Tag: Suns Spurs Game 4

NBA Playoffs, Suns v. Spurs: The incredible, invisible Antonio McDyess

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What’s so remarkable about the playoffs is how quickly things can change for any one team. The Suns, who at one point struggled to keep pace with the injury-riddled Blazers, now look like a dominant playoff team.

The nature of playoff match-ups change everything. Players, strategies, and specific styles can expose weaknesses in opponents or show their strengths, and for Phoenix, San Antonio was apparently — despite popular, pre-series belief — a more favorable match-up. “Our teams just match up better against the Spurs than Portland,” Steve Nash said. “We
were able to use our depth and defense, and everyone took turns stepping

Of course the same is also true for specific players, who can be essential contributors in one series and marginalized in the next. Such is the case with Antonio McDyess. Dice put up almost identical numbers from one series to the next in this year’s playoffs, as he averaged 6.7 points per game (54.1% FG) and 7.0 rebounds per game against Dallas, and 7.0 points per game (52.0% from the field) and 6.5 rebounds per game against Phoenix.

Yet this is a case where his overall stat line falls short of telling the whole story. In the Spurs’ first round series against the Mavs, McDyess was invaluable as a defender against Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk still dropped 26.7 points a night in the series, but when you gauge Antonio’s defensive effectiveness against that of Matt Bonner or even Tim Duncan? It wasn’t even close. McDyess also offered a semblance of offensive balance for a Spurs team that thrives on supplementary scoring. He spaced the floor, knocked down his shots, played defense, and hit the boards.

In the first round, that was more than enough. Nowitzki had a terrific series, but McDyess was able to body him up and prevent him from really catching fire. Dirk’s teammates couldn’t fill the void, and it was Dice’s defense that helped to provide the Spurs with the cushion they needed to pull out four close wins.

Fast forward to the second round, where rather than Dirk Nowitzki, McDyess is asked to match-up with either the more mobile Amar’e Stoudemire, the far quicker Grant Hill, or the scrappy hustle junkie, Jared Dudley. None of those players really fits McDyess’ defensive strengths, and while the stat sheet doesn’t show any drop-off in Antonio’s box score production from one series to the next, there’s no question that the Suns were a tough match-up for him.

It wasn’t even about the Suns’ transition game, the impact of which has, in truth, been a tad overblown. It was the other benefits of going small that gave the Suns the advantage over a player like McDyess, and whether intentionally or unintentionally, Phoenix neutralized a guy that had made a legitimate impact in the first round. It’s differences like that one that caused the mighty Spurs defense we saw in the series prior to crumble at the Suns’ feet. The Tim Duncans and Steve Nashes of the world will typically be able to impose their will on a particular series regardless of opponent, but for role players like McDyess, the specific match-ups are far more significant.

NBA Playoffs, Suns v. Spurs: Should Nash's performance be immortalized?


nash eye 2.pngFor the majority of the NBA year, injuries are temporary roadblocks. They’re set-backs that while inconvenient or possibly crippling, are mostly considered to be minor negative obstacles. There are overreactions to a foot injury here or a knee injury there, but for the most part they are self-contained, isolated events that create a bit of turmoil for a month or two. Or seven if you’re Andrew Bynum.

Then, of course, there are injuries of the season-ending variety, that can either bring curtains (lacy, gently wafting curtains) on a team’s season as well (2010 New Orleans Hornets) or those that somehow create new hope through embracing an underdog mentality (2010 Milwaukee Bucks, 2009 Houston Rockets).

It’s worth noting that the true significance of the latter — the Bucks’ stand against the Hawks, the Rockets’ seven-game run against the soon-to-be champs in 2009 — is only really established in the postseason. The regular season may bring awards and cement each team into their role in the playoff picture, but (at the risk of sounding incredibly trite) the playoffs are where the NBA’s enduring mythology is established. Injuries, like those to Reed or Abdul-Jabbar or Jordan or Bryant, take on entirely new meaning, and act as an obvious mechanism to create myths from men.

This is where I segue to Steve Nash, who’s injury in last night’s game was of a completely different nature than your run-of-the-mill muscle strain or joint sprain. Nash had the benefit of fully-operational arms and legs, but just one eye to pick apart the Spurs’ defense. Yet he pulled it off, and his return to the game after receiving six stitches above his right eye was nothing less than an instrumental component of the Suns’ series-clinching victory.

