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Thursday, October 30, 2008

New-Look Suns Defeat Short-Handed Spurs, 103-98

The Phoenix Suns successfully opened the Terry Porter era with a 103-98 victory over the San Antonio Spurs, their main nemesis for the past several seasons. Amare Stoudemire scored 22 points on 8-11 shooting and added eight rebounds, Leandro Barbosa added 18 points off of the bench and Shaquille O'Neal controlled the paint with 15 points and a game-high 13 rebounds. Steve Nash had 13 points and 13 assists. The Spurs--playing without injured starters Manu Ginobili and Fabricio Oberto--were led by Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, each of whom scored 32 points. Roger Mason (12 points) was the only other Spur who scored in double figures.

Under Mike D'Antoni's regime, the Suns focused on their high powered offense and only gave lip service to defense and rebounding but all of that is going to change now with Porter in charge: getting stops and controlling the boards are top priorities and only after those things are accomplished will the Suns look to run, provided that they have an advantage--otherwise, they will set up in the half court and take advantage of having O'Neal and Stoudemire as strong options in the post. Early in this game, ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy immediately noted that Porter had changed the way that the Suns defend various San Antonio half court sets: basically, the Suns are now defending side pick and rolls and middle pick and rolls by going under the screens, keeping the ball handler out of the paint and forcing the Spurs to make jumpers. Van Gundy wholeheartedly endorsed Porter's adjustments. This is only one game but it seems to me that Porter is also demanding that his team play straight up, man to man defense as much as possible, as opposed to getting involved in a lot of trapping, switching or cross matching (such as having Grant Hill or someone else guard Parker); perhaps now each Suns player will be held accountable for guarding his own man.

Van Gundy made another very cogent point by mentioning that the Suns' primary problem in recent seasons was not necessarily their initial defense but rather the way that they got dominated on the boards, thus enabling their opponents to get extra possessions. That is why it was so important for the Suns to pull the trigger on the deal that sent Shawn Marion to Miami in exchange for O'Neal; prior to acquiring O'Neal last season, the Suns were getting outrebounded by 5.9 rpg and had a 5-10 record against Western Conference teams with winning records. Shortly after the O'Neal trade was announced I wrote the following analysis:

For several seasons, Phoenix Coach Mike D'Antoni has tried to convince the world that the Suns could win an NBA championship without a dominant post player and without having the best player in the game (Steve Nash may have convinced the writers that he was the best player in the NBA but that was never the case and he was never the best player on the court when the Suns got eliminated twice by Tim Duncan's Spurs and once by Dirk Nowitzki's Mavericks). Historically, championship teams have been anchored by a great post player; the Jordan-Pippen Bulls were a notable exception and there have been a few other teams that won a title as an ensemble cast that neither had a dominant post player nor the best player in the league--but the Bulls and those other teams (2004 Pistons, 1989-90 Pistons) were tremendous defensive teams, something that has never been true of the Suns. Without Kurt Thomas this season, the Suns have struggled against any team that has powerful inside players and it was unlikely that the Suns could avoid a fatal matchup with one of those teams in the playoffs.

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. Of course, there are several notable downsides to this trade.
The Suns exchanged their most active and versatile defender for a player who has always been disinclined to defend the pick and roll play and may actually no longer be able to do so physically. O'Neal's presence in the paint is worth something but his individual defense is not nearly as good as Marion's and if O'Neal continues to get in foul trouble then he will spend long stretches anchored to the bench instead of patrolling the paint. Though the positive spin is that the Suns are now able to put all of their players in their natural positions, one could also argue that the Suns are replicating the failed recipe used by the turn of the century Portland Trail Blazers: stockpiling "name brand" talent (O'Neal, Grant Hill) without regard for how well the players will actually be able to work together. O'Neal and Hill do not bring the off court baggage that some of those Blazers did but it is reasonable to wonder if what they do best truly meshes with the way that D'Antoni likes his teams to play and the style in which Nash has thrived for three seasons.

With O'Neal in the fold, the Suns went 2-0 versus the Spurs in the regular season and outplayed them for most of game one in the playoffs before falling apart at the end of that contest and then melting down in the remainder of the series. For the first time in the D'Antoni era, the Suns finally had the strength in the paint to match up physically with the Spurs but they still lacked the necessary mental toughness and defensive focus to beat the Spurs in a seven game playoff series. Porter's challenge is to transform the Suns into a tougher, more defensive minded team without sacrificing too much of their ability to score in transition. It will be interesting to see if the players will embrace this approach throughout the season and into the playoffs. Obviously, one game does not a season make, particularly considering that the Spurs were hardly at full strength.

While Ginobili's absence clearly hurt the Spurs at both ends of the court, they also missed Oberto's presence in the paint. San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich has used the intentional fouling strategy--generally referred to as Hack a Shaq--previously but in this game near the end of the first half he resorted to it out of necessity when Duncan was on the bench and the Spurs simply did not have enough bigs to check both O'Neal and Stoudemire. Phoenix led 44-40 with 1:26 left when Popovich instructed his team to intentionally foul O'Neal rather than try to play post defense short-handed. I have always been skeptical of the effectiveness of the intentional fouling strategy: statistically, an NBA possession is worth roughly a point, so as long as O'Neal makes one out of two free throws the opposition is not really gaining anything over the long haul. However, a few months ago, I spoke with current Cavaliers assistant coach Hank Egan, who was a member of Coach Popovich's staff in San Antonio for many years. Coach Egan explained the rationale behind the "Hack a Shaq":

It's not just mathematics; it's people. People get discouraged--they can't get into their offense and they lose the flow of the game, so it has a disruptive effect if nothing else. You get a psychological effect--are they going to take this player out because they are worried that he is going to be fouled all the time? It may cost you a point but you are putting pressure on him to perform at the free throw line and hoping that he does not make anything.

