PHOENIX -- The Phoenix Suns were a reassuring testament that team chemistry means something, even in the me-first world of the NBA. A deep bench and one of the best cast of 3-point shooters in league history didn't hurt, either.
That they came within two victories of the NBA Finals surprised just about everyone. If not for an unstoppable two-minute stretch by Kobe Bryant, the Suns might well have forced a deciding Game 7 in the Western Conference finals.
Instead, they held a team meeting on Sunday, then spoke of the joys of the season and the hopes that it was only the beginning. Whether that future includes Amare Stoudemire is the big uncertainty.
Stoudemire said only that he would begin his evaluation process on Monday. Team owner Robert Sarver and general manager Steve Kerr wouldn't address the issue. Suns coach Alvin Gentry said "you would expect" Stoudemire to opt out of his contract and test the free agent market.
"If you're asking me, 'Do we want him back?' Yeah, we want him back," Gentry said.
Stoudemire, who has spent all eight seasons with the Suns after coming to the NBA directly from high school, is due to make $17 million in the final year of his contract. He can opt out, and he wants a maximum deal.
"This year's been amazing for us," he said. "We've done a lot, we've grown a lot. We've improved so much within one year. It's definitely been one of the most exciting seasons I've ever had. We definitely want to continue that, so if that's possible that would be great."
Sarver said he wants the emotion of the playoffs to subside before he, Kerr and the rest of the front office begin to address the Stoudemire issue and others facing the team.
"The only thing I know is this was obviously his last game for this season," Sarver said. "I don't really have any thoughts beyond that right now."
Steve Nash brought his 5-year-old twin daughters with him to the arena on Sunday, lamenting the "pathetic" performance of his favorite World Cup soccer team England against Japan earlier in the day. He spoke of how much he enjoyed coming to work every day this season.
"Everyone was sacrificing for one another and improving all the time, so you can only take a lot of positives from it," Nash said. "Of course we're disappointed. Somehow we found ourselves in the Western Conference finals tied 2-2 with a lot of belief that we were going to the finals. So we're always going to be disappointed but at the same time we came a long way.
"I'm really proud of my teammates and to be a part of this team."
Nash said he wants the team to stick together and is available if Stoudemire wants to talk to him about it.
"This is something that he really has to think about," Nash said. "He knows from our perspective I think everything he needs to know. It's more what's out there for him, what the possibilities and options are for him that he has to weigh."
Someone asked Nash about a reunion with good friend Dirk Nowitzki, who also can opt out of his contract.
"I always assumed that he's just going to re-sign with Dallas so I haven't really thought about it," Nash said, "but obviously I had a great time playing with him."
Nash turned 36 in February and, with two years left on his contract, continues to defy Father Time.
"It's June and I feel great," he said. "The spirit and the enjoyment I had is only going to make it easier to come back next year. Who knows? Maybe this will be my last two years coming up. Maybe I'll play longer."
The Suns came close to trading Stoudemire at the All-Star break, but not finding a deal they liked, kept him. Phoenix went 23-6 the rest of the season and earned the No. 3 playoff seed in the West. The Suns beat a depleted Portland team in six games in the first round, then swept longtime nemesis San Antonio.
Phoenix was shredded for 252 points in the first two games against Los Angeles, but came home to win the next two. The Suns rallied from 18 down in Game 5 to tie it on Jason Richardson's 3-point bank shot with 3 seconds to play only to see Ron Artest grab Bryant's air ball and throw it in at the buzzer for a 103-101 victory. The Suns trailed by 17 after three quarters on Saturday night when second-year pro Goran Dragic led a rally that cut the lead to three before Bryant settled things for good.
"When you get from the conference finals and you're a couple of points from being up 3-2, you feel like you're going to make it to the Finals. I think sometimes disappointment can cloud perspective," Nash said. "People didn't really think we had what it took to make the playoffs even. To build a team, especially in professional basketball, that can exceed so many expectations as greatly as ours did last year, there's a lot of pride."
Nash has played 118 playoff games, more than anyone else in NBA history who did not make the Finals. No one, he said, should feel sorry for him.
"I have a pretty great life," he said. "I had one scholarship offer [after high school]. To be in the conference finals four a fourth time is a lot more than I bargained for when I started playing this game. I think also a couple of those conference finals were really the championship series. I think a lot of it is just talk, and I'm fine with it."
After Saturday night's game, Nash made a point of noting that Gentry is one of the lowest-paid coaches in the league and that he deserves better. In his first full season, the coach was able to foster the camaraderie and bring along the young players to make the team better than the sum of its parts.
"We tried to accomplish our goal, which was to get to the NBA Finals, and it didn't work out," Gentry said, "but as I said to our players, we will not look at this as a negative in any way. I think what we accomplished this year as a team and the way they played and the improvements that we made and the way the young guys got better and the leadership that we had, all of those things are real, real positive and we'll try to take those and try to grow from there."