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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Tony Parker Leads the Way as the Spurs Dismantle the Suns with Clinical Precision

Tony Parker scored a career-high (regular season or playoffs) 41 points on 17-26 field goal shooting, dished off 12 assists and grabbed five rebounds as his San Antonio Spurs turned the Valley of the Sun into the Valley of the Shadow of Death, routing the Suns 115-99 to take a 3-0 series lead and essentially slam shut the window of opportunity for this Phoenix team to win a championship as presently constituted. The game was not as close as the final score. Tim Duncan scored 23 points on 9-15 field goal shooting and he had a team-high 10 rebounds. Manu Ginobili scored 20 points on 7-11 field goal shooting. Yes, those numbers are correct: the Spurs' top three players scored 84 points on 33-52 (.635) field goal shooting. ESPN commentator Jeff Van Gundy declared that in the playoffs you have to "take someone and something away" from the other team in order to have any chance to win. Instead, the Suns took away no one and nothing. As TNT's Kenny Smith has said repeatedly about Phoenix and Denver, they give up way too many easy shot opportunities to their opponents.

Amare Stoudemire led the Suns with 28 points and 11 rebounds but he is very much like Denver's Carmelo Anthony: a prodigiously gifted offensive player who gives up even more at the defensive end than he provides at the offensive end. The only difference between the two players is that every once in a while Stoudemire will make a highlight-worthy blocked shot. Stoudemire's occasional swats do not change the fact that he is a poor one on one defender who also seems to have no clue where and when he is supposed to rotate on defense. Van Gundy could have simply made a tape recording saying "The other big (meaning Stoudemire) is late on the back side rotation" and spent the game at the concession stand eating a hot dog. Of course, Steve Nash (seven points on 3-8 field goal shooting, nine assists) should not be left out of any talk about the Suns' horrible defense; Parker won the point guard matchup over him in a landslide, outshooting, outscoring and even outpassing the two-time MVP. Granted, Parker scored a lot of his points off of screen and roll plays--which Van Gundy and Mark Jackson correctly noted must be defended by all five players, not just one--but has there ever been a two-time MVP who was outperformed this badly by his counterpart in a playoff game? Nash is not injured and his skills have not noticeably deteriorated from where they were when he won his MVPs but in this series he has been no better than the fourth or fifth best player on the court most of the time. In case you have forgotten (or don't know), the other players who have won at least two regular season MVPs are Duncan, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Moses Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. So Nash is on that list but Kobe Bryant--pending the results of this year's balloting--has yet to win a single MVP. Could you imagine any circumstance in which Bryant would be so completely dominated by his opposite number, let alone in a playoff game?

Of course, most "experts" are going to look right past Nash, throw a few barbs at Stoudemire and then lay full force into Suns President Steve Kerr, Coach Mike D'Antoni and midseason acquisition Shaquille O'Neal, who finished with 19 points and six rebounds. The reality is that the Suns proved on several occasions that the Nash-Stoudemire-Shawn Marion trio was never going to win a championship. O'Neal was brought in to provide paint presence and shore up the team's staggering rebounding deficit and, after a brief adjustment period, he did just that. O'Neal is no longer a player who can dominate for four quarters but he can still have an impact on the game, as he showed even during the game three debacle: O'Neal posted a -5 plus/minus rating in 31:07, while Nash had a game-worst -26 plus/minus rating in virtually the same amount of playing time (32:19). In other words, even during this rout the Suns were competitive with the World Champion Spurs when O'Neal was in the game but they got slaughtered when Nash played. Nevertheless, after the Suns lose this series Kerr will be heavily criticized for making the O'Neal-Marion deal and Kerr will likely respond by firing D'Antoni and bringing in a defensive minded coach. Kerr played for championship teams in Chicago and San Antonio that were built around defense and it is obvious that his vision of how the game should be played does not quite mesh with D'Antoni's. The problem now for the Suns is that even if they bring in a different coach and try to become a defensive minded team several of their core players (Nash, O'Neal, Grant Hill) are getting older while the Western Conference is full of young teams on the rise. Even if another coach can get more out of this group it may not be enough to win a title. I should add that I don't think that D'Antoni is a bad coach--but I am not convinced that he is an NBA championship-level coach, either. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich always seems to be one step ahead of D'Antoni, but Popovich is one step (or more) ahead of a lot of NBA coaches.

