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Monday, March 10, 2008

The Big Payback: Suns Outmuscle Spurs

No, 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:48 AM

10 comments

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10 Comments:

At Monday, March 10, 2008 8:24:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David,

That's 'The Way' the game of NBA basketball SHOULD be analyzed, ie Possessession-by-Possession, in detail (where THE devil & THE difference usually reside).

Great stuff, my friend!

:-)

khandor

 
At Monday, March 10, 2008 11:27:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

tell me it aint so david has went 4 or 5 post takeing up for shaquille oneal like he is kobe bryant you have to be kidding me youre analyst was 100 percent right on the topic shaq hasnt hurt the suns nash d has been hurting them what wasnt exposed eariler becuase of marion greatness. the suns are still contender even though it was just one game they will be a tough out in te playoffs in years past te spurs always one the close games vs the spurs shaq i believe make the games a little bit harder last 3 games 12 and 18 20 and 7 and 14 and 16 he is rounding into shape and becomieng a low post threat for them they are a good team when e is that, they shold be tough to beat in the playoffs i still like the lakers as long as there not playing sacramento who wont make the playoffs anyway.

 
At Tuesday, March 11, 2008 11:39:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

I've always been fair and objective about Shaq, just like I am about all the players. Last year, when Wade got hurt and Shaq came back I wrote that the Heat would not miss Wade as much as they had missed Shaq and that proved to be correct as the Heat made a late season run with Shaq and without Wade.

I've got a slight issue with Shaq looking approximately 200 years old in Miami and suddenly getting healthy in Phoenix but that is a story for another day. I've said all along that that this was a logical deal for the Suns.

The Spurs are the favorite until they lose or their key guys get injured. The Lakers now have a puncher's chance to beat them, particularly if they get Bynum healthy and in shape. The Suns alos have a puncher's chance to beat them now that they have Shaq but, as things stand today, I still expect San Antonio to win; I may have a different pick come playoff time, depending on injuries and other factors.

 
At Tuesday, March 11, 2008 11:39:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Khandor:

Thank you. I'm glad that you enjoyed this post.

 
At Tuesday, March 11, 2008 9:34:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's your take on the Suns' chemistry in the Nash era? You can read a lot of "players would take a pay cut to run with these Suns" comments around the league but looking at Quentin Richardson, Joe Johnson, and now Shawn Marion... they didn't seem to be that happy... their departure might be attributed to "wanting to be the man" but rarely do you see veryt good players bolting from contenders for that. I don't really know if it's Stoudemire's ego, or perhaps they didn't truly believe that their style of play would be successful, or for whatever other reasons..
Your thoughts?

Z

 
At Tuesday, March 11, 2008 10:33:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Z:

I think that is a very perceptive question. We certainly don't see many examples of people taking pay cuts to play with Nash--and even though many fans apparently think that players don't want to play with Kobe Bryant, the truth is that Marion, Jermaine O'Neal, Jason Kidd and others have all expressed interest at various times in playing with Kobe.

Marion was actually the highest paid player on the Suns but he never was completely happy because he felt that he did not get enough credit for the team's success.

Nash certainly makes the game easier for his teammates with his passing but it could also be said that he makes the game more difficult with his defensive liabilities; his shortcomings at that end lead to breakdowns and mismatches and force the Suns to use Marion (and now Hill) to guard certain point guards who Nash can't handle. Nash was All-NBA Team worthy these past few years but I never would have voted him as MVP over guys like Kobe, LeBron, Dirk (or Shaq the first year that Nash won).

There is an interesting dynamic in the Suns' locker room. Obviously, there are beat writers who are in there more often than I am but what I noticed when I covered the Suns' win in Indiana earlier this season is that Nash was not upbeat even after the victory. I mentioned this to him and asked him point blank if he was upset because he felt that the way that the Suns were playing was not good enough to beat the top teams in the playoffs. He acknowledged that this was exactly what he was thinking (you can read the whole thing by checking out my December 5, 2007 post about the game).

Nash, Amare and Marion may not always have been on the same page in terms of how hard the team should be playing on a night in, night out basis.

 
At Tuesday, March 11, 2008 11:57:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

how bad is stevie's defense anyway? he's one of the fastest and smartest guards in the league. He is listed at 6'3 right? His effort and dedication has never been questioned...
He doesn't strike me as a gambler on defense, and his court awareness should give him a heads up against most screens..
parker and paul blow by him because, well they blow by everyone else...
baron, deron, and chauncey overpowerhim because well, they overpower most other guards, particularly davis.
i'll also add that nash has not played with a big man that you could reliably funnel opponents into...

Z

 
At Wednesday, March 12, 2008 4:46:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Z:

Nash is a decent "team" defender in the mold of a Larry Bird or Magic Johnson; he knows where he is supposed to be and what he is supposed to do--and sometimes his good anticipation even leads to steals--but many other guards have more straight line speed and/or are more powerful (Nash's advantages when he has the ball are based on vision, balance and eye/hand coordination, as I noted in the post I did that said that Nash may very well be the best all-around athlete in the NBA).

I did not question Nash's effort or dedication defensively but the simple fact is that most pgs enjoy a one on one matchup advantage versus Nash, which either leads to the Suns crossmatching--for instance, putting Nash on Bowen and Hill on Parker--or having to double team.

If Shaq is willing and able to actively defend the paint then he will help Nash and the other Suns defensively.

 
At Wednesday, March 12, 2008 7:27:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

as for Nash being unable to stay with Parker, well, not a lot of guys can...
how would you rate his individual perimeter defense among the top point guards in the league?

would you say that the rule changes preventing perimeter hand checking is helping Nash's opponents more than him? Given that Nash was already an excellent facilitator/shooter before the rule, but speedsters like Parker, Harris, and slashers like Wade and Davis were given a ridiculous boost?

Without the rule changes, could Nash still have made those Suns "exciting"? He had 2 of the best finishers in the league, but he wouldn't be as exposed on defense.

So he could still have "won" those MVP awards without the "atrocious defender" label?

Z

 
At Wednesday, March 12, 2008 11:53:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Z:

I think that Nash's individual perimeter defense is below average for a pg; that is why the Suns try to avoid having him matched up with certain pgs. If his defense in those situations was good then they would not be crossmatching.

I think that the rules prohibiting hand checking on the perimeter have greatly helped Nash. Being able to hand check would not make Nash's defense that much better because he is not powerfully built like Billups or other guards who could really use hand checking as a weapon. Meanwhile, the fact that defenders can not lay a hand on Nash gives him great freedom of movement and limits the wear and tear that he receives compared to predecessors like Mark Price and Kevin Johnson.

Nash definitely won his MVPs despite his defense, not because of it. I did some earlier posts in which I pointed out that his numbers are not that much different from what Stockton did for a solid decade or even the numbers that Price put up in his two best seasons--and Stockton was a much, much better defender than Nash. Those guys never even sniffed MVP awards. For some reason, the standards switched and the voters decided to honor a small point guard.

 

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