Strawberry's Long Range Shot Lifts Suns Over NuggetsWith the World Series in full swing, it is only natural to talk of a home run by a Strawberry--but this time the long distance shot came from rookie Suns' guard D.J., not his father, ex-MLB All-Star Darryl. With just 3.3 seconds left, D.J. Strawberry received a pass from Marcus Banks and calmly drained a three pointer to give Phoenix a 116-113 preseason victory over the visiting Denver Nuggets. Strawberry finished with 14 points in 20 minutes. Grant Hill led the Suns in scoring with 17 points. Steve Nash added 14 points and 10 assists but he shot just 3-10 from the field and committed four turnovers. Amare Stoudemire, who recently had arthroscopic knee surgery and had yet to play in the preseason, contributed 10 points and six rebounds in 18 minutes. Allen Iverson led Denver with 24 points on 9-14 shooting, while Carmelo Anthony had 22 points but shot just 6-18 from the field. Denver starting center Marcus Camby did not play due to back spasms and Phoenix sixth man Leandro Barbosa sat out because of bruised ribs.
Denver got off to an excellent start by employing the tried and true blueprint that has worked against the Suns for the past few years: pounding the ball inside the paint on offense and defending the three point line vigorously when Phoenix has the ball. The Nuggets led 32-22 by the end of the first quarter. Anthony already had 13 points and Iverson scored 11 points on 5-6 shooting. The first quarter mainly consisted of starters playing against starters.
By the 8:38 mark in the second quarter, the Nuggets led 37-28 and the Suns had committed nine turnovers while making only 10 field goals. Nash, who had been sitting out for several minutes, returned to action and quickly scored a layup and delivered two assists as the Suns went on a 10-0 run to take the lead. Denver answered back with a 29-16 burst to close the quarter and the Nuggets led 66-54 at halftime. Denver outscored Phoenix in the paint 30-18 in the first half and held the Suns to 2-9 three point shooting. Anthony scored 19 first half points and Iverson had 15 points on 7-8 shooting. Kenyon Martin, attempting to come back from microfracture surgery, scored all eight of his points in the first half and moved better and with more explosiveness than he has in a long time.
TNT's Craig Sager asked Phoenix Coach Mike D'Antoni his thoughts about the first 24 minutes of action and D'Antoni candidly replied, "Being small and slow is not a good combo and that's what we are right now." It is not clear how the Suns can get bigger any time soon, so their only answer is to try to play faster and faster. The Suns have chosen the curious tactic of chasing a championship on the cheap; Kurt Thomas, by far the team's best frontcourt defender last year, was traded to Seattle in the offseason along with two first round draft picks purely to save money, a move that not only impacts Phoenix' chances to win a championship this year but also mortgages part of the team's future by giving up the chance to bring in young talent via the draft. During the telecast, TNT play by play announcer Marv Albert posed a critical question to color commentators Mike Fratello and Reggie Miller--the same question that I have raised about the Suns for years: their breakneck, fast paced style works great in the regular season when teams are worn down and don't have time to prepare for it but can a team win a championship playing this way? In the playoffs the competition is obviously much tougher and there are more days off between games, allowing the Suns' opponents to better prepare for and recover from the way that Phoenix plays. Fratello answered that Phoenix' failure to win a title in recent years boils down to one simple thing: the Suns have no answer for Tim Duncan's ability to score on the block. Needless to say, getting rid of Thomas--who guarded Duncan better than anyone else on the roster--did not get Phoenix closer to winning a title, even though the Suns added free agent Grant Hill. While Hill is a more talented and skilled player than Thomas the Suns have not been coming up short because of a lack of talent or skill. Regardless of how many games Phoenix wins in the regular season there is still no reason to believe that the Suns will be able to get past Duncan and the Spurs in the playoffs. Miller said that we may never know the answer to Albert's question due to what Miller called "Horry-gate"--the incident when Robert Horry fouled Nash during last year's playoff series versus Duncan's Spurs and Stoudemire and Boris Diaw received suspensions for leaving the bench area during an altercation; Miller suggested that maybe the Suns would otherwise have beaten the Spurs and won it all last year. That conveniently ignores the reality that the Spurs did not even need seven games to vanquish the Suns and that even if the Suns had gotten by the Spurs they still would have had to beat the Jazz in the Conference Finals. Utah beat Phoenix 3-1 in the regular season series.
The Suns got their running game in gear in the third quarter and also started connecting from three point range. The Nuggets responded by going away from the inside game that had been so effective in favor of launching some questionable shots. Denver is a very talented team but there are serious questions about the team's mental toughness and commitment to playing good defense. How will the Nuggets respond when everything is not going smoothly? Do they have the necessary focus to sustain solid play for 48 minutes against good teams? The third quarter did not offer encouraging answers to these questions. With their starters still in the game, Denver went from having a 12 point lead to trailing 72-71 in less than six minutes. Three minutes after that Phoenix led 87-76. After that point, both teams began removing their starters from the game--although Iverson played until several minutes elapsed in the fourth quarter--so it is not clear what to make of the last 12-15 minutes of the game. J.R. Smith--who has been suspended by the Nuggets for the first three games of the regular season due to conduct detrimental to the team--scored 11 points in the fourth quarter as the Nuggets rallied to tie the score at 113 with 1:02 left, setting the stage for Strawberry's heroics. It is fitting that the Suns ended the game with a three pointer; they shot 7-16 from behind the arc in the second half.
Phoenix and Denver are two of the biggest teases in the NBA; the Suns tantalize their fans by winning 50-60 games with a style that is ill equipped for championship level success, while the Nuggets have enough talent that they can look like legitimate contenders for short periods of time only to implode due to their lack of commitment, focus and toughness (just consider how many players on the Nuggets have been suspended by the team or the league for various reasons). Can the Suns get a key stop in the paint in the last five minutes of a close playoff game? Will the Nuggets play hard and smart for 48 minutes night after night? If your eyes are open and you are honest, you already know the answers to these questions.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:59 AM