Monday, May 23, 2005

 

Moving Shop

Hey everyone. All future Rising Suns posts will be at my new home on the Most Valuable Network. It adds just a touch of legitamacy to what I'm doing.

Peace.

suns.mostvaluablenetwork.com

Sunday, May 22, 2005

 

The Machine

Tim Duncan operates at a level unlike any player in the NBA. Efficiency and production are his game. When he needs to step up, he does. During the season, Duncan is a 67% free throw shooter, but in the Spurs' dismantling of the Suns in game one of the Western Conference Finals, Duncan knocked down 8 of 10 and went 10 of 21 from the field going for 28 and 15, demonstrating, to nobody's surprise, that, yes, he is the best player in the NBA. If Duncan had a bad ankle, he certainly fooled me.

If game one showed me anything, it's that this series is not going to be a defensive struggle. While the Suns put up 114, shot 48.8% from the field and 40% from beyond the arc, San Antonio played a 51.7% trump card from the field. This series is going to be about offense, the problem for the Suns is that the Spurs run the single most efficient offensive machine in the NBA. Half court set? Best in the league. You want to run with them? They can keep up with anybody.

But this series is not going to be about defense. Not when the final score is 121-114 and both teams are shooting around 50%.

In a curious, and ultimately brilliant, defensive decision, Gregg Popovich put Tim Duncan on Quentin Richardson and had Bruce Bowen hound Shawn Marion. Q, who was invisible in the Dallas series, didn't bother to bring his 'A' game. Q passed up at least three wide-open threes because his confidence was shot. When he finally hit one, it was a relief, and I thought that Q would start to chuck up bombs for the remainder of the game. Marion, in the meantime, went 1-6 in this game and managed only 3 points. With the complete lack of production coming from two key starters, the Suns had to turn to their defense to create stops in the fourth quarter.

43 points later, San Antonio strutted off of the court with home court advantage in tow, and the chance to go up 2-0 in this series.

Joe Johnson was sorely missed in this game. He'd better be prepared to lace it up in game two. His presence will add depth to the Suns' bench and will stretch out San Antonio's perimeter defense beyond what I think they are capable of holding together.

The real killers in this game were the role players off of the bench for the Spurs. Brent Barry had a playoff career high with 21 points, 5-8 from downtown, and was deadly in the fourth quarter. Robert Horry also hit some huge shots down the stretch (what else is new?).

The Suns played with no intensity. In the fourth quarter, the Spurs two-point lead felt like a ten-point lead. The Suns just didn't get in their faces at any point in that fourth quarter.

In some ways, the Suns' play reminded me of the Mavs' play in game one of the semis; coming off an emotional closeout game, the Suns experienced a letdown. Naturally, the Suns look at game two as a must win. Going down 0-2 is not an option in this series, especially when taking on the most efficient basketball machine in the NBA.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

 

Defensive Breakdown of the Season Series

Okay, just for kicks, here's the defensive breakdown for the Suns/Spurs season series. For those who are curious, I've divided them into two sections: the first is all three games, the second is the two victories that the Spurs had over Phoenix with Duncan and Ginobili playing.

Phoenix:
FG%: 49.5%
3pt FG%: 43.7%
Turnovers: 53
San Antonio Defensive Rebound Efficiency: 76.2%

Phoenix Losses:
FG%: 48.1%
3pt FG%: 45.4%
Turnovers: 38
San Antonio Defensive Rebound Efficiency: 77.1%

San Antonio:
FG%: 48.2%
3pt FG%: 28.3%
Turnovers: 34
Phoenix Defensive Reboudning Efficiency: 73.5%

San Antonio Wins:
FG%: 50.3%
3pt FG%: 32.3%
Turnovers: 22
Phoenix Defenisve Rebounding Efficiency: 68.0%

And of course, everybody's favorite useless statistic:
PPG allowed
Phoenix: 114.7
San Antonio: 108

Granted, the only stat that really matters in those games was who won the game, but I wanted to highlight the fact that these teams aren't as mismatched as the entire universe seems to believe.

