The Spurs Can't Push the Suns Around AnymoreRegardless of what the standings say or what certain "experts" declare, the two strongest and most well rounded teams in the West are the San Antonio Spurs and the Phoenix Suns--and on Wednesday the Suns demolished the Spurs 96-79 in San Antonio. This is the Suns' second win in a row versus the Spurs since acquiring Shaquille O'Neal and just their third win in San Antonio in their last 15 tries. Amare Stoudemire finished with 21 points and four rebounds, leading a parade of six Phoenix players who scored in double figures, including Shaquille O'Neal (16 points on 7-9 shooting plus nine rebounds in just 24 minutes), Leandro Barbosa (14 points) and Steve Nash (12 points, 10 assists, five rebounds). Tim Duncan (23 points, 10 rebounds), Tony Parker (20 points, four assists) and Michael Finley (10 points on 4-5 shooting) were the only double figure scorers for the Spurs. Manu Ginobili finished with eight points, four rebounds and four assists, shooting just 3-12 from the field; this is the second time in four games that he shot .250 or worse from the field and did not score 10 points. Overall, Ginobili has failed to reached double figures in eight games this season, not including the game in which he only played two minutes before being sidelined by an injury. The Spurs are 3-5 in those contests. Stat hounds who try to suggest that Ginobili should be an MVP candidate and that he is as good as Kobe Bryant ignore the fact that, as good as Ginobili is, he is an erratic player at times. Bryant has failed to reach double figures in scoring only once this season--the game in which he tore a ligament in the pinkie finger on his shooting hand. Chris Paul has five such games this season and LeBron James does not have any.
The Suns got off to a good start before Stoudemire picked up two quick fouls, forcing him to sit out most of the first quarter; in the first half they outscored the Spurs 39-31 when Stoudemire was in the game but they trailed 14-6 when he was on the bench. Other than Stoudemire's foul trouble, the main problem for Phoenix was trying to contain Tony Parker's dribble penetration. Steve Nash simply cannot guard him, which forces the Suns to either play zone or to cross match, putting a small forward on Parker and having Nash guard Bruce Bowen. Parker had 16 points on 7-10 shooting in the first half.
When Stoudemire and O'Neal were in the game together the Spurs had serious difficulties on defense; O'Neal required constant attention from Fabricio Oberto, leaving Stoudemire free to roam the paint against one on one coverage from Duncan. In the second quarter, Stoudemire hammered home a couple vicious dunks over Duncan. Late in the quarter, O'Neal achieved such great post position against Oberto that Duncan had to double team, enabling Stoudemire to catch a pass in the lane and attack the hoop; Duncan tried to recover to stop him, committing his second foul. That is a great example of how O'Neal's presence helps Stoudemire, causes individual foul trouble for the opposing team and enables the Suns to potentially get in the bonus, providing more free throw shooting opportunities for a team that has several excellent shooters. Stoudemire made both free throws to put the Suns up 40-37 but shortly after that O'Neal picked up his third foul and had to sit out the last 1:57. With O'Neal on the bench, Duncan scored back to back hoops and the Spurs led 45-42 but a last second Raja Bell three pointer tied the score just before halftime.
