The Big Payback: Suns Outmuscle SpursNo, it does not make up for years of playoff defeats and yes, it was just one game, but the Suns' 94-87 victory over the Spurs demonstrated why it is premature to dismiss Phoenix' chances in the playoffs. The missing ingredients for the Suns in recent seasons were defense, rebounding and paint presence. Shaquille O'Neal provided all of those things in abundance versus the Spurs, finishing with 14 points, a game-high 16 rebounds and two blocked shots. He shot 6-11 from the field and tied Steve Nash for game-high plus/minus honors (+21). Nash led the Suns in scoring with 19 points and he had a game-high 14 assists. Grant Hill added 18 points and six rebounds as the top six players in the Suns' rotation all scored at least 10 points. Manu Ginobili led the Spurs with a game-high 22 points but he shot just 7-19 from the field and committed a game-high five turnovers. Tim Duncan had 17 points and 10 rebounds but he shot just 6-19 from the field and posted a game-worst plus/minus number (-23)--that is a telling stat because he and O'Neal matched up for most of the game and Duncan did not control the paint at either end of the court the way that he typically does.
Before the game, ABC's excellent color commentator Jeff Van Gundy talked about what has happened to the Suns since they traded away Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks in exchange for O'Neal. The Suns went just 3-6 in O'Neal's first nine games, allowing 113.2 ppg and 51% field goal shooting, plummeting from first place in the Western Conference to sixth place. While many people are quick to blame everything on O'Neal, Van Gundy made two trenchant points. First, "Steve Nash has to do a better job on the ball (defensively)"; when the point guard allows dribble penetration then the entire defense is compromised. Second, "A little bit of that 37-16 record (before the trade) was fool's gold in that they played one of the weakest schedules in the league." I would take that a step further and say that the Suns' regular season success throughout the Nash era has largely been "fool's gold," because they piled up wins against the weak teams by running and gunning in a fashion that simply does not work consistently against legitimate contenders that have time to rest between playoff games.
O'Neal set a physical tone right from the start versus the Spurs, scoring eight points and grabbing three rebounds as the Suns took a 12-8 lead before he came out of the game at the 6:25 mark of the first quarter. The Spurs had one of their best stretches of the game with O'Neal on the bench, going in front 25-22 by the end of the quarter. Ginobili provided a spark during that run with six points but he found the going much rougher when O'Neal returned in the second quarter. One play in particular illustrates not only O'Neal's impact but also how essential it is for all five players to concentrate on defense: Ginobili blew by Raja Bell and got into the paint but O'Neal slid over and forced him to miss an off balance shot. Bell should have "sunk" into the paint and put a body on O'Neal's man--Fabricio Oberto--to prevent him from getting an offensive rebound. Instead, Bell stopped and watched as Oberto tipped in Ginobili's miss. This is why it is important to actually watch games in their entirety and analyze what happened; otherwise, you might reach an erroneous conclusion about where the problems are with the Suns' defense. As Van Gundy suggested, containing dribble penetration is vitally important--and as this example illustrates, even when the initial defense breaks down it is important to keep playing hard and keep rotating, picking up your teammate's man if he picks up yours (helping the helper, as coaches put it).
The teams battled to a 23-23 tie in the second quarter, so the Spurs held a 48-45 halftime lead but the story of the first half was O'Neal's performance: he already had a double double (12 points, 11 rebounds) and even though Duncan and Ginobili both scored in double figures neither player shot well from the field. Ginobili told ABC's Michele Tafoya, "I think I forced the issue a little bit" and he vowed to drive the ball to the hoop and kick to open shooters in the second half after making just 4 of his 12 field goal attempts and not producing a single assist. Meanwhile, a bit earlier, ABC's Mark Jackson declared, "If this Shaquille O'Neal shows up and the Phoenix Suns lock in defensively, they are a dangerous team. Shaq looks like he turned back the hands of time."In the first half the Suns shot 47% from the field while holding the Spurs to 38%. The main reason that the Spurs were in front was that they made five of their eight three point shots, while Phoenix only connected on 1 of 4 long range shots; it was almost like the teams had switched identities: the Suns were pounding the ball into the paint, while the Spurs were making treys.