Where the Spurs really nailed this Suns this season was on turnovers and offensive rebounds. The Suns' achilles heal all season has been the offensive glass. If the Spurs are going to stop the Suns, it's not going to be because the Suns can't put the ball in the hole. It will be because the Spurs beat the Suns on the offensive glass and force Nash to turn the ball over.
 

Some Interesting Numbers

Much is going to be made of the Suns' offense and (ostensible) lack of defense against the Spurs' vaunted, suffocating D.

Well, here are the defensive numbers breakdown for both series. Remember, both series went six games:

The defensive rebounding efficiency rating is the percentage of defensive rebounds taken down off of missed shots (Total missed shots minus offensive rebounds relinquished divided by total missed shots, so for San Antonio, there were 237 missed shots that counted for non-team rebounds. The Spurs gave up 74 offensive boards in the series. 163/237 gives my rebounding efficiency rating).

These numbers are for the entire series

Seattle
FG%: 45.0% (206/458)
3pt FG%: 26.9% (21/78)
Turnovers: 76
Spurs Defensive Rebounding Efficiency: 68.8% (163 DReb/74 OReb Given Up)

Dallas
FG%: 45.6% (255/559)
3pt FG%: 31.4% (33/105)
Turnovers: 75
Suns Defensive Rebounding Efficiency: 68.2% (199 DReb/93 OReb Given Up)

Obviously, to say that the Suns got more rebounds than San Antonio is deceiving, because there were 55 more missed shots on the defensive end in the Dallas/Phoenix series than in the San Antonio/Seattle series. On a similar note, points per game allowed is not a very telling statistic, because as I've been saying over and over again, more possessions lead to more shot attempts. Dallas attempted 101 more shots than Seattle did over the course of the series.

Those numbers look awfully similar for two teams that have such disparate defensive capabilities.

Makes you think a bit, doesn't it?

Friday, May 20, 2005

 

The Closeout II: Killer Instinct Doesn't Die

Did you hear that? That noise? It's silence. A hush from those that said the Suns didn't have the killer instinct. It's a shocked look on the faces of the critics. It's Steven A. Smith backpeddaling desperately on ESPN after saying the Suns looked rattled in game six because, "Hey, playoffs."

That sound is Steve Nash hitting a clutch three at the end of regulation to send the game into overtime. That sound is the Suns roaring from a 16-point deficit with less than four minutes in the third quarter. That sound is the Mavericks hitting the Purple Wall in the fourth quarter as Phoenix ripped off a 22-6 run to tie up the contest. That sound is the killer instinct that is so important in the playoffs; the characteristic that the media has been slamming Phoenix all year long for lacking. That sound is the silence of those critics. Those critics that were wrong.

The silence.

And this is what they'll say now:

...the Suns haven't faced a team like San Antonio that can play grind-it-out defense night-in/night out. The Spurs have the #1 scoring defense and the #3 FG% in the NBA.

(The Suns' first round opponent, Memphis, was the #4 scoring defense in the NBA and the #6 defensive FG% in the league)

...if Amare has trouble against Erick Dampier, how's he going to fair against the front line of Mohammed, Duncan, and Rasho?

(In the two games in which the Spurs had Duncan up front to protect the rim, Amare dropped 37 and 35. In two losses, yes, but he made the Spurs look pretty silly)

...the Spurs took two out of three in the regular season, and the one they lost was a close one without Ginobili and without Duncan.

(And the second loss Phoenix suffered was the day after the trade for Jim Jackson. With Barbosa hurt, the Suns suited up nine guys. On the bench: Jake Voskuhl, Bo Outlaw, Steven Hunter, and Smush Parker)

...The Suns have a very thin team. Look at the Dallas series, their starters played 600,000 minutes per game.

(Actually, the matchup with the Spurs instantly lengthens the Suns bench. Against Dallas, there was nobody for Steven Hunter to guard, making for matchup issues for most of the series in the middle. With Nazr, Duncan, et al. up front for the Spurs, it gives the Suns a chance to give Hunter more minutes, and the fact that they have fewer big time offensive threats coming off of the bench, a la Stackhouse, the Suns
can matchup much better against San Antonio with their bench)

......

