PHOENIX — Jeff Hornacek’s coaching career got off to a good start with the Suns, but it ended quickly and by most accounts unfairly.
Hornacek is off to another good start with the Knicks. He returns to Phoenix for the first time since his firing 10 months ago and is guiding one of the hottest teams in the league.
“It’s always nice to do that, but it’s about that game,” Hornacek said. “Can we win that game? We have to do a lot of things right.”
The humble Hornacek is downplaying his Phoenix return, trying not to make it about him. But he’s a competitor first, so there must be a little extra fire for tonight’s game after the Suns fired him 1 1⁄2 seasons after a 48-win debut. He says no.
“I’ve never really been that way even when I was traded to different cities to go back,” Hornacek said. “To me, it’s another game probably. You get to go back to Phoenix to see a lot of people you know. You try not to make it a distraction where you’re talking to everybody and seeing everybody.
“The focus is on the game. We need to win that game to keep this going on the road. I guess I’ve never been that way. So I think it’s going to be another game for us.”
Not everyone agrees. “We want to win one for Jeff in Phoenix,” Brandon Jennings said.
The Knicks have won 11 of their last 15 games, are 2-0 on this five-game trip, and sit at 14-10, the third-best record in the East.
The 14 wins equal the number the Suns had when Hornacek was fired in February with an overall mark of 101-112.
Injuries to key players Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight and some questionable personnel decisions by management backfired. They led to Hornacek’s dismissal at 14-35.
“That’s what happens,” said Hornacek, who also spent six seasons playing for Phoenix. “The steps that the Suns took were to try to get to another level. Sometimes they work out, sometimes they don’t. So you have to try to adjust to that and it just didn’t work out for us.”
But it didn’t sour Hornacek. He’s confident in himself and his philosophies. His decisions, use of players and rotations have been a big reason the Knicks are playing well. “It’s never a good thing to get fired but you also understand as coaches, it’s going to happen at some point,” he said. “There’s not many [Gregg Popoviches] who stay around the same team [or] Jerry Sloan for so many years.”
Hornacek played small and wide open in Phoenix because of his personnel. With the Knicks, he wanted to play faster than the team has in the past and incorporate more pick-and-rolls to play to the strengths of his players.
But the Knicks started the season slowly. That could be traced to a lack of familiarity and comfort, and resistance to the triangle offense. They’ve adjusted, and are playing more open and free and less triangle.
“We never said we were running the triangle the whole time,” Hornacek said. “We try to mix it in.”
The players welcome the change.
“We’ve got a better understanding of what we’re trying to do,” Courtney Lee said.