Cotton Fitzsimmons will return to coach the Phoenix Suns next season and he's hoping his NBA team can rebound from an unexpected early exit from this year's playoffs.
The Suns, who had a franchise-record 28 road victories this season and the second-best overall mark in team history at 55-27, were ousted in four games by the Utah Jazz in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.Utah had lost to Phoenix in both previous series - in six games in 1984 and five games last year.
The Suns reached the conference finals the last two seasons and many experts picked them to win it all soon.
That won't happen this year after the Jazz eliminated Phoenix 101-93 Thursday night in Salt Lake City.
"This makes me more determined to come back and get the job done and by that I mean the NBA championship," said the 59-year-old Fitzsimmons, who doubles as the team's director of player personnel.
Fitzsimmons, who first coached the Suns from 1970-72, took over the team again for the 1988-89 season and led them to a 55-27 season. He was named the league's Coach of the Year for the second time in his career.
Phoenix was 54-28 in 1989-90 but beat both Utah and the Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs before losing in six games to Portland in the conference finals.
Late-season injuries to Kevin Johnson (hamstring), Tom Chambers (back spasms) and Dan Majerle (leg numbness) almost cost the Suns their homecourt advantage in the first round of this year's playoffs.
But in Game 1, Utah beat Phoenix 129-90 - the most lopsided playoff defeat in the team's 23-year history - and the Suns never really recovered.
"Utah totally dominated the series," Fitzsimmons said. "For us to win, we had to have somebody step up and we really didn't have that. From the time we got our guys hurt in early April, it's been tough for us. But I do feel we did ourselves in. We couldn't make our shots."
Johnson, bothered by sore hamstrings the entire series, made only 16 field goals in 53 tries and averaged 12.8 points - nearly 10 under his regular-season average.
Fellow All-Star guard John Stockton of Utah outscored Johnson 72-51 in the series and had 51 assists to Johnson's 39.
"My play was atrocious," Johnson said. "That's the reason our season ended. I fell short. This is the lowest moment of my NBA career. I feel very empty."
Phoenix, which shot 50 percent from the field during the regular season, made only 42 percent of their field goals in the series and were outrebounded 209-182 by the Jazz.
"Give Utah credit. They dictated the tempo. Our offense let us down in this series," said Suns guard Jeff Hornacek. "The last two years, we went into the playoffs on a pretty good roll. This year, we never got there.
"We never got into the rhythm. We never got in that groove where we were running all the time. We never ran and ran so the other team would get tired and then things would get easy for us in the fourth quarter."
"It's total disappointment," Majerle said.
Now, Fitzsimmons and his staff have to figure out how to get the Suns their first NBA title.
Next season will be Phoenix's last at the 36-year-old Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The 18,000-seat America West Arena is being built in the downtown area and the Suns are scheduled to move in sometime in 1992.
"I want to close the Coliseum," Fitzsimmons said. "I told our guys I wanted to close the Salt Palace, too, but we couldn't pull this one out."