There simply is no excuse for the Suns to not only lose this badly at home to the Spurs but to not even be competitive for most of the game. The Suns have now lost three straight games to the Spurs after being the only team this season to never have a three game losing streak--yet the Suns beat the Spurs twice in the regular season after acquiring O'Neal and they outplayed the Spurs for the better part of game one. There is absolutely no question that there is enough talent on the roster to at least be competitive with the Spurs. The problem is that the Suns to do not have a championship level game plan nor do they have championship level mental toughness. At halftime, D'Antoni told his team that they were not playing as if every possession matters. He was right, of course, but part of his job is to indoctrinate his team to play that way from the start of the season. As Mark Jackson said during the telecast, habits are formed throughout the season and cannot simply be created during a playoff series. Here are a couple examples from game three that indicate that the Suns do not value every possession: (1) they let Parker catch an inbounds pass and dribble all the way down the court to score a floater as time expired in the first half, an inexcusable defensive lapse; (2) at the end of the third quarter, Nash had the ball one on one versus Spurs center Fabricio Oberto (after a switch) with more than 10 seconds left but instead of creating a high percentage shot Nash ended up passing to Stoudemire for a three point shot.

Of course, it is not right to just focus on what the Suns did wrong. San Antonio is a marvelous team that probably played its best game of the season. Van Gundy offered a perfect summary of why the Spurs are the model NBA franchise: "I think that the best trait of the Spurs' organization is that from the owner to the GM to the coach to the best player they are a humble organization. They never think they have it figured out. That is why they stay sharp, that is why they stay urgent and that is why they stay selfless." Early in the game, Jackson noted that the Spurs will not outsmart themselves; they were killing the Suns by using Parker in screen/roll plays, so they kept running that action over and over. At various times, Van Gundy and Jackson both criticized how the Suns defended the play, saying that the Suns' defenders took bad angles, gave up too much ground and needlessly exposed O'Neal by switching instead of fighting their way through the screens. All of those things are true but how many times have you seen an NBA team score two or three times on a play and then go away from it and start doing something else? That always drives me nuts; if a play works, wear it out unless or until the other team stops it. That sounds simple but the problem that creeps in for some teams is that other players start clamoring to have touches and shot attempts; Jackson made an outstanding point when he said that Duncan did not start demanding to get the ball in the post but instead let Parker run the show and make the decision to either shoot the ball or pass to cutters.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:13 AM


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At Saturday, April 26, 2008 8:22:00 AM, Anonymous warsaw said...

The Suns are not worse off than before the trade, but they have not improved enough either.

There is more muscle in the paint and Duncan is better guarded -sometimes- but nobody guards Parker as Marion did, and a as a result he's doing numbers that he usually never does and getting into the paint whitout problems. Is just picking anoher poison, and Pops beating D'antoni anyway.

I agree that the age of O'neal and Nash is a problem and being Stoudamire unable to be a franchise player, Kerr has a lot of work to do. He will have to reestructure this team completely.

At Saturday, April 26, 2008 9:12:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

D'Antoni is still playing 7 guys. He hasn't tried "everything" to stop the Spurs. The third quarter of game 2 and the entire game 3 shows what happens when your players go cold, and you have no one to turn to. The way Shaq and Amare play "defense" foul trouble will always be an issue. Grant Hill breaking down will always be a concern. Nash's back too. You made a good point before about the Suns needing a lot of things to go their way before the Marion trade, but things have not changed. You're basically playing 7 on 10, with a couple of foul magnets, a couple of frail players, and a very inconsistent bench.

They brought in Shaq to help with Duncan, but got rid of Kurt Thomas and Marion. When Shaq sits, the Suns are unbelievably soft inside. I don't give much thought on the +/- ratings. The disparity between Nash and Shaq's +/- shows that they were not always on the court at the same time. Part of the blame goes to Shaq and D'Antoni too.

