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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Duncan's Dominance, Ginobili's Clutch Shot Carry Spurs to Victory

ESPN Classic should be showing the Spurs-Suns game on 24 hour rotation for about the next week. If those teams can serve up six more games that are even half as exciting as that one then basketball fans are in for a real treat. In case you missed it--and shame on you if you did--San Antonio beat Phoenix 117-115 in double overtime. Tim Duncan strengthened his case for being considered not only the greatest power forward of all-time but also the dominant NBA player of the post-Michael Jordan era. He finished with 40 points and 15 rebounds, the fourth time he has had a 40-15 game in his playoff career; he is tied for fifth-seventh (with Hakeem Olajuwon and Bob Pettit) on the all-time list. Naturally, Wilt Chamberlain (13) is the leader, followed by Elgin Baylor (9), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (8) and Shaquille O'Neal (7). Duncan also had five assists; he, Chamberlain and Baylor are the only players in NBA history who have had multiple 40-15-5 games in the playoffs. Included in Duncan's point total is an extremely rare occurrence: a made three pointer--and this was not just an end of the quarter heave; Duncan drained a coldblooded trey to enable the Spurs to survive the first overtime.

After the first 19 minutes or so no one would have guessed that the game was headed for extra sessions, let alone that the Spurs would eventually win; Phoenix built a 43-27 lead even though Shaquille O'Neal was stuck on the bench due to foul trouble and Duncan was well on his way to having a huge night. Duncan scored 20 points on 7-9 field goal shooting in the first half but the other Spurs shot just 7-28 from the field. In the second half and the two overtimes, Duncan continued to be effective and the two other key Spurs--Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker--asserted themselves as well. Parker finished with 26 points and five turnovers, while Ginobili added 24 points, five assists, four rebounds, three steals and the game winning drive to the hoop.

It is easy to compare Duncan's numbers to O'Neal's (11 points, five rebounds, four blocked shots) and conclude that the O'Neal trade did not fulfill its primary objective, at least in this playoff game. However, the truth is that Duncan did a lot of his damage against Amare Stoudemire and that even when O'Neal was on the court there were times that he played tentatively on defense because he was trying to avoid fouling out. When O'Neal picked up his fifth foul at the 6:14 mark of the fourth quarter the Suns led 82-77; O'Neal made it the rest of the way without being disqualified but he was less aggressive than usual when he challenged players who were driving to the hoop. One could make the case that O'Neal will spend this whole series in foul trouble and therefore not be effective but I don't believe that; it is true that he is more foul prone now that he is older and not as mobile as he used to be but he proved during two regular season wins versus the Spurs that he could effectively play against Duncan without getting in foul trouble.

In the second half we got some glimpses of some of the things that the Suns can do with O'Neal that they could never have even dreamed of doing without him. As I expected, the Suns opened the second half with a steady diet of feeding the ball to O'Neal in the post, a strategy that leads to high percentage shots and could potentially get the Spurs in foul trouble. Paraphrasing what Jeff Van Gundy said during that stretch, the value of having a post up game is that it stabilizes momentum during a game when a team can get an easy, high percentage shot and not have to rely on shooting jumpers.

This game was loaded with plays that seemed huge at the time but were then surpassed by subsequent plays. For instance, with 6:28 left in the fourth quarter O'Neal completed a three point play to put the Suns up 82-76. However, O'Neal never had the opportunity to further assert his dominance in the post for two reasons: (1) he soon picked up his fifth foul, which limited his aggressiveness at both ends of the court; (2) Spurs' Coach Gregg Popovich reacted to the Suns' success in posting up O'Neal by employing the "Hack a Shaq" strategy--intentionally fouling O'Neal away from the ball, ensuring that each Phoenix offensive possession would result in two O'Neal free throws (this can only be done prior to the two minute mark, after which time if a team fouls a player away from the ball then the offended team can choose any player to shoot one free throw and they retain possession of the ball). I have always been skeptical of the value of the "Hack a Shaq" strategy because each possession is generally considered to be worth a point. That means that if O'Neal makes one of two free throws then the opponents are not gaining anything. Furthermore, the stoppage of play enables O'Neal's team to set up a good half court defense. Normally, Popovich does not employ this gimmick but after the game he said that he went with a hunch. After O'Neal missed both free throws the first time that he was fouled Phoenix Coach Mike D'Antoni took O'Neal out of the game, which I think was a mistake; if the Spurs want to slow the game down and get in the bonus early (increasing the likelihood that the Suns' excellent free throw shooters will also get some attempts) then I would let them do it if I were the opposing coach. More to the point, I would not let the other coach dictate to me how I deploy my personnel; without O'Neal in the game the Suns not only lost their post presence on offense but also the anchor of their defense in the paint. The Suns led 82-79 when D'Antoni benched O'Neal and they trailed 88-86 when D'Antoni put him back in the game.