The "old" Suns would often be competitive with the Spurs for significant stretches within games before the Spurs clamped down defensively and got a few key scores to prevail. This game had a similar script but the roles were reversed. The third quarter was as tightly contested as the first two. O'Neal thrilled--and momentarily scared--the home crowd by diving into the stands to try to save a loose ball and that effort not only prompted a standing ovation but seemed to inspire a run that put Phoenix ahead 65-57, the biggest margin that either team enjoyed in the game; however, although Jackson did not use the phrase this time, I would call what O'Neal did "fake hustle": that is when you dive after a ball that you really have little chance of saving or controlling. During his long career, Dennis Rodman probably led the league in both real hustle and fake hustle and O'Neal is not above engaging in some theatrics. Fortunately, no fans were seriously injured. O'Neal went to the bench for a brief rest when the score was 63-57 and when he returned the Suns were only up 67-65. Bruce Bowen's three pointer at the buzzer put the Spurs up 70-69 .
Despite their poor shooting, the Spurs were not only in the game but they had the lead, prompting Van Gundy to comment, "Championship teams find ways to stay in games and win games even when they are not shooting well." The quintessential example of this is game seven of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals, when the Bulls beat the Pacers 88-83. The Bulls shot 29-76 from the field--Michael Jordan shot 9-25 and Scottie Pippen shot 6-18--and 24-41 from the free throw line but grabbed 22 offensive rebounds, including six by Pippen, five by Jordan and three by Rodman; it was hardly artistic but the Bulls found a way to win. During the Nash era--at least in the playoffs--the Suns have been a team that finds a way to lose against the top teams, in no small part because they have relied heavily on their ability to score and have not been able to get key stops or key rebounds if they go through cold stretches. O'Neal's primary task is to change that, to add some muscle and grit and paint presence to the mix.
It did not look good for Phoenix early in the fourth quarter. Ginobili nailed a three and Kurt Thomas made a jumper to put the Spurs up 75-69 but the Suns battled back and only trailed 77-76 at the 8:09 mark after a Raja Bell three pointer. That play provided another great example of why basketball can only be understood by intelligently watching the entire game and not just by crunching numbers or watching part of the game or checking out some highlights (which may be edited by someone who did not know enough to pick the most important plays). The reason that Bell was wide open was that his defender, Michael Finley, had been camped out in the lane double-teaming O'Neal; the paint presence that O'Neal established in the first half affected how the rest of the game was played, even in sequences where there are no box score numbers to document his impact. In previous years, the Spurs stayed at home on the Suns' three point shooters, neutralizing a big part of Phoenix' attack; in this game, the double-teams that O'Neal drew created a lot of open three point shots and, even though the Suns actually shot a poor percentage overall from long range, the fact that O'Neal still commands that kind of defensive attention bodes well for Phoenix (Miami fans, feel free to grit your teeth at this point as you remember the lack of energy that O'Neal showed not too long ago when he wore a Heat uniform).
After Duncan split a pair of free throws, Nash hit a jumper to tie the score at 78. On the next possession, Duncan missed a shot in the paint but grabbed the rebound and dunked the ball. Van Gundy said, "That can't happen. O'Neal defended him well, made him miss. That has to be a gang rebound. You can't be able to follow up your own shot." The play by play sheet credits Amare Stoudemire with a block on the initial shot, which surprised me because I did not think that Stoudemire touched the ball and none of the announcers mentioned it, either. In fact, I went back and replayed that sequence to be sure and I still think that even though Stoudemire dropped down to help he did not make contact with the ball. In any case, the point is that instead of Duncan overpowering Stoudemire or Marion as in years past, O'Neal forced him into a tough shot and Stoudemire had the freedom to roam in as a weakside defender, a role that suits him much better than one on one post defender; another point, as Van Gundy and Jackson both mentioned, is that the guards have to anticipate that miss and get the rebound after the initial stop.
