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Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Spurs Can't Push the Suns Around Anymore

Regardless 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:52 AM

16 comments

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16 Comments:

At Thursday, April 10, 2008 12:52:00 PM, Anonymous Hoffman said...

The Suns have played much better than I expected. I didn't think they would make the playoffs and I am being proven wrong.

Still, this trade wasn't about making the postseason. It was about winning an NBA championship and if the Suns fail to do that, it can't be considered a success because Shaq's contract pays him more money than Marion's and expires a year later. Delaying the inevitable rebuilding process that will need to occurr as Nash and Shaq's games continue to deteriorate.

There's also an excellent chance that the Suns could meet the Jazz in the first round with Utah owning homecourt. There may be a few teams that would rather not see Phoenix in the 1st round but I doubt Utah is one of them.

 
At Thursday, April 10, 2008 6:00:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Hoffman:

The first thing that is very important to understand about the Suns is that they were never going to win a championship the way that they were constructed prior to acquiring Shaq. They had a nice team and they won a lot of regular season games mostly by beating up the league's weak teams (check out their record against the West's elite in previous seasons or even this year prior to getting Shaq)--but they did not have sufficient paint presence to make it all the way through the NBA playoffs.

In other words, the Shaq deal was not that risky at all; it was much more risky to stand pat with what they had and get beaten again in the playoffs, particularly considering that Nash is getting up in years and they don't have a first round pick until approximately 2050 (I may be exaggerating slightly).

I agree that the deal cannot be considered a complete success unless the Suns win the championship (or at least make it to the Finals, someplace Nash has yet to take them) but the same could be said for moves that several NBA teams have made. It would hardly have made sense for the Suns to start rebuilding when they are still winning 50+ games; they have a window now that consists of this season and maybe next season and during that time they have a much better chance to win than they would have if they had kept Marion.

There is at least a chance that the Suns could meet any one of several different teams in the first round. Utah was a bad matchup for them before but not now. D Will will give Nash problems--something that is true about several West pgs--but are you really liking the Okur-Shaq matchup for Utah? I remember one year Shaq called himself the "Great Deporter" because the Lakers eliminated Sabonis and Divac's teams and we could see a replay of that this year with Okur, Oberto and Gasol.

This Suns team is much better than the "experts" thought and I have been consistently saying that ever since they acquired Shaq.

 
At Thursday, April 10, 2008 10:55:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

i noticed that shaq made a huge diffrence i didnt think he had this much left he has played great for them of late. the suns are for real becasue of shaq and stoudamire and nash being the leader he is as well. the spurs is old and done it's out of the lakers and suns if bynum could handle shaq in the low post, gasol on stoudamire and fisher on nash will dictate the series kobe will kobe of course arguably best player in league. here going to have to have better inside defense if they are going to win.

 
At Friday, April 11, 2008 12:51:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

I'm not ready to write the Spurs off just yet. All I'm saying--and I've said this from the moment the Suns acquired Shaq--is that the Suns now have all the pieces they need to beat the Spurs, as opposed to hoping that they can beat the Spurs if everything goes perfectly. When Amare was playing center and Marion was the pf the Suns were just too small and did not have enough paint presence to beat the Spurs.

At this point, why should we believe that young Bynum--who has not played in months--is ready to handle Shaq in a seven game series? Would you really take Gasol over Amare? Fisher on Nash is admittedly a vast improvement over Smush on Nash but right now it is fair to say that the Suns have the advantage over the Lakers at every position except shooting guard. When Amare was the center and Marion was the pf the Lakers could use the "inside man" strategy and post up Bynum, Kwame or Odom but that is not going to work with Shaq at center and Amare at pf. The only way the Lakers beat the Suns in a seven game series now is if Kobe averages 30 ppg, Gasol draws Shaq out of the paint by making jumpers, Bynum is healthy enough to provide some kind of inside presence, Odom provides some rebounding and defense (and avoids dumb fouls and stupid plays) and the Lakers' bench players provide energy and high percentage shooting. Other than the first two things--Kobe and Gasol--I have my doubts that the Lakers can pull this off.

 
At Friday, April 11, 2008 5:59:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hubie Brown's on CRACK. Can't you see he's old and wasted and only wishes he could coach a team
as storied as this SUNS team of the past few years! Yeah, sure in a perfect world no one would complain about calls or non-calls
and all things good would happen in the world. But seriously, the SUNS are a continual work in progress and thrive on adversity, more adversity than a lot of teams out there!

