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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Suns Spot Nuggets 22 Point Lead Before Winning by 15

The Phoenix Suns pulled off the third biggest comeback in franchise history, rallying from a 22 point deficit to defeat the Denver Nuggets, 132-117. Amare Stoudemire posted game-high totals in scoring (41 points) and rebounds (14), shooting 12-22 from the field and 17-19 from the free throw line. Steve Nash added 36 points and eight assists, shooting 11-18 from the field, including 8-12 from three point range. Nash scored 21 points in the second half. Shaquille O'Neal contributed 20 points and 12 rebounds, shooting 8-13 from the field. Any notion that he would slow down the Suns' running game has been completely refuted; his defensive rebounds and outlet passes are fueling the break and he even scored the Suns' first points of the night by racing down court, rebounding Leandro Barbosa's missed fast break layup and scoring a layup of his own. J.R. Smith led the Nuggets with 23 points in 23 minutes, Allen Iverson had 21 points and seven assists and Carmelo Anthony had 18 points, 11 rebounds and four assists but shot just 7-18 from the field.

The Suns got off to a quick start, taking a 16-12 lead as O'Neal scored eight points on 4-5 field goal shooting but by the end of the first quarter the Nuggets led 39-25. Obviously, the Suns' defense was not great but the real problem was that they were missing open shots; Phoenix shot just 32 percent from the field in the first half and trailed 70-51 at halftime. The score was still 76-60 Denver at the 9:14 mark of the third quarter when Nash caught an inadvertent elbow to the face from Anthony Carter. Suns' broadcaster Gary Bender inexplicably exclaimed, "I hope that's not the same nose he injured versus the Spurs." Gary, unless Nash has two noses that would indeed be the very same nose that Nash banged against Tony Parker's forehead while trying to get a steal during last year's playoffs. By the way, isn't it funny how nobody cared one bit about the knot on Parker's forehead that happened as a result of that play? Right after the collision, Parker seemed to have gotten the worst of it and he was woozy for a few minutes--but then Nash started dripping blood all over the court and Parker's head injury was completely ignored. Anyway, after Nash caught the elbow from Carter he paused for a minute and then hit the deck like he'd been shot. When the officials did not call a foul, the perplexed Nash suddenly regained his health, popped back up, caught the inbounds pass and play continued. There is no doubt that he milked the situation to try to draw a foul, just like he later fooled the officials by grabbing Marcus Camby's jersey late in the game and pulling him to the ground, drawing a foul on Camby--but there is also no doubt that Nash and the Suns ramped up their intensity the rest of the way. Within the next two minutes, Raja Bell hit a three pointer, Nash made a three pointer and Stoudemire sank a pair of free throws to cut the lead to 77-68. By the end of the quarter, Denver was only up 92-86 and, to borrow Fred Carter's new favorite phrase, the Nuggets were plummeting and unable to open their parachutes.

The teams traded jumpers in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter but the Suns pulled to within 101-99 because some of their jumpers came from three point range. Then Barbosa missed two straight three pointers and Denver pushed the lead back to six, 105-99. Bender and his broadcasting partner Eddie Johnson began talking about how much energy teams expend when trying to come back and how hard it is to sustain that. Then the Suns did something that they never could have done with their old, pre-Shaquille O'Neal team: they started pounding the ball inside. Stoudemire drew a foul and split a pair of free throws. O'Neal posted up and fed a cutting Stoudemire for a dunk. O'Neal dunked off of a feed from Boris Diaw, was fouled and made the free throw to cut the lead to 108-107. Nash hit a three pointer to give the Suns their first lead of the second half, 110-108, and the next time down court Stoudemire fed O'Neal for a dunk. After another Stoudemire dunk and an O'Neal layup, Phoenix led 116-109 with 4:49 remaining and you could tell that the game was already over; there was no way that Denver could get enough defensive stops to catch the Suns. The "old" Suns relied entirely on making shots off of the pick and roll play or drive and kicks but these Suns can not only do those things--as they showed in the third quarter--but they can also play what ESPN's Tim Legler likes to call "bully ball," as they demonstrated in the fourth quarter.

