Duncan Dominates, Nash--Not So MuchThe story of the San Antonio-Phoenix series will ultimately boil down to two things: (1) the Spurs have the best player on either team, Tim Duncan; (2) the Spurs can win at the Suns' preferred uptempo pace but the Suns cannot win at a slowdown game. Duncan had 33 points, 19 rebounds and three blocked shots as the Spurs defeated the Suns, 108-101, to take a 2-1 lead. Those kind of numbers are nothing new for Duncan in the playoffs; in fact, Duncan moved into fifth place on the career postseason list for 30 point, 15 rebound games: this was his 15th, one more than Hakeem Olajuwon had; the only players who had more such games are Wilt Chamberlain (39), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (33), Elgin Baylor (31), Bob Pettit (24) and Shaquille O'Neal (22).
Manu Ginobili added 24 points, including 12 in the third quarter; Ginobili did most of that damage while Duncan rested and after Ginobili was accidentally poked in the eye by Shawn Marion. No foul was called on the play but, instead of whining about the non-call, Ginobili focused his anger into raising his level of play. As ESPN's Greg Anthony pointed out after the game, when someone else can carry the load with the superstar on the bench it means that the superstar will be able to have a lot of energy to finish the game. Anthony could have added that this was something that Scottie Pippen provided for Michael Jordan--and something that Kobe Bryant desperately needs now. Marion led Phoenix with 26 points, while Amare Stoudemire had 21 points in 21 foul-plagued minutes; he was his own worst enemy, committing some obvious infractions at moments when he had to know that one more foul would send him to the bench--better to give up one basket and keep playing for several more minutes than to try to make a sensational, difficult block. Steve Nash had 16 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds but he committed five turnovers and shot just 6-17 from the field. The amazing thing about this game is how small of an impact the two-time MVP had on the outcome. In fact, the Suns actually played better when he was not in the game. Nash sat down with 2:13 left in the first quarter and Phoenix leading 24-19. The Suns were up 39-29 early in the second quarter and still led 39-33 when he returned at the 8:12 mark. He played the rest of the quarter and the Spurs outscored the Suns 22-14 to take a 55-53 halftime lead. Nash had five assists in the first half but shot 0-4 from the field. Let's imagine that Dirk Nowitzki or Kobe Bryant shot 0-4 from the field in a half of a playoff game. Would either of their teams still be within two points? Would that be written off as something that just happens or would it be considered an indictment of their heart/character? Anyone who is honest knows that if Nowitzki shot 0-4 in a half of a playoff game he would be called a "choker" and if Bryant did so he would be called a "quitter" who is supposedly trying to show up his teammates.
Nash's struggles continued in the third quarter, as he turned the ball over on the Suns' first possession. Later, he scored his first point of the game by splitting a pair of free throws but he missed his first five field goal attempts of the quarter before making a jumper at the 5:00 mark, pulling the Suns within 66-62. During the telecast, Jon Barry mentioned a couple times that Raja Bell shot 4-4 from three point range during the first half but did not get many attempts in the second half. Of course, anyone watching the game could see that. One would hope that an analyst would explain why that happened. Was Nash shooting too much? Was Bell not working hard enough to get open? Did the Spurs' defensive coverage of the three point line improve in the second half? One thing that I know for sure: if Bryant had a teammate who shot 4-4 from three point range in the first half (sheer fantasy, but work with me here) and that player did not get the ball in the third quarter while Bryant was bricking away at a 1-10 clip then we would hear a lot about how Bryant shoots too much and does not get his teammates involved. That criticism is not true of Bryant and does not apply to Nash either; the question is why are these two players looked at so differently when they are doing very similar things. After the game, Nash said, "I am always going to try to be aggressive and I try to take what the defense gives me. If I'm there to shoot I have to keep on shooting and if I am drawing attention and can pass to a teammate then that is the play I try to make." Bryant has repeatedly said almost exactly the same thing, but it seems like many people don't take him at his word even though it is obvious that he does in fact also play that way. Bryant and Nash are both great players who read the defense and try to take what is there. Nash is a point guard, so his role involves more passing, while Bryant is a shooting guard whose primary role involves scoring--but Nash can certainly score and Bryant is usually his team's top playmaker.
