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Friday, April 06, 2007

Visual Evidence Why Phoenix Will Not Win the 2007 NBA Championship

The San Antonio Spurs took the Phoenix Suns to the woodshed on Thursday night and administered a sound beating that is belied by the 92-85 final score. TNT's broadcast provided excellent visual evidence why the Suns will not win this year's championship: San Antonio controlled the tempo throughout the game, led by as many as 15 in the second half and held the Suns to .386 field goal shooting. Granted, the Spurs only shot .418 but the boxing cliche holds that "styles make fights" and Phoenix is not going to win too many games with those kind of point totals and shooting percentages. Tim Duncan had 22 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and five blocked shots. The only Sun who had any success guarding him was Kurt Thomas but putting him in the game then took the Suns away from the running style that they need to use to be successful on offense. The star of the game was Tony Parker, who scored a season-high 35 points on 12-22 field goal shooting. Michael Finley also had a strong game for the Spurs with 19 points and 10 rebounds. Steve Nash had 20 points, seven assists and four rebounds but he also had six turnovers and shot just 6-14 from the field. The Spurs stayed at home on the Suns' three point shooters, forcing them into a 2-11 (.182) performance.

On Sunday the Suns looked like world beaters against Dallas, the team that has the league's best record, which might lead some to conclude that the headline to this post is an extreme statement. The big difference between the Dallas game and the San Antonio game is that Dallas has all but clinched first place; the Mavericks could afford to relax. I'm not saying that they did relax and I don't mean to take anything away from Phoenix but there is no doubt that the Suns had much more at stake in that game. On the other hand, Phoenix is clinging to a small lead over San Antonio for the second seed in the West, which will decide who gets home court advantage in the likely event that these teams square off in the second round of the playoffs. Thursday's game was hugely important to both teams. Phoenix actually led 37-36 at halftime but if you understand basketball you realize that this was just fool's gold. Nash had 11 points but just two assists and the 37 points represented the Suns' lowest total for a half this season. Phoenix cannot win a game played at that pace against a team like San Antonio, so it was not surprising when the Spurs outscored the Suns 35-22 in the third quarter; they choked off Nash's driving and passing lanes, limited the Suns to one contested shot per possession, got the rebound and proceeded to get whatever shots they wanted to take at the other end of the court. Manu Ginobili's uncharacteristically poor shooting (3-11 from the field) kept the score a little closer than it would have been otherwise, but the important thing to understand is that the Spurs showed that they can slow Phoenix down and then get open shots on offense.

The Phoenix Suns deserve credit for the fine record that they will ultimately post this season but those gaudy numbers will not help them in the postseason. Playoff basketball is about executing in the half court and it will be very difficult for the Suns to do this against teams like San Antonio or Dallas--and even Utah or Houston if they end up playing either of those squads. This is part of the reason that I will never understand the rationale that led to Steve Nash's two MVP awards. Even his advocates will generally concede that he is not the league's "best" player but they speak of his "value" to his team--but if Nash is not truly able to lead a talented team past the Western Conference Finals how can he be more valuable than Dirk Nowitzki or even Tim Duncan? How was he more valuable than Shaquille O'Neal two years ago? Shaq turned the Heat into instant title contenders and the Heat won the championship last year in no small part due to the defensive attention that he attracted; the truth in that statement has been reinforced by the team's current run since his return and Wade's injury. If Nash never leads the Suns to a championship--or at least a Finals appearance--I think that history will not view his MVPs as favorably as some contemporary observers do. That is why I've always felt that the award should simply go to the best player, period. There is a Finals MVP award that recognizes great playoff performance and if Nash's value truly consists of making his team great then he should take the Suns to the Finals and win that award. Even with the Suns' much ballyhooed recent two wins against Dallas--which came too late to enable the Suns to catch the Mavericks--Phoenix has a poor record against the Western Conference's other top teams (Dallas, San Antonio, Utah). More should be expected of a team that has a former Coach of the Year, a two-time MVP, two other All-Stars, the probable Sixth Man of the Year winner and other talented players such as Raja Bell and Boris Diaw.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:01 AM



At Friday, April 06, 2007 6:51:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're assuming that the Suns would not be able to adjust properly in a seven game series. I'm not sure that i would make that kind of assumption.
I think you're right and even hope so - I can't stand the hype that this type of run and gun game is getting, but who knows?
The important thing is - will you shave the mustache if you're wrong and phoenix goes to the finals? (cool it, just kidding)

At Friday, April 06, 2007 7:36:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

You are correct that I am assuming that the Suns cannot adjust to what the Spurs are doing. The Suns have to play a certain way based on the personnel that they have; they are not equipped to be a physical, grind it out team, so they can't beat the Spurs that way. They also cannot force San Antonio to speed up the game. So I'm not sure what adjustment the Suns can make, other than shooting a better percentage, which is not easy to do against an entrenched half court defense. Everyone makes a big deal about Amare averaging 37 ppg against Duncan in the playoffs two years ago but Duncan averaged about 27 and the Spurs won in five games. The Spurs' strategy is to slow the game down and not let the Suns shoot threes, so they are not terribly concerned if Amare puts up big numbers.

