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Monday, April 07, 2008

The Score, the Key Stat, the Bottom Line: Sunday's Tripleheader

Sunday featured an NBA tripleheader: two ABC games with playoff implications for all four teams followed by an NBA TV nightcap between the Denver Nuggets and Seattle Supersonics. New Orleans moved one step closer to clinching the top seed in the West by beating Golden State, Dallas moved one step closer to securing a playoff berth by beating Phoenix and Denver moved one step closer to missing the playoffs altogether by losing to Seattle in a double overtime thriller.

The Score: New Orleans 108, Golden State 96

The Key Stat: David West and Peja Stojakovic each scored 25 points, Chris Paul notched his fourth career triple double (16 points, 13 assists, 10 rebounds) and Golden State shot 3-29 (.103) from three point range.

The Bottom Line: Will somebody please pull the plug on the "Stephen Jackson should have been an All-Star/is the best player on the Warriors" campaign? Baron Davis leads the Warriors in scoring (21.9 ppg) and assists (7.6 apg). Monta Ellis is averaging 20.1 ppg on .533 field goal shooting this season and in the last four games (including this loss) he increased those numbers to 23.8 ppg and .575. Meanwhile, with the Warriors' playoff hopes in serious jeopardy, Jackson--who has the same scoring average as Ellis but the worst field goal percentage (.406) of any player in the Warriors' main rotation--scored six points on 3-11 shooting from the field (including 0-6 from three point range), grabbed one rebound, passed for eight assists and committed five turnovers. If that line sounds familiar perhaps it is because in his previous three games he shot 6-13, 1-11 and 2-12 from the field. The Warriors have dropped three of their last four games in no small part due to Jackson's 12-47 (.255) bricklaying. After the New Orleans game, Jackson sagely observed, "We just have to shoot better. We shoot better and we win. It's that simple." You think?

I realize that the Warriors will be living off of last year's first round upset of Dallas for at least another 10 years but it will be interesting to see how many more playoff series the Warriors win in the next decade. With the arrival of Jason Kidd in Dallas, Coach Avery Johnson is finally loosening the reins and letting his team run a little and several other squads seem to have figured out that there is no reason to be scared to run against the Warriors. The element of surprise is gone and I would not hold my breath waiting for the Warriors to win a playoff series any time soon.

The Score: Dallas 105, Phoenix 98

The Key Stat: After a Shaquille O'Neal basket gave Phoenix a 91-78 lead early in the fourth quarter, the Mavericks outscored the Suns 27-7 to close out the game. Dirk Nowitzki scored 12 of Dallas' points during that stretch. With the outcome hanging in the balance, Nowitzki scored seven of Dallas' nine points from the 3:22 mark to the :27 mark of the fourth quarter. Nowitzki finished with 32 points and 12 rebounds.

The Bottom Line: Dirk Nowitzki gets a bad rap in some quarters for allegedly being soft and for not doing enough to help his team win in the 2006 NBA Finals or the first round of the 2007 NBA playoffs. The reality is that he has produced big time in clutch situations on many occasions, including a 37 point, 15 rebound outburst in game seven of the 2006 Western Conference semifinals as the Mavs eliminated the defending champion Spurs. Now he has not only come back quickly from a painful lower leg injury but he has performed magnificently, averaging 25.7 ppg on .526 field goal shooting as Dallas won two out of three games to move up to seventh place in the West.

This loss makes it much more difficult for the Suns to catch the Lakers and win the Pacific Division but it is still safe to say that they have worked out most of the kinks in terms of integrating Shaquille O'Neal into their offensive and defensive schemes; since the much publicized rough transition right after acquiring O'Neal, the Suns have gone 11-4. The Mavs simply needed this game more desperately or, as Steve Nash put it after the game, "We were feeling good about everything, everything was going our way and their backs were against the wall, not only in this game but in the season. We played like two teams in different psychological places."

Even in this defeat the Suns showcased some of the reasons that they will be a very tough out in the playoffs. For instance, early in the game Mavs point guard Jason Terry drove to the hoop only to receive a hard (but clean) foul from O'Neal. ABC's Mark Jackson explained, "There is a price to be paid now when you penetrate against the Phoenix Suns." Previously, teams could venture into the paint at will against Phoenix, much like you still can against Golden State and Denver. This is an example of something that basketball's "sabermetricians" cannot measure but that definitely changes the dynamics of a team.