The Spurs pushed their lead to 85-80 after another Thomas jumper; one weakness that O'Neal had even in his prime is that he is unwilling/unable to get out of the paint and effectively contest shots by centers who have the ability to shoot face up jumpers from 15-18 feet. During the Phoenix possession prior to that shot we got to glimpse a bit of the chess match between the two coaches as Jackson noted a change in strategy by the Spurs; instead of fighting through the pick or switching, the Spurs trapped Steve Nash after a high pick and roll. Caught by surprise, Nash threw a bad pass and the Suns eventually committed a shot clock violation. Jackson added that the Spurs could trap Nash because with O'Neal and Stoudemire on the court at the same time the Suns had fewer three point shooters to spread the floor.
Suns' Coach Mike D'Antoni got a technical foul at the 5:03 mark but Ginobili missed the free throw. Van Gundy said, "I would never tolerate a fourth quarter technical foul from a player so as a coach you can't tolerate it from yourself." While D'Antoni ranted and fumed during a close game, I thought back to last year's playoffs when Stoudemire and Boris Diaw lost their composure for a split second, left the area of the bench and earned suspensions; championship teams must remain focused at all times.
The teams exchanged some missed shots and turnovers before Nash's pullup three pointer pulled the Suns to within 85-83. Marion often had the job of guarding point guard Tony Parker during key possessions but now that task falls to Hill, who blocked Parker's jumper on the next possession. Stoudemire tied the game with a jumper and after Duncan missed another shot in the paint it was the Suns' turn to make a strategic move. Instead of screening for Nash and letting him get trapped, the Suns had Nash set a middle screen for Stoudemire, who drove to the hoop and got fouled. He split the free throws to put the Suns up one. Earlier in the game, Van Gundy mentioned that Nash, like John Stockton, is an excellent screener but he also pointed out that referees let smaller players get away with fouls when they set screens. Van Gundy said that Nash's screen on this play was illegal and if you watch the play closely (i.e., look at Nash and not Stoudemire) you can see that Nash did not establish position but instead moved so that the defender could not recover.
After Ginobili missed a three pointer, the Suns ran the same play again and this time Stoudemire made both free throws after he was fouled, putting the Suns up 88-85. Ginobili hit a tough runner in the paint to cut the lead to one and the Suns answered with the same play yet again. This time, the defense rotated to stop Stoudemire's drive, so he passed to Hill for a wide open jumper that made the score 90-87 Phoenix. Although O'Neal never touched the ball on these plays, the Spurs had to account for him on the post as well as deal with the threat he posed on the offensive glass, so his presence limited their options defensively.
Ginobili missed a jumper but the Spurs got the ball back and Ginobili drove to the hoop. O'Neal met him in the paint, contested the shot and forced a miss. There appeared to be some contact on the play but Jackson said, "When you play with force and aggressiveness you get away with more." Van Gundy wryly asked what happens when both teams play with force and aggressiveness, noting that Ginobili's play was also forceful and aggressive. After missing the shot, Ginobili fouled Bell, which was not a smart play since the Spurs only trailed by three with :46 left. Bell made both free throws and then O'Neal thwarted Duncan's drive to the hoop on the next possession. As Jackson put it,"Really great defense by Shaquille O'Neal to seal the deal."
The Suns were the worst rebounding team in the NBA before O'Neal arrived but in this game they outrebounded the Spurs 52-44. Some people assumed that O'Neal would slow down the Suns' running game but even though this was not a high scoring contest the Suns produced 23 fast break points while holding the Spurs to five. No longer overly reliant on contested outside shots, the Suns outscored the Spurs in the paint 38-24.
Obviously, this is just one regular season game. Both teams will no doubt make some adjustments in the event that they face each other in the playoffs. Still, this game provided a good illustration of the value that O'Neal adds to the Suns and it also showed that Hill can pick up the slack in terms of some of the things that Marion used to do (guard players at multiple positions, rebound, shoot a good percentage). The West may be as tough as it ever has been and I still consider the Spurs to be the favorites but the Suns are better equipped to play playoff basketball than they were before they acquired O'Neal.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:48 AM