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So You’re Saying There’s a Chance


How the Suns can still “survive and advance”


By Adam Hoff


To hear the experts tell it, the Western Conference Finals are over.  They appear on TV with smug “I told you so” expressions and condescendingly explain that the Spurs could never blow a 2-0 lead going back home.  These pundits may very well be right in the end, but in the eyes of this scribe, this series is far from over … as long as Phoenix follows the prescribed steps. 


Phoenix Keys to a Comeback


The Return of Joe Johnson.  I’m actually conflicted about this one.  Because I tend to read too much into things and delve into reverse psychology and all of that, I worry that Johnson’s return cuts against the caged animal tenacity that the Suns will need to display the rest of the series.  However, the bottom line is that Phoenix does not have the luxury to sacrifice a good player in favor of added motivation.  Johnson has been great all year, he was outstanding in the Memphis series and was in line for a huge paycheck this summer.  Then he fell on his face, got suited and booted (as Snoop Dogg would say) with 4 plates and 18 screws, and missed the next six and half games of playoff action.  Now he’s really going to get paid, because his value was even more obvious in his absence than it was while he was playing.  Here at the WIS Insider, we’ve been giving Joe Johnson plenty of groupie love all year long, but until his athleticism, defense, isolation skills, durability, stamina, and pinpoint shooting were taken out of the Suns’ lineup, the public at large never knew how good he was.  Now they know, and his stock is higher than Fox after they renewed both The OC and Arrested Development for third seasons.  More importantly, it appears Johnson will be back for Game Three, and all over-thinking aside, you have to believe his return will help.  He can guard Parker, help stretch the defense, create offense up against the shot clock, and – most importantly – give D’Antoni more flexibility in the rotation. 


Go Under Picks.  I obviously missed the memo mandating that all NBA teams guard the pick-and-roll the same way.  When was the last time you saw a team go under picks and make the guy with the ball hit jumpers?  Try never.  How about a hedge from the big guy – a quick show to slow down the dribbler – allowing the guard to recover?  The only two screen-roll defense being employed are: 1) the double-team used unwaveringly by the Rockets and 2) the “go over” approach used by everyone else.  This is a terrible strategy generally and specifically for the Suns.  While a team like the Pistons can be aggressive and challenge guys by going over and through every pick, the Suns simply lack the team defense to pull it off.  Stoudemire is slow to help and overly concerned with picking up fouls, Nash gets destroyed off the dribble and turns every pick and roll into a 3-on-2 drill, and the guys from the weak side don’t rotate in time.  It’s part a strategy issue and part personnel problems, but it’s all bad.  Not quite “let’s give Bobby Brown his own show” bad, but pretty bad.  Generally speaking, they would be much better off going under screens, staying on their respective assignments, and forcing players to make open 20-footers instead of open 2-footers.  That just seems like common sense.  More specifically, in this series, they need to make Parker hit jump shots.  As detailed in my Insider Blog, Parker is shooting less than 37% for his career in playoff games decided by 10 points.  He’s the antithesis of clutch.  Make him hit big shots!  It’s so simple.  If he buries jumper after jumper than just accept that the Spurs are better and wait until next year.  But anything is better than letting him drive right past Nash and get layups for Duncan and wide open threes for Ginobili and Horry.  If I were a Phoenix fan, I would probably have been arrested by now trying to get to D’Antoni with this demand. 


Teach Amare a Post Move.  They’ve got three days between games, so maybe there’s time.  I never realized until Game Two that Amare doesn’t have a single post move when his back is to the basket.  Seriously, not one.  No drop step, no jump hook, no Dream Shake.  Because the Suns run all screen and roll and secondary breaks, he’s rarely in this situation, but if he gets the ball on the block he either throws it back out or turns and faces.  Against the Spurs, Phoenix has to be able to get something from the low block.  Marion can’t post there, so Amare is the most logical frontline player to go do work in the paint.  But without an actual post move, it makes things difficult.  In all seriousness, now probably isn’t the time to teach Amare new tricks, but it sure would help.  And honestly, the fact that he doesn’t have a single post move makes what he’s doing even more impressive.  This guy is a freak and is on the path to someday replacing Shaq as the most dominant big man in the game.  Besides, Amare isn’t even the guy they should be posting up.  That honor goes to one Q-Rich.  Which reminds me …


Get Q in the Post.  We all know that the Suns hate interrupting their freewheeling offense in order to feed guys the ball on the block, but they need to do two things in the worst way: create offense in the halfcourt by going inside out, and get something out of Richardson.  Running a half dozen plays for Q in the lowpost accomplishes both.  He’s so strong and he’s got such a quick spin move that there’s really no one that can cover him.  It also moves him closer to the basket where he can employ the skills that made him the best offensive rebounding guard in the league when he was in Los Angeles.  A cold-shooting Richardson doesn’t do anybody any good standing 25 feet from the hoop. 


Run One Play for Marion in Each Half.  One of the great things about Shawn Marion is that he’s a consistent 20-and-10 guy without getting any plays run for him.  Not to get too far off track here, but he would be a perfect running mate for Allen Iverson – he hits the offensive glass, runs the floor, and doesn’t demand the ball.  Anyway.  As admirable as it is for Marion to do it all on scraps, they need to throw him a bone if they want him involved offensively.  Just run one little curl for that nasty 12-foot flick shot, or a backdoor for a dunk, or something.  He just needs one play to get him going.  Give him that much and he might get back to giving you a whole lot more while playing off the grid. 