They didn't stop any of the Spurs big 3, they let Parker be a scorer AND a distributor, they didn't shut down anybody else.

As for the hack-a-Shaq, even Nash admitted that it took him out of his rhythm. It's not a SOUND strategy, because you're basically gambling that A. Shaq misses his freethrows (50-50) and B. The Suns get rattled. Championship contenders are not supposed to get rattled by that. Popovich didn't try this on Shaq when he was with the Lakers.

The Suns beat the Spurs in the regular season, true, but the Spurs team we are seeing now is a very different team. A lot of talk about the Spurs demise was based on the premise that they'll be playing like they did during the regular season. This "on/off" "strategy" has backfired on the Lakers and Pistons before. If habits are formed during the regular season, what do the Spurs do differently from those other "on/off" teams?


At Sunday, April 27, 2008 3:06:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

The Suns' defense was absolutely pitiful. It was almost sad watching Nash running around lost at the start of the game when he was covering Parker. It was downright hilarious watching the Spurs run a pick-and-roll almost every time down the court while the Suns never had a clue what to do.

How come no one is making a big deal of the fact that Nash was on the bench nearly all of the 4th quarter? Why wasn't he in the game? Did D'Antoni take the 2-Time MVP out for defensive purposes? If that had been Kobe or T-Mac instead of Nash, he'd have been labeled a selfish quitter who was incapable of leading a team.

At Sunday, April 27, 2008 7:32:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


In D'Antoni's defense, if the seven guys he is using can't get the job done I don't think that the guys he has on his bench will be able to do so, either. The Suns got rid of Kurt Thomas and several first round draft picks to save money and then they broke the bank to sign Shaq, so they have been a little inconsistent with their philosophy to say the least.

You make a good point about Hill breaking down. I mentioned that as a concern at the start of the season and even asked D'Antoni about it when the Suns visited Indiana but Hill did make it through the regular season pretty much unscathed; of course, now is hardly a good time for him to be hobbled.

I thought that swapping Marion for Shaq would give the Suns more margin for error and it looked good in the first two regular season games versus the Spurs and through most of the first playoff game. Honestly, I still stand by my assessment that the Suns have enough talent now to get the job done; their problems are game planning (D'Antoni) and the mindset/focus of the players on the court during key situations, as shown with their numerous late game flubs offensively and defensively in game one.

I never said or felt that the Spurs had fallen off or gotten old; my premise was that the Suns were better equipped now to beat them. If the brackets had come out differently I probably would have picked them to meet in the WCF (perhaps depending on which one would have faced the Lakers and who would have home court in that scenario).

I don't think that the Spurs have concentration lapses or turn things on and off; they are just built more like a playoff team than a regular season team. By that I mean that as an older team they benefit from the time off between games in the postseason and because they are so well coached they benefit from the increased scouting and preparation that goes into a playoff series when you zero in on one team. Even when the Spurs looked bad during the regular season I didn't get the sense that they weren't focused or weren't trying; they had some guys who were banged up and they probably do better overall with more rest between games.

Even though Parker had 12 assists, I think that you have to make him a passer; I think that you have to trap him hard with bigger defenders, force him to give up his dribble and make him pass. Of course, that requires certain skills and rotations that the Suns may not be willing or able to do. Parker got his assists on fairly straightforward passes that led to a lot of dunks. The Bulls used to terrorize small pgs like Stockton and Price by trapping them with MJ and Pip. You'd think that the Suns could do something like that with Stoudemire and Hill/Diaw while the other players rotate to cut off the easy pass but as Jackson, Van Gundy and Kenny Smith have all said, if you are not a defensive minded team for 82 games you aren't going to become one now.

I agree that plus/minus numbers can be noisy at times but I've watched a lot of Suns games before and after Shaq arrived and in general they are playing better with Shaq than without him because he is providing paint presence at both ends of the court. What he can no longer do is dominate a game for 40-45 minutes and put up 35 points and 20 rebounds. Also, Mark Jackson made a great point when he said that a lot of pgs struggle to guard Parker so you simply cannot ever switch a screen/roll so that Shaq is guarding him one on one.


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