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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Suns Eclipse Heat, 99-89

I never leave a game early; I never turn off the television or switch channels, even during a blowout. Once I start watching a game, I watch it until it's over. That may seem strange to those of you who race to the parking lot during the third quarter or have a quick trigger finger on the remote--but if you watched ESPN's telecast until the end on Wednesday night when Phoenix defeated Miami 99-89 then perhaps you now understand my point of view. The recipe for a blowout seemed to be in place: neither Shaquille O'Neal nor Dwyane Wade were in the lineup for Miami and the Suns have won 11 games in a row. Not only did this look like a game from which a lot of people would be leaving/tuning out early, it looked like a game that a lot of people would probably decide to ignore completely. Everything went according to the script for the first 40 minutes or so and Phoenix led 88-63 with 9:52 to go. Then, just as fans streamed to the exits and television viewers around the country flipped the channel, things got very interesting.

Phoenix jumped out to an 8-2 first quarter lead and the Suns were ahead by as much as 23-12 before the Heat pulled to within 26-19 by the end of the first quarter. Steve Nash (eight points and six assists) and Shawn Marion (seven points and five rebounds) fueled the Suns' quick start.

The Suns extended their lead to 56-40 by halftime. Hubie Brown explained the simple formula that the Suns executed to perfection: "Phoenix covers both corners (with three point shooters), plays three on three in the middle of the court and beats you with ball movement." Time after time, Nash penetrated to the hoop, creating layups and dunks for his frontcourt players and open three pointers for his perimeter shooters. Phoenix outrebounded Miami 24-18 in the first half and shot 6-15 from three point range while holding Miami to 0-4 three point shooting.

Marion began the third quarter by burying yet another three pointer. Brown said of Phoenix, "They come out of that locker room and they are ready to bust out. That is a mindset (established) by the coaching staff." Brown repeatedly emphasized that Miami's only chance was to shoot a high percentage from the field while running the shot clock down (reducing Phoenix' open court opportunities) and to stay in contact with Phoenix' three point shooters, resisting the temptation to help against dribble penetration. Brown also refuted criticisms of the Suns' defense: "It's a misnomer that they don't guard you. You can't have a differential of 6.4 without playing defense. It's unorthodox because they don't double team a lot, they stay at home on the three point shooters." Brown added that Phoenix did not mind trading their three pointers for the other team's two pointers. Basically, Phoenix does not want to give up three pointers and does not want to foul; this turns the game into a track meet/three point shootout that favors their athletic players who are also excellent perimeter shooters.

As Phoenix pulled away during the third quarter, Brown praised the efforts of Miami's power forward and center: "(Udonis) Haslem and (Alonzo) Mourning are doing muscle work and they're getting it done--but they need help." He also observed that Phoenix' long road trip seems to have taken a toll on Amare Stoudemire: "Stoudemire tonight has not shown us a lot of hop. He's making his shots when he gets opportunities but he hasn't had the quickness." An ESPN graphic showed Stoudemire's significance: during Phoenix' 1-5 start he averaged 19.2 mpg, 10.0 ppg and 4.2 rpg. Since then, Phoenix has gone 13-1 and Stoudemire's numbers increased to 30.9 mpg, 19.8 ppg and 9.9 rpg.

One might think that you have to have a young team to play the Suns' style but Brown noted that this is not the case: "They have the second oldest team in the league; they have guys who have a lot of mileage--but they are in fantastic shape."

Phoenix scored six straight points at the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth quarter to take an 88-63 lead. Then, Miami went on a 17-0 run in less than six minutes, sparked by the play of reserves Jason Kapono (11 fourth quarter points) and Robert Hite (eight fourth quarter points). Nash ended Phoenix' long scoring drought by running down a defensive rebound and throwing an outlet pass to Leandro Barbosa, who converted a fastbreak layup. Nash also nailed a three pointer with 2:19 remaining to put the Suns up 93-85 after Miami had just cut the margin to five with a Kapono three pointer.

Phoenix committed five turnovers and shot just 3-14 from the field as Miami clawed its way to within 94-88 with 1:32 left in the game. Nash turned the ball over, although it appeared that his pass had been deflected by a Miami player, and on the Heat's next possession James Posey's three pointer went halfway down the net before spinning out. Boris Diaw's finger roll put Phoenix up 96-88, effectively ending Miami's comeback. If you tuned out or left early, you missed a thrilling fourth quarter rally.

Nash finished with 18 points and 11 assists, while Marion had 23 points and 13 rebounds. As Brown observed, Stoudemire was not flying quite so highly as he has recently, and he ended up with just 12 points, three rebounds and two blocked shots. Mourning led Miami with 19 points, adding five rebounds and two blocked shots. Haslem had 14 points and seven rebounds.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:27 AM

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