Is This a Make or Break Year for the Suns?The Dallas Mavericks raced to a 37-20 first quarter lead and survived a furious late rally by the Phoenix Suns to win 108-105 in the first showdown this season between these perennial Western Conference contenders. Perhaps for the first time this season, Dallas looked like the team that won 67 games last year. Not coincidentally, Dirk Nowitzki performed like he did when he won the 2007 MVP, finishing with a game-high 31 points, including 12 in the fourth quarter and eight in the final 2:32. Nowitzki also had nine rebounds. Josh Howard contributed 23 points and seven rebounds and Devin Harris added 21 points, six assists and three steals. Amare Stoudemire led the Suns with 25 points and he also had eight rebounds and four blocked shots. Shawn Marion scored 23 points on 10-14 shooting in addition to having 10 rebounds and three steals; both he and Stoudemire benefited from several great passes from Steve Nash, who had 21 points and 18 assists.
While the Mavericks--winners of four straight and six of their last seven--appear to be rounding into form, this has been a strange season so far for the Suns. Their 18-8 record is second only to San Antonio in the West but no one on the team seems particularly happy, even when the team wins, something that I observed firsthand after the Suns' 121-117 victory in Indiana. A few days ago after a loss to New Orleans, Nash said, "It’s very, very disappointing. I wish I could find a way to make sure each guy is ready to play. But what do you do, interview each guy before a game?" The Suns have a tendency to coast on defense, relying on their high powered offense to bail them out. When that does not work--during the first quarter versus Dallas, for instance--the Suns may temporarily play with more energy and focus on defense, but that transformation does not always last long enough to secure victory. Needless to say, this is a recipe for failure in the postseason, something that clearly concerns Nash and some of the team's executives, including General Manager Steve Kerr, who recently admitted publicly that the team is currently being "evaluated" to determine if roster changes need to be made. The Suns did just beat the Spurs in San Antonio--Tony Parker did not play--but they are not likely to beat the Spurs in a seven game series if their defensive effort continues to be transitory rather than a staple of the team's identity. During a stoppage of play in the first quarter, ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy said, "This start by Phoenix has highlighted their greatest strengths--which are their transition game and Steve Nash--but also their greatest weaknesses. They've given up 25 points in less than nine minutes because they do not protect the basket. You're not a championship caliber team unless you can protect the basket."
Van Gundy made several interesting observations about both teams. He took issue with Josh Howard's statement that the Mavericks wore themselves out last year by winning so many regular season games. "Total cop out," Van Gundy declared, asking rhetorically if the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls team that went 72-10 or the great Celtics teams led by Larry Bird ever said such things. Van Gundy added, "There is no such thing as turning it on and turning it off. You either have good habits or you don't." He concluded that Howard's comment is nothing more than an "excuse" for the team's first round loss to Golden State, which--in Van Gundy's opinion--resulted from what he called a "perfect storm" of the Warriors peaking at just the right time.
Van Gundy later suggested that Nowitzki should shoot more three pointers because it is difficult to get into rhythm when you only attempt a few shots from that range. I have been saying for a while that Nowitzki should play to his strengths--including his ability to face up defenders and shoot jumpers--instead of having the mindset that he has to post up just because he is seven feet tall.
After Nash made a gorgeous twisting layup over Dallas center Erick Dampier, Van Gundy said, "I have a problem with anybody who says that guy is not a great athlete. The coordination to be able to control your body, keep your eye on the backboard and then touch it up there on the board--that is a tremendous athlete." Of course, I agree with Van Gundy about this and I recently did a lengthy post on this very subject.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:40 AM