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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

That's Amare: Stoudemire Scores 42, Suns Outlast Pacers

Amare Stoudemire scored 42 points and Steve Nash dished out 17 assists as the Phoenix Suns built a 15 point lead, fell behind by five points in the fourth quarter and then rallied to pull out a 121-117 road win against the Pacers. "We had two or three games out there," Suns Coach Mike D'Antoni said with a chuckle after the game. "We played well, they played well and we played well. It ended on a good note." Stoudemire's points and Nash's assists are both season-highs for any Suns player in those categories. Stoudemire shot 15-24 from the field and 12-13 from the free throw line. He also had 13 rebounds and four assists and managed to play the last 6:14 of the game despite having five fouls. Nash scored 17 points on 6-9 shooting, though he surprisingly missed two free throws (5-7). Nash also contributed six rebounds and his +17 plus/minus number was a game-high, just ahead of Stoudemire's +15. Grant Hill had a nice all-around game (16 points on 7-9 shooting, five rebounds, six assists), while Raja Bell (17 points, 6-15 shooting) and Shawn Marion (14 points, 5-15 field goal shooting, 12 rebounds) also scored in double figures. Leandro Barbosa (four points on 1-8 shooting) and Boris Diaw (two points on 1-3 shooting) struggled and Brian Skinner (eight points, six rebounds) was the only productive reserve for the Suns. Jermaine O'Neal (30 points on 14-20 shooting, 11 rebounds) had his best game of the season by far, Jamaal Tinsley used his size in the post to overpower Nash on more than a few occasions (19 points, 12 assists) and Mike Dunleavy added 22 points, seven rebounds and four assists.

Early in the game it looked like the Suns would run the Pacers right out of the gym; Phoenix led 24-14 at the 5:57 mark of the first quarter, which roughly projects to a 192-112 final score. Obviously, nothing that extreme is likely to happen in an NBA game but the Suns did lead by as much as 38-24 before a couple late baskets pulled the Pacers to within 38-29. Stoudemire had 10 points and six rebounds in the first quarter, while Nash had six points and five assists. Tinsley helped keep the Pacers in contention with his nine points and four assists; he often bulled his way to the hoop, muscling Nash and then either scoring over him or passing to an open teammate if a help defender came over.

In the second quarter the Suns once again built a double digit lead and when Stoudemire's two free throws with 2:38 left made the score 66-51 it looked like Phoenix might be ahead by more than 20 by halftime. Instead, the Pacers outscored the Suns 13-3 down the stretch to remain very much in the ballgame. Stoudemire led both teams with 23 points and seven rebounds at intermission, while Nash had eight points and nine assists. O'Neal and Tinsley each scored 14 points for the Pacers. The Pacers enjoyed advantages in both rebounding (26-22) and points in the paint (36-26) and they held the Suns to 0-8 shooting from three point range (the Pacers finished the game with a 50-45 rebounding edge and a 58-46 points in the paint edge, with the 58 points being a season-high for Indiana). The difference was that the Suns shot 19-19 from the free throw line in the first half while the Pacers shot 8-11.

Let's see if this story sounds familiar: the Suns built a double digit lead in the third quarter (84-72) but the Pacers rallied to get within two points (88-86). A mini-run by Phoenix gave the Suns a 96-90 lead heading into the final 12 minutes. Brian Skinner's dunk off of a feed by Nash put Phoenix up 98-90 but the Pacers answered with 10 straight points to take their first lead of the second half. The teams traded baskets for a few minutes before Tinsley and Dunleavy hit back to back three pointers to put Indiana up 112-107. Two Stoudemire free throws and a Hill jumper narrowed the margin to one but then Dunleavy once again hit a three pointer. It is important to note that Dunleavy kept getting wide open looks because the Suns were forced to trap both O'Neal and Tinsley because they did not have anyone who could guard either player one on one; problems guarding a team that has a good power forward and a penetrating point guard could prove fatal if/when the Spurs or Jazz come calling at playoff time: while the Spurs and most other championship teams rely on the ability to get key stops down the stretch, the Suns hang their hats on being able to convert at the offensive end of the court--and on this night, against this team, that would prove to be good enough. A Stoudemire jump hook and two Nash free throws left the Pacers clinging to a 117-115 lead with 1:11 remaining. The next possession went very strangely and after a few passes Dunleavy caught the ball and did a lot of aimless dribbling before launching a fadeaway shot that barely beat the shot clock and did not draw iron. Hill plucked the ball out of the air and passed ahead to Nash, whose cold blooded three pointer put the Suns ahead for good.