It wasn’t the Finals nor was it a Game 7, but where does that put Nash’s return in the playoff lore? Steve’s bloodied nose in the 2007 series against San Antonio has become an enduring image (“We’ve given him a lot more stitches than that,” Gregg Popovich joked when asked about Nash’s eye injury post-game), yet it’s probably more notable for its symbolic value than any effect it had on the court. This injury, on the other hand, replaces that symbolism with irony, and the effects of having only one usable eye are pretty direct.

There are no authorities on these things, and there is no man who sits atop an ivory tower dictating which playoff performances are to be worshiped. That’s why I’ve come to you, dear readers, for some perspective: is Steve Nash’s Game 4 performance in spite of an eye injury worthy of immortalization? Is this the type of performance that we’ll all remember years and years from now? Or is it a footnote on the ever-important Suns sweep?

This could be a case where timing is everything. If Nash has his eye swollen shut in Game 1 and still guides the Suns to victory, this performance could be more than the impressive spectacle it’s being viewed as today. Instead, the fact that Steve returned to an incredibly difficult close-out game in San Antonio is somehow lost in the discussion.

With the Spurs buried under an 0-3 deficit and safely out of the series, the drama and intrigue of this game was entirely self-contained. Everything that went on within the game’s 48 minutes will stay that way, and even though Phoenix put together a fairly incredible game in most respects, the fact that they were able to take down San Antonio in four games likely diminished the perception Nash’s comeback. Steve is still getting his due today, but the questions that remain are: Will he still be tomorrow? Should he?      

NBA Playoffs, Suns v. Spurs Game 4: The deed is done.


Nash_eye.jpgThe Phoenix Suns just swept the San Antonio Spurs. The Phoenix Suns
just swept the San Antonio Spurs. The Phoenix Suns just swept the San
Antonio Spurs.

Maybe if I type that phrase enough times, the
basketball gods will tie my precious typing fingers into knots for my
blasphemy. In what universe could the Suns sweep the Spurs in the
playoffs? In what bizarro dimension is this Phoenix team a
Western Conference finalist, and the most respected franchise in the
league receiving the business end of a broom?

apparently. Suspend your disbelief. It’s not easy; it wasn’t easy to
foresee the Suns closing out the series in four games in San
Antonio facing yet another double-digit deficit. Yet they did it,
107-101, because Phoenix has played like the best team in the Western
Conference, even if a little team in Los Angeles would have something
to say about that.

The Suns aren’t just good, they’re damn
good. They’ll be considered underdogs against the Lakers even after
ousting the Spurs in the most impressive of fashions, but any fan,
basketball junkie, or NBA scribe that pencils L.A. in as a Finals
participant needs to take a long, hard look at what Phoenix was able to
accomplish in this series.

Manu Ginobili, who could have made
a legitimate claim as the best Spur over the final stretch of the
regular season, was trapped like mad in the pick and roll and
completely smothered offensively at times. He finished Game 4 with 15
points and nine assists, but shot just 2-of-11 from the field. Tim
Duncan may seem like an imposing match-up for the Suns, but it’s no
secret that Manu and Tony Parker hold the keys to the offense.
Eliminate the threat of Ginobili operating (for either scoring or
playmaking purposes) off of the Spurs’ staple pick-and-roll, and San
Antonio is quite beatable. Quite sweepable, apparently.

Not that
the Suns’ defense ignored Duncan, either. His lack of effectiveness as
the roll man in pick-and-roll situations was shocking, and though
Phoenix committed two defenders and a strong front to the ball-handler
on almost every screen, Duncan never seemed all that open. There were
so many cases where the Suns’ help defenders would beat him to his spot
rolling down the lane in order to contest his attempts or run
interference on the roll lob, and Tim was left in limbo.

strategy wasn’t enough to deny him from reaching 17 points (on 50%
shooting) and eight rebounds in Game 4, but the fact that Duncan wasn’t
more of a factor in this series is as much a tribute to the Suns’ post
defense as it was their defensive rotations on the pick-and-roll.

the effectiveness of those two players on the offensive end, and Tony
Parker’s 22-point, five-assist effort is solid rather than deadly,
George Hill’s night is nice rather than headline-worthy, and hell, Matt
Bonner’s 14 points on just six attempts is nothing special, as opposed
to the Red Rocket that broke the camel’s back.