As I said in my recent NBC article, though, Dallas is one Dirk Nowitzki sprained ankle from going the route of the 1973 Celtics. The same is true of San Antonio and Duncan. So I certainly cannot guarantee that the Suns won't make the Finals. What I can say is that if the Mavs, Spurs and Suns are all healthy I will be surprised if Phx beats either team in a series, let alone both of them back to back. Look at it this way: last year both the Lakers and the Clippers took the Suns to seven games just by slowing the game down and exploiting certain inside matchups (Brand for the Clippers, Odom/Kwame for the Lakers). Neither of those teams was/is as good as San Antonio and Dallas are.

At Friday, April 06, 2007 11:47:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the first commenter. In a 7 game series, this is a toss up. I saw a lot of shots go half way down for Phoenix...in another game, maybe they drop and the Spurs are back on their heels more. Also, even though Ginobli played poorly, he was offset by some uncharacteristly good shooting by Finley, so it evened out.

The real problem Phoenix had was Tony Parker, (and I think they'll live with him shooting that much).


At Friday, April 06, 2007 11:49:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, one last point. Last year, Phoenix was played without 2 of their key big men in Amare and Kurt Thomas. They were essentially playing with 3 small forwards on their front line. That automatically creates mismatches on the inside. Add a healthy Amare and Kurt to those lineups, and have Raja not lose significant time to injury, I think those series would have all been very different.

At Friday, April 06, 2007 4:02:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

1) San Antonio has won three championships since 1999 playing this style. How many titles has Phoenix won? (zero)

2) Steve Nash played with Dirk Nowitzki for several years and never made it to the NBA Finals. Nash left, the Mavs replaced him with Jason Terry and made it to the Finals last year and have the league's best record this year.

3) Amare was healthy and at his absolute physical peak in '05, when the Spurs beat the Suns easily and went on to win the championship.

4) Shots that go halfway down are still misses, last I checked. The Spurs also usually shoot much better than they did last night. The difference between the Spurs' shooting and the Suns' shooting is that the Spurs controlled the pace of the game and the type of shots that the Suns took. That is not likely to change and therefore the Suns' shooting is not likely to drastically improve versus the Spurs. Duncan missed some shots around the hoop that he normally makes. The next time that these teams meet both squads will probably shoot better but if anything I would expect the Spurs to show more improvement.

In light of the above, it is difficult for me to believe that the Suns will beat the Spurs (in a series) or that Nash is in fact the very best player (i.e., MVP) in the NBA. The Suns are certainly ONE of the best teams and Nash is absolutely ONE of the best players, of course.

At Friday, April 06, 2007 7:38:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm probably a bit higher on Nash than you are, but I agree with the basic argument and I think the MVP discussion should pay more attention to the fact that this is ANOTHER torching of Nash by an opposing point guard. I think every PG in the league must get nervous facing the Suns because they know they'll be expected to provide the scoring. Nash isn't a bad help defender at all, but I think that a lot of people are glossing over some pretty serious deficiencies in his on-ball game, ones that I think should be enough to make his MVP candidature questionable.

At Saturday, April 07, 2007 2:56:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nash was not personally responsible for all of Parker's points (I don't want to do the same kind of wack analysis of Nash's defense that some people apply to Kobe's) but there definitely is a pattern regarding point guards having strong performances versus the Suns. There is also a pattern of teams forcing mismatches involving Nash that may not result in the point guard scoring but lead to open shots. Nash's defensive liabilities in terms of size and strength are real and tend to get exposed more by the better teams and during playoff situations than they do in the regular season, when the four games in five nights scheduling (and playing against bad teams sometimes) enables Phx to simply push the pace, tire out the other team and "hide" Nash on defense.

My stated position this season is that I would place Nash third in the MVP voting (behind Kobe and Dirk) so the idea that I am not that high on Nash is kind of a smokescreen used by some who prefer not to directly address my reasons for ranking Kobe first. If anything, it is more likely that I give Nash too much credit, not too little. In light of the Suns and Spurs virtually identical records and the way that the Spurs have owned the Suns in recent years, I am becoming inclined to place Duncan third and Nash fourth.