It is worth clicking on the above link and reading the entire post to check out Egan's in depth explanation of exactly why Popovich uses the intentional fouling strategy: the bottom line is that this is rooted at least as much in psychology as it is in statistics. Considering that psychology is such a big part of this, it is interesting to note how this game began: right after the opening tip, Popovich had Michael Finley intentionally foul O'Neal, an acknowledgment of O'Neal's accusation that the strategy is "cowardly." Popovich and O'Neal enjoyed a good laugh but I think that--like all humor--there was a deeper, underlying truth present here; yes, the farcical early foul broke some of the tension and provided a moment of levity but it also planted the seed that no matter how much O'Neal whines and complains the Spurs will not be dissuaded from doing whatever they think they need to do to win.

During the telecast, Van Gundy endorsed the intentional fouling strategy because it prevents the Suns from taking advantage of their good three point shooters. Again, though, it must be emphasized that the average NBA possession is worth roughly a point, so if O'Neal makes half of his free throws and the Spurs run their offense at typical point per possession efficiency then they will not come out ahead.

After the intentional foul at the 1:26 mark, O'Neal made both free throws but Mason then drained a three pointer, so the Spurs gained a point on that exchange. The Spurs fouled O'Neal again but before he could shoot his free throws Porter got a technical foul for arguing about a non-call from the Spurs' offensive possession. Mason made that free throw and then O'Neal split his pair of free throws. Parker missed a runner and the Spurs fouled O'Neal again. This time O'Neal missed both free throws and Parker answered by making a runner. After the Spurs fouled O'Neal for the fourth consecutive possession, O'Neal made both free throws and the Spurs airballed a three pointer. Phoenix led 49-46 at the half, so the Spurs outscored the Suns 6-5 while employing the Hack a Shaq--but one of those points was a gift because of Porter's technical foul, so the net result of the strategy was a wash, as one would expect based on an NBA possession being worth roughly a point and O'Neal generally making one out of two free throws (in this case, O'Neal shot 5-8).

Fast forwarding to the end of the game, the Suns led 101-98 with :39 left when Porter removed O'Neal from the game; it is not clear if Porter based that decision strictly on matchups or if he wanted to avoid the possibility of the Spurs intentionally fouling O'Neal but if the latter is the case then this is an example of the psychological effect of the Hack a Shaq: it can influence a team to alter its lineup. With O'Neal out of the game, the Suns ran 23 seconds off of the clock before Raja Bell missed a three pointer. The Spurs now had the ball and a chance to either go for the tie by shooting a three pointer or else score a quick two and extend the game by fouling (which is not a Hack a Shaq but simply normal end of the game strategy when trailing when there are less than 24 seconds left on the shot clock). In last year's playoffs, Duncan made a three pointer late in the first overtime to send game one into a second overtime before the Spurs eventually prevailed but this time Duncan's three pointer was off the mark and Barbosa closed out the scoring by making a pair of free throws.

Although the Spurs shot 50.0% from the field, the Suns played good defense; as Van Gundy mentioned more than once, the Suns largely kept the Spurs out of the paint, forcing Duncan and Parker to make jump shots. The Suns enjoyed a 39-38 rebounding advantage. That may not sound like much but for a team that used to get outrebounded by a significant margin that is very significant.

It will be interesting to see how these themes--intentional fouling, Porter's emphasis on defense, the Suns' improved rebounding with O'Neal in the paint--play out during this season but the irony could be that by the time the Suns finally put together the right coaching staff and roster to beat the Spurs those efforts will be in vain because the Lakers are now the team to beat in the West.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:13 AM

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3 Comments:

At Thursday, October 30, 2008 10:31:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

reggie

it's irrelevant now david lakers are best team by far kobe has had two good games and lakers been killing team 9 players were in double figures agianst clips they loaded. so suns dont matter if they better than spurs now they should of been 2 years ago they time has passed barring kobe dont get hurt or something. they waited two long to get it together

 
At Friday, October 31, 2008 3:15:00 PM, Blogger Joel said...

Reggie,

Not only that, but Nash is now 34 and based on recent performances seems to be in decline. It sure would have helped if the Suns didn't keep throwing away draft picks which could have been used on guys like Luol Deng, Rudy Fernandez, David Lee, etc.

 
At Friday, October 31, 2008 3:29:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Joel:

The Suns definitely passed up chances to select players who could have helped them. It seems like their management is not always on the same page; they sold draft picks to acquire cash and got rid of Kurt Thomas for the same reason but then they turned around and brought in Shaq and the Diesel's massive contract. I think that signing Shaq was a good idea but it does contradict their earlier financial approach.

 

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