It’s almost
clich√© these days to praise the Suns’ defense, but there’s simply no
way to write a proper recap without giving Phoenix their due. Alvin
Gentry has simply done a phenomenal job — a Popovichian job, dare I
say — of coaching this team into rotating properly on the defensive
end. No matter how much pressure was committed to blitzing Ginobili or
doubling Duncan in the post, the Suns’ defense never seemed to be on
tilt. It was vulnerable at times, but they always recovered.

just came down the court again and again and played consistently solid
defense. It wasn’t so much the effectiveness of the Suns’ D on a
per-point or even per-possession basis (San Antonio still scored 101
points and scored at a rate of 105.2 points per 100 possessions), but
the resiliency of that defense that was the most impressive. It wasn’t
always effective, but the Suns’ rotations were just relentless. They
forced 16 turnovers and limited San Antonio’s three-point attempts
(just 11 to Phoenix’s 24), and they worked, worked, worked.

the difficulties that the Suns posed for the Spurs on the other end,
that was obviously enough for them to not only win the series, but do
it without dropping a single game. San Antonio simply lacked the
ability to cover all of the bases of the Suns’ multifaceted offense,
and their peak-too-early performances reeked of a team that was just a
bit outmatched. “They made it hard for us to guard them for 48
minutes,” Gregg Popovich said. “We’d go into the fourth quarter and
someone for them would step up. Those are the kinds of things that
happen with that team.”

At various points in this series, that
nameless “someone” that stepped up has been a strong perimeter
defender, a three-point shooter, a hustle rebounder, and an undersung
reserve. In Game 4, it was Steve Nash, who came back into the game
after receiving six stitches over his right eye in the third quarter to
lead the Suns to a remarkable close-out performance. Nash, with one eye
swollen shut, was responsible for 21 of his team’s 31 points while the
game was still meaningful.

“I just feel fortunate that I had the
chance to get back out there,” Steve Nash said. “I don’t know how it
didn’t keep me on the sidelines.” It’s something of a wonder that it
didn’t. Nash’s eye was not only bruised, but swollen almost completely
shut. So naturally, he not only hit a pull-up three in transition just
moments after returning the floor, but got excellent looks for both
himself and Amar’e Stoudemire in the game’s deciding minutes.

was a force on his own for most of the game (he had 29 points of his
own), but with Nash spoon-feeding him wide open mid-range jumpers to
complement his prior assault of layups, dunks, and runners, he was
finally able to exact his revenge against San Antonio. “It’s
beautiful,” Stoudemire said of finally defeating the Spurs in the
postseason after falling short in four straight attempts. “It feels

It must. Phoenix has a long road to head, but the sight
of San Antonio’s corpse at their feet has to offer some relief. If not
as evidence that the Suns have exorcised their demons, then at least as
validation of their success this season. This is no longer the team
that struggled to match up with the Blazers at times, but a deep,
talented squad capable of giving any playoff opponent a run for their money. Even the Lakers. Even an opponent waiting beyond that’s even more challenging.

just how good these Suns are, and though Phoenix still continues to
surprise — as they did tonight, even when their series victory seemed
imminent — nothing about this team should be startling from this point
forward. Based on their performance from this series, we should expect
the best from the Suns. They’ve played well enough to earn that.   

NBA Playoffs, Suns v. Spurs Game 4: With blood in the water, Phoenix will go for the quick kill

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Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker have become a basketball establishment in their eight seasons together. They’ve captured three titles, made it to the postseason in each of those eight seasons, and lost in the first round of the playoffs only once.

They also have never, in the time that the three have been teammates in San Antonio, been swept. Not in any playoff series in any round. Phoenix will have an opportunity to be their auspicious first in Game 4 tonight, as the Spurs will look to defend their home court against an onslaught of Suns brooms.

With the outcome of the series no longer in doubt, the only question remaining is ‘when?’ or really, ‘how long?’ How long can Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker prolong the inevitable? How long can San Antonio keep false hope alive?  

