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Monday, February 23, 2009

Celtics Outrun, Outgun Defenseless Suns

The coaching change "honeymoon" may be over in Phoenix after the Celtics blitzed the Suns 128-108 on Sunday afternoon. The Suns fired Coach Terry Porter--replacing him with assistant coach Alvin Gentry--right before playing two games against the Clippers and one game against the Thunder. Phoenix scored at least 140 points while winning each of those games against hapless opponents but the defending champion Celtics were having none of that even though their defensive anchor Kevin Garnett missed the game due to injury. Phoenix' high scoring All-Star forward Amare Stoudemire also did not play due to injury but, based on what we've seen this season, whatever he might have added to Phoenix' total at one end of the court he very likely would have given up defensively at the other end of the court, so the outcome of the game would not have ultimately changed had Stoudemire suited up.

When a team gets rid of a coach literally in the middle of All-Star Weekend of his first season with the team, it is obvious that the organization made a huge mistake either in initially hiring him and/or in dismissing him so quickly. To his credit, Suns President Steve Kerr is neither hiding from the difficult questions nor shirking responsibility for his actions. Kerr admitted that he "put too much on (Porter's) plate" and "underestimated" how difficult it would be to try to transform the Suns defensively. He added that Porter is a good man and a good coach and said, "I really feel awful about (firing Porter) but the organization has to come first." Kerr believes that the Suns still have time to turn things around and make the playoffs.

While broadcasting the Magic-Heat game, Hubie Brown offered his take on Porter's ouster and the Suns' future: "There is a lot of pressure on their group (of players) out there that took a stand against Terry Porter and his coaching staff to go to the new style. Let's see how they deliver from now until the end of the season." Brown is not the slightest bit impressed by the Suns' three wins against inferior opponents and essentially said that this is put up or shut up time for all of the players who ran Porter out of town after half a season on the job.

It has been said that a picture tells a thousand words but it is also true that sometimes a few choice words can paint a very vivid picture. During the ABC telecast of the Boston-Phoenix game, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson offered some pointed comments about the Suns:

1) Van Gundy said that Steve Nash, Grant Hill and Stoudemire made no effort to buy into Porter's approach and give him a reasonable chance to succeed. Van Gundy declared that this conduct will forever be a "blight" on those players' resumes. Although that may sound extreme, it is important to remember--as Van Gundy later mentioned--that after last year's playoff loss several Suns' players conceded that the team had to get better defensively. Steve Kerr hired Porter specifically to establish a defensive mindset but the players rebelled against Porter and they did it in the worst possible way; instead of communicating with him and trying to understand why he wanted to do things a certain way, they simply sulked and gave half hearted effort. Van Gundy recalled that his mentor Pat Riley used to say that you have to be all the way in or all the way out; during the first half of the season, the Suns were halfway in, halfway out.

2) Van Gundy noted that the Spurs consistently beat the Suns in the playoffs because the Spurs are a "more balanced team" that "takes offense seriously, takes defense seriously and takes rebounding seriously--and they would never run a coup on their coach."

3) When ABC's cameras panned to Suns' assistant coach Dan Majerle, Van Gundy said, "Dan Majerle, at whatever age he is now, would be the Suns' best defensive player."

4) Several Suns players argued about fouls that replays showed were obviously correctly called. Van Gundy commented, "The Suns are basically complaining on every call right now and that mental weakness has been one of the reasons that they have struggled in big games." I have made that exact point several times: the Suns always have excuses when they lose and they are prone to making mental errors in crunch time, two clear indicators that they are a mentally weak, unfocused team. No one wants to hear about injuries, suspensions, foul calls or anything else. Do you think that the Celtics, Spurs, Heat, Pistons, Lakers or any other recent championship teams did not overcome various forms of adversity in order to reach the mountaintop?

5) Rajon Rondo had 22 first half points on 8-11 shooting and he finished with 32 points on 13-18 shooting. Nash guarded him some of the time but then the Suns kept switching Nash on to other players. During the second half, Van Gundy said, "They're just abusing Steve Nash, no matter who he switches on to." Nash is a wonderfully gifted passer and shooter but when objective historians look back at this era of basketball history they are going to be dumbfounded that a player who is so helpless at one end of the court is a member of the elite club of multiple MVP winners. Nash's inability to contain dribble penetration severely compromises Phoenix' defense; the Suns often try to counter this by hiding him defensively but then that forces Grant Hill or someone else to play out of position defensively. If you look at the recent NBA championship teams, the best player generally had a strong impact defensively and that filtered down to the attitudes of the other players on the roster. Nash does not have that kind of impact nor has his team ever had the right defensive mindset.

