Los Suns Preview – 2010
• dEDGE Post Scriptum •
Sporting a 54-28 regular season record good enough for 2nd place in the Pacific Division and a #3 seed in the Western Conference Playoffs, the Phoenix Suns have already exceeded their wildest expectations. Close to blowing up their team at the trade deadline, the Suns ultimately sat tight and went on a tear in the second half of the season to put themselves in position for another postseason run. Few expected the Suns to be playing this late into the playoffs. Fewer still could have predicted that they would have gotten past the San Antonio Spurs, let alone sweep them in convincing fashion. But here they are, the sprinting Suns famous for their “seven seconds or less” offense masterminded by former coach Mike D’Antoni. All too aware of their recent playoff shortcomings, GM Steve Kerr wanted to make changes to how the team was being run. This disagreement in philosophy in essence forced D’Antoni out and Terry Porter was hired to incorporate a defensive scheme as their new primary focus.
Porter purposely slowed down the Suns offensive attack and this proved to be a disaster from the start. The Suns just weren’t prepared to forego their run-n’-gun style for the slow, post-it-up offense that Porter had in mind. With the team seemingly headed no where and with disgruntled players and fans alike calling for a change, Porter was replaced midseason by Alvin Gentry. The Suns reverted back to their old ways and scored 140 points in a blowout win over the Clippers in Gentry’s first game as head coach. But the team would eventually lose Amar’e Stoudemire to an eye injury along with any faint hopes of making the playoffs. The Suns dumped the immovable Shaq in the off-season and made Gentry the permanent head coach. This season, Gentry instituted a slightly more patient offense and placed a renewed emphasis on team defense that the players have bought into with much greater acceptance.
But the wheels were still about to tumble off the cart with Amar’e Stoudemire’s status up-in-the-air. Entertaining offers from just about every team in the league, Stoudemire was convinced that his days in Phoenix were coming to a close. But a funny thing happened… Kerr, unhappy with the offers being thrown out decided to stand pat. Veterans Steve Nash and Grant Hill brought the the team together in a move that ultimately pulled them closer together as a unit, something that had been amiss in recent years. And with this rededication and renewed vigor, the Suns unleashed themselves onto the rest of the league.
“We’re not the most talented team, but we believe in each other.” said Steve Nash after completing their 4-game sweep of the Spurs. Even Phoenix sportswriters do not know what to make of this unusual, over-achieving team. Dan Bickley of The Arizona Republic had this to say,“The Lakers may well be next but, please, forget about Kobe for a minute. Take some time to savor this.” Exceeding expectations can be both fruitful and dangerous. With nothing to lose, players are loose and free to play their game. But it also allows complacency to seep in if players feel that they’ve already reached their goal. What are the Phoenix Suns goals? Have they accomplished them already by finally vanquishing the Spurs? The Lakers have only one goal highlighted on their agenda with four to-do items to accomplish this. They’ve checked off the first two and the next one on the list just happens to be the Phoenix Suns.
Here’s a brief analysis of the Phoenix Suns with their strengths and weaknesses at each position.
Strength – Savvy veteran point guard capable of 20/10 on any given night. Deadly perimeter shooter and expert penetrator/disher. Can attack with either hand, prefers the pick-and-roll daring opposing teams to leave him open. If you’re not paying attention, he can make you look utterly stupid.
Weakness – At 36, Nash can no longer go long stretches. Chronic back pain requires that his minutes be limited. Too small to defend in the post and prone to get clobbered coming off screens, Nash is a defensive liability but can offset that with his superior offensive abilities. The Lakers will continue that theme and punish him as much as possible to wear him down.
Strength – A combo power forward who is equally adept close to the basket or out on the perimeter. Has improved his shooting touch to the tune of 55.7% from the field and 77.1% from the line. Averaged 20.5 points and 9.3 rebounds against the Spurs. Uses his quickness to get around bigger players and his strength against smaller defenders. Ferocious finisher if given the opportunity.
Weakness – Although Stoudemire has been on a tear in the second half of the season, he has had difficulty against bigger, taller opponents. Not known as a huge defensive presence, Amar’e has a tendency to wander in-and-out in his defensive intensity. If he’s scoring, his D is good. If he’s off, he’s pouting. Look for the Lakers to throw everything and everybody at him from Bynum to Gasol to LO to Powell.
Strength – Former high-flyer who can still answer above the rim. Has improved his outside shooting tremendously and led the team in scoring against the Blazers with 23.5 ppg. Shooting at a 51% clip from the field and an impressive 51.5% behind the arc. Of all of the Suns, he is currently the hottest of the hot.
Weakness – Never known as a defensive specialist, J-Rich prefers to defend opposing players on the perimeter where he can get help. He is extremely uncomfortable defending isolated in the post. Kobe has owned J-Rich and he has played miserably in all contests against the Lakers this season. Psychologically, J-Rich is already at a huge disadvantage. Unless he comes up big in the first two games, expect him to go into a funk and disappear. But look for Nash and company to really try to get Richardson jump-started early. Their overall success depends on his production to offset, or at least compete with Kobe’s.