The last time the Suns came to Indiana, they beat the Pacers 103-92. After that contest, Coach D'Antoni said, "Nothing great on our part. But we did the job. We are lucky to get this one." His comments after Tuesday's victory were very similar: "We just struggle to play for 48 minutes right now...but to get a win on their home floor is good no matter how we do it." Later he added, "We just weren't real sharp the whole game. Our pace and their pace together kind of set it up that a 15 point lead is not real safe but we'll take it and go on to the next game."

Toward the end of his postgame standup, I asked him, "You mentioned a lack of focus a couple times. Was that mainly at the defensive end in the second half?"

Coach D'Antoni replied, "It's hard to figure it out all the time. It's a long year and we are just up and down with it a little bit. We'll figure it out. I don't know; if I knew the answer I'd tell you."

Stoudemire offered this telling insight into his team's mindset: "We're a confident team. Sometimes we're a little too confident because teams fight back but we know that we can get the win. That hurts us sometimes but we have to do a better job when we're up 15 of closing teams out. We have to find that killer instinct. We have a nice group of guys but sometimes we have to get hard core."

I asked Stoudemire, "What specifically broke down defensively to let them come back?"

He answered, "They shot well and we missed shots; that's all that was. We could have stepped up our intensity level in the last three minutes of the first half but they made tough shots and we missed some shots. That is the way the game is played sometimes but there are no excuses. We have to put teams away."

Nash is keenly aware of his team's tendency to wander mentally and he is not at all happy about it: "We had a lot of letdowns, whether it was missing layups or having mental lapses defensively. It is frustrating because we had a game that we could have possibly put to rest at halftime and all of a sudden (in the fourth quarter) we're losing. It is just a relief because we made the plays down the stretch and got the stops when it counted but this was not a very gratifying win."

I asked Nash, "Could you pinpoint one or two specific things that went wrong defensively?"

He answered, "I think that it was just mental lapses and just not being alert, forgetting the game plan and falling asleep. I think that sometimes we score easily and we take for granted that if we let up for a minute that teams can come back on you. In this league, everyone is talented."

Later, Nash said, "It is a win and it is a road win. We have a lot to be thankful for but we have to keep working and trying to stop some of the mental lapses...We don't live up to the standards of discipline and energy and cohesion that we set for ourselves." Nash seemed so glum and morose that I said to him, "It sounds like you are frustrated. Is this something that you talk about as a team or do you plan to talk to certain players about it?"

He answered, "Yeah, I mean, we know; we come into the locker room and it is silent, like a loss. Everyone knows that we have to do better and that we set higher standards for ourselves. It is more relieving (to win this game) than gratifying." In response to someone else's question, he went so far as to say that it almost would have been better to play hard the whole game and lose then to be so inconsistent and blow so many opportunities.

I asked Nash, "Does this concern you from the standpoint that if something like this happened in the postseason that it could possibly cost you a game that could swing the outcome of a series?"

As soon as I got the words out of my mouth, he immediately responded with great conviction, "Absolutely. Absolutely. That's happened to us in the past and I think that's why we're not excited to win, because we know better. We know that we have to continue to live by higher standards."

*****************************
Notes From Courtside:

In a recent post (and the comments that followed it), I talked about "talent" and "athleticism" and said, "I think that the way many people define athletic ability is very narrow." Specifically, I think that Steve Nash is an excellent athlete even though he is not a high flyer and does not possess blazing straight line speed. I had an opportunity to discuss this subject with Coach D'Antoni, Coach O'Brien, former player/current broadcaster Dan Majerle, Suns President of Basketball Operations/General Manager Steve Kerr and Nash himself. I gathered so much material from them that I will save most of their comments and insights for a separate post devoted entirely to that subject. However, to whet your appetite, I will share Coach O'Brien's thoughts about Nash and what makes him a special point guard. I asked Coach O'Brien, "A lot of times fans will make an arbitrary distinction about which players are 'athletic' and which players are 'skilled.' Wouldn't you say that Nash's shooting ability and his passing ability are athletic skills, also?"

O'Brien replied, "He's very athletic. Sometimes people confuse quickness, Allen Iverson-type quickness, with athletic ability. They look at Steve Nash (and try) to figure out why is he so good. He's very athletic, he's in phenomenal condition, he never stops and he has a whole arsenal of shots--he can score inside, he can hit deep shots. He never gives up his dribble until he has something positive to do with the ball, either to get an open shot for himself or create something for somebody else. Otherwise, he keeps on going and keeps on probing; that is really, I would say, a very, very unique skill that he that a lot of us coaches around the NBA would like to see more people on our teams have."