The Spurs do have a few things on their side. For one, the sweep is such a difficult feat in a seven-game series, and when the opposition includes Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan, it seems rather impossible. Duncan may not be balling at best-player-in-the-game levels these days, but he’s still a tremendously skilled two-way player that’s capable of extending the Spurs’ playoff lives into next week. Pop isn’t just one of the greatest to ever run a post-game presser, but also one of the greatest to sit at the head of the bench.

Plus that home court advantage thing? It matters. Especially in the playoffs, and though the AT&T Center crowd may be a bit deflated after the Spurs’ Game 3 letdown, there’s something to be said for friendly cheers and an ocean of silver, black, and white. Even in spite of a potentially limited Tony Parker, the Spurs should be expected to win tonight.

Then again, the same could have been said before Game 3. Or in the first half of Game 3 when San Antonio was up by 18 points. Or even when the Spurs and Suns were in a virtual deadlock to start the fourth quarter, and SanAn as the squad with the veteran savvy, the championship experience, and the future hall-of-famers.    

The only thing anyone can say with certainty is that San Antonio will not win this series. They don’t even have a chance. Not with Phoenix finding consistent answers to each of the Spurs’ adjustments, getting contributions from top to bottom, and coming up with every big play. I never thought I’d be writing a “Can the Spurs even win one game against the Suns?” post, as if San Antonio was playing the part of an outmatched Atlanta team facing off against big league Orlando, yet here I am and here the Spurs are.

This series was expected to not only be extremely entertaining — which it has been — but very competitive. The games themselves have been battles, but how can anyone look at a 3-0 advantage and see anything but an anticlimax? It’s fun to see Goran Dragic go nuts, or Channing Frye step up, or Jared Dudley get some long overdue respect, but even those noteworthy performances don’t give this series the life that it could have had.

This could all be over tonight, and while the Suns have been a true pleasure to watch, it’s a shame that we’ll never really know just how great this series could have been.   

NBA Playoffs, Suns v. Spurs: Pace may have been the red herring


If both the Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs are reduced to the most basic tenets of their respective basketball philosophies, it’s easy to paint them as foils. Steve Nash stands as something of an iconoclast in the Church of Popovich; even if Steve’s professionalism, leadership, and continued excellence don’t stray too far at all from the pillars of San Antonio’s success, what Nash represents (outlandish commitment to offense, disregard for defensive execution, team success predicated on the fast break) is antithetical to a Spurs system predicated on balanced half-court offense and a holistic defensive scheme.

The truth is that the gulf that once divided the two teams — in terms of style, not substance — is now more of a stream. Obviously Phoenix would like to push the pace when possible, but the thought that fast break points would be a key to this series has quickly subsided. The first three games, all Suns wins, have been about execution regardless of context. Phoenix has been able to produce points in almost any situation with just about any combination of rotation players on the court.

Plus, while the break no longer gives the Suns a tremendous boost, it also doesn’t act as their crutch. Phoenix came back from 18 points down in Game 3, which could easily (and falsely) be attributed to the old Suns’ tendency to go on (and, in turn, allow their opponents to go on) big runs thanks to the nature of their offense. That just wasn’t the case. According to Synergy Sports Technology, the Suns had nine transition possessions on Friday night, which accounted for just 9.6% of their total offensive possessions.

What’s even more surprising was just how inefficient Phoenix was on those transition possessions. San Antonio’s transition defense should get plenty of credit. Even though the Spurs were unable to protect their substantial first-half lead and struggled overall on the defensive end, gone were the wide open Jason Richardson leak-outs, the wide open Channing Frye threes after he lost his defender in transition, and the dribble hand-offs to a streaking Amar’e Stoudemire.

Instead, Phoenix was able to score just 0.78 points per transition possession, a poor level of efficiency for any offensive possession, much less one where the defense is theoretically vulnerable and out of position.

Offensive rebounding, defensive rotations, and depth have all played a substantial role in this series, but the impact of the Suns’ execution in their half-court offense cannot be overstated. Phoenix has outperformed a formidable opponent, and the San Antonio defense that looked so strong against Dallas in the first round now appears to be a step to slow to answer all of the Suns’ offensive threats.