The Harris Factor
The Dallas-Phoenix series may come down to one player
By Adam Hoff
When the Suns closed out the Clippers on Monday night, my first thought was, "Uh oh, despite finally knocking off the Spurs, the Mavs are still going to lose in the Western Conference Finals." Phoenix just presents Dallas with a tough matchup and even without Amare Stoudemire, you still can't help but think about the way the Suns took care of the Mavericks in last year's Western Conference Semis. However, in the third quarter of Game One, I realized that a new element exists that I failed to consider: the Devin Harris Factor.
Yes, Harris played for the Mavs last year, and yes, there are plenty of other differences between 2005 and the current postseason, so it is not as if he is the only new element in this series. However, there is no bigger difference between how this year's Mavs can attack the Suns versus what they could do last year.
In the '05 playoffs, I kept waiting for someone to exploit Steve Nash's defense. I had a personal reason for this, as I was firmly opposed to his MVP award at the time and I wanted his inability to play D to be on display for all the world to see. However, the Grizzlies weren't good enough to even make it an issue, the Spurs didn't need to do anything special, and in between those two series, Jason Terry didn't have the right type of game to take full advantage of Nash's deficiencies.
This time around, we've seen teams become more intentional about attacking Nash. The Lakers tried to run things in the post for Smush Parker and the Clippers put Cassell in isolation or pounded Shaun Livingston and Quentin Ross in the paint. The problem is that the Suns play so fast and freely that it actually works against a team to restructure their offense like that. In fact, I would argue that it is never a good idea to change what you do to try to exploit a matchup. In Game Six of the 2003 Western Conference Finals, the Spurs inserted Steve Kerr into the game to get a boost on offense. He proceeded to knock down one huge shot after another and changed the complexion of the game (or "the complexity of the game," as Kobe Bryant said about 15 times on TNT last week). However, the real benefit to the Spurs was that the Mavericks went away from the Nash/Dirk pick-and-roll that had been working like a charm and instead tried to post up the likes of Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel on the smaller Kerr. The result? It completely threw Dallas out of its rhythm, they went cold, and the Spurs cruised to a huge victory to close out the series. The same was true earlier in the playoffs this year as the Lakers wound up feeding their worst starting player on the block and the Clippers turned away from scoring machine Elton Brand, all in an effort to exploit a matchup.
Another factor that makes it hard to take full advantage of Nash's defensive woes is that the Suns are built to give up points. They play decent team defense that helps mask some of his problems, but even more importantly, they run and gun so much that it rarely matters. Getting one perfectly orchestrated hoop at Nash's expense isn't a big deal, because there are going to be so many total baskets scored in the game.
What all this means is that Nash is much harder to expose than you would think. It requires a player that can use and abuse him within the flow of the offense and to do it at a high speed. You canít afford to bog down the offense by going into the post or backing Nash down from the wing, so you need a guy that can do his damage up top and get into the heart of the defense to create plays at the rim. As I mentioned above, Jason Terry is not that guy. He likes to create contact and then free himself for the rainbow pull-up jumper or use screens to flare out for a three. So when Dallas really needed to not only get points at Nash's expense in last year's playoffs, but also to wear him out by making him work on defense, they were unable to do so. In fact, Marquis Daniels was really the only guy they had that put any real pressure on "Little Stevie Nash" (as Bill Walton calls him).
Enter Devin Harris. He is the exact fit to the "Nash Killer" described above. He has blinding speed, he can abuse Nash at the point of attack (usually with a crossover move or off of a high pick-and-roll), he does his damage within the flow of the game and at a high speed, and he has the added plus of being able to finish at the rim while drawing contact. Honestly, you couldn't create a better player to take it to Nash. Wednesday night in the third quarter of Game One, Harris put this new Mavericks weapon on display. He got to the rim (and subsequently the free throw line) time and time again as he completely turned the game around. Although the Suns wound up winning because of fantastic play by Boris Diaw (more on this in a minute) and an incredible finish by Nash on offense, Harris finished with 30 points and 5 steals and put the Suns on notice that Nash's days of hiding on defense are over.
Of course, just because Harris was born to take Steve Nash to the rim does not mean that it will be an automatic that he plays like this in every game. For starters, he is still a young player, prone to mistakes and stretches where he canít hit the broad sign of a barn on his jumper. Against the Spurs, Harris went 21-for-36 from the floor with 62 points in Games 2-4 and then turned around and went 9-for-29 with 24 points in the next three games. Hardly a model of consistency. There are a lot of players in the NBA with the ability and mentality to score 25 or 30 points in a big game, but very few who can do it night in and night out. Consistency is what separates guys like Dwayne Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, and Elton Brand from the likes of Manu Ginobili, Rasheed Wallace, and Lamar Odom. And it is consistency that will keep Harris from becoming the dominant factor in this series.
The second reason that Harrisí ability to torch Nash wonít be a sure source of victories is that he is getting worked on the defensive end of the floor. Itís not so much that Nash is taking him to school on the perimeter, but rather that Harris is getting annihilated by Boris Diaw in the low post. Just as was the case with Smush Parker and Sasha Vujacic in the Lakers series, the Suns immediately recognized that Harris, Terry, and Darrell Armstrong canít handle Boris Diaw on the low block and began running their offense to get Nashís defender to switch on the screen and roll. Once that happened, they just went inside to the mismatch to the tune of 23 shots and 34 points for Diaw.
