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Monday, April 30, 2007

Passing Fancy: Nash has 23 Assists, Suns Cruise Past Lakers

Steve Nash put on one of the best playmaking displays in playoff history as the Suns beat the Lakers 113-100 to take a 3-1 series lead. His 23 assists fell one short of tying the playoff single game record, jointly held by Magic Johnson and John Stockton; Nash's 15 first half assists tied a playoff record held by Johnson and Doc Rivers. Nash also had 17 points, though he shot just 6-15 from the field, well below his normal percentage. Amare Stoudemire had 27 points and a playoff career-high 21 rebounds and Shawn Marion also had a double double (22 points, 11 rebounds). The Lakers squandered Kobe Bryant's near triple-double (31 points, nine assists, seven rebounds) by offering little support outside of Lamar Odom (19 points, 13 rebounds, five assists), who is playing despite shoulder, elbow and knee injuries.

The Lakers were still within striking distance at halftime, trailing just 58-51, because Bryant had 20 points and four assists while shooting 8-17 from the field. Of course, the close score was really fool's gold, because the Lakers simply do not have enough firepower to win a shootout with the stacked Suns; the winning formula for the Lakers is to hold the Suns below 100--preferably below 90--while Bryant scores 35-40 points. The second half of these games is when the Suns really load up two or three guys on Bryant, daring him to either force up bad shots or pass the ball to his teammates--for whom even wide open shots are often an adventure. In the third quarter the Suns pushed the lead to 81-67 by the 1:38 mark. Odom had a strong quarter, finishing with 10 points, but Bryant had just four points on 1-3 shooting in that 10:22 stretch; he shot 2-2 in the last 1:38 but the Suns also made two baskets and were still up 85-71 going into the fourth quarter. ABC's Jon Barry said more than once that people who criticize Bryant for shooting too much are wrong because the Lakers' only chance is for Bryant to shoot the ball a lot. Mike Breen tried to make the case that Bryant should pass when he is double or triple teamed but he did acknowledge that what Dallas Coach Avery Johnson told his superstar, Dirk Nowitzki, also applies to Bryant: pass when you are triple teamed, score when you are double teamed and kill them when you are only guarded by one player. That is actually a pretty good description of what Bryant has been doing for most of his career--but the passing part leads to better results when you actually have good players receiving the ball.

The Lakers made a token run at the start of the fourth quarter but never even trimmed the margin to less than 10 points. It seems that the effort and intensity that they showed in game three was a one time thing just to avoid being swept and that now the Lakers--other than Bryant and Odom--are content because they won a game.

Nash's passing during this game was special, definitely on par with previous efforts by Johnson and Stockton (and recent performances by Jason Kidd). Nash is able to use angles and spins on his bounce passes that are simply uncanny--much like Johnson, Stockton and Kidd. Breen suggested that Nash might be the greatest passer and/or point guard ever, which is absurd. Johnson is the greatest point guard ever--and I can't see any coach taking a 6-3 shooter/passer over a 6-9 scorer/passer/rebounder who could also play forward and center. I'm not taking Nash over Oscar Robertson, either. During the Nets-Raptors game, TNT's Steve Kerr offered a much more sober and rational judgment, taking Johnson and Kidd over Nash, saying that Kidd has been playing at an ultra-high level longer than Nash has. Kerr abstained on the question of where Robertson would rank, saying that Robertson played before he was born (Robertson played before I was born, too, but I've seen, read and heard enough to know that he was better than Nash and Kidd; you could make a case that Robertson is in fact the best all-around player of all-time).

I'm not on board with Nash being the greatest passer, either. Stockton and Johnson hold most of the statistical records. What about the ability to deliver various kinds of passes--bounce passes, one hand passes, no look passes, post feeds, hitting cutters on the move and so forth? If that is the standard I would take Johnson--his size provided him passing angles that no other point guard has ever had and there is not a single kind of pass that he was not able to deliver on time and on target. It it amazing to me how quickly people forget what kind of player Magic was. I also don't think that Nash is doing anything from a passing standpoint that Stockton did not do both over a longer period of time and with greater proficiency (at least in terms of his apg averages).

Isn't it enough to simply appreciate what Nash is doing and to acknowledge that he is the best passer in the game today and one of the two best passers of the past decade (with Kidd being the other one)? When people start saying that Nash is the best of all-time I get the feeling that they are trying to retroactively justify the recent MVP voting. Steve Nash is a great passer and a great point guard. No one can deny that--but anyone who thinks that he is better than Johnson or Stockton needs to break out some old NBA tapes or DVDs or find some footage on YouTube.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:19 AM


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At Monday, April 30, 2007 6:30:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

After spending much of the weekend watching basketball analysis on TV, I have to say that the Steve Nash praising is getting beyond absurd.