With O'Neal back in the paint for the closing couple minutes, the Suns took a 93-90 lead. They got a stop and had possession of the ball with :44 left. One more score would have all but clinched the game. Instead, Steve Nash dribbled around but never created a good shot for himself or a teammate, resulting in a shot clock violation. Then the Suns had a defensive breakdown, enabling Michael Finley to hit the tying three pointer. Even after that, the Suns had the ball with 15 seconds remaining but they did not get a shot off until Leandro Barbosa made an off balance fling with one second left. Steve Nash's numbers the past few seasons are wonderful but MVPs and legends are supposed to be made in these kind of moments; he runs the show and he simply has to make sure that his team at least gets off a good shot during those two crucial possessions. In the first overtime the Suns twice took five point leads but again they were unable to seal the deal, leaving Duncan wide open for the tying three pointer near the end of the extra session. The Suns never led in the second overtime and after Nash hit a three pointer to tie the score at 115 the Spurs wisely eschewed calling a timeout, preventing the Suns from bringing O'Neal back in to protect the paint; that enabled Ginobili to get all the way to the rim to score the game-winning layup. At the end of the fourth quarter, O'Neal was on the court in a similar situation and he blocked Ginobili's shot, leading to a transition opportunity that resulted in a Barbosa layup and that 93-90 Phoenix lead that the Suns were not able to maintain.

It is certainly incumbent on O'Neal to try to avoid foul trouble in the remaining games but the reality is that the Suns blew several golden opportunities to win this game. Particularly glaring, in my opinion, are D'Antoni's decision to immediately bench O'Neal in response to the "Hack a Shaq," the shot clock violation at the end of regulation and the defensive breakdowns that led to open shots for the Spurs at the end of regulation, the first overtime and the second overtime. O'Neal is no longer going to regularly put up 30 points and 15 rebounds; he is in a good role now as the third or fourth most important player on the Suns but the inside presence that he provides should be just enough for the Suns to get past the Spurs, provided that the Suns have the mental toughness and awareness that is necessary to close out playoff games. After the game, Popovich said that he was most proud of his team's mental toughness, prompting ESPN analyst Jalen Rose to observe that not only is this trait a San Antonio strength but it is also a Phoenix weakness. That deficit, more than other factors that Suns' backers like to use as excuses, explains why the Suns have yet to win a title--and if the Suns lose to the Spurs again this year it will be a primary factor, particularly since O'Neal has shored up the team's main technical weakness (lack of paint presence).

It is important to remember that each playoff game is a separate entity and that despite O'Neal's foul trouble and Duncan's epic performance the Suns still had several chances to win. Over the next couple weeks we will find out if this is a good sign for Phoenix or simply an indication that the Spurs will continue to win most of the close games in this matchup because of their superior mental toughness and focus.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:43 AM



At Sunday, April 20, 2008 10:26:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was one of the greatest play-off games i have ever seen. I think the same way you do about D'Antoni's response to the "Hack a Shaq" tactic. When he was on the floor, he stood against Duncan well,at least at an above average level and the Spurs grabbed the momentum (and then the lead) thanks to the layups made by Ginobili, seemed to be rather quiet in the first three quarters. This was a big mistake by him. Another one came at the end when he couldn't create a good last possession play; instead,Diaw desperately tried to make a 18-feet fade-away jumper in a tough situation. Popovich dominated the game against D'Antoni as the last game winner Ginobili layup clearly demonstrated.

However, i disagree with your take on Nash's performance. Yes,he dribbled too much on that play and caused a missed opportunity,but look at what he did in the overtimes? He assisted twice on baskets by Stoudemire and made three jumpers without missing any. Then Stoudemire was fouled out but Nash continued scoring by hitting two more jumpers and that last trey was a very tough shot that only likes of Kobe could make. He missed one of the three free throws but Barry, another excellent free throw shooter missed one. In my opinion, Nash nowadays is one of the best clutch players in the business.