Strength – He’s still playing after all of those surgeries! Honestly, Hill is one of the good guys that everyone roots for. He understands his role and his place on this team. No longer a huge scoring threat, Hill can still fill it up in transition where he accounts for over 50% of his offense. He uses his smarts and is in constant motion to get an advantage over more athletic small forwards. He is still a great passer and a good rebounder. Hill will beat you with the little things. It’s what we envisioned Luke Walton would be one day… Hill is an excellent secondary help defender on Kobe, where he’ll slide into position in an effort to draw the offensive charge.
Weakness – Hill is 37, but he has lower mileage than most due to the numerous injuries that have kept him sidelined. And although he is finally healthy and pain-free, he is no longer capable of keeping up with quicker, faster players. Although Hill at 6’8″ is bigger than Kobe, he has not had much success slowing down the Mamba nor has the strength needed to deal with Artest inside. If Ron-Ron attacks the basket, he should have a lot of success against Hill.
Strength – 7’0″ 255 lbs., 6-fouls to utilize. Lopez, the less accomplished twin sibling of New Jersey’s Brook, is the only legitimate post presence that the Suns have to combat the frontline of the Lakers. He has yet to play in the postseason due to a bulging disk in his back but anticipates being ready by Game 1. Lopez is capable of scoring inside and on put-backs but look for him to be primarily a defender and rebounder. With Andrew Bynum’s up-and-down start to the playoffs, this position could be up for grabs and could determine which team advances or not.
Weakness – Lopez scrimmaged for the first time since over 6 weeks ago. In addition to his timing and conditioning being off, no one really knows what he is capable of delivering in this series. Don’t expect much. Bynum will need to attack him quickly and forcefully. Lopez has a tendency to pick up fouls rather quickly and with his back ailment, should be even more flat-footed and slow to respond. Not a great rebounder, Bynum will nevertheless need to put a body on him and be sure to box out to make him a non-factor.
Strength – Leandro Barbosa, Jared Dudley, Goran Dragic, Channing Frye, Louis Amundson. By far, Phoenix’s greatest strength has been the play of their bench. Barbosa, Dudley and Dragic are all huge scoring threats and will get ample playing time against the Lakers starters. Frye is a long-ball specialist despite his 6’11″ frame and can easily nail the perimeter shot daring bigs to come out and guard him. He is even more dangerous on the pick-and-pop. Amundson is a reliable rebounder and hustle player. Look for the Suns second unit to be the initiators on defense with Dudley primarily focused on Kobe.
Weakness – Whereas Phoenix may hold an advantage in the backcourt, they are still thin in the frontline. Neither Frye or Amundson are capable of stopping the Lakers bigs. Lamar presents a bigger obstacle to overcome than Channing Frye simply stepping out on offense. Barbosa is no longer the Brazilian Blur and has never defended particularly well in the past. If Farmar can stay close to him running off multiple screens and prevent Barbosa from spotting up, he can be forced into bad shot selections. Look for Brown to defend on Dragic and body-up against the Slovenian. Like most European players, he tends to avoid contact and can get frustrated easily if the officials allow a physical game. Lastly, there’s never been a successful Kobe-stopper.
On paper and in my head, this seems like a no-brainer to me. I cannot see this series going longer than 5-games, and that lone Suns victory is because I’m tossing them a bone to account for one lax appearance by the Lakers. In my heart, the Lakers can never lose. But even after carefully thinking through all of the weapons that Phoenix possesses, in the end, the Lakers are still bigger and badder. Sure, Phoenix has a chance, but so did Utah. Who scares you more, D-Will or Nash? If Barkley thinks Kobe can no longer carry a team and score in bunches, what does he think about Nash? J-Rich is downright scared of Kobe and is incapable of stopping him in the post. He will play better at home, but can he average 20+ points a game? I seriously doubt that he can carry that load if he is also the primary defender on Kobe.
The middle is a toss-up for both teams. Pau will get his. Amar’e will get his. And on some nights, Bynum will perform well and on other nights, Lopez might be a factor. But if Bynum can’t average a double-double against Phoenix, his knee is in worse condition than we were led to believe. Artest vs. Hill is an interesting match-up as will be Odom against Frye. But from 1–5, the Lakers are superior at every single position except point guard where I give Nash the “slight” advantage over Fish. From 6–10, the Suns have the clear advantage in at least 3.5 of those positions. But the wild card in this equation remains Sasha Vujacic and what he is able to contribute in terms of being the pest on defense and the Machine on offense. If Phoenix relies heavily on its bench to carry them to the Finals, they will be schooled off the court by Kobe and Pau and company. But if the Suns first group is able to match the Lakers starters and keep it close, we may be in for a long ride. (Don’t count on it, I smell another sweep.)