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Friday, November 02, 2007

You Can Bank(s) on It: Three Marcus Banks Three Pointers Help Suns Rally to Beat the Sonics

The Seattle SuperSonics led at halftime and at the end of three quarters of their game with the Phoenix Suns but--as TNT's Doug Collins suspected--they did not possess the veteran savvy or toughness necessary to seal the deal. Marcus Banks made three three pointers in 55 seconds at the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth quarter to erase an 82-73 Seattle lead. Phoenix never trailed again en route to a 106-99 win; Banks finished with 12 points in 14 minutes and posted a +7 plus/minus rating. Amare Stoudemire led the Suns with 23 points and 11 rebounds, while Steve Nash overcame a slow start to finish with 18 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds. It was not a vintage performance for the two-time MVP, though, as he shot 6-13 from the field and committed seven turnovers. Shawn Marion had a double double (14 points, 11 rebounds), while Grant Hill contributed 13 points, six rebounds and five assists in his debut as a Sun. Kevin Durant had a game-high 27 points in the first home game of his NBA career. He shot 11-23 from the field but still does not display much of a floor game, recording just five rebounds, one assist, one blocked shot, no steals and six turnovers. Chris Wilcox had 23 points and 11 rebounds, helping Seattle to enjoy a 50-44 advantage on the glass and showing once again that teams can punish Phoenix' soft interior defense.

The game was close during the entire the first half, with Seattle claiming a 58-55 halftime lead after Damien Wilkins' buzzer beating three pointer from halfcourt. Durant had 18 points on 7-14 shooting. He connected on pullup jumpers, stepback jumpers and some fast break layups/dunks. Take a look at the score, though; Phoenix likes to seduce its opponents into a run and gun style, figuring that their superior athletes will prevail in the long run in that type of contest. In other words, Durant was not battling in the trenches against physical defenders.

Seattle began to pull away in the waning minutes of the third quarter as Durant took a breather. Wally Szczerbiak scored six points in 27 seconds as the SuperSonics took an 82-73 lead. As Collins said several times during the telecast, Nash and the Suns looked out of sorts. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Banks, a .326 career three point shooter who had just subbed in for Nash, started hitting three pointers like his name is Jason Kapono. The young Sonics never recovered from that barrage, though they did manage to keep the game close. Durant shot 2-7 from the field in the second half before hitting back to back jumpers, one of them a three pointer that pulled Seattle to within 96-93 with 3:44 remaining. He followed that up with two costly turnovers, though--a bad pass and an offensive foul. Nash and Stoudemire scored Phoenix' last 10 points.

The early returns after two games--Seattle lost to Denver 120-103 on Wednesday night--suggest that Seattle is going to play hard and maybe even be competitive for stretches against good teams before ultimately losing due to mental errors and lack of concentration. The fact that Seattle has looked good at times against two playoff teams should not confuse people into believing that the SuperSonics are going to be a playoff team themselves. The season has just begun and the young Seattle players are full of energy and enthusiasm; let's check back in a few months after Durant hits the rookie wall and some of the initial team spirit has been dulled by fairly constant losing. Even Collins, who offered nothing but praise for Durant during the telecast, conceded that Durant is too young to be expected to grab a game by the throat in the fourth quarter and lead his team to victory.

We no longer have to speculate about what Durant's summer league and preseason performances mean, so let's examine what he has done so far in his first two real NBA games. Everyone is so sure that Durant will be great that there is a real need for some objective evaluation. Charles Barkley lent some needed perspective after Ernie Johnson mentioned that the Phoenix-Seattle game would feature rookie "sensation" Kevin Durant; Barkley asked how someone can be a sensation after only one game. Johnson replied that he was referring to Durant's college achievements. They were just engaging in light hearted bantering but Barkley is right: just because someone did well--or even great--in college it is not guaranteed that he will be an NBA star. That said, Barkley believes that Durant will be very good once he puts on some weight; that will enable him to withstand body contact and finish plays in the paint. Kenny Smith noted that Durant already performs well in situations that require finesse but is much less effective when players have a chance to muscle him.

My two critiques of Durant during the summer league and the preseason were that he shot a very low percentage and that he did little to fill out any categories in the boxscore other than points and field goal attempts. Those things held true on Wednesday as Durant shot 7-22 from the field, scoring 18 points. He also had five rebounds, one assist, three steals and one blocked shot. NBA boxscores contain two additional statistics this season: plus/minus, which I discussed in my previous post, and blocks against, which records how many times a player has his shot blocked. Durant had four of those in the Denver game, two more than anybody else on either team and a rather high number for a tall, athletic shooting guard. Obviously, Durant experienced some rookie jitters but despite that it is interesting that his plus/minus of -8 was actually significantly better than any of the other Seattle starters did. The fact that he can get off 22 shot attempts against NBA competition--and is confident enough to keep firing despite all of the misses and blocks--should not be taken lightly.

Durant looked much better against Phoenix. His shooting percentage was good and none of his attempts were blocked. However, there is still the issue that at this point in his career he does not do much other than shoot the ball. He does not rebound in traffic and has little to offer defensively beyond being long armed enough to deflect some balls to get steals. Durant made a nifty bounce pass early in the game that Nick Collison converted into a layup but that turned out to be Durant's only assist. Durant's length and athleticism already make him a difficult player to guard but he nullifies some of those advantages by playing a bit out of control at times, resulting in turnovers and rushed shots. The minutes and the shot attempts are obviously going to be there for him, so Durant will put up numbers but he is not truly an impact player yet at this stage. He is supposed to be a quick study but the advantages he gains by better understanding the NBA game will probably be minimized somewhat as the season progresses and his frail body wears down. Durant's biggest obstacle may very well be some of the ludicrous comparisons that are made in reference to him. Why on Earth did the AP writer who filed the Phoenix-Seattle game story feel it necessary to include the little nugget that Michael Jordan scored 16 and 21 points in his first two NBA games? Jordan averaged 28.2 ppg that year on .515 field goal shooting; he also led his team in rebounding, assists and steals. Durant is not going to approach Jordan's numbers in any of those categories.

LeBron James entered the NBA with a grown man's body; no veterans pushed him around because he was as big or bigger than they were. Jordan was on the slender side but he was wiry strong and much, much more polished than Durant is at this stage. In other words, Jordan and James were largely finished products by the time that they entered the league. They were All-Star level players right from the start--though James did not make the All-Star team as a rookie--and then they tweaked elements of their game in order to ascend to the All-NBA/MVP level. Durant is not a finished product like those guys, which is why I have not joined the herd that seems to take for granted that he will be an All-Star for years to come; Durant will have to both gain weight/strength and improve his floor game to reach All-Star level. Maybe he will do those things but that is not a given. Ralph Sampson entered the NBA as a lean finesse player. He tried very hard to gain weight but could never really keep it on due to the rigors of the long NBA season. He won Rookie of the Year and an All-Star MVP but then he got hurt and never reached the level that he had been expected to attain. Was his physique a factor with his injury problems? No one can really answer that definitively, just like no one can say for sure that Durant will put on--and maintain--the needed weight or that he will expand his game to include more than just shooting. However, I am encouraged by the progress that he has made since summer league and hopefully that is a sign of things to come.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:49 AM

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