By the way, far too much was made of Bowen’s defense on Marion in the first two games.  If you watched the games at all, you saw that The Matrix was simply misfiring and making silly mistakes.  Missed layups are either the fault of the offensive player or caused by help defense; maybe one in a hundred missed shots at the rim is caused by the guy guarding the shooter.  Marion’s misses are little flips and layups, so it’s hard to see how Bowen is causing the poor shooting.  If you want to make an abstract case that Bowen “hasn’t let Marion get in the flow” (every analyst’s favorite way of giving credit without proof), you’ll find that doesn’t really hold up either considering that the two players have only shared the court for 50 of the 96 total minutes.  Marion has played 42 Bowen-free minutes and scored 4 points in that time.  I’d say it’s just Marion struggling and that it has very little to do with the play of Mr. Dirty. 


Grab Some Defensive Rebounds.  Again, hard to knock Amare when he’s playing so well, but Charles Barkley has it right when he says that Stoudemire should be snagging 12-15 defensive boards a night.  But it goes deeper than that.  The Suns just need to do a better job on the boards.  This sounds simple and obvious, but the Suns must keep Nazr Mohammed off the offensive glass.  Maybe D’Antoni needs to go back to training camp drills because I’ve never seen a team that does a poorer job of blocking out.  You can’t just jump for the ball without any regard for boxing out the offensive players.  It works on most nights when you are more athletic, but sometimes you play against smarter players and other times you are victimized by bad bounces and long rebounds.  If you are just chasing the rock on those nights, you get killed the way the Suns are.  If you block out first, you’ll get the majority of the rebounds no matter which way the ball bounces.  Phoenix needs to get back to the basics here.  Or learn them for the first time. 


Adopt the Mark Cuban Strategy.  I put this last because I was just joking around, but there might be some merit to the concept.  Not only do the Suns needs to find inspiration from the Mavericks’ first round win over the Rockets, they might be able to get some help form the league office in the same way that Cubes did when he called out Yao’s moving picks.  As we all witnessed, Yao became the one and only big man in the NBA to get called for moving screens and it changed the entire series.  Phoenix should definitely send video tape of the Mad Flopper and get the refs to start paying attention to Manu “My name doesn’t mean God With Us like you thought, it really means Big Faker” Ginobili.


As for the Mavericks providing a blueprint for the Suns’ best chance of success, it’s not as crazy as it sounds.  Dallas lost two home games to the Rockets in a very similar fashion to the way that the Suns went down 0-2.  The Rockets beat them at their own game, the home Mavs fell apart down the stretch in Game Two, and they had a big personal change before Game Three (losing Keith Van Horn, which was addition by subtraction).  Counted out by pretty much everyone, they went into Houston and won a pair before going on to win the series in seven games.  So we’ve got our blueprint: win Games Three and Four on the road, regain home court advantage, and then hold serve in the final two homes games.  It’s tough but not impossible.  Nothing’s impossible after Tom Cruise’s groundbreaking performance on Oprah earlier this week. 


Wait, you say.  “That was the Rockets, this is the Spurs.  There is no way the Suns can win two games in San Antonio against a Spurs team that was 38-3 at home.”  I will grant that there is a big difference and that it is highly unlikely Phoenix can replicate the Mavericks’ feat, but would argue that the disparity might not be as great as it seems.  Because while the Spurs are not the Rockets, the Suns are also not the Mavs.  In fact, Phoenix just won two road games against those very Mavericks to advance to the Western Conference Finals.  If you draw the parallel by examining the disparity in road records versus home records, it is not as bleak as one would expect.  The Mavericks were +3 in respect to their road wins versus Houston’s home record, proof that the Mavs were a good road team and that Rockets were pretty mediocre team at home.  So it shouldn’t have been surprising to see Dallas win a pair in Houston.  Likewise, the Suns road record was a +2 against Dallas’ home victory total, giving us a pretty good idea that Phoenix would also have success as the away team. 


Beyond an individual team’s ability to win on the road in relation to their opponent’s home performance, we can also learn a lot about the nature of a series from the similarity between the teams.  In series which see the road team win multiple games, there is always a proximity in the road/home numbers.  Think back to that crazy Pacers-Celtics showdown in which the road team won five of the seven games.  Boston was -8 road v. Indiana’s home record and the Pacers were -7 in the inverse scenario, which meant that only 1 game separated them regardless of the venue.  This leant itself to a wide open series full of road wins.  Compare that to the gap of 11 in the Detroit-Philly series (Pistons were -3, Sixers were -14), a series that predictably saw only one road win. 


There’s nothing quite that drastic at work in the Spurs-Suns matchup, but the numbers still tell a story.  The Spurs were -10 against Phoenix’s home record yet still managed two victories.  It would stand to reason that the Suns, a -7 against San Antonio’s home wins total, would have an even better chance to achieve the feat.  If nothing else, their small gap of 3 wins seems to indicate that we would have a wild series on our hands, full of surprises and road victories.  Then again, the Spurs might just be that much better than Phoenix.  We’ll find out on Saturday. 


Adam Hoff is a columnist for the Webby-winning WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers of America.   He can be reached at wis.insider@gmail.com.

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