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Suns adjust winningly

By Phil Elderkin / December 1, 1980



Basically there isn't a whole lot of difference in the way all 23 National Basketball Association teams play the game. The exception is Phoenix, where head coach John MacLeod seldom uses his starters for more than 35 minutes a game.

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Actually MacLeod had done this for sereral years, and this is not the chief reason that the Suns have suddenly become huge favorites to replace the Los Angeles Lakers as Pacific Division champions and perhaps do just as well in the playoffs.

What the entire league is talking about is how the Suns have gone from one of the poorest rebounding teams in the NBA last year to one of the most aggressive; plus two shifts in personnel that have given this team exceptional balance and helped it streak to a 21-4 early season record.

The knock on Phoenix in recent years has been that it lacked the muscle up front to cope with rival power teams in the playoffs, particularly those with monster centers who could be physically intimidating.

Specifically the finger of failure has been pointed mostly at Suns' center Alvan Adams, who carries only 210 pounds on a 6ft. 9in. frame; and forward Walter Davis, who simply has never had a rebounder's body. Although some of these deficiencies can be hidden over a long season, they always surface during the playoffs or any short series.

That statement is not meant to be a putdown of either man. Adams is one of the cleverest centers in the league, a good scorer who knows the value of the outlet pass and who plays hard at both ends of the floor. Davis is an equally heady player who has never had the slightest problem putting the ball in the basket against even the NBA's best defensive players, and has been a three-time all-star at his position.

But under the boards it is often impossible for a sports car to do the work of a 10- ton truck and that, basically, is what these two had been fighting.

"After we lost the Western Conference playoff finals last year to Los Angeles , it occurred to me that what we needed most was to give Adams and Truck Robinson more help under the boards," MacLeod said. "I finally decided the best way to do this was to shift Davis into the backcourt and take one of our best reserves, Jet Cook [who is 6-10] and make him into a starting forward.

"Even though Davis had never played guard before, he has all the quick moves of a little man and, since Walter can score from almost anywhere, we really wouldn't be sacrificing any of his offense," John continued. "Under the circumstances, Walter has given us an awful lot at a new position in a very short time.

"The result of that shift is that Adams, with Cook around to help him and Robinson on the boards, hasn't had to take nearly as much physical punishment this year as in the past," John continued. "And Cook has not only played the tough defense and rebounded the way we thought he would, but he's also shown us he can score."

Meanwhile Phoenix picked up some backcourt speed to go along with Davis when it traded Paul Westphal during the off season to Seattle for Dennis Johnson, probably the best defensive guard in the NBA. And MacLeod has a couple of better- than-average backups for them in second- year man Johnny High, and rookie Kyle Macy from Kentucky.

Rich Kelly, who fills in for Adams at center, is a bulky seven-footer who three years ago pulled down more than 1,000 rebounds while starting for the New Orleans (now Utah) Jazz. The Suns also have three speedy backup forwards in Joel Kramer, Alvin Scott, and Mike Niles.

Asked why his starters probably play fewer minutes per game than any other team in the NBA, MacLeod replied:

"The way pro basketball is geared today, with 82 games crowded into such a limited period of time and with so much traveling, I don't think you can expect players to go 40-45 minutes a game without pacing themselves. Late in the season too much floor time has to hurt their effectiveness.

"We've tried to build a bench so strong that we can use any player on it for a short period without destroying the overall balance. This way you keep a lot of guys sharp and happy with the chance to play and, if you substitute right, you can always finish the game with your starters still in the lineup. The fact that we're not overworking anyone should give us the physical edge we're looking for going into the playoffs.