Maybe nobody else saw the rise of the Phoenix Suns coming, but coach Mike D'Antoni isn't one of them. Oh, he won't tell you that he saw an NBA-best 19-3 record — which the...

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Maybe nobody else saw the rise of the Phoenix Suns coming, but coach Mike D’Antoni isn’t one of them.

Oh, he won’t tell you that he saw an NBA-best 19-3 record — which the Suns brought into last night’s game against the Sonics — on the immediate horizon. But he said before the game he thinks this year’s success began to brew late last season, when the Suns went 7-6 in their last 13 games. Phoenix finished 29-53 overall, but D’Antoni said the late-season run made him think something was happening.

“It was like, ‘You know what? We are not that bad,’ ” he said.

Then the Suns added free-agent guards Quentin Richardson and Steve Nash in the offseason and went almost overnight from the draft lottery to the best start in franchise history.

The Suns have already posted a nine-game winning streak, becoming one of just five teams in NBA history to win nine straight after losing 50-plus games the year before. Two others were the 1980 Boston Celtics, who added Larry Bird, and the 2002 Washington Wizards, who added Michael Jordan.

It’s all made a somewhat unlikely coaching star out of D’Antoni, who took over early last season when Frank Johnson was fired. D’Antoni’s only previous head coaching experience came with Denver in the 1998-99 lockout season, losing his job after the Nuggets went 14-36.

Before that, he spent 21 years as a player and coach in Italy. He has dual citizenship and speaks fluent Italian.

Yesterday’s game at a glance

Player of the game: Guard Joe Johnson was everywhere for the Suns, finishing with a team-high 24 points and also grabbing a season-high 10 rebounds. He also had five assists and no turnovers in 24 minutes and helped key Phoenix’s comeback.

Play of the game: It at least was the acting job of the game as Reggie Evans turned in a flop worthy of Dick Fosbury midway through the fourth quarter after being lightly touched by Steve Nash. Evans then hit two free throws, starting a 12-5 run that gave Seattle a 102-95 lead with just over three minutes left.

Key stat: Phoenix shot 33 free throws to Seattle’s 22, indicative of the Suns’ success penetrating.

Next: vs. Denver, Wednesday, 7 p.m., KeyArena.

“It’s nice,” he said of the Suns’ hot start. “But the biggest thing is that this is a good group of guys to work with. They come early, they enjoy each other, and we don’t have any problems.”

McMillan likes Carter trade

Sonics coach Nate McMillan thought New Jersey got the better of the blockbuster trade yesterday that sent Vince Carter from Toronto to New Jersey in exchange for Alonzo Mourning, Aaron Williams, Eric Williams and two first-round draft picks.

“Put Carter, Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson together, and that looks good on paper,” McMillan said.

McMillan also likes the fact that the Sonics won’t play the Nets anymore this year, having beaten them twice already. “Ah, we would have taken care of them anyway,” he joked.


• Sonics players were going about their business in the locker room before the game when suddenly Ray Allen‘s face showed up on the big-screen TV doing a live interview with ESPN. Antonio Daniels turned up the volume and implored Allen to give “short sound bites.” Daniels nodded approvingly as Allen talked. Then when Allen walked back into the locker room, several players gave him a mock standing ovation.

• It was about the closest thing you’ll see in the NBA to “Ichiro-mania” as Yuta Tabuse — the first Japanese-born player to see action in the NBA — made his initial appearance at KeyArena. There was an overflow of Japanese media and a line of Japanese fans trying to get his autograph before the game. Tabuse has seen little action this year, scoring just seven points in four games.