 
At Friday, April 11, 2008 7:17:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I'm not sure why you are so hostile towards Hubie Brown. Stoudemire definitely committed a foul when he was called for a moving screen and Brown was right to criticize Stoudemire's one on one defense. Brown coached a championship team in the ABA and has won multiple NBA Coach of the Year awards. He's my favorite NBA television analyst, though I also like Doug Collins, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy.

I don't necessarily agree that the Suns have faced more adversity than other teams. They managed to outbid Dallas for Steve Nash, they drafted Amare Stoudemire--who has made a remarkable recovery from microfracture surgery--they acquired Shaquille O'Neal at the perfect time and they have revived Grant Hill's career. It seems to be that they have a lot for which to be thankful and appreciative.

 
At Friday, April 11, 2008 12:34:00 PM, Blogger Mike Daniel said...

I agree with the Hubie Brown comment. He is one of the worst announcers I have ever heard. Early on in the game he made the comment that the Suns needed to bring in Leandro Barbosa because Steve Nash had no chance in guarding Tony Parker. He was right about the guarding part... the only thing is Leandro Barbosa had been in the game for like 2 minutes already when he made the comment. Hubie sits at the announcers/scorers table where players CHECK IN THE GAME and he didnt even notice! If I quoted every stupid thing that Hubie said during a Suns game it would take up like 305930 pages. The play by play announcer summed it up in the second quarter when he said that Hubie was "in midseason form."

My other comment addresses the money aspect of the Shaq trade. The argument is that we are paying Shaq more than we had to pay Marion... but what you fail to realize is how much money the franchise is making because we have Shaq. Jersey Sales? anyone? All of the merchandise that Shaq is going to sell is going to make up for the extra contract price. On top of that, say the Suns make it one more round in the playoffs than they would have with Marion... ticket sales in the playoffs tend to be almost completely profit for most franchises (except for the teams that are way over the cap, etc). So win or lose (and im betting win) the Shaq trade was a good idea either way.

 
At Friday, April 11, 2008 1:09:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a Spurs fan, so my rants may be a bit biased, but it has been frustrating to watch them at times.

I still think that the Spurs are weaker than they were last year. Their offense has been horrible all season. Finley has a good game once every ten games or so, Horry gives nothing, Oberto can't rebound, Parker still can't shoot, and neither can his backups(or anyone on the bench for that matter). While none of the other teams look as intimidating as Dallas did last year (the Spurs dodged a bullet there), Dallas, Phoenix, Utah, LA(if healthy) have more talent top to bottom. Chemistry, experience, and "mental toughness" are hardy a cure for missing open shots and being a poor rebounding team. Not to mention some of Pop's ridiculous lineups that feature Udoka-Bowen, Vaughn-Parker, Horry!

I think their best bet would be to slide down to the 4th seed to face the depleted Rockets, then the inexperienced Hornets, then the battered team that gets out of the LAL/PHX/DAL/UTH rumble. I'm not saying that they can't win, just that I won't be surprised if they get booted. They got worse, while everyone around them got better. Your thoughts?

Z

 
At Friday, April 11, 2008 1:46:00 PM, Anonymous Hoffman said...

In all honesty, I felt like the Grant Hill trade over the offseason was enough to get the Suns to the promised land. Why? Because I felt they needed a 3rd option in their halfcourt offense. Marion and Barbosa were/are fullcourt players. The Spurs easily x'd them out of the equation when the game slowed down in the playoffs.

As for an impending matchup with Utah, I disagree. I think Utah is a terrible matchup for Phoenix. Yes, Shaq will do his fair share of damage against Okur but Okur will take him out to three point line and drop 3's on him all night. Which always keeps Shaq from protecting the basket and getting a lot of defensive rebounds.

I REALLY like the Utah Jazz. They have all the makings of a championship team.

 
At Friday, April 11, 2008 4:46:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Mike:

I disagree with you about Brown but that really isn't the subject of this post anyway.

As for the Shaq trade, I agree that it was a good move for PHX, although I don't think that the Suns will sell enough jerseys or make enough money from one extra playoff series to pay for it. The main point is that the "old" team was not constructed properly to win a title but the "new" team is and it is worth paying more money to have a better chance to win a championship.

