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Monday, April 28, 2008

Suns Avoid Sweep but Still Face Uphill Climb

The Phoenix Suns raced out to a 34-13 first quarter lead and never looked back, beating the San Antonio Spurs 105-86 in game four of their first round playoff series. The Spurs still enjoy a 3-1 lead and can close out the Suns with a victory in San Antonio on Tuesday night. Despite the large margin of victory, history suggests that this was almost certainly too little, too late for the Suns: no NBA team has ever recovered from a 3-0 deficit to win a best of seven series and, barring injury to a key player, the defending champion Spurs do not seem likely to be the first team to squander such a lead. The box score numbers from this game are more than a little peculiar: both teams shot worse than .430 from the field, Amare Stoudemire only scored seven points and Steve Nash had just four assists. Raja Bell (27 points, six rebounds, five assists, 5-7 shooting from three point range) and Boris Diaw (20 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists) did much of the damage for the Suns, particularly when the game was still close. Shaquille O'Neal (14 points, 12 rebounds, two blocked shots in 23:35) did a good job of controlling the paint. Game three hero Tony Parker shot 7-17 from the field and finished with 18 points and three assists. Tim Duncan nearly matched O'Neal's production (14 points, 10 rebounds), while Manu Ginobili had 10 points and four rebounds in spot duty (21:11).

Phoenix opened the game with an 11-1 run and the Suns led 20-5 midway through the first quarter. San Antonio closed to within 20-9 when Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich elected to use the "Hack a Shaq" tactic, providing Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy a perfect opportunity to talk about Nash's comment that "Hack a Shaq" disrupted his rhythm during game three. Jackson said, "I completely disagree." Van Gundy went even further, declaring, "They only used it on four or five possessions in the whole game, so that's rubbish...You don't need mental weakness. You need mental strength." Bingo! The Suns spend too much time looking for excuses for their losses and not enough time trying to figure out how to win the next game. This lack of mental strength is a big reason why they come up on the short end in close games against the Spurs. The reality is that the Suns should be happy to see a team resort to the "Hack a Shaq." An NBA possession is worth approximately one point, so as long as O'Neal makes half of his free throws the Suns are not losing anything. Moreover, this moves their opponent closer to getting into the penalty and allows the Suns time to set up their half court defense.

O'Neal split the first pair of free throws, the Spurs missed a shot and then Nash drained a three pointer. After a Spurs turnover, they hacked O'Neal again. This time he made both free throws to push the lead to 26-9. After another Spurs turnover Leandro Barbosa scored a fast break layup to make the score 28-9. The Spurs tried the "Hack a Shaq" again when the score was 30-11. O'Neal committed a lane violation on the first free throw and made the second free throw. That was the end of the "Hack a Shaq" in this game: O'Neal made four of the six free throws he attempted after being intentionally fouled (he shot 6-10 overall from the free throw line) and the Suns increased their lead from 20-9 to 31-11 during the period that Popovich used this tactic. I agree with fouling O'Neal to prevent him for scoring a dunk or easy layup but why should a great defensive team concede free points and put the other team in the bonus without even trying to play defense? I just don't think that coaches really understand the math that is involved here, because the only way this works is if O'Neal shoots no better than .500 and the other team scores on at least half of its ensuing offensive possessions; otherwise, the fouling team loses ground. I don't know if anyone has kept stats on this, but I have the distinct impression the O'Neal shoots at least a little bit better after he has been intentionally fouled than he does normally, meaning that his "Hack a Shaq" percentage is above the .500 level; I also think that the fouling team tends to not perform that well offensively during these stretches. The "Hack a Shaq" did not materially affect the outcome of this game, though it would have been interesting to see what would have happened if the Spurs had played things straight after cutting the lead to 20-9.

Van Gundy pointed out that the big difference in this game is that the Suns subtly changed how they defended the Parker screen/roll play that killed them repeatedly in game three. Van Gundy said during game three that the Suns were giving Parker too much air space to get a head of steam going on his drives to the basket; in game four, Diaw checked Parker for most of the time and he bodied up to Parker, preventing him from going anywhere that he wanted to go. This proved to be very effective but it raises some questions: (1) Why didn't the Suns do this at some point in game three? (2) Do the Suns have the mental and physical discipline to play this way for several more games or was game four about nothing else other than avoiding the embarrassment of being swept in front of their home fans?

Only Phoenix Coach Mike D'Antoni can answer the first question. We won't know the answer to the second question until after game five. If the Suns win that contest then perhaps there will be some reason to believe that they are fully accepting the mental and physical challenges inherent in trying to knock off the defending champions; if the Suns get blown out then we will know that game four was just window dressing.

In previous years, the Suns did not have the right personnel to beat the Spurs; Phoenix lacked sufficient inside presence and could not play well enough in the half court set. That is no longer the case now; the Suns beat the Spurs twice in the regular season after acquiring O'Neal in exchange for Shawn Marion and the Suns showed in game four that they have the capability to play defense against Duncan, Parker and Ginobili--now the Suns must prove that they are mentally tough enough to summon forth this same kind of effort and execution for three more games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:50 AM

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