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Monday, March 26, 2007

Suns Set in Sacramento

Road wins are hard to come by in the NBA; only six teams have winning records away from home (that is yet another reason that Kobe Bryant's two most recent 50 point performances are so impressive--they came in road wins). The Phoenix Suns have the NBA's second best road record (24-9) but on Sunday the 30-40 Sacramento Kings dealt a serious blow to Phoenix' chances to catch the Dallas Mavericks for the best overall record in the league, knocking off the Suns 107-100 in Arco Arena. The Suns are now 5.5 games behind Dallas and just 4 games ahead of the San Antonio Spurs for the third seed in the West. Sacramento point guard Mike Bibby torched the Suns for 37 points, nailing nine of his 12 three point shots, and the Kings shot .521 from the field as a team despite playing most of the game without leading scorer Kevin Martin, who got scratched in the eye and did not return to action because he was experiencing double vision. The Kings also got a big game from Ron Artest, who contributed 24 points and nine rebounds. He is like a modern day Micheal Ray Richardson--because of his off court issues you never know if he is going to show up or how well he will play but at his best he can be a serious difference maker. In 1984 Richardson spearheaded a first round upset of the defending champion Philadelphia 76ers. Two years later he was banned for life due to drug use. Artest has his own pending legal issues--and according to one report has spoken of retiring after this season, a comment he now denies making--but when he is on the court and focused on basketball he definitely has a major impact.

Steve Nash had 18 points, nine assists and seven turnovers for the Suns, who were led in scoring by Leandro Barbosa (25 points) and Amare Stoudemire (23 points, 11 rebounds). The Suns were unable to get the tempo of the game quite to the speed that they like, nor did they shoot well (.461 from the field, .304 from behind the arc). The Suns are not a lock down defensive team, so when they can't push the ball and make three point shots they can be beaten.

Next Sunday, the Mavericks come to Phoenix for a game that, according to the talking heads, will decide whether Steve Nash or Dirk Nowitzki wins this year's MVP. The more you think about that idea the less sense that it makes. Dallas has 13 games remaining, while Phoenix has 14 games left. If the Mavericks go just 9-4 (the Mavs are 58-11) then the Suns cannot catch them even if they go 14-0. Dallas leads the season series with Phoenix 2-1. So, with virtually the entire season over, Dirk Nowitzki's team has all but clinched having the best regular season record and will do no worse than split its head to head games with the Suns. Why should next Sunday's game decide the MVP award? Maybe if the Suns win that game by 20, go 14-0 and Dallas goes 6-7 down the stretch then it could be said that Nash outperformed Nowitzki in the most important part of the season. At this point, all of that is more than just a slight reach. If the MVP race is truly only between Nash and Nowitzki then it would be more accurate to say that Nowitzki has all but clinched it instead of pretending that it is up for grabs based on one game that is unlikely to affect the final standings.

Meanwhile, the L.A. Lakers have won five straight games, with Kobe Bryant averaging 53.6 ppg in those contests (he had 43 points on Sunday night against Golden State, which will be the subject of the next post). What if they go 8-4 in their last 12 games, with Bryant leading the charge? He's not participating in Sunday's Dallas-Phoenix game but if he carries an injury decimated team that is not overly talented in the first place to the sixth seed in the Western Conference does he not deserve some MVP consideration? It's fine to handicap the MVP race with three or four weeks to go but how can anyone declare that after one particular game the race will be over, especially when that game will not likely change the overall standings?

After the Kings-Suns game, ABC color commentator Mark Jackson--who usually offers insightful analysis--declared that the Suns can win at home or on the road so staving off San Antonio for the third seed is not vitally important. This was in response to play by play man Mike Breen noting--as I mentioned above--that the Spurs are actually closer to the Suns than the Suns are to the Mavs. In last year's playoffs, the Suns trailed the Lakers 3-1 in the first round and won the series in no small part due to the fact that game seven was played in Phoenix. In the next round the Suns lost by 12 on the road in game six and needed the seventh game at home to prevail against the L.A. Clippers. Without home court advantage in the Western Conference Finals, Phoenix fell in six games to the Dallas Mavericks. If home court advantage mattered against the Lakers and the Clippers last year--neither of whom were as good as this year's Spurs--it will certainly matter if Phoenix plays San Antonio in the 2007 playoffs.

Nash's 32 points and 16 assists in the Suns' 129-127 double overtime win over Dallas on March 14 supposedly "clinched" the MVP for him but since that game the Suns have gone just 2-3 so now the talking heads speak of the Suns' fatigue after such a draining game and point to next Sunday's game as allegedly the real MVP clincher. Dallas has won six straight since that loss, including five in a row on the road. Shouldn't the Mavericks have been more drained? Why don't those games apparently count in the MVP race? If the Suns had also been perfect since their last showdown with the Mavs they would only be three games behind Dallas and it would make more sense to speak of a one game battle for MVP.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:45 AM

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