Suns Shoot Down RocketsThe Suns literally shot down the Rockets on Saturday night, connecting on 76% of their first half field goal attempts as they built a 74-57 halftime lead and cruised to a 122-113 win. Amare Stoudemire had 38 points, 13 rebounds and four blocked shots. He set a franchise single-game record for free throws made without a miss (20), tying Richard Hamilton for the second best such performance in NBA history (Dominique Wilkins holds the NBA record--23). Shaquille O'Neal had his highest scoring output as a Sun--23 points--and he also had 13 rebounds. O'Neal shot 8-10 from the field and 7-9 from the free throw line in just under 36 minutes. Steve Nash had a relatively quiet game (15 points, five assists, four rebounds), but he made some timely baskets to stymie Houston runs. Tracy McGrady led Houston in scoring (30 points), rebounds (eight) and assists (nine) and he tied for the team lead in blocked shots (one).
The Rockets were playing their fourth game in five nights and each of those games were against quality teams. This is what is known in NBA circles as a "scheduling loss"--a tough game at the end of a brutal road trip. Nevertheless, we still learned some useful things about both teams. The Suns are a load to handle now. They own the longest current winning streak in the NBA (seven games) and they have the fifth best record in the NBA. The team that some "experts" said might not make the playoffs in the wake of the Shaquille O'Neal trade only trails the Lakers by one game for the top spot in the Western Conference. Most significantly, the Suns have recently beaten several teams that have winning records, including Boston, San Antonio, Golden State and Houston. The "old" Suns used to pad their record against weak teams, do poorly against good teams and then lose in the playoffs. These Suns are capable of beating anybody because O'Neal not only gives them the inside presence that they previously lacked but he enables Stoudemire to play his natural position, power forward. Stoudemire was very good before O'Neal arrived but he is turning into a beast now; O'Neal predicted that this would happen and O'Neal is quite predictably taking credit for this but O'Neal is right in this instance, at least to a certain degree. Stoudemire deserves the credit for rehabilitating his knee injury and for developing his skills--most notably his shooting touch--but O'Neal's presence does indeed free things up for Stoudemire.
The Suns' rebounding differential has improved by nearly 10 rpg since the O'Neal trade, swinging from well in the negative area to significantly in the positive area. When you get outrebounded on a nightly basis, as used to happen to the Suns, that puts tremendous pressure on you to be nearly perfect in all other facets of the game. Another area that O'Neal's presence affects is free throw attempts. He draws fouls that get the opposing team into the bonus situation early in the quarter; of course, that also gets the front court players on the other team in foul trouble. The Suns outrebounded the Rockets 41-35 and they had 40 free throw attempts compared to 27 for Houston; those two advantages enabled the Suns to overcome the fact that they committed 16 turnovers while forcing only five.
The Suns used to just run up and down the court and count on making a lot of three pointers and fast break layups. They had no paint presence offensively or defensively. Now, they can still run when they have the advantage but when they don't then they can set up in the half court and feed the ball to O'Neal. The idea that O'Neal would slow down their fast break was silly; no team runs a five man fast break, so having one player on the court who is not a runner is not a problem, particularly when that player gets defensive rebounds and makes good outlet passes. In the first quarter, the Suns had a very unique fast break the likes of which I don't think I have ever seen before. A defensive rebound bounced out near Nash around the free throw line but he tapped it to O'Neal using a motion like a volleyball player setting someone up for a spike. O'Neal then rifled an outlet pass to Leandro Barbosa, who streaked down court for a layup. I'm not sure if Nash thought that a bigger player was about to take the rebound from him or if he just thought that O'Neal was in a better position to deliver the outlet pass. Nash made another great rebounding play later in the game, deftly tapping an offensive rebound with his left hand to a wide open Boris Diaw for a layup that pushed the Suns' lead back to 89-76. The vision and dexterity that Nash showed on this play were Larry Bird-like--not because they are both white players but because Bird had a knack for making snap, touch passes in which he seemed to barely touch the ball before redirecting it perfectly to an open teammate; I've seen other players do such things occasionally but I've never seen anyone make that particular kind of pass as well or as frequently as Bird did.
In the half court offense, O'Neal occasionally sets a high screen and rolls to the hoop but in general that task is better suited for the more mobile and explosive Stoudemire. For the most part, O'Neal is planting himself on the block and receiving the ball there. The Suns are much more fluid now in terms of what the other four players are doing when O'Neal catches the ball in the post. Instead of standing around, they are cutting through the lane, forcing the defense to react. Sometimes, after multiple players cut through O'Neal is left with a one on one situation where he can make a quick move and score or get fouled. Other times, O'Neal is double-teamed and thus able to make a pass to an open teammate. The one thing that O'Neal used to be able to do that he cannot do anymore is drop step and make a power move resulting in a dunk. He is only dunking now when he can gather himself and no one is contesting his shot. Otherwise, he shoots a jump hook or tries to muscle in a layup off of the glass. He loses the ball more often than he used to but when he maintains control he shoots a high percentage. The other main drawback to O'Neal's game now is that he is a "streak fouler." Some guys are streak shooters--if they make one jumper, the next several are going in as well. When O'Neal gets a little fatigued, particularly in the second half, he picks up fouls in quick bursts. That should not be as big of a problem in the playoffs when there is more time off between games.
The Rockets were clearly fatigued, not only from the four games in five nights but also from the accumulated wear and tear from their remarkable 22 game winning streak. In any case, without the injured Yao Ming they had no way of effectively handling O'Neal inside, particularly after O'Neal drew two early fouls on Dikembe Mutombo. Phoenix jumped out to a 17-7 lead and dominated the first half but the Rockets did not quit, trimming a huge margin to just 93-85 after McGrady fed Bobby Jackson for a three pointer. The Rockets gave forth a good effort but just did not have quite enough energy or inside power to deal with the Suns. Houston is a quality team; they did not win those 22 games with smoke and mirrors and they will be a tough out come playoff time. Their lack of size is evident but in the playoffs they won't have to play four games in five nights, so they will have the necessary energy to play the scrappy defense that characterized their winning streak. It is hard to say how far they will go in the playoffs because it is not certain who they will play in the first round. They don't match up well with Phoenix or San Antonio because they have no one who can guard O'Neal or Tim Duncan. If Pau Gasol and/or Andrew Bynum are healthy then they don't match up well with the Lakers but they probably won't have to face L.A. in the first round anyway. On the other hand, they match up reasonably well with Dallas and Golden State.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:32 AM