Is there anyone out there who still asserts that Denver's defense is not as bad as advertised? If so, please stop. The Nuggets shot .527 from the field and still got blown out; this is not football, so you can't blame special teams play or the weather. In the second half of this game the Nuggets gave up so many open shots they looked like the Washington Generals playing the Harlem Globetrotters. Also, purely from a matchup standpoint the Nuggets have a serious problem defending the paint because Camby is an undersized, weakside shotblocker who cannot guard large centers one on one. On three separate occasions, various Denver defenders--Camby, Anthony and Eduardo Najera to be specific--had to simply grab O'Neal and hold on for dear life. On the Najera foul O'Neal accidentally elbowed Yakhouba Diawara in the face, forcing Diawara to leave the game. O'Neal was assessed a technical foul, though it was unclear if the tech was for the elbow or for something that O'Neal said after the play. Either way, Suns' Coach Mike D'Antoni told O'Neal not to worry about it and he offered some choice words to the officials. O'Neal's physical presence in the paint has completely transformed the Suns. They used to be a pretty, fun to watch finesse team that got bullied--literally and figuratively--by the league's stronger teams. Now, O'Neal provides high percentage shots in the paint, dominates the boards--Phoenix outrebounded Denver 50-33--draws fouls that get the Suns in the bonus (which is great when you have outstanding free throw shooters like Nash and Stoudemire) and he throws some elbows and forearms that will put some doubts in the minds of opposing players who are thinking about venturing into the paint. The Suns are a very, very dangerous team now because O'Neal provides the only elements that they were lacking. O'Neal can no longer dominate for extended periods of time but now that he is willing to accept a role as something other than his team's leading scorer--an adjustment he adamantly refused to make while he was was with the Lakers--he can still contribute to a championship level team.

An interesting dynamic is taking place with O'Neal and Stoudemire. O'Neal vowed to turn Stoudemire into the best power forward in the NBA and that may very well happen--at least at the offensive end of the court. O'Neal still commands double-team attention in the post and that is leaving Stoudemire free to cut to the hoop; Stoudemire averaged 29.3 ppg while shooting .587 from the field in March as the Suns posted an 11-5 record. Stoudemire has already been an All-NBA First Team player, so it's not like O'Neal is trying to turn a nobody into a superstar. There is an interesting baseball parallel to the relationship between the 36 year old O'Neal and the 25 year old Stoudemire. In 1979, the Philadelphia Phillies signed 38 year old Pete Rose, a former MVP and Rookie of the Year who played a major role on two World Series teams with the Cincinnati Reds. The Phillies' 29 year old third baseman Mike Schmidt had been an All-Star and led the team to three straight National League Championship series but he had never won an MVP or a World Series. Rose completely changed the internal dynamics of that team and in 1980 they won the World Series; Schmidt captured the regular season MVP that year and he won it again in 1981. Rose, who turned the derisive nickname "Charlie Hustle" into a badge of honor, showed Schmidt just how hard you have to play every night to be an MVP and he also pumped up Schmidt's confidence, telling him that he was the best player in baseball. Shaquille "I'll heal on company time" O'Neal will never be known as the basketball version of "Charlie Hustle" but he may very well play a Rose-like role in unleashing Stoudemire. This analogy is not perfect--no analogy is--but it does provide some food for thought and it certainly makes more sense than the bleatings from so-called experts who blasted the O'Neal trade and declared that Steve Kerr had ruined the Suns and the beautiful running game that they play.

This was the first game of a home and home series for these teams, so the Nuggets will be able to seek revenge in Denver on Tuesday night. These games are very important to both teams: the Suns are vying for the number one seed in the Western Conference, while the Nuggets are fighting just to get the eighth and final playoff seed. In Tuesday's game you can expect the Nuggets to score a lot of points but Phoenix has a good shot to win again, albeit in closer fashion. Granted, the back to back situation does not favor an older player like O'Neal--and of course there are no back to backs in the playoffs, which is another reason that he and the Suns will be a tough out in the postseason--but now that the Suns have an inside game to go with their outside game they can do to the Nuggets what the better teams used to do to them. The Nuggets are basically an inferior version of the "old" Suns; they score a lot of points, they pound the bad teams to death and they can't beat the good teams consistently.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:31 AM

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