Prodigal Sun: Mike D'Antoni Returns Tonight When His Knicks Take on Richardson-Revitalized Phoenix

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So, when Mike D'Antoni leads his New York Knicks out of the tunnel and onto the hardwood at the Purple Palace, will you boo him or will you cheer him? What's the etiquette for a man who abandoned a listing ship?

Sure, following the Suns' first-round playoff ouster by the San Antonio Spurs last season, the former Suns head coach bailed in favor of the Big Apple, but he did it nicely enough. He asked first, in an I'm-telling-you kinda way. And Suns General Manager Steve Kerr -- the main cause of D'Antoni's disgruntlement after the two honchos spent last season on the outs -- didn't stop him (though he contractually could have).

When the dust settled on May 10, Kerr professed to being disappointed that D'Antoni had accepted the Knicks' four-year, $24 mil tender, but if the GM's true feelings are anything like ours, Kerr was secretly pleased. 

 "Good riddance" seems like a strange thing to say to a dude who, during his four-year tenure with the Suns, compiled a 253-136 record, posted four consecutive 50-plus-win seasons (two of those 60-plus), chalked up three Pacific Division championships, and won the 2004 NBA Coach of the Year award.

But Mr. Kerr, we've been right there with you. Though the Shaq trade's hardly worked out, you had to do something. This city wants a championship, not just a good team. And, Shaq's eratic old-man play aside, you moved a lot closer to vying for one with last week's trade for permier shooting guard Jason Richardson, who lived up to his reputation in the Suns' 113-112 nail-biter victory against the Orlando Magic Friday night.

 

Raja Bell and Boris Diaw were hardly gonna help in that quest: Bell wasn't as good as he used to be, and court-shy fleur Diaw needed to be traded a long time ago -- plus both were disgruntled as hell.

In his Suns debut, the sleep-deprived Richardson (who traveled to the desert from Charlotte in a hurry) demonstrated the range of his game with 21 points, including a couple of power dunks and a three-pointer (he's the best three-point shooter in the NBA). He also had three rebounds and three assists off the bench (he should be a starter by tonight's game against the Knicks).

But the best thing about the Richardson trade is that the Suns got a player who wants to be here. Failure to heed handwriting on the wall, as Bell and Diaw did, will almost always get you booted in the NBA.

The Suns' win was against a good Orlando team, whose star center, Dwight Howard, reaggravated an injury and had to sit out more than half the game. Shaq sat out the game, too, though Howard's presence in the Magic lineup is far more important than Shaq's in the Suns'. Indeed, Phoenix usually plays better without O'Neal, back in town but not back in uniform after a long trip from a funeral in North Carolina.

The Suns held a 10-point lead against the Magic at the end of the third quarter, but the score was back and forth during rest of the game. Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire had good nights, scoring 21 points each (Nash had 10 assists and Stoudemire 14 rebounds). But the game was won on a play drawn up by Coach Terry Porter during a timeout. Nash set a pick and Stoudemire quarterbacked a pass to a slashing Grant Hill for a backward layup at the buzzer.

We hope Porter can figure out a way, with Richardson, to keep Shaq from slowing Phoenix's offense to a stop. As we keep saying, O'Neal needs to play a role, just not the role he's been accustomed to over his long career. A test of whether this can work will come against the Kincks and prodigal Sun D'Antoni tonight. 

Tip's at 7 p.m. at US Airways Center. See www.nba.com/suns. National TV: NBA TV. Local TV: FSN AZ. Radio: KTAR-AM 620. -- Clay McNear and Rick Barrs



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