I still feel that the Suns will steal the game two in San Antonio and advance to the next round in six games. And Duncan will not be as dictating in the rest of the series as he was yesterday.


At Sunday, April 20, 2008 2:42:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a game ! Thanks for your daily recap. Reading you every day.

In european basketball, coaches never let the opponent to play a system for a three pointer in the last seconds of a game. I was disturb that D'Antony has not tried to foul the Spurs. 2 three point lead "wasted" for the same result : a three by Finley followed by...Duncan !

If the Spurs were unable to make a three with only the free throw line for scoring (making each free throw), the Suns would have a one point lead and the possesion for the remaining seconds...

I'm just surprised that i heard so many times that teams have to not give easy basket (on a fastbreak or when a player is alone under the glass... and i can see very rarely this kind of strategy in nba (maybe i'm wrong or i missed something!).

At Sunday, April 20, 2008 7:17:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree that Nash played well in the overtime sessions but these closely contested playoff games sometimes come down to one or two key possessions. Nash is renowned for his efficiency and for making players better, the two reasons that he has won two MVPs; he had an opportunity to efficiently make a play on a possession that could have won the game in regulation, which would have made the overtimes unnecessary. I'm not saying that the whole evaluation of his value should hinge on that one possession--Magic Johnson once dribbled out the clock in a tied game in the playoffs--but I am suggesting that there are reasons that the Suns have not gotten past the Spurs that go beyond the bad luck that Suns' supporters always gripe about. Coaching and execution down the stretch have not exactly been strong suits for the Suns versus the Spurs (not just in this one game, either).

I also still believe that the Suns are capable of beating the Spurs in this series but there is no denying that they blew a golden opportunity.

At Sunday, April 20, 2008 7:21:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


A lot of people have criticized the Suns for not fouling in those situations. I think that even among excellent coaches there is disagreement about what is the best strategy in that situation. There is certainly a valid rationale for fouling but there is a chance that the offensive player will convince the official that he was in his shooting motion. What I cannot understand is why the Suns were not switching on everything on those two plays. A two point shot would not hurt them so how could they give up wide open threes twice?

The Suns still can win this series because they can contend with the Spurs in the paint now that they have Shaq but there is a difference between needing to win three games out of six and needing to win four games out of six and that difference is significant when you are talking about two evenly matched teams. If you are in a race against someone who is just as fast as you and you give him even one step for a head start then you will have a tough time catching up. The Suns squandered a 16 point lead and repeatedly messed up opportunities to close out the game when they had small leads with just seconds left.

At Monday, April 21, 2008 2:26:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

It's been ten years since the start of the "post-Michael Jordan era" (if we pretend, like everyone does, that Jordan didn't play after 1998). I don't know why we have to pick one dominant player for such a long period of time. I think Shaq was the dominant player from 1998-2002 and Duncan has been the dominant player since.

I think Saturday's thriller was a good illustration of how things will be different for the Spurs in the playoffs. Duncan simply takes his game to another level. His performance reminded me of what he did two years ago against Dallas (yeah, they lost, but Duncan was much more dominant in that series than he was in the 2006 regular season).

It's easy to look back and say that the Spurs had to play a great game just to have a chance to end up with a lucky win. However, given how Duncan was the only player on the team who showed up for the first half, the Spurs can clearly play better. The fact that they climbed back into the game says a lot. Also, if the Suns won, we might be talking about how amazing they played only to barely win. Shaq has battled foul trouble all year, so I wouldn't count his foul trouble as extenuating circumstances to rationalize the Suns' loss.

At Tuesday, April 22, 2008 11:13:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I can't speak for others but when I say "post Michael Jordan era" I am referring to the time when MJ was no longer the best player in the league. It has been a decade since that time.

As for the rest of your comment, we essentially are both saying, "It could go either way." It is possible to look at game one and say that the Spurs could play better and therefore they will win the series but it is also possible to look at game one and say that the Suns should have won if they had just executed better on any number of late game plays. The difference is that in previous years the Spurs clearly enjoyed an advantage in the paint but this year--Duncan's big game notwithstanding--I don't believe that to be the case. I think that Shaq can stay out of foul trouble long enough to have an effect on Duncan in the subsequent games.


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