Another positive for the Suns is that swapping Shawn Marion for O'Neal has turned Amare Stoudemire loose as a big-time scorer. O'Neal spoke of the "Amare Stoudemire Project"--his plan to turn Stoudemire into the best power forward in the league--but what is happening here is a multi-factor process. O'Neal is content to receive fewer touches and scoring opportunities than Marion did (an adjustment that O'Neal refused to make as a Laker but learned to accept during his time in Miami); essentially what has happened is that Stoudemire is getting those extra touches and picking up the slack from the difference between Marion's scoring average as a Sun and O'Neal's scoring average. Also, O'Neal's arrival straightens the Suns out from a position standpoint. He is a true center, which means that Stoudemire now can play power forward. Previously, Stoudemire was an undersized center and Marion was an undersized power forward--and people wondered why Phoenix was a terrible rebounding team that got pounded every year in the playoffs by bigger, stronger teams!

There were a couple interesting sequences from this game that are worth mentioning. After the Suns successfully ran a screen/roll play with Steve Nash and Stoudemire, Mark Jackson said, "Give Steve Nash a lot of credit but you're only as good as the scorer (who receives the pass)...You have to put yourself in a position where you can be a threat rolling to the hoop." This is a very significant point that should be obvious but is too often overlooked: there is a lot of talk about how Nash makes his teammates better and it is certainly true that his vision, ballhandling and passing create scoring opportunities--but if he did not have teammates who know how to roll to the hoop and who are capable of catching passes and completing plays then all of his wonderful passes would go to waste. Pistol Pete Maravich suffered through that while playing for the expansion New Orleans Jazz; we've also seen a vivid example of both sides of this issue with this season's Lakers: Kobe Bryant's apg average went up as soon as the team acquired Pau Gasol because now Bryant was passing to a legit NBA big man instead of Kwame Brown. This goes back to something that I've been saying for several years now: if Bryant and Nash had switched places the past three years, the Suns would have been at least as good and most likely would have been better due to his superior ability to score and defend; given the opportunity to pass to players like Stoudemire and Marion, Bryant would have shot less often, made a better percentage of his shots and increased his assists--exactly what he has already demonstrated in just 22 games playing alongside Pau Gasol. Meanwhile, Nash's passes would have bounced off of Kwame Brown's hands just like Bryant's did, only Nash would not be able to simply say, "Forget this mess" and go out and score 50-60 points to carry the team to victory. After seeing what Bryant has done with Gasol in a fourth of a season with no training camp can anyone still seriously believe that a Bryant-Stoudemire-Marion nucleus would not have even been more formidable than the Nash-Stoudemire-Marion trio was?

Of course, that prospect will forever reside in a hypothetical realm; the reality is that Nash now has a complete team around him: a legit center, a stud power forward, a healthy small forward who used to be a perennial All-Star and who still seems to have some mileage left and a good supporting cast of role players who have plenty of postseason experience. The Suns can still hit teams with a fast break attack but now in the half court set they can run postups for O'Neal or screen/roll plays with Nash featuring either O'Neal or Stoudemire. Instead of being outrebounded the Suns are now outrebounding their opponents and their interior defense is better, though certain point guard matchups will still pose problems for Nash and necessitate that he is hidden in some way (or at least provided some extra help).

During the third quarter, ABC's Jeff Van Gundy talked about how difficult it is to defend Phoenix' screen/roll play now and he criticized how the Mavericks were attempting to do so. Van Gundy said that the first priority for the defense when Stoudemire and Nash run the screen/roll must be to prevent Stoudemire from dunking. That means that the man guarding O'Neal must slide over to protect the hoop and the forward watching Grant Hill on the baseline must sag in to put a body on O'Neal and prevent him from receiving a pass. If Hill catches the skip pass and buries a three pointer then--as Van Gundy put it--you shake the Suns' hands and move on but you cannot just let Stoudemire repeatedly dunk the ball. Van Gundy added that O'Neal's presence is a major complicating factor for the opposing defense because now that team's center does not want to leave O'Neal in order to provide help.

