Sloppy Suns Fall Apart in the Clutch, are Eliminated by the SpursEither team could have won game five of the San Antonio-Phoenix series--and, as usually happens when these teams play a close game, San Antonio made just enough plays to win while the Suns squandered several opportunities. Neither team shot well from the field but when the Spurs needed to score they either made a shot or drew a foul and then sank the free throws. Tony Parker once again led the way for the Spurs with a game-high 31 points and eight assists. Tim Duncan added 29 points and a game-high 17 rebounds. No other Spur scored more than eight points; Manu Ginobili shot just 2-11 from the field, finishing with eight points, three rebounds and no assists. The Suns found one matchup that really worked in their favor: Boris Diaw setting up shop on the low block and going to work against various defenders, including Ginobili, Parker, Michael Finley and Robert Horry. Diaw finished with 22 points on 11-17 shooting from the field, plus eight rebounds and eight assists. Supposedly this threw Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire out of rhythm but no one had a satisfactory explanation for how a player taking advantage of mismatches hurts the team. Meanwhile, Nash shot 4-16 from the field, committed five turnovers and had just 11 points and three assists. Stoudemire had 15 points and 11 rebounds. Shaquille O'Neal, whose next nickname will probably be the "Big Scapegoat" after this series, had 13 points and nine rebounds but shot just 2-8 from the field and 9-20 from the free throw line. Critics are sure to say that his free throw shooting cost the Suns the game while ignoring Nash's three fourth quarter turnovers (plus some miscues that were officially charged as turnovers to other players) and the fact that Parker completely dominated the point guard matchup in this game and in this series. O'Neal averaged 15.2 ppg, 9.2 rpg and 2.6 bpg in the series, which is about all one can reasonably expect from him at this point--and that should have been enough paint presence for the Suns to beat the Spurs but the Suns simply could not overcome their terrible late game execution and the decisive fashion in which Parker outplayed Nash. As TNT's Doug Collins said of the Suns, "Game one and game five, critical mistakes down the stretch: they didn't handle their business."
This game and this series provide enough fodder for a book, so bear with this post because it is going to delve deeply into several different subplots (you can go to the big budget sites for the quick, superficial and incorrect analysis). Let's start with the "Hack a Shaq" strategy:
"Hack a Shaq": Brilliant coaching move or overrated strategy?
Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich resorted to the "Hack a Shaq" strategy on several occasions during this game and he even did the "Hack a (Brian) Skinner" a couple times. For those who don't know what this means, it refers to an intentional foul away from the ball. This can only be done prior to the last two minutes of the game, because after that point the fouled team can select any player on the court to shoot one free throw and then retain possession of the ball. The theory behind this maneuver is that the fouling team will gain an advantage after poor free throw shooters like O'Neal or Skinner miss one or both free throws; as I have explained several times, there are some problems with that theory:
1) An NBA possession is worth approximately one point; so if the "hacked" player makes half of his free throws then the fouling team is not gaining any mathematical advantage.
2) Fouling results in a dead ball situation that enables the fouled team to set up a half court defense. The fouling team is supposedly disrupting the other team's offensive rhythm but in reality they are most likely giving up a free point while ensuring that they will not have any fast breaks or easy scoring opportunities of their own.
3) The "Hack a Shaq" strategy did not work in the 2000 playoffs when Portland and Indiana tried it, nor did it work when Dallas Coach Don Nelson tried it against the Chicago Bulls in 1997 and Dennis Rodman responded by shooting 9-12 from the free throw line. That is why the NBA has never legislated against this strategy other than not allowing it in the last two minutes; it does not work and it has been proven to not work so the league office is not worried that it will become widely used.
Gregg Popovich and Don Nelson are very smart coaches but I have no idea why they believe in the "Hack a Shaq." The Clippers' Mike Dunleavy is another good coach who believes in this tactic and he defended the approach when I asked him about it more than two years ago. I respect all three of these coaches for their knowledge of the game but I think that they are wrong about the "Hack a Shaq."