The X-factor in this series is Joe Johnson. If Joe cannot contribute significantly in this series, the Suns will not win the series. Period. The Spurs' perimeter defense is a suffocating one, and Joe adds that tension on the outside that will allow the Suns the stretch the likes of Bowen and Ginobili out as far as possible.

The upcoming series with San Antonio will be brutal for both teams. The major difference between the Spurs and the Suns is that the Spurs have no weaknesses. They have the most efficient half-court sets in the league; they can run a full-court game if necessary; their half-court defense is legendary; and their transition defense is unparalleled.

If San Antonio comes into this series with the same attitude that they had against Seattle, the Suns will walk all over them. But the Spurs are the favorites in this series for a reason. If they play Spurs basketball across a seven-game series, it will be tough for the Suns to win.

But I'm not conceding the series. Far from it. I believe the Suns will continue to surprise the doubters across the country. Here are some other things to take into serious consideration:

-The Spurs were a .500 road team this season. While they had the best home record in the league, a 21-20 road record gives the Suns a small edge because of the home court advantage.

-The Suns were the best road team in the league. They had the same record at home as on the road (31-10) and are 3-1 on the road in the playoffs so far this year. Winning two in the American Airlines Center is not an easy task.

-Duncan's ankle is tweaked. It's not a debilitating injury, but it could keep him from running up and down the floor, at least in game one.

The Suns must come out swinging. They must protect the home court. If you give a game away to San Antonio, you're digging your own grave. The Spurs have proven that they are vulnerable from a game-to-game basis this postseason. The Suns must capitalize on that, and take advantage of the killer instinct that they demonstrated in their second-round series.

I'm not going to be so bold as to predict an outcome to this series, because the truth is, I just don't know. I do believe that if the series goes seven, that the Suns will win because of the home court advantage.

But this is the series that everybody in the country wanted to see. A chance for the Suns to prove to every basketball fan across the country that the most fun team to watch can also be the best team.

Everybody who is not a Spurs fan should be rooting for Phoenix. Phoenix represents the good in the NBA: fun, fast-paced action with some of the most electrifying players in the league. The Spurs represent the evil in the NBA: a boring, grind-it-out defensive-oriented team with arguably the most boring superstar in sports history (Seriously, has there been a player in any sport as good as Tim Duncan that less fun to watch? Personally, I think Duncan is the single best player in the NBA, and I'd take him before anybody else to start a team. But I can't think of a guy who puts more sports fans to sleep than The Big Fundamental).

If the Finals matchup is Spurs/Pistons, expect to hear a collective "CLICK!" across the country as millions of casual sports fans turn the channel to watch reruns of CSI: Sacramento. The only person rooting harder than me for the Suns to make the Finals is David Stern.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

 

The Purple Wall

It's going to happen every game. It's not a question of if, but merely a question of when. The Suns are going to throw up that Purple Wall that they create each and every game, night-in/night-out. You can count the number of times that the Suns have failed to erect it this season on one hand; most of those times were sans the MVP. It's the secret weapon that the Suns have. Even playing shorthanded doesn't seem to deter the construction crew from building the Purple Wall.

The Purple Wall is the shock that the opposing team faces when the Suns turn on the jets in second half. Inevitably, the Suns' opponents shut down because they are just too damned tired to keep sprinting up and down the court with Phoenix, but the Suns do not tire. They keep going. Like the Energizer Bunny after a sixer of Red Bull. The Suns make a huge run almost every game. As somebody who has seen almost every game this season, it's a tremendous shock to me when they don't engineer a 15-0 run in a game.

I mentioned after game four that as the first half goes, so do the Suns. The two losses that the Suns earned this series had to do with flat, uninspired first halves. The Suns have outplayed the Mavericks in the second half in every single game this series. In game two, the Suns found themselves within an inch of a missed three-pointer of going up game two after coming out in the first half like their dogs had all been put to sleep the night before. Game four was far worse, as the Suns dug themselves such a deep hole, that Dallas was looking to claim title to the Grand Canyon. The Suns were unable to ride Steve Nash's 48-point explosion to a victory.

