20 Second Timeout is the place to find the best analysis and commentary about the NBA.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Suns Eclipse Pacers, 103-92

The Phoenix Suns rallied from an 18 point third quarter deficit to defeat the Indiana Pacers 103-92 at Conseco Fieldhouse on Tuesday night. The Suns improved to 14-0 on the road versus the Eastern Conference this season and if they win in Philadelphia on Wednesday they will become the first team in NBA history to post a perfect road record for an entire season against teams from the opposite conference. Steve Nash led the Suns with 25 points and 11 assists; he scored eight straight points in a one minute stretch during the fourth quarter, transforming an 88-87 deficit into a 95-88 Suns lead. The shell shocked Pacers scored just four points in the last 6:35 of the game. Amare Stoudemire added 23 points and 18 rebounds, while Shawn Marion had 22 points and six rebounds. Indiana squandered a fine performance by Jermaine O'Neal, who seemed unstoppable at times and finished with 28 points, 13 rebounds and six blocked shots; he did have seven turnovers, though. Darrell Armstrong, the team's 38 year old point guard, started for the ailing Jamaal Tinsley and had a season-high 17 points while nailing five three pointers, which equals the Pacers mark for most three pointers in a game this season.

Both teams sleepwalked through the first quarter, which ended in a 19-19 tie. The Suns shot just .318 from the field, while the Pacers shot .400. The action heated up in the second quarter as both teams improved their shooting markedly. Indiana outscored Phoenix 31-30 to take a one point halftime lead. O'Neal had 12 points on 5-8 shooting in the quarter, while Marion countered with 11 points on 5-7 shooting.

Mike Dunleavy scored nine points in the first 4:15 of the third quarter and a few minutes later Danny Granger's layup gave the Pacers a 77-59 lead. Just when the Suns seemed to be out of it they closed the period on a 14-2 run. The concluding 8-0 portion of that run happened with Nash on the bench. Nash returned to action with 8:46 left in the game and the Pacers leading 84-80. He scored 10 points down the stretch, including the personal 8-0 run that gave the Suns a lead that they would not relinquish.

"We played two and a half great quarters," Pacers Coach Rick Carlisle said in his postgame standup. "Then the latter part of the third we had a run of turnovers and they took advantage of it. You turn it over against these guys and they'll convert, probably quicker than anybody else...They're a great team...They're a team that runs well, but I've never seen a team play their style at their level."

"Nothing great on our part," Suns Coach Mike D'Antoni said after the game. "But we did the job. We are lucky to get this one."

*****************************
Notes From Courtside:

Prior to the game I had the opportunity to speak one on one with Coach D'Antoni. I asked him how he would compare the way that Steve Nash plays with the way that John Stockton played. "I think that there are a lot of similarities," D'Antoni replied. "They are probably the best pick and roll guys in the business. Both of them had a great finisher, Karl Malone and Amare Stoudemire. In that sense they are very, very similar. Both are pretty good defensive players. Steve's really improved his defense over the years. Their body types are similar. Stockton was a great player, without a doubt--one of the greatest--but Steve is one of the greatest shooters that I've ever seen. Maybe he has a little edge there. I don't really know; I didn't coach John Stockton. Steve has the complete package."

I noted that Nash often is criticized for his defense and asked D'Antoni point blank if he considers him an above average defensive player. "Oh yeah, by far," D'Antoni answered without hesitation. "I think that he has improved that a lot and he is really conscientious as a team defender. He's always in the right position. He gets overwhelmed sometimes because physically he is not as strong as certain guys but I think that he is definitely above average."

One of the things that intrigues me about Steve Nash winning two MVPs is that historically when a great point guard has been teamed with a great big man it is usually the great big man who receives MVP consideration, not the point guard (Malone and Stockton are the most recent, obvious example of this). I asked D'Antoni if he thinks that Nash has won two MVPs because he is doing something different than what great point guards previously did, if the voters' criteria has changed or if he thinks that some combination of both of those factors is at work. "That's a good question," D'Antoni replied thoughtfully. "I don't really know the answer. One year he won the MVP because Amare was out for the whole year. Amare was young and Steve was older. If I'm not mistaken, Cousy was MVP one year and Russell wasn't because it was early in Russell's career (Cousy won his only MVP during Russell's rookie year; Russell missed nearly a third of the season because he played in the Summer Olympics in Australia, which took place during the early portion of the 1956-57 NBA season). That is probably the parallel. Amare is just now really coming into his own and becoming a more complete player and hopefully he will get an MVP title as we go forward."

I asked D'Antoni to what extent court vision is a natural gift versus something that can be learned or developed by watching film to see how plays develop. "Again, that's a $64,000 question," D'Antoni said. "I don't think that you can answer that definitively. Players can improve their vision and can improve their gamesmanship and how they play the game and how they can trick guys with different things; they can improve with experience, but I don't know that you can take someone who can't do it and teach him how to do it. I think that you have to have a base that you are a point guard who comes into the league with great vision and then you can improve on that. Even in junior high, you see that certain players can see and other players can't see. I think that is just born into you. It's a little bit like playing cards. Everybody knows the rules of the card game but some people have a nice card sense and some people don't. You can play a long time and never really be a great card player, whereas other people just have a feeling for it. To me it is a little bit like that. I think that you are born with something in you that makes you a gamesman, makes you able to understand the nuances of a game and maximize it."