Let's look at how the "Hack a Shaq" played out in game five. Popovich first did it with 2:56 remaining in the first quarter and the Spurs leading 21-17. Collins explained that while some coaches try the "Hack a Shaq" when they are trailing (in order to stop the clock and lengthen the game), Popovich thinks that the strategy works even better when the fouling team is ahead. O'Neal split his pair of free throws. On the next possession, O'Neal blocked Duncan's shot but Duncan gathered the ball and scored. The Spurs hacked Shaq and he again split his pair of free throws. On the next possession, Parker tripped over O'Neal, who was called for his second foul. Parker made two free throws and Suns Coach Mike D'Antoni sat O'Neal down because of his foul trouble (D'Antoni has stated that he will not pull O'Neal to avoid the "Hack a Shaq," a wise choice because benching O'Neal late in game one hurt the Suns defensively and played a role in costing them that very important game). Parker made both of his free throws and then the Spurs hacked Skinner, O'Neal's replacement. Skinner made one of two free throws and then Parker scored on a drive, something that he was not so easily able to do with O'Neal patrolling the paint. The Spurs hacked Skinner again and this time he made both free throws. Horry made a three pointer but the Suns scored twice while the Spurs missed their last three shots of the quarter. The Spurs led 30-26 after the first quarter, so all that hacking did not gain them a single point on the scoreboard; the Suns shot 5-8 on the resulting free throws but they made just 39% of their field goals in the first quarter. Do the math and you will see that the Suns scored five points on four possessions while being "hacked" but if the Spurs had just played straight up and continued to hold them to 39% field goal shooting the Suns would have only scored three points on those possessions (39% x four possessions= 1.56 made field goals x 2 points per shot= 3.12 points). Maybe Popovich is doing this for some kind of psychological effect, because the raw numbers show that the "Hack a Shaq" is not effective.
With 4:09 remaining in the second quarter and the score tied at 43, Popovich went back to the "Hack a Shaq." This time O'Neal missed both free throws, which obviously makes the strategy look good. The Spurs answered with a jumper to take a two point lead. Here is where the psychological aspect may come into play: Raja Bell rushed up court and turned the ball over before the Spurs had a chance to foul O'Neal (if you watch closely you can see the Spur closest to O'Neal doing the universal "I didn't touch him" gesture once he sees the ball heading out of bounds). If the Suns would have kept their cool they probably would have gotten one point out of that possession just by letting the Spurs foul O'Neal. Why panic when the other team is giving you a chance to score free points? The Spurs did not capitalize on Bell's gift and the next time the Suns had the ball they fouled O'Neal but not as part of the "Hack a Shaq"; O'Neal had the ball in the paint and was going up for a shot, a situation where it definitely makes sense to foul him to prevent an easy two points. O'Neal missed both of those free throws. Then the Suns went through a stretch where they got stops but could not get the defensive rebounds. A Kurt Thomas tip in put the Spurs up 47-43 and the Spurs once again hacked Shaq, who split a pair of free throws. Parker missed a jumper, the Spurs hacked Shaq and he again made one out of two free throws. This business had been going on for almost three minutes and even with O'Neal shooting worse than his average (2-8, including his 0-2 on non-"Hack a Shaq" free throws) the Spurs had gained just two points to lead 47-45. Then, D'Antoni took O'Neal out for the last 1:20 and the Spurs closed the half on a 7-0 run. If you are looking for where the game was lost please don't buy the idea that "Hack a Shaq" won the game for the Spurs; look no further than the decision to take O'Neal out right before halftime plus Nash's turnover meltdown at the end of the second half (which we will examine more closely soon). Parker scored five of those crucial seven points, four of them on a pair of driving layups and one of them after splitting a pair of free throws that resulted from a strong drive to the hoop. The Suns' defense was not perfect when O'Neal was in the game but it certainly did not improve when he left; at least when O'Neal was in the game he discouraged some of the dribble penetration and he forced Duncan to shoot jumpers for the most part (Duncan made just six of his 15 field goal attempts in the first half, with a lot of his shots coming from outside of the paint).