The Mavericks thought that they had acccomplished something amazing, that they had developed a gameplan: turn Steve Nash into Allen Iverson. Well, Nash did his best AI impression, and the Suns lost.

But in game five, Nash decided to emulate somebody different. Evidently understanding that 48 points, five assists, and a basket full of turnovers doesn't cut it, Nash did his best Jason Kidd impression and collected a triple double...by the third quarter.

The Suns didn't look so great in the first half of game five, but they didn't look hopeless. Keep it close, and they'll win, I said to myself. Just don't let it get out of hand. The Mavs will hit the Purple Wall, every team does.

The seven-point deficit at halftime looked like 20 to the 18,000 purple-clad Suns fans (fans, bandwagoners, whatever), but I knew. I knew that Dallas was playing with fire when the Suns came out in the third quarter, posting a five-point lead at one point. The AWA wanted the Suns to pull away, but the Mavs wouldn't let them. No, the Purple Wall hadn't been built yet. Too weak, not enough reinforcement, trying again in the fourth quarter. After all, the Suns found themselves within one point after three.

Ah yes, the fourth quarter. The wear on the tires of the Mavericks became visible. They needed another halftime to get their bearings. The fans did their best impression of the Cameron Crazies, hardly sitting down for the span of the final 12 minutes of play. The arena was so loud that individual screams from fans were swallowed up by the collective whole, creating a cacophony of Suns support. The noise disrupted more than one play, as the Mavericks looked as if the din was giving them headaches.

Shot clock winds down. Bad shot thrown up. Suns get the board. Fast break. Dunk. Was that a whistle? I think it was. Couldn't hear it. Neither could anybody in the crowd. A foul. And one. Crowd goes crazy. It's up. It's been built. The Purple Wall.

The Suns went up as many as 13 in the fourth quarter. Jim Jackson played like a man possessed, hitting 7-8 for 15 points, including a pivotal three-pointer that tore the roof off of the AWA.

But the game wasn't over. After the Suns had successfully built the Purple Wall, after the Mavericks got over their deer-in-the-headlights syndrome, Dallas made a small charge in the final minutes. The Suns couldn't finish up a quarter in this game five, allowing Dallas to sneak back into position as the clock approached zero in each period.

Then there was the heart-stopping moment. The moment that could have changed the series entirely. Under 30 seconds. Tick tick tick. Suns up eight. Tick tick tick. Jason Terry drains a three, Suns up five. Under 20 seconds left. Suns try to inbound the ball. They turn it over. Josh Howard gets a clean look at a three. The ball goes up. Tick tick tick. 18,000 fans hold their breath. Clang. Rebound Phoenix. Meltdown averted.

That three would have made it a two-point game with about 15 seconds left. I wiped my brow, let out a sigh of relief, and watched the Suns take down game five.

I watched as Steve Nash played as if he was sending Mark Cuban a long, angry message about picking Erick Dampier over him. I watched as Amare Stoudemire did his best Amare Stoudemire impression after stumbling out of the blocks in the first quarter. I watched as Jim Jackson tore the Dallas defense to pieces. I watched as the Suns bench was able to contribute in significant ways (Although Barbosa and McCarty didn't do much of anything on offense, they were huge factors on the defense end of the court, playing great on the ball, and team defense).

And now what? Well, it's important not to lose sight of the fact that this is a seven-game series. The Suns must win four games to take it down. Winning three games at the end of a seven game series is worth the same as winning zero games. But the reward for the Suns is that they get two chances to close out the series. Dallas has their backs to the wall, but a comfortable bed to sleep in. Game six will be a tough closeout game. The American Airlines Center will be filled with desperation. Unlike the AWA, the fans in Dallas know that if their team loses, the season is over.

Joe Update: The prognosis is not good. Joe is set to be re-evaluted today, but the Suns don't expect him back for the balance of the series.