Somehow, in the past three years Nash has gone from an underrated point guard to someone whose reputation has been pushed to a place that his performance cannot in fact match, particularly against elite teams in playoff competition. Bryant is a three-time champion who can make even a poor team competitive; Duncan is a three-time champion; Nowitzki, who has somehow become a "villain" even though he had nothing to do with guarding Baron Davis, has had a great playoff career and already taken a team to the NBA Finals. Meanwhile, Nash is paired with a talented cast that he has yet to elevate to a championship level: he and Amare Stoudemire are the first teammates to make the All-NBA First Team since Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant--a duo that of course won three titles together; Nash also has another All-Star running mate in Shawn Marion, plus Sixth Man of the Year Leandro Barbosa, All-Defensive Team selection Raja Bell and several talented role players. Phoenix Coach Mike D'Antoni has stated that the Suns have more talent than the Spurs but that the Spurs play together better. Obviously, he did not mean that as a swipe at his MVP point guard but think about this objectively for a moment: We are supposed to believe that Nash has "made" all of these players great and then at the same time we are supposed to accept the idea that after winning two MVPs by "making" these players great that this MVP and his great teammates cannot make it to the NBA Finals even once. Sooner or later, people will have to figure out that all of this does not add up.
Nash did score 10 fourth quarter points but the Suns never got closer than six points and spent most of the period working uphill against a double digit deficit--a deficit built in large part while Nash was missing shots and committing turnovers. Meanwhile, while Duncan has been a nightmare for the Suns to cover, the Suns have had to take Nash off of opposing point guard Tony Parker because Parker abuses him so badly. In Game Three, Nash was assigned to Bruce Bowen, who is not a threat to post up or drive. Still, Bowen delivered 10 points, nine rebounds, four steals and one blocked shot, which is a lot of tangible production for a guy whose primary role is to play positional defense (Bowen does not usually get a lot of steals or blocks). The reality is that there there is no place to hide Nash defensively in this series.
Why am I seemingly writing off the Suns when the Spurs are only up 2-1 while in other series I caution against reading too much into one game? Simple. I am not basing my assessment of Nash and the Suns on one game; that is the fallacy that others use when talking about Bryant (and now Nowitzki) but I am not doing that at all. The fact is that the Suns have a poor record against the Spurs for the past several years; they can compete with the Spurs, at times, but when push comes to shove they lose--and we have seen nothing in the first three games of this series that suggests that anything different is going to happen now. The Suns will play well and will probably win one more game--and then they will go home and the Spurs will advance to the Western Conference finals.
After that happens, I will be left with the same unanswered question that I have had for some time: how can Nash be a two-time MVP if his primary qualification for the award revolves around winning and his team has not won anything? I've heard some people who voted for Nowitzki to be this year's MVP say that they wish that they could have their vote back based on what happened to the Mavericks in the first round. At least the Mavericks lost to a team that is peaking. What exactly have Nash and the Suns accomplished so far in the playoffs? They beat a Lakers team that had one of the worst records down the stretch of any team in the NBA--and they could not even sweep that dysfunctional team because Bryant, the best player in the NBA, willed the Lakers to a victory with a 45 point outburst. Then, in Game One versus the Spurs the Suns squandered homecourt advantage and in Game Three Nash had a very subpar performance.
I am amused by all this talk now that the MVP voting should be done after the playoffs. This is supposed to be a dig at Nowitzki but wouldn't Nash have to give back both of his MVPs, too? The regular season MVP should go to that season's outstanding individual player, whether he carried a great team to 60-plus wins or a poor team to 40-plus wins. If the voters go back to honoring individual excellence then they won't have to wait with bated breath for "their guy" to not lose early in the playoffs. There is a Finals MVP to honor the player who leads his team to a championship.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:36 AM