The Suns opened the third quarter with a strategy that would have been unimaginable for them just a few months ago; they slowed the game down and pounded the ball inside to O'Neal, who scored three times on postup moves against Oberto. The Spurs had no answer for this but, unfortunately for the Suns, O'Neal was relegated to the bench after committing an offensive foul, his fourth foul of the game; as ESPN's Hubie Brown mentioned, all O'Neal needed to do was simply hold his position against the fronting Oberto and then he could have caught a lob pass for an easy score. Instead, O'Neal got a bit impatient and tried to push Oberto out of the way to gain more space. In addition to his low post scoring, O'Neal was also doing an excellent job guarding Duncan; Brown said that with O'Neal on the bench "Stoudemire's got to get going here defensively." It is important to remember that even without O'Neal on the team Stoudemire has shown the ability to score a lot of points against Duncan and the Spurs but he has yet to demonstrate the ability to stop Duncan from scoring nearly as many points while leading the Spurs to victory. Before Stoudemire had much opportunity to guard Duncan this time he committed his fifth foul by setting a moving screen and thus he joined O'Neal on the bench. Stoudemire vociferously complained about this call but Brown correctly said, "He definitely moved. That's an easy call." It is hard to understand why Stoudemire--and Phoenix Coach Mike D'Antoni--complain so much about calls that are obviously correct; referees look at tapes after every game and the Suns lose a lot of credibility by arguing about such calls. This kind of lack of composure cost them dearly in last year's playoff series versus the Spurs.
With O'Neal and Stoudemire out the Spurs took a 66-61 lead before Duncan sat out the last 3:35 of the third quarter. Both teams then briefly played "small ball" and the Suns made an 11-2 run to close out the quarter. O'Neal returned to action at the start of the fourth quarter and he promptly took over the game. He scored over Duncan in the post two times, pushing the Suns' lead to 79-70 and forcing the Spurs to call a timeout and change their defense. The Spurs decided to once again have Oberto front O'Neal, with Duncan providing a double team once O'Neal dribbled the ball. This time, O'Neal was patient; he did not commit an offensive foul and after he caught the pass he simply scored right over both Oberto and Duncan. On the next possession, Duncan committed his fourth foul while trying to guard O'Neal, who split a pair of free throws to make the score 82-73 Phoenix. Meanwhile, at the other end of the court O'Neal did a great job guarding Duncan one on one without any help. As Brown put it, "Shaq has taken Timmy away from the bank shot...Shaq has closed him down and forced him to dribble the ball." While O'Neal dominated, Nash and Stoudemire got some much needed rest and after they returned the Suns put the game out of reach with a 10-0 run.
This type of game is exactly why the Suns swapped Shawn Marion for O'Neal. As Brown pointed out before the game, prior to getting O'Neal the Suns had a -5.6 rebounding margin but since the trade they have a +2.8 rebounding margin; the Suns outrebounded the Spurs 40-36. Many so-called experts criticized the Suns for trading away Marion to acquire O'Neal, lamenting the supposedly impending death of the Suns' beautiful running game and asserting that Phoenix might not even make the playoffs--and I said right from the start that such "analysis" was utter nonsense. In my first post after the deal was made, I wrote, "Adding O'Neal to the mix instantly makes the Suns a bigger, more physical team. He will improve the team's defensive rebounding and provide a solid option in the halfcourt offense when the Suns' running game gets slowed down. The other advantage of adding him to the roster is something that TNT's Kenny Smith talks about sometimes: it enables all of the players to return to their natural positions, most notably returning Stoudemire to his preferred spot at power forward."
In my second post about the trade, I concluded, "...the Suns were not going to win a title without adding some size to their roster. That does not mean that acquiring O'Neal guarantees a championship for the Suns; O'Neal will have to prove that he can stay healthy and be productive enough to make the difference in the playoffs versus the best teams in the West. Maybe he can do that and maybe he can't--but the Suns are more likely to win a championship now than they were prior to doing this deal and that is all that their fans can reasonably expect from the front office; the rest is up to the players and the coaching staff."
In a post titled "Rising Suns", I wrote, "O'Neal adds physicality to the Suns. He will wear down the opposing team's inside players in a seven game series in two ways: he will pound on them when they drive to the hoop or try to post up and they will have to use a lot of energy and force when they guard him to prevent him from getting good post position."
At this time of year there is always a lot of talk about which teams no one wants to face in the playoffs; no one who has any sense wants to face this Suns team in a seven game series, a marked contrast to previous seasons when even flawed Lakers and Clippers teams rightfully believed that they had a puncher's chance against Phoenix.
posted by David Friedman @ 9:52 AM