There is no way that Harris is going to be able to change his fortune against Diaw down low, so the Mavericks need to find a way to keep that matchup from happening in the first place. Because if it does, they either see Harrisí good offensive work negated or they have to take their lightening quick guard out of the game altogether. There are a couple of solutions that the Mavs can explore. The first is to stop switching the pick and roll. Dallas was so concerned with Phoenixís three-point shooting that they refused to go under a screen or rotate over on shooters. When the screener was Tim Thomas, they went over and hugged Thomas as he flared out and instead let Nash get right into the lane for layups. When Diaw set the screen, they jumped hard to keep Nash from getting an open three and wound up with a point guard trying to defend a highly skilled 6í9Ē forward. More layups.
So the first answer to their problem is to lighten up on the three prevention and work harder to prevent layups. This is a question of philosophy and given how well this tactic worked for the Spurs last year, we might not see Dallas go away from it. However, the Mavericks should know a few things before they decide to see this through. First, the Suns have streaky deep shooters. Tim Thomas, Leandro Barbosa, and Shawn Marion can all make threes, but they also have stretches where those shots are pretty ugly. Thomas has been pretty solid in the postseason and Raja Bell is virtually automatic from behind the arc, but there is no reason the Mavs canít gauge how some of these guys are stroking it before deciding to commit to stopping the three at all costs. I understand that if you wait and they do start hitting, it might be too late to stop the bleeding, but do you really want to give a team like Phoenix 70 points in the paint out of fear? The other reason that Dallas may want to reconsider following the Spurs blueprint is that Diaw is not Amare Stoudemire. In most ways, this is bad for Boris and it means that he doesnít have the same ability as the young freak of nature. But in terms of exploiting a defense geared toward stopping the three, Diaw might actually have one big advantage over Amare: the ability to avoid offensive fouls. One of the reasons this all worked so well for San Antonio last year is that for every three or four dunks that Amare threw down he would pick up a cheap offensive foul. His game is based more on speed, power, and freakish athleticism, which means that he often runs in a straight line from point A to point B. Diaw, on the other hand, is more of a crafty low post player. Can he routinely dunk over centers like Amare? Of course not. But when you are being guarded by 180-pound point guards, thatís not the issue. Diaw rarely gets called for a charge because his post game is predicated on patience and change of direction. So the Mavericks are not going to get the three or four charge calls that could be the difference.
That said, I expect Dallas to keep defending the three point line hard. If that is the case, another thing that the Mavericks can do is guard Nash with a bigger player. This is harder than it sounds, because the Suns typically have Diaw, Thomas, and Marion on the floor, so if the Mavs are playing both Harris and Terry (which they have been doing for about 30 minutes a game lately), those guys have to guard Nash/Bell/Barbosa. When Phoenix goes small and plays their three guards at the same time, Dallas can stash Harris on Barbosa and Terry on Bell, but I think DíAntoni is too smart to play into the Mavericksí hands by doing that. It is ironic that Dallas is the deeper team with more size, but it is the versatility of Phoenixís front line that is creating the problem here.
If Phoenix refuses to go small then Avery Johnson has two choices for getting a bigger guy on Nash. The first is to simply put a taller player in the game. If Josh Howard is healthy, Dallas has four swingmen in Howard, Jerry Stackhouse, Adrian Griffin, and Marquis Daniels. They could play one point guard in either Harris or Terry and put that person on Bell or Barbosa, whoever is running the two for the Suns. Then a guy like Griffin or Daniels can guard Nash, continue to switch on the screen, and present a 6í6Ē obstacle for Diaw. If you think it will be just as easy for Boris to score on one of those guys, you are crazy.
Obviously, taking out Harris or Terry presents a new set of problems. If you take out Harris, this whole discussion is moot, because it is his offensive ability to carve up Nash that makes me think the Mavs can and will win the series. However, if you take out Terry, not only are you losing your best shooter and a big time leader, but the guy that spreads the floor for Harris to do this thing . When Terry missed Game Six against San Antonio, it was not a pretty sight, as Harris went 3-for-14 from the floor. So simply swapping in Marquis Daniels isnít a good strategy, despite the fact that he would dramatically improve their defense while still providing offensive punch.
That leaves one move for Johnson: putting Harris or Terry on Shawn Marion. Hear me out on this one. You canít put one of the point guards on Diaw, because Phoenix will skip the pick-and-roll and just throw it to him immediately. The same thing would happen with Thomas. However, Marion really has no post game whatsoever. Heís been playing much better as of late, but there is a reason Phoenix never runs the pick-and-roll with Marion as the screener. Itís because he canít score in the post. If he canít catch and finish off of a lob, heís reduced to flip shots and fadeaways on the baseline. I think a guy like Harris or Terry would be perfectly fine guarding Marion in the post for that reason. Not only would he fail to dominate in the post, but it might take the Suns out of their game plan (see the Steve Kerr example above) and get Marion into foul trouble if he picks up a few cheap offensive fouls trying to play outside his comfort zone.
The interesting thing about all of this is that the Mavs faced many of these issues in the San Antonio series, but the mere fact that Harris and Terry were able to speed up the game negated any strategic matchup problems on the defensive end. The net effect was still a huge positive. However, the Suns play faster than anyone. Playing two point guards and ramping up your pace doesnít create an advantage against Phoenix, it just allows you to keep up. So playing Harris and Terry together isnít giving them any net effect. It may still be their best lineup for all the reasons Iíve mentioned, but to come out ahead with this lineup, they have to solve these defensive issues.
If the Mavericks can find a way to solve the switching problems (either by forcing the Suns to go small, by swapping in a taller second guard, or by hiding a defender on Marion) and they can get more consistency out of Harris, they will absolutely win this series. Harris putting 25-30 points on the board, wearing out Nash, and getting guys in foul trouble will equal a victory every time, provided that the Suns arenít getting it all back at his expense on the other end.
How the Harris Factor plays out is one of the most interesting subplots of the entire postseason and I, for one, will be watching every minute.
Adam Hoff is a columnist for the Webby-winning WhatifSports.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.