O'Neal is not the dominant scorer that he used to be but as a Sun he has proven that he can put up double doubles while playing 30-plus mpg and shooting .550-.600 from the field. He is playing harder than he has at any time since he helped Miami to win the 2006 NBA Championship. Considering the amount of talent that Phoenix has, that level of production is all that the Suns need from O'Neal. I wonder how many teams could now beat the Suns four times in a seven game series; that number is certainly smaller than it was in recent years when the Suns lacked the paint presence that O'Neal provides.

The Score: Seattle 151, Denver 147, 2OT

The Key Stat: Seattle rookies Kevin Durant (37 points) and Jeff Green (35 points) each established new career highs in scoring. Durant also had eight rebounds, three steals and a career-high nine assists. All eight Nuggets who played scored in double figures, three Nuggets had at least 22 points and Carmelo Anthony scored 38 points on 17-31 field goal shooting--but Denver's defense could not maintain a five point lead with :32 left in the first overtime against the worst team in the West, a squad that the Nuggets had beaten three times by an average of 37 points in their previous games this season.

The Bottom Line: Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis likes to say that the same thing that will make you laugh will make you cry. The Nuggets thought that it was pretty amusing to hang 168 points on the Sonics about three weeks ago and to keep firing up three pointers well after the outcome was no longer in doubt--but high scoring games suddenly are not quite so funny when one of the league's doormats rises up and deals a serious blow to your playoff aspirations. No one likes being embarrassed and even the worst NBA teams have some talented players, so on Sunday the Nuggets faced a Seattle team that was determined to avenge previous losses and play a spoiler role regarding Denver's playoff hopes.

Denver and Golden State will both finish with good records but only one of them will make the playoffs and, quite frankly, with their "shoot first and don't play defense later" mentalities neither team is making a strong case that it really deserves to join the postseason party (I fully realize that there are a few teams in the East that one could also say don't deserve playoff berths but that is a story for another day).

As for Seattle, this was a coming out party of sorts for Durant and Green. The light actually seemed to go on for Durant about a month ago in terms of shot selection, shooting percentage and just poise in general. Green has been a solid player for most of the season but in this game he made nice plays throughout the contest instead of making a play here or there and then disappearing. Durant is demonstrating improvements in all aspects of his game, though his lack of strength still hinders him at times on the glass and when he drives into the paint. Seattle has not been in a lot of close games this year but it is a good sign that when the Sonics have been in those situations that Durant has been willing and able to make big shots. Against Denver he hit a late three pointer to send the game to overtime and another late three pointer to force double overtime. Ironically, on a percentage basis he is not a great three point shooter and he had missed both of his earlier three point attempts; prior to his late game heroics I thought that one of the best things he did against Denver was move his game inside the three point line and focus on his midrange game. With his height and length he can get off a jump shot pretty much whenever he wants so he needs to be sure that he shoots when and where he wants to and does not drift out of his high percentage areas or attempt off balance shots.

Nothing will alter my opinion that last summer was way too early to start calling Durant a "sensation" but if he puts on some weight this offseason and continues to improve then he can make strides toward turning the hype into reality.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:59 AM

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At Monday, April 07, 2008 10:53:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dirk basically equalled Amare's offense on one leg and grabbed more rebounds. He's better on D too.
I think a lot of people are underestimating Dallas. I think that they are the team most capable of dethroning the Spurs, Harris or no Harris.
Say what you will about Duncan being a better post player, or Kobe being a more complete player, but there are far fewer teams that have the personnel to handle Dirk.
Sure he's not as good defensively, but he is not the sieve that Amare is. The Spurs/Lakers would probably be better off aiming to face the Suns than against Dallas.
Actually, they'd be better off at the 4th seed, against Houston.
It's also interesting to note that D'Antoni is still not using his bench, and will not have the opportunity to give his starters an extended rest before the playoffs.

Z

 
At Monday, April 07, 2008 6:14:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Z:

You make some interesting points but I disagree with you about the Lakers matching up better with the Suns than the Mavs. The Lakers have done well against Dallas in recent seasons, even when Kobe was playing alongside Kwame and Smush. Kobe regularly puts up big numbers against Dallas. I agree that some people are underestimating Dallas but I think that people are also underestimating Phx. The Suns are just hitting their stride now with Shaq and they will be a better playoff team than they have been in recent seasons. That said, the West is tougher and deeper than it has been so the Suns still may not make it to the NBA Finals.

 

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