D'Antoni played in the ABA during that league's final season. I asked him what he remembers most about that time. "There was an incredible amount of talent when I was there--there were only about six or seven teams," he said. "Everybody was so loaded with talent. Back then, you probably had the best players in the game (in the ABA)--Dr. J, David Thompson and just right down the line. It was exciting--and rough, because you had to keep playing the same teams over and over. Pretty wacky, there were some great characters, plus the three point shot. Those were interesting times."

As longtime 20 Second Timeout readers know, I have suggested that if Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash were traded straight up for each other (which of course would never happen, for a variety of reasons) that the Suns would be just as good but that the Lakers would be worse because Nash's ability to drive and kick would not be as effective on a team that lacks the shooters that Phoenix has. I brought up that scenario to D'Antoni and asked his opinion. "I think that Kobe is an unbelievable player, without a doubt," D'Antoni answered, drawing out the word "unbelievable" for emphasis. "There is no doubt that with Kobe we would win. There is no doubt that the Lakers would win with Steve Nash. How much (either team would win) depends on the other players. We have some phenomenal players on this team with Shawn, Amare, and all those guys. I think that we have more talent than the Lakers have." I followed up by saying that that was my point, that the Suns have a more talented team overall and that Nash's ability to distribute the ball might not lead to as many wins if he were passing the ball to guys who can't shoot. "But you do know that everybody on this team has gone up 10 percentage points with Steve passing to them," D'Antoni retorted, suggesting that Nash's playmaking ability would help players to shoot a better percentage. Of course, that is the essence of the chicken/egg debate here: is Nash racking up assists entirely because of his creativity or is he blessed to play alongside a plethora of talented players? "You can't figure it out," D'Antoni concluded. "That is why, to be honest with you, that every year there are at least two or three candidates who are worthy of being the MVP. If Kobe got it last year and Steve didn't or if Wade got it and Steve didn't or if Dirk got it and Steve didn't, I don't think that anybody could squawk. I really think that those four last year were right there and you could take any of them. They are all so important to their teams because of what they do, I don't know how you say (regarding any of those players), 'He was robbed.' He wasn't 'robbed,' he just didn't quite get it. That is why I have a little issue when Shaquille says that it (Nash's MVP award) is 'tainted.' You could make a case (for other guys) but come on."

As for this year's MVP battle, D'Antoni said, "Right now, it is a two horse race (between Nash and Dirk Nowitzki), with Kobe a little bit (behind those guys). They (the Lakers) did lose six in a row, so you could make a case that Luke Walton is the most valuable player." It should be made clear that D'Antoni laughed when he said that. I quipped that if we are going to base the MVP on what happens when the candidate does not play that Tracy McGrady should get it because the Rockets are simply horrible without him. D'Antoni acknowledged that the Rockets are indeed bad without T-Mac but pointed out that with him they are not as good as the Suns are with Nash. That is true, but that gets back to the fact that the Suns have a much more talented team than the Rockets. T-Mac and Kobe can almost singlehandedly turn a team into a contender. Nash has played remarkably well for the Suns, but could he lift an otherwise mediocre team to 45-50 wins or more? As D'Antoni said before, "You can't figure it out." D'Antoni emphasized that what Nowitzki has done this year is "unbelievable--you could really make a case for him this year," while Nash "has done his thing" and Kobe "has done his thing, too, no doubt about it--but they have fallen off a little bit. There is still a ways to go yet."

If Nash wins his third straight MVP then he will join the likes of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird. I asked D'Antoni (1) if he thinks that Nash belongs in that category as a player and (2) if that type of question should be taken into consideration on a year to year basis during MVP voting. "The second part is easy to answer," D'Antoni replied. "It can't influence the voting because they're not playing now. If you have a league where nobody is any good then somebody is going to win three MVPs in a row and that doesn't mean that he is in that category. Having said that, I think that he is in that category. I don't think that anybody can play the game as good or better--it's hard to play better than he is playing, I'm telling you right now. He's in that group of elite players, that's for sure."

I also spoke with D'Antoni about why the U.S. no longer dominates in FIBA play but I will save those quotes for a future post.

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This year marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of the American Basketball Association. The Pacers were a charter franchise in that league, so it is their 40th anniversary as well and to celebrate that milestone the team is giving fans an opportunity to select the 12 members of the Pacers' 40th Anniversary Team. The ballot can be found here. You can vote once per day between now and April 3 and some lucky voters will win tickets to Pacers games and autographed jerseys. The grand prize, a customized 1967 Chevy Camaro, will be given away on April 18 when the Pacers host the Washington Wizards.

Not surprisingly, Reggie Miller currently leads the voting. Mel Daniels, a two-time ABA MVP who was the center on three ABA championship teams, ranks second and current Pacers star Jermaine O'Neal is third. I think that some of the other members of the Pacers championship teams deserve more votes than they have received but it is not surprising that the voters either have short memories or are too young to remember the ABA at all. I just submitted the following ballot: Roger Brown, Don Buse, Mel Daniels, Darnell Hillman, Mark Jackson, Billy Keller, George McGinnis, Reggie Miller, Bob Netolicky, Jermaine O'Neal, Chuck Person and Rik Smits.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:44 AM

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