I think that, historically, playmaking guards like Nash who are also good scorers (Isiah, Price, KJ, Stockton, Hardaway) have not received quite the MVP consideration that they deserve--not that any of them necessarily should have won the MVP but there were years that one of them finished 10th or something in the voting and probably should have been higher. Giving the award to Nash the past couple of seasons is kind of a reversal of fortune in this regard and I think that he has gone from being somewhat underrated to a bit overrated. I think that he is the best point guard in the league and a legit MVP candidate but I don't think that he should have won the award either year that he did and I certainly don't think that he should get it this year. So what that his stats are better than his numbers from the previous two seasons--Dirk's numbers are better than Nash's and his team has a better record.

At Saturday, April 07, 2007 5:35:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Apropos, can you remember the last time a run and gun team won the NBA finals?
I can't but I'm not as involved as you are in these matters.

At Saturday, April 07, 2007 9:03:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I suppose that the answer to your question depends a bit on how one defines "run and gun." In my article for NBCSports titled "The Statistical Profile of Title Team" I noted that since 1990 the average NBA champion has ranked slightly better than 10th in the league in scoring. Still, I don't think that any of those squads could properly be characterized as "run and gun." For instance, the 1996 and 1997 Chicago Bulls ranked first in the NBA in scoring but they specialized in "opportunity fast breaks" off of turnovers; they did not run all game long regardless of circumstances like the current Suns do.

The 1988 Lakers scored 112.8 ppg, which was fifth in the league (out of 23 teams) that season (those were the days if you are a fan of uptempo basketball). They gave up 107.0 ppg (11th in the league), for a 5.8 ppg differential. This year's Suns score 110.3 ppg (1st in the league, out of 30 teams) and give up 103.2 ppg (25th in the league), for a 7.1 ppg differential. On the surface, that is the most recent championship team that the Suns most closely resemble. The Lakers had the best record in the league in 1987 and 1988 and won championships both years.

If you look at things more closely, the differences between the current Suns and the Showtime Lakers become apparent. The Suns shoot three pointers at a record pace; they will basically give up twos at the defensive end in order to push the ball up the court to shoot threes. The Lakers ran with the idea of getting layups/dunks by Worthy, Scott, etc. If the Lakers did not have numbers on the break then they were very deadly in the halfcourt, too. Kareem was old, but he could still post up and shoot the skyhook. Worthy could post up or drive from the wings. Magic could drive or post up. In other words, the Lakers were much more versatile offensively and much less reliant on making threes. I don't believe that the Suns' style will ever be as effective in the playoffs as it is in the regular season. Hey, the Suns have a lot of talented players, so they will always have a good record, which grants them home court advantage and makes it likely that they will win a round or two--but when they have to face elite teams that force them to slow down and play in the half court they will always struggle.

At Sunday, April 08, 2007 3:44:00 AM, Blogger john marzan said...

the suns can still play small and be competitive vs. san antonio if amare can defend duncan. marion can take care of the other bigs (oberto or elson).

if amare is incapable of guarding duncan, then then they need to start Kurt Thomas with Amare and Marion.

it is interestng that dallas was able to up the tempo in last years playoffs vs. the spurs. and they did that with either the slow dampier or the slow diop in the lineup (to guard duncan). it forced the spurs to play "smaller". i hope the suns can do the same (and KT sure is a better defender and more accurate midrange shooter than diop/dampier).

the suns could even dominate the offensive glass by having KT, Amare and Marion on the floor at the same time. sure, it changes our style a little bit, but we need to... but only against the spurs. with KT in the lineup, the suns basically play 4 on 4 on the open court.

At Sunday, April 08, 2007 4:36:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for answering. I guess the only way the suns win a championship is if (when?) the league institutes a new set of "Nash rules".
I hope that never happens.

At Sunday, April 08, 2007 4:59:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


What you say sounds nice in theory but the Spurs beat the Suns 4-1 in the playoffs in 2005 when the Suns had a pre-injury Amare. The Suns do not have a good record against the Spurs or the Jazz this year, though they did split 2-2 with Dallas. I don't believe that a healthy Suns team can beat a healthy Spurs team in a seven game series the way that both teams are presently constructed. Injuries, foul trouble, suspensions or some other unpredictable factor would have to occur, in my opinion, for Phoenix to prevail.