I asked O'Brien, "Is that a skill that you can really coach or develop in a point guard or is that something that you either have or you don't?"

He replied, "I think that you can develop it but it takes a while. In his case, it's fairly innate. I don't think that anybody took him into a gym and taught it to him over a weekend."

I then followed up by asking, "If you are trying to develop that skill in a player who does not innately have it, how would you do it? Would you show him film?"

O'Brien answered, "We show film--for instance, to (Pacer reserve guards) Andre (Owens) and Travis (Diener), as an example. We want them to, in practice or one on one on the court, to go and drive the ball to the charge circle. If you don't get anything, dribble it back out. Dribble it back in, dribble it back out, look for your shot, look for the pass, maintain your dribble. That's the ideal point guard. Some point guards get in the paint and leave their feet, which is the worst thing that you can do. Some get in there and predetermine what they are going to do with the basketball--this time I'm going to get my shot, this time I'm going to pass. Nash reacts to the defense and he always maintains his dribble and as a result he's always an MVP candidate."

***

In addition to talking with Coach D'Antoni about Nash during my one on one pregame interview with him, I also asked him to make an early evaluation of the team's offseason moves that resulted in the acquisition of Grant Hill and the loss of Kurt Thomas and to single out an area in which his team may be stronger this year and an area in which his team may be weaker. He replied, "I don't think that there is any area in which we are not as strong. With the emergence of Brian Skinner, he gives us the strength and defensive presence that Kurt gave us last year. With Grant Hill, we added a seven-time All-Star. That's hard to do; that's really hard to do at this stage of the game and he's healthy. He just gives you a player who can just take over a game and there aren't that many players out there in the league who can do that. I think that everybody else should be a little bit better, especially Leandro and Boris getting a little bit older and Amare learning different things. So, I don't see us being weaker in anything. We still have to get better--it doesn't mean that we are better than the best--but I think that we improved our team."

I followed up by asking him, "Outside observers might feel that with Skinner you don't have quite the post presence that you did with Kurt Thomas and Skinner might not have quite the ability to hit the outside shot that Thomas does."

D'Antoni replied, "Kurt only played about 17 minutes for us. He missed months of the season. So, I think we're good; I think we're better."

Two questions that I had before the season about the Hill acquisition were how he would fit in to the drive and kick scheme since he is not a great three point shooter and whether his body could hold up for an entire season at the fast pace that the Suns play. D'Antoni brushed aside both concerns: "First, he's a great driver and kicker. Now, if he's on the receiving end of the drive and kick, one, he makes enough threes to keep everybody honest; he's not a great three point shooter but he's not a bad three point shooter, either. He's about 30% now and he's learning when to pick his spots. Also, it's a little bit of a myth (that we only shoot threes)--he doesn't always have to shoot a three; he can take a dribble and shoot his midrange jumper. He's finding a blend there and he fits in perfectly with what we do; one more playmaker on the floor really helps us out. For him over the long haul, he's completely healthy. I mean, we should be saying that over months and months that Steve Nash can't handle this pace. Well, they're both about the same age. He is one year older than Steve. There is nothing wrong with him physically; he's completely well. Now, at age 35, might he break down? He might. We don't know that but his past problems were due to things not being right structurally. He's right, right now, so we don't see him breaking down or missing games but it could happen. It could happen to Steve or to any of our guys but our doctors and trainers are pretty secure that he's good. Anybody could break down during a long season but they don't think that he is at any more risk than anybody else."

***

Before the game, while discussing some of the things that have transpired in recent years in FIBA competition, Kerr relayed an interesting anecdote that D'Antoni--an assistant coach for Team USA--told him about Kobe Bryant. Prior to each game in last summer's FIBA Americas tournament, Bryant asked the coaching staff, "Who do you want me to take out?" In other words, Bryant wanted to know who was the toughest perimeter threat on each team so that he could study his tendencies on film and then completely neutralize him on the court. I said to Kerr, "That sounds like a sniper zeroing in on a target" and Kerr replied, "Yeah--and he was serious." Kerr went on to say that Bryant's "focus" and "bravado" added an essential missing element to the squad and elevated everyone else's play. Kerr noted that the previous Team USA squad had performed reasonably well other than the infamous loss to Greece but that it lacked a certain "swagger," as he termed it, and that Team USA did not have a "player who everyone feared." Kerr literally shook his head in wonderment as he described Bryant's impact on Team USA.

