Duncan's Dominance, Ginobili's Clutch Shot Carry Spurs to VictoryESPN Classic should be showing the Spurs-Suns game on 24 hour rotation for about the next week. If those teams can serve up six more games that are even half as exciting as that one then basketball fans are in for a real treat. In case you missed it--and shame on you if you did--San Antonio beat Phoenix 117-115 in double overtime. Tim Duncan strengthened his case for being considered not only the greatest power forward of all-time but also the dominant NBA player of the post-Michael Jordan era. He finished with 40 points and 15 rebounds, the fourth time he has had a 40-15 game in his playoff career; he is tied for fifth-seventh (with Hakeem Olajuwon and Bob Pettit) on the all-time list. Naturally, Wilt Chamberlain (13) is the leader, followed by Elgin Baylor (9), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (8) and Shaquille O'Neal (7). Duncan also had five assists; he, Chamberlain and Baylor are the only players in NBA history who have had multiple 40-15-5 games in the playoffs. Included in Duncan's point total is an extremely rare occurrence: a made three pointer--and this was not just an end of the quarter heave; Duncan drained a coldblooded trey to enable the Spurs to survive the first overtime.
After the first 19 minutes or so no one would have guessed that the game was headed for extra sessions, let alone that the Spurs would eventually win; Phoenix built a 43-27 lead even though Shaquille O'Neal was stuck on the bench due to foul trouble and Duncan was well on his way to having a huge night. Duncan scored 20 points on 7-9 field goal shooting in the first half but the other Spurs shot just 7-28 from the field. In the second half and the two overtimes, Duncan continued to be effective and the two other key Spurs--Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker--asserted themselves as well. Parker finished with 26 points and five turnovers, while Ginobili added 24 points, five assists, four rebounds, three steals and the game winning drive to the hoop.
It is easy to compare Duncan's numbers to O'Neal's (11 points, five rebounds, four blocked shots) and conclude that the O'Neal trade did not fulfill its primary objective, at least in this playoff game. However, the truth is that Duncan did a lot of his damage against Amare Stoudemire and that even when O'Neal was on the court there were times that he played tentatively on defense because he was trying to avoid fouling out. When O'Neal picked up his fifth foul at the 6:14 mark of the fourth quarter the Suns led 82-77; O'Neal made it the rest of the way without being disqualified but he was less aggressive than usual when he challenged players who were driving to the hoop. One could make the case that O'Neal will spend this whole series in foul trouble and therefore not be effective but I don't believe that; it is true that he is more foul prone now that he is older and not as mobile as he used to be but he proved during two regular season wins versus the Spurs that he could effectively play against Duncan without getting in foul trouble.
In the second half we got some glimpses of some of the things that the Suns can do with O'Neal that they could never have even dreamed of doing without him. As I expected, the Suns opened the second half with a steady diet of feeding the ball to O'Neal in the post, a strategy that leads to high percentage shots and could potentially get the Spurs in foul trouble. Paraphrasing what Jeff Van Gundy said during that stretch, the value of having a post up game is that it stabilizes momentum during a game when a team can get an easy, high percentage shot and not have to rely on shooting jumpers.
This game was loaded with plays that seemed huge at the time but were then surpassed by subsequent plays. For instance, with 6:28 left in the fourth quarter O'Neal completed a three point play to put the Suns up 82-76. However, O'Neal never had the opportunity to further assert his dominance in the post for two reasons: (1) he soon picked up his fifth foul, which limited his aggressiveness at both ends of the court; (2) Spurs' Coach Gregg Popovich reacted to the Suns' success in posting up O'Neal by employing the "Hack a Shaq" strategy--intentionally fouling O'Neal away from the ball, ensuring that each Phoenix offensive possession would result in two O'Neal free throws (this can only be done prior to the two minute mark, after which time if a team fouls a player away from the ball then the offended team can choose any player to shoot one free throw and they retain possession of the ball). I have always been skeptical of the value of the "Hack a Shaq" strategy because each possession is generally considered to be worth a point. That means that if O'Neal makes one of two free throws then the opponents are not gaining anything. Furthermore, the stoppage of play enables O'Neal's team to set up a good half court defense. Normally, Popovich does not employ this gimmick but after the game he said that he went with a hunch. After O'Neal missed both free throws the first time that he was fouled Phoenix Coach Mike D'Antoni took O'Neal out of the game, which I think was a mistake; if the Spurs want to slow the game down and get in the bonus early (increasing the likelihood that the Suns' excellent free throw shooters will also get some attempts) then I would let them do it if I were the opposing coach. More to the point, I would not let the other coach dictate to me how I deploy my personnel; without O'Neal in the game the Suns not only lost their post presence on offense but also the anchor of their defense in the paint. The Suns led 82-79 when D'Antoni benched O'Neal and they trailed 88-86 when D'Antoni put him back in the game.
With O'Neal back in the paint for the closing couple minutes, the Suns took a 93-90 lead. They got a stop and had possession of the ball with :44 left. One more score would have all but clinched the game. Instead, Steve Nash dribbled around but never created a good shot for himself or a teammate, resulting in a shot clock violation. Then the Suns had a defensive breakdown, enabling Michael Finley to hit the tying three pointer. Even after that, the Suns had the ball with 15 seconds remaining but they did not get a shot off until Leandro Barbosa made an off balance fling with one second left. Steve Nash's numbers the past few seasons are wonderful but MVPs and legends are supposed to be made in these kind of moments; he runs the show and he simply has to make sure that his team at least gets off a good shot during those two crucial possessions. In the first overtime the Suns twice took five point leads but again they were unable to seal the deal, leaving Duncan wide open for the tying three pointer near the end of the extra session. The Suns never led in the second overtime and after Nash hit a three pointer to tie the score at 115 the Spurs wisely eschewed calling a timeout, preventing the Suns from bringing O'Neal back in to protect the paint; that enabled Ginobili to get all the way to the rim to score the game-winning layup. At the end of the fourth quarter, O'Neal was on the court in a similar situation and he blocked Ginobili's shot, leading to a transition opportunity that resulted in a Barbosa layup and that 93-90 Phoenix lead that the Suns were not able to maintain.
It is certainly incumbent on O'Neal to try to avoid foul trouble in the remaining games but the reality is that the Suns blew several golden opportunities to win this game. Particularly glaring, in my opinion, are D'Antoni's decision to immediately bench O'Neal in response to the "Hack a Shaq," the shot clock violation at the end of regulation and the defensive breakdowns that led to open shots for the Spurs at the end of regulation, the first overtime and the second overtime. O'Neal is no longer going to regularly put up 30 points and 15 rebounds; he is in a good role now as the third or fourth most important player on the Suns but the inside presence that he provides should be just enough for the Suns to get past the Spurs, provided that the Suns have the mental toughness and awareness that is necessary to close out playoff games. After the game, Popovich said that he was most proud of his team's mental toughness, prompting ESPN analyst Jalen Rose to observe that not only is this trait a San Antonio strength but it is also a Phoenix weakness. That deficit, more than other factors that Suns' backers like to use as excuses, explains why the Suns have yet to win a title--and if the Suns lose to the Spurs again this year it will be a primary factor, particularly since O'Neal has shored up the team's main technical weakness (lack of paint presence).
It is important to remember that each playoff game is a separate entity and that despite O'Neal's foul trouble and Duncan's epic performance the Suns still had several chances to win. Over the next couple weeks we will find out if this is a good sign for Phoenix or simply an indication that the Spurs will continue to win most of the close games in this matchup because of their superior mental toughness and focus.
posted by David Friedman @ 8:43 AM