Joe's absence in game five was glaring. The Suns went 5-19 from beyond the arc. Joe's ability to shoot from long range stretches opposing defenses further than their comfort zone. This pressure also opens up clean looks for the Suns other long-range assassins. It's going to be a tough closeout with him. Hopefully, the Suns can take care of business and allow Joe to get back for the next series. Hopefully.

Monday, May 16, 2005

 

As The First Half Goes...

...so do the Suns. Game four played out like a replay of game two: the Suns came out like a flat, flavorless Manhattan in the first half, only to bounce back and keep pace with Dallas in the second, even outplaying them, but providing too little too late. The Suns' attack was handcuffed in the first 24 minutes by a barrage of triple teams on Amare.

What you must understand is that Amare is still a pup. He's very young, and still quite inexperienced. The fact that he's been able to perform at the level he has this postseason is a testament of his will, determination, and superior talent. But composure is something that Amare must develop if he's to ascend to the pantheon of great big men.

When Amare doesn't get going early on, he tends to lose his concentration. The Mavs threw a series of defensive swarms at Amare, and he wasn't able to keep it together. All a team has to do to stop Amare is to frustrate him for the first quarter and he's wound up like a toy car, and putt-putts along for the next 36. The more frustrated he becomes, the more he tries to take upon himself and the more mistakes he makes. He gets angry and tries to ram it down the throats of the defense, but ends up overplaying his position, fumbling the ball in traffic, or various other offensive disruptions. Amare was 3-8 from the field in game four. He was credited for four turnovers, but should probably have been credited more, as Nash's passes bounced off of Amare's hands and careened out of play over and over again. It was the frustration culminating into an offensive implosion.

And then there was the no-call. With rougly nine minutes left in the game, the Suns looked to make a charge. Hoping to cut the lead to single digits, Amare went up on Erick Dampier for one of his patented posterizing slams. Dampier slammed into Amare, a tremendously easy call to make. I guess the refs had pulled out their dog whistles, because I certainly couldn't hear it blow. Play resumed, Jim Jackson recovered the "rebound" and was subsequently fouled, yet again, by Dampier. The dog whistle blew again as play resumed, Dallas went to their end of the floor and put in a bucket. The result: a four-point turnaround breaking the spirit of a previously indomitable Suns team. The rest was just waiting for the clock to reach zero.

Now, I'm not one to blame a game on officiating. At least, not specifically. If the Suns had managed to keep the first half close, then they wouldn't have been in a position to need calls, so it's hard to point the finger at the ref crew for the entire game. But the first six minutes of the fourth quarter were really bizarre. The Suns got mugged and hammered while the refs twiddled their thumbs, while the Mavs were getting whistles if the defenders looked at their opponents cross-eyed. What the players want is a mark of consistency in calls, and minutes 1-6 of quarter four lacked any semblance of that desired characteristic.

The Mavs came out with a revolutionary game plan, something that had never been tried before: let Nash score as much as he possibly can and lock up everybody else. Let him attack the rim and go in untouched, let him wear himself out, racking up a whopping 48 points, but make sure nobody else gets any good touches.

After so many of Nash's passes went astray due to the suddenly slippery hands of Amare the complete lack of spacing on the court from the other three players, Nash did the unthinkable: he stopped passing the ball.

After Nash stopped getting the team involved, they stood around and watched Nash take it to the hole possession after possession. It was like the Suns had suddenly turned into the 76ers, complete with Allen Iverson and four guys standing around watching Allen Iverson. There was no movement off of the ball and nobody scrambling for positioning on the offensive end. It was horrendously orchestrated, as the Suns stood in the same spot, time after time, waiting to get the ball. It was the antithesis of Suns basketball, and Avery Johnson's defensive scheme was designed to create that disruptive style.

What was maddening was that when the Suns came out flat in the first half, it seemed that they were playing with the America West Arena in their minds. It appeared like they were content with a split in the first half, and were looking ahead to game five.

In the second half, there was more of a sense of urgency, but by that point, the Mavs had dug their claws into the Suns and were squeezing the life out of them. Too little, too late.

