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Suns edge Knicks in D'Antoni's return to Phoenix

Dec 16, 2008 - 6:23 AM PHOENIX (Ticker) -- Mike D'Antoni's former pupils spoiled his return on Monday night, as the Phoenix Suns held off the New York Knicks for a 111-103 triumph.

D'Antoni coached the Suns for nearly five seasons before departing for the Knicks this offseason. But his new club couldn't match his old one - albeit a dramatically re-tooled version - as Phoenix prevailed. Shaquille O'Neal scored 23 points and grabbed 12 boards and Amare Stoudemire collected 21 and 14 as the Suns won for the fourth time in five games.

"I love the way we played," D'Antoni said. "We had opportunities to win, but didn't make our threes ... we had to shoot a pretty good percentage to beat these guys. Overall, I am really excited how we played, how hard we played. It is a good measuring stick and I thought we did well."

The Suns kept the Knicks at bay for the bulk of the night, but New York charged back down the stretch to put a scare into Phoenix's crowd - which gave D'Antoni a standing ovation during pre-game introductions.

"It was great and well-deserved," Stoudemire said of the ovation. "He had great years here in Phoenix so I am glad the fans recognized that - the great years he had here."

Al Harrington capped a 14-5 run with a layup to cut the Suns' lead to 100-97 with 4:01 left on the clock, but the Knicks couldn't pull any closer. O'Neal went 1-of-2 from the line and Steve Nash added a 20-footer to extend the lead to six. With 1:38 left, Tim Thomas misfired from 3-point range and Nate Robinson was blocked on a mid-range attempt as the Suns held on.

D'Antoni compiled a 253-136 record in four-plus seasons guiding the Suns, who made two appearances in the Western Conference finals under his watch.

However, last season, his style clashed with general manager Steve Kerr, who wanted to implement a more defensive-minded approach. As expected, D'Antoni was granted permission to speak with other teams following the season and chose New York after a brief flirtation with the Chicago Bulls.

"The only regret I have is we didn't win championship," D'Antoni said. "It came to a point, and we have discussed it and rehashed it, so there is no point to go over it. One of these days I will look back and say I wish we won a championship, but it didn't work out."

His first season with the Knicks has been an up-and-down performance, with his team at times showing flashes of the offensive explosiveness on which his system depends. However, the Knicks have gotten much more attention to the salary cap-slicing moves they have made during the campaign - presumably to prepare for the free-agent class of 2010, when the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Stoudemire and Dirk Nowitzki - among others - could hit the open market.

His first trip back to Phoenix - as he faced off against his replacement on the other bench, Terry Porter - was, he admitted, a strange one.

"It is awkward coning down to this locker room," he said. "You get anxious and you get a little more tired coming back the first time because you are seeing and visiting a lot of people. Once is enough, then we will get on with our lives."

New York suffered through a rough shooting night, connecting on just 41 percent (40-of-97). The Knicks were particularly miserable from long range, going 5-of-37 from the arc. Robinson came off the bench to drop in a season-high 27 points but was just 1-of-10 on 3-pointers.

"We didn't make the shots," Robinson said. "The shots were there. We had a couple of easy ones down the stretch and missed, including myself. Sometimes you live by the three and sometimes you die by the three."

Nash - who was the centerpiece of D'Antoni's "Seven Seconds or Less" offense over the last four seasons - registered 21 points, six assists and six rebounds in his reunion with his former coach.

"To hear the response Mike got, I thought it was a classy response after a little bit of controversy in his exit," Nash said. "People really need to brush that aside and really look at what he contributed to this city and this franchise and how much fun we had over the last four years. I thought it was a very deserved and very classy on the part of the Phoenix fans."

None of his eight buckets were bigger than the one he knocked down in the final minute. With the Suns nursing a tenuous five-point lead, the two-time league MVP buried a 3-pointer with 28 seconds remaining and the shot clock winding down - effectively sealing the victory.

"I don't like it because he is in the other uniform and he put the dagger in us at the end, but I have seen that a thousand times," D'Antoni said. "I knew it was going to happen."

He and O'Neal kept Phoenix's offense in sync early on to seize control in the first quarter. Nash's 19-footer at the 7:11 mark sparked a 14-2 run as the Suns took a double-digit lead. Shaq had eight points and a pair of assists in the opening frame.

Phoenix extended its lead to as high as 17 points before the Knicks finally got going.

"We knew they were going to try and maintain their speed and tempo, but we also knew we had to throw it in the post and see what they were going to do," Porter said. "Try to punish them down there. See if we could get the ball and have them take it out of the net more often than us."

Harrington capped a brief 7-0 spurt midway through the third quarter with a 3-pointer, pulling New York to as close as five at 71-66. But the Suns responded by scoring the next 10 points to keep the Knicks at bay.

"We had some moments where we couldn't deal with the stuff they were throwing at us defensively, but that's a part of growing," Nash said. "We still out up some points and won another game at home against a team that was really rolling."

Shaq finished the night 6-of-12 from the field and also drained 11-of-18 foul shots. In his second appearance with the Suns since being acquired from Charlotte, Jason Richardson made his first start with the club and chipped in 16 points and four 3-pointers.

"It was a nice win," O'Neal said. "We made a couple of mistakes down the stretch and any D'Antoni team will be a dangerous team. They have a lot of young aggressive shooters, but we pulled it out inside and outside."

The Knicks, however, were a collective brick factory for most of the night. Chris Duhon was 3-of-10, Thomas was 3-of-12 and Harrington - despite his 24 points - was just 8-of-22.

David Lee finished with 15 points and 12 boards before fouling out in the fourth quarter.