***

After the rest of the reporters were done talking to Stoudemire after the game, I asked him if he has been in contact yet with Gilbert Arenas, who recently underwent microfracture surgery. Stoudemire told me that he has not spoken with Arenas yet but that he plans to call him when the Suns go to Washington this Friday. He added that Arenas' microfracture surgery was on a non-weight bearing bone so it was not quite as serious but Stoudemire agreed with me that Arenas does have to be cautious about not coming back too soon.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:50 AM

4 comments

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4 Comments:

At Wednesday, December 05, 2007 4:29:00 AM, Anonymous jn said...

There's much meat in this post.

I am interested in that forthcoming post about athleticism, it's being a recurrent discussion in messageboards and suchlike. It seems that you can't possibly be both skilled and athletic, except perhaps "aberrations" like Magic or Jordan. Any suggestion that Bird did have some athletic abilities going his way is not countenanced, and conversely LeBron's purported lack of court vision and game-savvy is almost like a mantra.

To me, Steve Nash for instance may not be another Iverson, but he's built like one of those old "He-Man" action figures and just oozes strength and stamina.

Team USA "fear factor" is very real. Even though so-called FIBA players and teams no longer fear NBA players just because they are NBA, champion teams and even contenders must inspire some sort of awe in the opposition. It's no surprise that the two teams people feared the most in the last WC, Greece and Spain, ended up meeting in the finals. USA and Argentina were respected but did not cause the same effect.

Finally, what is your take on Grant Hill? Have you changed your mind since the season preview?

 
At Thursday, December 06, 2007 7:49:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

JN:

The forthcoming post will be quite extensive, so I'll reserve commenting on the subject for now, although Nash's stamina and overall conditioning are definitely part of the equation.

Part of my "take" on Hill was that I was unsure if he could survive/thrive at the Suns' pace for an entire season. We have to take Coach D'Antoni at his word that there is nothing physically wrong with Hill now. Nevertheless, considering Hill's age and injury history I don't entirely agree with Coach D'Antoni that Hill is no more likely to break down than anyone else.

Hopefully, Hill will be healthy and productive for the entire season. Then the questions become how well does he fit in with the Suns' style and can adding him to the team put the Suns over the top to win a title. D'Antoni makes a valid point that Hill can certainly do well with the driving and kicking part; it is in this area that I would say that Hill may be doing a little better than I expected. Watching him play in recent seasons, he seemed to have basically become a 15 foot jump shooter. Maybe he really is completely healthy now, because he does seem to be able to get into the paint and make things happen. He will likely never be a great three point shooter. Coach D'Antoni is correct that Hill can receive the pass, take a dribble inside the line and then shoot, but that also gives the defense a chance to rotate to him, whereas Bell or Barbosa can fire away from distance before the defense can recover from sagging in to stop Nash's dribble penetration. As for getting the Suns over the top, I still think that they will miss Thomas a lot in the playoffs. Yeah, he did not play a lot of regular season minutes but that has been true of Robert Horry sometimes and then Horry plays a big role in the playoffs; in a different way, Thomas is a guy who could play limited minutes in the regular season and then play a key five or ten minute stretch in a playoff game to guard Duncan or Boozer.

Overall, I'd say that right now Hill looks a bit healthier than I expected but that the Suns "are who I thought they were": a very good regular season team that will once again fall short in the playoffs. Re-read Nash's comments about the game; he understands as well as anybody the areas in which his team is deficient and he also understands that those deficiencies will not be easy to correct.

 
At Thursday, December 06, 2007 11:17:00 AM, Anonymous jn said...

Aside from health concers, Grant Hill is contributing more than I expected. He is back to being an all around player like he used to be (at a much lower level than his pre-injury self, of course), and he has meshed very well with the Suns.

Of course, they don't have a post defender anymore (incidentally, Kurt Thomas looks past it) but that's not Hill's fault.

 
At Thursday, December 06, 2007 5:49:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Short of death or debilitating injury, could you imagine a more disheartening fate for a veteran like Kurt Thomas than to end up on a team going nowhere with young guys who don't know how to play? Thomas' game now consists primarily of toughness and savvy, things that will not show up in a boxscore, particularly on a bad team. That does not mean that he could not be very valuable coming off the bench for a good team. Also, last I checked he was averaging nearly a rebound every two minutes, albeit in limited playing time. The Suns could definitely still use him.

 

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