 
At Friday, April 11, 2008 4:52:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Z:

The West is very competitive this year, obviously, and the Spurs are still right there in the battle for the best record, so I think that some of their woes are a bit overstated. That said, I think that several teams have gained on them, not just in terms of regular season record but in terms of the ability to potentially beat the Spurs in a seven game series. I have already mentioned that Phx is capable of that now, which was not the case in years past. If the Lakers were fully healthy--which does not seem likely--they would have a puncher's chance but I would still favor the Spurs. You are right that Dall always plays the Spurs tough and that the Spurs probably dodged a bullet last year by not having to face them.

Some of Popovich's player rotations in the regular season have to do with experimenting with certain lineups and also conserving the minutes of some players so that they will be fresh in the playoffs. Seeding/home court probably matters less to the Spurs than any other team.

I may be wrong, but I still consider them co-favorites in the West, along with Phx. You are probably right that Hou, then NO might be the "best" route for the Spurs but I don't think that the seeding is going to pan out that way.

 
At Friday, April 11, 2008 5:03:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Hoffman:

The Jazz proved their mettle by making it to the Conf. Finals last year, so I agree that they are a serious contender. That said, in a seven game series I would much prefer to have Shaq in the post than Okur at the three point line. On defense, the Suns could very well put Shaq on Boozer and put Amare on Okur, which eliminates the problem that you mentioned.

The Hill addition has turned out well for Phx. In fact, his play helped to make the Shaq-Marion deal possible because Hill has essentially taken over a lot of Marion's old roles on offense and defense. That said, Hill's role in the offense is not as big as Marion's was and Shaq will have a much bigger impact (literally and figuratively) in half court sets, particularly in the playoffs. Before the Suns got Shaq they had trouble beating the better teams in the West, which has been the case for years. Since getting Shaq they are already 2-0 against the Spurs. If the Suns had not made this deal they would not be legit title contenders.

 
At Friday, April 11, 2008 7:22:00 PM, Anonymous Hoffman said...

David,

I'm not surprised that the Suns have had success against the Spurs. Where they've struggled and where they will continue to sturggle is against teams that can play both a fast paced and slow paced game. Teams that have a deadly pick-and-roll combo spell doom for them as well. Even in his prime, Shaq was a terrible defender on the pick-and-roll.

The Jazz run the play as well as anyone in the league. With Boozer and Okur taking turns in setting picks for Williams.

I know the Suns had struggled against the Western elite before Shaq came to Phoenix but I'm not sold that he makes them title contenders. Marion allowed the Suns to hide Nash on defense. They can't do that any longer and with many of the elite point guards residing in the West, I will be very surprised if Phoenix comes out of the West.

But then again, I'm surprised they are making the playoffs at all.

 
At Friday, April 11, 2008 11:18:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

totally disagree kobe has to avereage 30ppg for them to win against suns in playoffs they need bynum back for defense. the lakers have enough fire power without question to beat the suns kobe get his numbers gasol get his and odom get his with bynum and that bench i think they could beat the suns i would take stoudamire over gasol nash over fisher for the record. but i think the lakers role players on the bench farmar sasha and turiaf can provide what it takes to win, the key if odom stays out of foul trouble and they could get shaq in foul trouble which is what teams have been able to do of late then the suns become small agian and cant beat the lakers. it comes down to will it's kobe will vs shaq will at this point in they career it's easily kobe will over shaq in his prime of course it would be diffrent.

san antonio is old to me they dont have enough this year to get it done i expect them to lose to phoenix or la age catches up with everybody there time has come.

 
At Saturday, April 12, 2008 6:18:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Hoffman:

Well, the Suns had not had much success against the Spurs until Shaq arrived and I sure heard a lot of people saying that the Suns would not even make the playoffs after this deal. I have maintained all along that this trade was exactly what the Suns needed.

I agree that Nash guarding other pgs is perhaps the team's biggest weakness but Hill and Barbosa have done a credible job filling in for Marion in this regard.

You are right that Shaq has never been a great screen/roll defender. Nevertheless, in a seven game series I'm taking Shaq over Okur--at least for another year or two.

 
At Saturday, April 12, 2008 6:23:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

We agree that the Lakers need to get Bynum back and that prospect is looking less and less likely.

Gasol will probably average 18-20 ppg in the playoffs and Odom will probably not average more than 15-16 ppg, so if the Lakers are going to score enough to beat the Suns Kobe will have to average about 30 ppg. That's really not that big a deal for him, of course.

You like Farmar, Turiaf, Sasha better than Barbosa, Giricek and Skinner? I'm not so sure about that. Barbosa's speed makes him a matchup nightmare.

 

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