It really bugs me that people are posing the question about who is better (as a passer and a player) between Nash and Magic Johnson. Some people have said that Nash is a better half-court passer than Magic and that Magic benefited from getting easy assists on the break. Apparently, these guys missed the 1991 playoffs (among other moments).

Another troubling thing about the Magic/Nash comparisons is the number of players these people skip over in making such comparisons. Instead of starting with a more reasonable peer group for Nash (guys like you've mentioned: Mark Price, Kevin Johnson, maybe Jason Kidd), they skip right past these guys and go straight to Magic. Is it is just assumed to be obvious that Nash has surpassed them all? Older players like Oscar Robertson and Walt Frazier aren't even mentioned anymore. Neither are more recent standouts like Isiah Thomas. These are all-time greats, guys who made their marks in the biggest games, who are being overlooked. And I'm not even sure Nash has had a better career than a bunch of players who almost certainly won't make the Hall of Fame (KJ, Price, Mo Cheeks, Dennis Johnson, Tim Hardaway, etc.).

I think you are right in that people are trying to retroactively justify Nash's MVPs (and to be honest, it's a joke that he has two and may soon have three). People are blinded by the accolades and stop examining things more carefully. Everyone has stopped thinking for themselves and bought into and spread the idea of Nash being an all-time great because he has MVPs. A few years from now, people are going to conclude that Nash was a better point guard than Oscar Robertson or Walt Frazier or Isiah Thomas because he has more MVPs. That's just sad.

At Monday, April 30, 2007 8:16:00 AM, Anonymous db said...

Nash is a better passer than Stockton. APG depends on a range of other variables (like, how much you handle the ball). Watching the games it's just obvious that Nash gets better angles and his ability with either hand is well above Stockton. Price and KJ also fall obviously behind in pure skill level.

Kidd is definitely a tougher question - Kidd's floor vision is comparable (possibly better), he is a much better rebounder and a much worse shooter, and a more adequate defender. And he's been doing it for longer.

Magic was probably just the best all-round PG to play the game but was so unique it's hard to make the comparisons.

One thing's for sure David, you certainly are a Laker homer ;).

At Monday, April 30, 2007 11:03:00 AM, Blogger marcel said...

steve nash is cold as hell theres no answer for him on the lakers 23 assists! come on only magic and stockton done that he's the best point guard in the league he goes in the lane everytimes wrapping around guys like it's nuthing stodamire was big too 27 21 he makes them contenders but nash is the man. far as better passer magic and stockton, they did it for a lot longer than nash there better isiah better even jason and gary if you talk career but passing only magic kidd on par and stockton better got to agree he's over praised by the media they act like he started it or something he's great though. hey jordan overpraised too that he made everbody career and never misssed a big shot. sometimes kobe overpriased when he score alot of points and teams lose hey it's part of it.

At Monday, April 30, 2007 5:49:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Please elaborate on why you think that Nash is a better passer than Stockton. Stockton certainly could pass with either hand. Also, his hands were huge, enabling him to fire one hand passes off of the dribble without touching the ball with his off hand. You mentioned that APG depends on how often a player handles the ball. Do you think that Stockton handled the ball more than Nash does?

Price was just as good a shooter as Nash. Johnny Bach, veteran assistant coach was the Bulls' "defensive coordinator" during the first threepeat, told me that Price was the best ever at splitting the trap on the pick and roll play.

KJ was much quicker and more explosive than Nash, a legit 20 ppg scorer who also put up huge assists numbers. I'd like to know what skill Nash possesses that KJ did not.

Kidd it not merely a "more adequate defender." He has been a perennial All-Defensive Team member. He is as good or better than Nash in every phase of the game except shooting (which, of course, is an important part of the game).

How am I a Laker homer? I picked the Suns to win the series. I just have not been brainwashed like most of the rest of the country to the point that I go along with the idea that we have never, ever seen a point guard like Steve Nash.

At Tuesday, May 01, 2007 12:45:00 AM, Anonymous Spencer said...

We're going straight to Magic because during game 4, Magic was interviewed and claimed Nash was a more complete PG than he was. What could be a better source? As for comparing Nash with Stockton, I have, and suggest you try this exercise. Go to Youtube, and find highlight clips of Stockton. Keep in mind these are supposedly the best clips they could find to showcase his skills. Concentrate on the quality of his best assists. Then find the Nash clips of 21 assists against Cleveland, or 23 against the Lakers, and compare the quality of what Nash does in one night against Stockton's best clips. Stockton was great, but Nash is something else.

At Tuesday, May 01, 2007 2:51:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I don't have to go to Youtube because I watched Stockton during his career; he could get anywhere on the court using the dribble and he could deliver any kind of pass. Furthermore, his assists numbers are off the charts, better than Nash's best--and for a much longer period of time. The bottom line, after all, is production, right? It doesn't matter how you got the ball there as long it gets there.

