 3 to make it a 2-1 Golden State lead, Kerr started the Death Lineup, the five-man smallball unit coined in the 2015 title run. Kerr credited that lineup to former Suns video coordinator Nick U’Ren, who left Phoenix in 2014 to become Kerr’s special assistant.

Houston’s coaching staff includes player development coach Irving Roland, who was a personal development coach for Rockets star James Harden — even while he spent two years in Phoenix on Jeff Hornacek’s coaching staff. The roster includes Seven Seconds or Less vet Joe Johnson and former Suns gunner Gerald Green, both midseason pickups.

In terms of style, the Rockets and Warriors took the best from the revolutionary Suns.

The positionless basketball started in Phoenix has come full circle, yet there are vast fundamental differences in what positionless basketball means to each.

Defensively, the Warriors have turned wing Kevin Durant into a weakside rim protector. Undersized forward Draymond Green uses his bulkiness to battle big bodies as a center, and Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala chase the best perimeter opponents.

Houston filled in the gaps around Harden with one of the best on-ball defensive point guards in the NBA, Chris Paul, and one of the up-and-coming rim protectors in Clint Capela. Around them are a series of physical, switchable forwards Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah A Moute and P.J. Tucker.

Tucker is unarguably the most popular former Sun in the era of this eight-year playoff drought.

The defensive success of Houston should be pointed out as well after it finished No. 6 in defensive rating this season.

Offensively, the Warriors push the pace, ranking fifth in the NBA, though they aren’t as enamored with the three-point line as Houston despite the capabilities of Stephen Curry, Thompson and Durant. They are in the middle-of-the-pack in terms of three-point attempt rate.

The Rockets’ two-headed offense led by Paul and Harden offers a slight departure from D’Antoni’s days of letting Steve Nash dominate the pick-and-roll, but Houston surprisingly comes in just 13th in pace as they probe defenses in isolations and pick-and-rolls. They’re fine either scoring off the bounce, swinging the ball to the other player with a defense off-kilter or finding a three-point gunner open in the corner as Capela rim-rolls a la Amar’e Stoudemire.

Morey built this monster from an analytical perspective that just so happened to agree with D’Antoni’s teachings. When the general manager was looking for a new head coach two years ago, the fit couldn’t have been more clear from a basketball point of view.

Morey also knew that title-chasing meant going through Golden State. What better way to combat Kerr than by hiring a man who knew how he thought and shared many of the same ideals?

“It’s the only thing we think about,” Morey said on ESPN Radio’s The Ryen Russillo Show in December. “I think I’m not supposed to say that, but we’re basically obsessed with ‘How do we beat the Warriors?'”

Further vindication for D’Antoni looks like this.

In Phoenix, vindication is welcomed but comes with a bitter aftertaste.

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