Friday, July 9, 2010
The Setting of the Suns
With Amar’e Stoudemire jumping ship to the New York Knicks, Steve Nash is the only remaining key player from the Phoenix Suns’ “Seven Seconds Or Less” era. It was fun while it lasted. After all, despite not winning a championship, the Suns reinvigorated offensive basketball, rejuvenated Nash and reinforced the timeless beauty of a well-executed pick-and-roll.
Let’s face it, those Suns were a great regular-season team. Sure, Phoenix made it to back-to-back Western Conference finals with Mike D’Antoni’s frenzied system. But the Suns were at their best outside of the suffocating defense and intensity of the playoffs. So to close the book on this influential team, the era will be examined through the lens of the Suns’ 129-127 victory in double overtime against the Dallas Mavericks on March 14, 2007.
Dallas and Phoenix were the best rivalry going for a brief window. The biggest link between the teams, of course, was Nash, who bolted Dallas for the desert when the Mavericks wavered on a long-term deal. Nash got better with age and wound up with back-to-back MVPs in an offense expertly tailored to his strengths. There were tense playoff battles between the teams in 2004-’05 and ’05-’06. Really, it was appointment viewing anytime they played each other. For the game under examination, it was the first NBA game since 1972 that featured two teams with a .778 winning percentage after 60 games.
All the major characters were still in place for the Suns in 2006-’07. D’Antoni was still on the sideline, Nash was in MVP form, Shawn Marion was on the wing and Stoudemire played a full season without showing any ill effects of microfracture knee surgery.
The staple of D’Antoni’s offense is the pick-and-roll. Dallas coach Avery Johnson made the decision for this game that the Mavericks were going to switch defenders on every pick. This played right into Nash’s hands because his best attribute is making the quick reads on whether to pass, shoot or dribble to the hole. With the Mavericks’ strategy, Nash often found a big man guarding him. That meant he was taking old friend Dirk Nowitzki off the dribble or draining a three-pointer when Desagana Diop was too slow in coming out on Nash. The Suns’ driving force was in control of the game from the start (7 points, 4 assists in the first quarter) to the end (10 points in last minute of regulation to force overtime). Nash and the Suns are still running the basic principles of the offense, even after D'Antoni bolted for the Knicks in 2008. Unless there is a surprising decline in his physical abilities, Nash will still be effective in 2010-'11. But running the pick-and-roll with Hakim Warrick doesn't have the same cachet.
The biggest subplot during the “Seven Seconds Or Less” era was the manic mood swings of Marion. He wanted the ball more, but also said he was happy doing the little things. He was often unhappy with the attention given to Stoudemire. All of this played out against the Mavericks. The Suns rarely ran plays specifically designed for Marion, who mostly picked up his points on fast breaks and offensive rebounds. He would show a momentary burst of uncommon athleticism, then you could forget he was on the court for long stretches. After Stoudemire dived for a loose ball and threaded a perfect pass that Marion fumbled out of bounds, you could almost feel the tension between the players as they ran down court. Marion has kept slipping more and more into obscurity since being traded by the Suns in February 2008.
Stoudemire was not without his faults, either. As usual, he was highly efficient on offense (41 points on just 19 shots). Yes, a lot of the easy conversions were the result of Nash’s passes, but he also made some tough shots. He’ll still score without Nash, although Knicks fans should be worried that Stoudemire doesn’t have go-to post moves as his athleticism declines. The other side of the coin with Stoudemire is his terrible defense. He allowed an aging Erick Dampier to grab 11 offensive rebounds. Stoudemire did grab 10 boards himself, which is stunningly not a common occurrence for a player with his physical gifts. But Stoudemire’s faults can sometimes be glossed over with those remarkable pick-and-rolls. Stoudemire’s size and coordination in converting two of those plays clinched the victory in the second overtime.
Such was the high-risk, high-reward nature of the “Seven Seconds Or Less” Suns. They rolled out to a 32-18 lead against the Mavericks in the first quarter. Then when forced to play the halfcourt game by a determined Dallas defense in the third quarter, the offense stalled and the Suns found themselves in a 15-point hole. That didn’t matter much in the regular season, as Phoenix showed here by rallying to win. But it always came back to bite the Suns in the playoffs, which is why those teams will never have the historical importance that they could have had. It was still a pleasure to watch.