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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Phoenix Takes Third Place Game Over Maccabi Tel Aviv, 119-102

The Phoenix Suns captured third place in the NBA Europe Tour Live mini-tournament in Cologne, Germany with a 119-102 victory over Maccabi Tel Aviv. Leandro Barbosa led all scorers with 27 points while also contributing six assists and six steals. Marcus Banks added 21 points and Steve Nash, who did not play in the fourth quarter, had 13 points, seven assists and five rebounds. A good sign for Phoenix is that Amare Stoudemire was able to play in back to back games, meaning that he must not have suffered any serious ill effects from participating in the previous game against the Philadelphia 76ers. Once again he did not start but he finished with 11 points and three rebounds in 24 minutes of play. Americans Will Bynum and Rodney Buford led Maccabi Tel Aviv with 20 and 16 points respectively. Late in the contest Buford launched airball three pointers on consecutive possessions, drawing whistles--the European form of boos--from the crowd.

Maccabi jumped out to an 8-2 lead in the first quarter, taking advantage of some Phoenix turnovers. NBA TV commentator Tim Capstraw noted that Maccabi is considered the best transition team in Europe; Capstraw also suggested that Phoenix was showing signs of "dead, heavy legs of training camp." That did seem to be the case at the time but, if so, either Phoenix discovered a second wind later in the game or Maccabi's legs were even more dead and heavy. Maccabi led 15-8 when Stoudemire first entered the game at the 6:13 mark. His first touch was a lob pass from Nash, which he softly laid into the basket. By the end of the quarter, Maccabi led 33-21, Bynum had 10 points and Phoenix had committed eight turnovers.

During the second quarter, Capstraw noted that the NBA Europe Tour Live games did not employ the NBA's defensive three seconds rule. He suggested that this is the most important rules difference between FIBA and NBA play and the one that NBA players and teams struggle with the most. FIBA teams can play a variety of zone defenses, but NBA defensive rules stipulate that defensive players cannot be in the free throw lane for more than three seconds unless they are double teaming the player who has the ball. So, even though others--including a very gracious Gregg Popovich after his Spurs defeated this same Maccabi team--have said that the NBA Europe Tour Live hybrid rules were more similar to the NBA game than the FIBA game, I agree with Capstraw that perhaps the most important rule did in fact favor the FIBA teams. The one rule that I would say most worked against the FIBA teams was playing four 12 minute quarters instead of four 10 minute quarters. The NBA teams are used to a longer game and have deeper rosters, so theoretically this was advantageous to them, although that factor is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the European teams have already started their seasons while the NBA teams have just started their training camps.

Maccabi still led 44-34 midway through the second quarter but then the Suns made a barrage of three pointers to tie the game at 51 less than three minutes later. Maccabi clung to a 60-57 lead at halftime. The Suns shot 9-20 from three point range in the first half, doing most of the damage in the latter part of the second quarter. Just as importantly, they only committed one second quarter turnover.

Maccabi maintained a small advantage until Raja Bell's three pointer with 8:52 remaining in the third quarter gave the Suns their first lead, 63-62. Stoudemire checked back into the game with the Suns ahead 73-69 at the 3:38 mark. Maccabi retook the lead but Stoudemire's three point play with :46 remaining pulled Phoenix to within one, 79-78, and the Suns led 80-79 by the end of the period.

After leading for most of the game and keeping things close in the third quarter, Maccabi seemed to run out of gas in the fourth period. Stoudemire's emphatic dunk off of a Marcus Banks feed put Phoenix ahead 98-85 with 7:04 left in the game. Maccabi managed to cut the margin to single digits but Stoudemire hit two free throws to extend the lead back to 100-90 and Maccabi never threatened again after Barbosa's steal and layup put Phoenix ahead 104-92.

During his postgame press conference, Suns Coach Mike D'Antoni was asked what he thought of the NBA Europe Live Tour format and if it was beneficial for his team. He replied, "I think it was fun, first of all. Why shouldn't basketball be fun?" D'Antoni added that he would be in favor of participating in such an event in the future.

Steve Nash was asked if he thought that Maccabi Tel Aviv would be a playoff team in the NBA. Trying to be as diplomatic as possible, Nash pointed out that Maccabi has gone through a lot of roster changes and has fielded stronger teams in previous years. He also said Maccabi has a lot of good players and is very well coached but that he thought Maccabi would struggle to make the NBA playoffs, hastening to add that if the games were played under FIBA rules that Maccabi could give some trouble to some of the lesser NBA teams. Pressed to elaborate, Nash smiled awkwardly and said that he did not want to be negative. He then noted that the NBA schedule is 82 games and that Maccabi may not have enough depth to play a season that is so long and arduous. He added that NBA rules favor athleticism and length, which would work for the NBA teams and against Maccabi. Basically, the two-time defending NBA MVP made the same points that I have been making here for the past few months regarding NBA and FIBA basketball: (1) There is no doubt that Europe has some fine coaches and players and that the quality of both has been steadily improving; (2) Which rules these games are played under is very important. It is not an "excuse" to point out that the Olympics and FIBA World Championships are governed by rules that European players compete under all the time, while Team USA tries to take a crash course on them every time there is a big event. Sure, U.S. teams used to dominate under any rules because there was such a disparity of talent, but as that gap narrows it is not realistic to expect such domination to continue.

Team USA took third place in the FIBA World Championships and third place in the Olympics. I suspect that the best FIBA team would do significantly worse than the equivalent to that if it played an entire NBA season under NBA rules. Some have said that since the U.S. no longer routinely wins gold medals in international competitions that the NBA should no longer say that it crowns a world champion but I don't think that this is a fair statement. NBA players compete under unfamiliar FIBA rules but the FIBA teams do not play under NBA rules. What really needs to happen, particularly since the talent gap has narrowed enough to make this feasible and interesting, is for the NBA and FIBA to agree on one universal set of rules that will apply to all events. Then there can be some kind of championship or tournament involving the best NBA teams and the best teams from around the world to crown a true world champion--and that event should not be held during the NBA preseason.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:56 AM

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