I make no claim about whether Nash is the most entertaining or the flashiest or anything of that nature. Again, my point is that Stockton could deliver any kind of pass. I keep hearing this nonsense about how all Stockton did is run the pick and roll. No one who watched Stockton play would say that; Stockton was a pinpoint passer on the fast break and was also great at delivering half court and length of the court baseball passes (he did that at a key moment in one of the Finals games versus the Bulls). By the way, isn't the pick and roll a big staple of what Nash does with Amare and Marion? Not that there is anything wrong with mastering the pick and roll--it is a beautiful play to watch and Nash is very, very good at it. Of course, for the play to work you also have to have good finishers who can catch and deliver. Stockton had Malone, Nash has Amare and Marion.

I saw the Magic interview on TV. We all know that Nash is a great player, so that is not a newsflash. Now, who exactly would sit there in Magic's position and say "I'm the greatest"? I know that Rickey Henderson did it with Lou Brock standing right next to him, after Henderson broke Brock's record. Marbury would say that he is the best point guard in the league. But how would it sound for Magic to sit there and say, "No, Michelle (Tafoya), I'm the greatest of all-time. I wish people would stop comparing that 6-3 guy who hasn't been to the Finals once to me. I'm 6-9, I won five rings and an NCAA title and I would have posted up Nash until he fouled out or I dropped 40 on him--and if the Suns double-teamed me I would have gotten about 35 assists against their weak defense." That would be real classy, wouldn't it?

This is like when someone asked Kobe late in the year if he should be the MVP and he said that he should be eliminated from consideration because of the Lakers' record. Does that mean that Kobe is not the MVP or that even he thinks he is not the MVP? Or does it mean that either (1) he did not want to sound arrogant, since that is one of the major flaws he is accused of having or (2) he got tired of answering the same MVP questions over and over? I'm sure that it would go over swell if Kobe said, "I'm the baddest man in the NBA. Nobody can guard me. No two players can guard me. I can lock anybody down on defense and I average over 5 apg even though I've got a bunch of teammates who can't shoot." Yeah, that would sound great. By the way, when Nash is asked if he thinks that he is the best player or the MVP, he usually also deflects the praise and says something to the effect that it is unbelievable to him that he has won the award twice--but that he is not planning to give the trophies back. Do you think, in his mind, that he does not believe that he is the best? Nobody becomes as good as Nash is without having a lot of self-confidence. If I were Nash, I'd believe that I am the best--and I'm sure that he does, too, as does Magic and as does Kobe.

That is why, when I interview players and coaches, I ask them WHY they believe something. That forces them to dispense with cliches and politically correct comments and to actually analyze the game. You have to dig deeper. This is not an exact analogy to the question at hand, but when Austin Carr told me that his knee injury changed his game I asked him specifically what it affected. The answer was very interesting (you can find a link to the interview on the main page).

A good interviewer digs deeper but to dig deeper you have to actually do research and know your stuff. That is the difference between people who speak off the top of their heads and people who know what they are talking about. Of course, you are not going to get that kind of questioning in a sideline interview that is basically fluff, so a soundbite from a Magic Johnson sideline interview does not really prove anything in this context.

Steve Nash is a great point guard, in the tradition of 6-0 to 6-3 point guards like Mark Price, John Stockton, Tim Hardaway and Kevin Johnson. Each of those guys had their own strengths and weaknesses but all could both score and pass. Magic and Kidd (and Payton when he was younger) are a different breed--bigger guards who could also rebound and postup. Kidd is a great defender, while Magic was able to guard multiple positions due to his size. In the Finals, the Lakers sometimes put him on Dr. J, using Magic's size to keep Dr. J off of the offensive boards. He could not stop Dr. J from scoring but he could rebound with Doc. Honestly, could Nash, Price, Stockton, KJ or Hardaway guard a guy like Dr. J? Well, KJ did check Jordan once in the Finals, but you get the point.

At Tuesday, May 01, 2007 11:35:00 AM, Blogger marcel said...

yeah thats funny because magic probably does think that too he cant touch magic and stockton i said that already even he said that but you dont really belive him either he probably think he is as good he's not. also the same could be said for micheal and kobe you think that jordan belives kobe should even be compared to him i got 6 rings 6 finals mvp 5 regular season mvp i averaged 37 and 35 won defensive player scored 63 against the greatest team arguably of all time oh yeah had 10 triple doubles in 11 games 88-89 3 all star mvp and yeah he was the second best player on his championship teams if i woulda played with shaq when i was 18-26 well we dont want to talk about that. we all know magic better so stop trying to down nash david

At Tuesday, May 01, 2007 3:46:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I'm not "downing" Nash. I have repeatedly said that I would have voted him second for MVP in '05 and in my top five last year and this year. I'm just not buying into the group think that puts him up there with Magic or elevates him far above some of his predecessors who did some similar things.


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