But don't expect the same result in game five. Amare tends to bounce back with unnerving ferocity after a clunker of a game. Expect him to leak out a bit, hitting the 16-footer, forcing the defenders to creep up on him. Expect him to find the open man before the double team can reach him. Expect Amare to crush the skulls of the poor defender who tries to keep him from the rack. Pity Dampier in game five, he's probably going to be battered and bruised.

This has been a series of adjustments for both teams. But I think D'Antoni sees the big picture a little better than Avery Johnson does. While Johnson is overhauling his strategy each and every game, D'Antoni is trying to encourage the Suns to be the Suns, while making small adjustments for the major adjustments that the Mavs throw at them.

Game five is pivotal. Whichever team wins gets two chances to close it out. Now, the Suns get two days of much-needed rest. The starters are wearing down. Without Joe Johnson, there isn't anybody coming off of the bench to contribute in any significant way, and the tires are starting to bald.

Unfortunately, Joe Johnson is not expected to play in game five. While there is no official time table for his return, the medical staff is expected to re-evaluate Joe's situation on Thursday. We might get a better idea of when he can come back at that point. For now, the Suns hope that the home crowd at America West Arena can boost their spirits. I'll be there, sitting in the best seats in the house, screaming my head off in hopes of energizing them to a game-five win.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

 

Playing For Two

The key difference between games two and three is that the Suns played for 48 minutes in game three. The Suns didn't bother to show up in game two until about halfway into the second quarter, and they lost the game as a result.

Last night, the Suns came out swinging. They demonstrated their ability to face some adversity as they went on the road shorthanded and came away with an important game-three victory.

Joe Johnson's absence wreaks havoc on the Suns' bench, especially when playing a team like Dallas. Since Dallas committed to playing small ball with Phoenix, the Suns don't have the ability to send Steven Hunter out onto the floor to disrupt shots. There was just nobody for Hunter to guard, and that was reflected in Hunter's two-minute appearance in the game.

Walter McCarty picked up five fouls in only nine minutes without scoring a point; the only bench player that scored for Phoenix was Leandro Barbosa, who put up five points in 16 minutes.

But the starting five ran and ran and ran, and by the end of the fourth quarter, Dallas was just too tired to run with Phoenix any more. The Suns went on a lightning-fast 15-0 run and buried Dallas late in the fourth.

Dallas was held to 39% from the field and 1-18 from beyond the arc. There isn't a team in the NBA that can put those numbers up and expect to win the game. The game plan resembled game one: attack the basket with Amare regardless of matchup; get Nash penetrating, allowing him to put in the hole or kick it out to one of the long-range assassins; run, run, run.

Marion completely locked up Nowitzki in game three. Although he was able to go for 21 and 13, Dirk shot 33% from the field (8-24). Marion frustrates Dirk, and it's clear to my why. At 7-feet, Dirk is used to being able to shoot over most any defender. Marion is a mere 6-7, and Dirk sees that height advantage and wants to exploit it. The problem is that Marion has deceptive length, and his ability to get up in the air quickly allows him to contest Dirk's patented 17-foot jumper.

(Please note that Shawn Marion was left off the All-Defensive 2nd team in favor of Andre Kirilenko. Kirilenko is an amazing defender, but he missed 41 games this season, and has no place being on that team over a career free forward who shifted over to power forward and locked up guys all season long.)

And so, the Suns go into game four playing with house money. They have the confidence and the swagger to go in and get two in Dallas. If they do, Dallas is staring elimination in the face; if the Suns drop game four, the series shifts back to Phoenix, where the Suns would have reclaimed the home court for the best 2-of-3 contest that would transpire.

The seven-game series is an interesting animal. The balance of power seems to shift with every game: at 1-0, the Suns looked unstoppable; at 1-1, the Suns looked like they were going to have to go back to the drawing board; now at 2-1, the Suns have put themselves back in the driver's seat up to game five.

Now the Suns really can play for two in Dallas, and if they get game four on Sunday, we'll see if they have that killer instinct to knock Dallas out in five.

But first thing's first: game four.

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