As for the NBA creating "Nash rules," this has already happened in a sense but Nash is hardly the only beneficiary. The NBA has greatly restricted the amount of contact that perimeter defenders are allowed to have with offensive players. This has brought back some freedom of movement to the NBA game and obviously is an advantage not only for Nash but also Kobe, Iverson and many other players who rely more on skill, speed and technique than brute force. If the Suns were transplanted back into the late 80s or early 90s, a few well timed forearm shivers from Charles Oakley or one of the league's other enforcers would have dissuaded Nash from dribbling through the paint probing for openings. Mark Price was great at splitting the pick and roll but Johnny Bach, the longtime Bulls' assistant coach, told me that this skill almost shortened Price's career in a sense: the only way that opposing big guys could stop that play was by hammering him. A pretty good Cavaliers team had their playoff chances derailed one year by a well timed (or, poorly timed, if you were a Cavs fan) Rick Mahorn shove of Price into a basket stanchion. Nash reminded me of Price from the first time that I saw him (the main difference being that Nash is a bit taller) but I guess that it is sacrilege now to compare a two-time MVP to a "mere" All-NBA player. The way that Price ran screen roll plays with Daugherty and Nance is very similar to what Nash does with Amare and Marion.

At Sunday, April 08, 2007 7:24:00 AM, Blogger john marzan said...

What you say sounds nice in theory but the Spurs beat the Suns 4-1 in the playoffs in 2005 when the Suns had a pre-injury Amare. The Suns do not have a good record against the Spurs or the Jazz this year, though they did split 2-2 with Dallas. I don't believe that a healthy Suns team can beat a healthy Spurs team in a seven game series the way that both teams are presently constructed. Injuries, foul trouble, suspensions or some other unpredictable factor would have to occur, in my opinion, for Phoenix to prevail.

that's why the suns specifically brought in KT--to defend duncan. (And bell--to defend ginobili.) Thomas wasn't part of the 2005 team. i would say that if dantoni doesn't make the necessary adjustments, the suns will lose to the spurs again. but even if he played KT more, i still concede that the spurs are the favorites to win in a 7 game series.

Playoff basketball is about executing in the half court and it will be very difficult for the Suns to do this against teams like San Antonio or Dallas--and even Utah or Houston if they end up playing either of those squads.

obviously, you are not that familiar with the suns beyond the stats you google up in your computer. the suns are houston and yao ming's kryptonite. yao couldn't keep up with the pace. therefore his output vs. the suns is usually paltry (look it up, david). and we'd rather face the jumpshooting mavs (remember how we dismantled them even without joe johnson 2 years ago?) and houston (yes, they will "upset" utah) than the spurs.

the spurs are our main weakness. always has, always been. but the suns need to face it's worst nightmare.

At Monday, April 09, 2007 12:08:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree with you that no matter what D'Antoni does that the Spurs should be considered the favorite versus the Suns in a seven game series.

As for the other teams, the Suns split with Dallas this year, winning one game in double OT and the other in a blowout after Dallas had basically wrapped up the number one seed. Yes, Phx beat Dall two years ago but last year Dall beat Phx and made it to the Finals. This year, they split the season series and Dall has the better record. If they play in the playoffs again this year, Dall will win.

Utah is a terrible matchup for Phx; the Suns are 0-3 versus the Jazz this year. Phx has so much more playoff experience, though, and would have the homecourt advantage to rely on so the Suns would probably escape in seven games, just like they did against the Lakers and Clippers last year.

As for the Rockets, both Yao and T-Mac missed one of the games versus Phx but you are right that the Suns have played well against them this season. However, Van Gundy is an experienced coach who has already taken a team to the Finals ('99 Knicks). The playoffs tend to be played at a slower pace and I suspect that the Rockets will be better able to control the tempo in the playoffs than they were in the regular season. Again, Phx has an edge over the Rockets in both playoff experience and in terms of having the homecourt advantage, so I would expect Phx to win a hard fought series.

My point in bringing up Utah and Hou is that Phx will have a difficult time in the playoffs no matter how the matchups go. The only "good" matchups would be Den or G.S. The Lakers can put up a good fight if they get any production out of the center and pg positions.

One more thing that is important to understand, even though it may seem to contradict some of what I wrote: regular season head to head results don't always indicate what will happen in the playoffs. Reasons for that include injury and scheduling issues that may have existed during the regular season that may not be a factor in the playoffs. So, even though Hou has not fared well against Phx in the regular season I expect that the Rockets would put up a better fight in the playoffs. So why do I place so much weight on the Spurs' and Jazz' success against the Suns in the regular season? Simple--matchups. The Spurs can slow the game down, crowd the three point shooters and pound the Suns in the paint. The Jazz can do similar things. Those are matchup problems that Phx cannot easily fix no matter how much they game plan and are not affected by the extra time off between games in the playoffs.

To summarize, the important things to consider about head to head regular season games are not just who won but WHY they won and if the other team is capable of adjusting and doing something different in the context of a playoff series.


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