Popovich revisited the "Hack a Shaq" with just 4:56 left in the game and the Spurs leading 79-76--and this time the strategy almost cost San Antonio the game. O'Neal made both of his free throws, ending a 6-0 Spurs run. Parker missed a jumper, the Spurs hacked Shaq and he split a pair of free throws to tie the score. The Suns had now gone more than three minutes without making a field goal yet they were able to tie the score because Popovich essentially gave them three free points with the clock stopped. The Suns played good defense on the next possession but Duncan bailed out the Spurs with an off balance running jumper that just beat the shot clock. The Spurs did not hack Shaq this time but ended up fouling him anyway to prevent an easy shot; O'Neal split the free throws to pull the Suns to within 81-80. The Spurs failed to score and then the Suns took the lead when Nash--who was largely invisible for most of the game--drilled a jumper. Then things got strange. Diaw fouled Kurt Thomas and Popovich subbed in Horry for Duncan; it became evident that Horry was in the game merely to foul O'Neal and that Duncan would then check back in after Horry delivered the foul. So D'Antoni responded by taking O'Neal out of the game. Then Popovich tried to sub Duncan back in for defensive purposes but by rule once a player checks out he cannot come back in until time has run off of the clock. The two coaches and the referees talked for a bit but Duncan and O'Neal both had to stay out of the game. Thomas made his free throws, Nash missed a jumper and Parker made a jumper to put the Spurs up 85-82. Nash answered with a three pointer to tie the score. Stoudemire blocked Parker's jumper but Nash lost the ball and then fouled Parker, who split a pair of free throws. Now O'Neal and Duncan both returned to action. The net result of this round of "Hack a Shaq" is that the Spurs lost two points on the scoreboard and ended up playing a few possessions without Duncan, their best player. Thanks to Nash's turnover and foul, the Spurs still had a one point lead but if the Suns had executed just a little better they not only would have gained ground during the "Hack a Shaq" period but they would have taken and kept the lead. We'll look at what happened in the last 1:25 a little later.
Manu Ginobili is not an MVP-level player and he is not as good as Kobe Bryant
Some of the stat "gurus" love to crunch numbers and then declare that Manu Ginobili is an MVP-level player who is on par with Kobe Bryant. I love Ginobili's game. He is one of my favorite players to watch. He has fantastic skills and a huge heart. That said, he is not on the same level as Kobe Bryant; nobody is designing their whole defense around stopping Ginobili the way that every team focuses on containing Bryant. Ginobili scored eight points on 2-11 field goal shooting in game five and he did not have an assist in 27 minutes of action.
The stat "gurus" need to answer two questions: (1) When is the last time Bryant had eight points in a playoff game? (2) Does Bryant have enough talent around him for his team to win a playoff game if he plays that badly? In case you are wondering, the answer to the first question is June 16, 2000 in the NBA Finals; Bryant's Lakers lost to the Indiana Pacers in that game five before clinching their first championship in game six (when Bryant had 26 points, 10 rebounds and four assists). Bryant sprained his ankle in game two of that series, sat out the Lakers' game three loss, saved the Lakers with his great play in a game four overtime win after Shaquille O'Neal fouled out and then had the subpar game five before bouncing back in game six.
If Bryant put up a stat line like the one that Ginobili did on Tuesday can you imagine how much criticism he would receive? No assists? 2-11 shooting? Ginobili's line will be overlooked because his team won anyway and because he is not truly an MVP-level player so he is not expected to have MVP-level numbers on a nightly basis; in contrast, if Duncan--who is an MVP-level player--comes up with a 2-11 night then the Spurs are in big trouble unless he also has about 20 rebounds and six blocked shots.
The line for returning undeserved MVPs begins right behind David "Mr. 1995 MVP" Robinson
David Robinson is a fine gentleman and a great NBA player but he was not really the most valuable player in the NBA in 1995 even though he has a 1995 MVP trophy with his name on it. After Robinson received that trophy, Hakeem Olajuwon undressed him about a million times in the ensuing playoff game before demolishing him throughout the entire series. Olajuwon and his teammate Clyde Drexler had a nice chuckle about that at the post-game podium when someone asked if Olajuwon should have won the MVP that year. Kobe Bryant dropped 50 points on Nash's Suns in game six of the first round of the 2006 NBA playoffs but Bryant could not really have an Olajuwon moment at that time because he did not have a Drexler-like sidekick or any kind of real team around him; as he puts it, he was going into gun battles with "butter knives." However, every year in the playoffs we are getting the slow, drawn out version of the Olajuwon moment as we find out that Nash is not the best player in the league, that he cannot take over playoff games down the stretch against top teams--let alone an entire playoff series--and that even though he a gentleman and a fine player, just like Robinson, he should not be on the roll call of NBA MVPs.