6) After one particularly galling sequence, Jackson said of Phoenix' defense, "That is embarrassing. Absolutely embarrassing."

Former Georgetown Coach and current TNT commentator John Thompson once said of Dirk Nowitzki that he is very mobile and athletic on offense so there is no reason that he cannot be very mobile and athletic on defense. The same reasoning applies to the Suns collectively: they move just fine at the offensive end of the court but unless they become completely committed to playing defense they will continue to experience postseason frustration.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:37 AM



At Monday, February 23, 2009 7:20:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dave, is it really that bad that Nash can't guard the likes of Parker/Paul/Williams? Popovich often uses Bowen on these guys too, so I think its a pretty decent option to put your best defender there. Other than Deron Williams, I have not seen any PG who could consistently hold CP3 down. Devin Harris seems to be the only PG who gives Parker problems.

Sure, you always want to get better defensively, but from the games that I have seen, only Nash and Hill seem to be really trying.

The Suns seem to be a very moody team. If their shots are not falling, they don't exert more effort on D, which is confusing because that's how you get easy baskets anyway.

What's wrong with this team? First it was Marion who was a "locker room cancer" then it was Diaw who was a "locker room cancer." They were also shopping Amare because he was turning into a "locker room cancer."


At Monday, February 23, 2009 8:23:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree that those guys can be tough covers for anyone. The problem with Nash is that he is a defensive liability no matter who he is assigned to guard. His only defensive "move" is to slide underneath drivers and beg for a charging call. He does not get a lot of steals and is not strong enough to hold his ground in the post against most players.

Team defense starts from the top down. KG sets a defensive tone for Boston, as does Duncan in San Antonio, LeBron in Cleveland and Kobe in L.A. Nash does not set a similar tone for PHX and that is a major reason that the Suns have never made it to the Finals under his watch.

I agree completely with JVG's assessment that the Suns are a mentally weak team. That is the real reason behind all of the bickering and the lack of focus on the task at hand.

At Monday, February 23, 2009 11:17:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

True, but isn't asking a "defensive liability" to "set the tone defensively" kind of a tall task?

For this discussion, lets forget that Nash won a couple of MVPs, instead lets focus on his game. He was the 2nd, or 3rd best player in Dallas, and he had to carry a bigger offensive load in Phoenix, which he did brilliantly.

I do not know what more you could ask from Nash, since he does give the effort and tries to get the job done to the best of his abilities. He did more than what was expected of him.

Now, his team didn't fare as well, but were those championship dreams a reasonable expectation to begin with?

It wasn't just Suns offense vs Spurs defense, as talking heads like to hype it up. "Sure the Suns suck defensively, but the Spurs have a boring offense," they like to say. Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker can create shots for themselves and for their teammates. The Suns only have Nash. (Amare can't create for his teammates).

The Spurs are seen as so boring that this little fact gets ignored. The Suns lost to a top 2 defensive team that had 3 players who could create.

The Suns' mental stength are often criticized for their inability to come back from behind, but let's not forget why they were behind in the first place.


At Tuesday, February 24, 2009 2:06:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Even if Nash does not have the skill set/physical attributes necessary to be a top defender, as the leader of the team he has to be the one who sets the tone in terms of the team's values and mindset. In order to win a championship, a team has to be defensive-minded. As JVG indicated, Nash is part of the group of players that never really gave Porter a chance to find a happy medium between being a running team and being a team that is capable of getting key defensive stops. I agree with JVG and Hubie Brown that now the onus is really on Nash and the others to do something down the stretch; they ran off their coach after barely half a season and there is a lot of talent on the roster even with Amare out of the lineup, so now let's see the Suns accomplish something.

As for your comparisons of the Suns' talent with the Spurs' talent over the years, either the Suns' players were overrated or they were just as talented as the Spurs. Nash is a two-time MVP, just like Duncan. Amare is a four-time All-Star, three time All-NBA player and a Rookie of the Year--he has as many All-Star selections as Manu and Parker combined. Barbosa is a Sixth Man Award winner. Diaw was a versatile, talented player for the Suns, as was four-time All-Star Shawn Marion. You can bet that if Kobe had a supporting cast like the one Nash has had over the past few years he'd be expected to win at least one championship.

So, either Nash and some of those players received accolades that they don't deserve or there has been a hell of a lot of talent in Phoenix in the past 4-5 seasons. I have made it clear that I don't think that Nash should have won either of his MVPs but I would still say that he was the best pg in the league during that time. Phoenix' failure to even reach the Finals once was not due to a lack of talent, nor was it primarily caused by the various factors that Suns' followers like to use as excuses (all of the contenders had to deal with injuries, questionable foul calls and other forms of adversity).


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