I don't know if Tony Parker will eventually be a Hall of Famer or not but if he makes it they probably will be playing highlights from this series at his induction ceremony. He only scored 30 or more points in a game four times during the regular season but he had three 30 point games in this series alone; Parker averaged 29.6 ppg in the series while shooting .523 from the field. He completely outplayed two-time MVP Nash. Doug Collins said at one point, "Tony Parker has such confidence against Steve Nash." Parker's confidence in this situation is not like the false bravado displayed by Gilbert Arenas or Carmelo Anthony before their teams annually lose in the first round; Parker is confident because he knows that he can go by Nash at will and there is nothing that Nash can do about it. Name another two-time MVP about which that could be said while he was at or near the top of his game.
We cannot even exactly call this an Olajuwon moment because Parker is not the best point guard in the NBA, let alone an MVP candidate. I realize that the Olajuwon analogy does not work 100% because Nash is most likely not going to win the MVP this year but the fact is that his statistics this season are basically the same ones that he put up when he won his MVPs. He's the same player now that he was then--and just like he is not the MVP this year he should not have been the MVP in 2005 or 2006 either.
Let's look at what happened in the last 1:25 of the game after O'Neal and Duncan returned to action. The Spurs led 86-85 and the Suns had the ball. Nash drove to the hoop but made a bad pass to Stoudemire that Parker stole. Duncan missed a jumper and the Suns went to Diaw in the post. Note that with the game on the line their best matchup does not involve using their two-time MVP but focuses on a guy who might not even have been in the game if Grant Hill were healthy. Diaw backed down into the lane but instead of shooting he inexplicably jumped in the air and threw a pass to no one in particular that sailed out of bounds. Parker made a jumper to put the Spurs up 88-85. The Suns again went to Diaw in the post and this time he scored. Ginobili left the door open by splitting a pair of free throws but on the ensuing possession Nash fumbled Raja Bell's inbounds pass out of bounds. On the play by play sheet, Bell was officially assigned the turnover but Nash had both hands on the ball before he lost control of it. Ginobili then iced the game with two free throws and Duncan wrapped up the scoring by splitting a pair of free throws after the Suns missed some desperation three pointers.
Parker and Nash did not always go head to head but that is mainly because Nash cannot guard Parker. In the last 2:13 of the game, Parker scored five points and stole the ball from Nash once; Nash made a three pointer but he committed two turnovers, lost the ball a third time (after Bell's pass) and was not his team's primary go-to option in an elimination game.
One thing Nash deserves credit for is that he is a stand up guy who does not avoid the microphones after losses. He answers questions and accepts the blame for defeat. Here is what he said after game five: "I think on paper we have more talent than they do but I think their experience and their commitment and understanding of what they are trying to do is greater than ours." Nash is right on both counts: on paper the Suns have a more talented team than the Spurs do but the Spurs are more poised and focused during critical late game situations. Nash took the blame for the Suns' late game miscues: "We should have probably calmed down a little bit. I'll take responsibility for that. I know I made a couple key turnovers that cost us."
This should have been an epic six or seven game series. Game one showed that these teams are pretty evenly matched and we saw that again in game five. The problem is that the Suns went into a funk after their mental breakdowns cost them the first game and that funk resulted in them falling down 3-0 before they really started playing up to their capabilities for extended stretches. Can you imagine the Spurs falling apart that way if they had lost game one?
It will be very interesting to see what the future holds for D'Antoni, O'Neal, Nash and the Suns franchise as a whole. I agree with Collins that this series was a very significant moment in Suns' history.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:18 AM