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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Suns Beat Streaking Cavs

Two days after what can only be described as laying an egg against the T-Wolves, the Suns stepped on the court Friday night against a Cleveland team that was rolling. Having won 5 in a row, 9 of their last 10, and owning the best record since Christmas at 11-2, the Cavaliers were finally hitting their stride after a slow start, owing to the fact that Anderson Varejao was back in the mix and rounding into form. Basically, it was a nightmare scenario for the Suns after another dismal showing against the T-Wolves.

Which is exactly how it started out for the Suns. They came out a bit flat, falling behind by as many as 11 in the first quarter before finishing the quarter down 5. They climbed to within one point early in the 2nd quarter, then fell behind big again, losing by as much as 18 points en route to a 13 point halftime deficit. At this point, i was honestly ready to write the Suns off in this game, as they were not playing well, getting killed on the glass (again), and not playing any defense at all. Then the 2nd half started.

The Suns came out inspired, playing much better defense, even hitting the glass a little, and started to hit their shots. They outscored the Cavs by 10 in the third quarter, heading into the 4th down by just 3 points. The quarter was back and forth, with Shawn Marion hitting a short jumper to win the game with 1.1 seconds left.


Now that the recap is out of the game, let's get to my impressions. My first? I have no idea how we won this game. None. Watching the game, and looking at the numbers afterwards, i still can't figure it out. Grant Hill played only four minutes with back spasms. Marion was once again almost transparent, attempting just four shots and making only the bucket at the end to win the game. Barbosa was only 5-15 from the field. We got out-rebounded by 8, which actually is about right. We had 14 turnovers, 5 more than they did. Our one saving grace was our three-point shooting, where we went 17-33, a whopping 51.5%.

While this was a good win for the Suns, i can't say i was particularly impressed by our showing. This team is nothing if not extremely frustrating this season, losing to the worst teams in the league and beating the hottest. They still have many problems that need to be addressed, including their ineptitude to rebound the ball, and their glaring lack of effort on the defensive side at times. They still appear to be drifting through the regular season, acting as though they will be able to turn it on once the post-season starts. As i wrote about here, i tend to believe they actually can do this, but it would be nice to see some signs of life at times during the regular season.

As for the players, it was another puzzling game from Shawn Marion. After a 3-rebound, 3-shot, 7-point night against the T-Wolves two days prior, Marion attempted only four shots in this game, again finishing with 7 points. He did grab nine boards, but we need more production out of him for the 41 minutes he played. As a matter of fact, his rebounding in the last five games has been down by about three boards a game. Also, he averages more than 12 shots a game this season, yet has only 7 total in the last two games. Watching the games, he has been about as non-descript as possible, practically disappearing during the games. It has been a sharp contrast from his usual self, where you notice him everywhere. I'm not yet ready to proclaim anything wrong with him, as it's only two games, but i will be watching him closely.

On the flip side of Marion's slide in production has been Raja Bell. Man it's nice to have a healthy Raja back again. Since early season back and foot problems got him off to a slow start, Raja has come back in full force the last two weeks. Early in the season it appeared his shot was off, and he was hesitant to shoot just a bit. Looking at him now you can tell he just wasn't right early on. Now that he is healthy again, his shot has come back and he is looking to shoot more, both great things.

In his last five games, Raja is averaging almost 21 points a game. For a career 10 points per game player, that is a lot of production. All those people shouting about the Suns needing a shooter early in the season, you can relax. He is a career 41% shooter from beyond the arc, and is almost all the way back to that average for the season. The Suns can definitely use the extra 2 three-pointers a game from Raja that were missing early on.

One more note about another player, Leandro Barbosa. Barbosa is a fantastic talent, with speed that has not been seen in the NBA before. He can be a great scorer, able to put up bunches of points in very short bursts, and has a deadly three-pointer when open. I have two issues with him this season however. One, he is in danger of fast-becoming a black hole. Half his job is to play the point, which involves getting other people involved and passing the ball. His assists this season are down one assist a game however, to 3, which is entirely too low for him. With his ability to drive the lane and create havoc, he should be putting up 5-6 assists a game at least. This season he has turned into a shooter, looking to score first and pass second. Not a good trait for a point guard.

Second, his shot selection. A career .407 three-point shooter, he is shooting just .366 this season. I don't believe this is due to a flaw in his shot; rather his shot selection. Barbosa's best quality last season was his ability to get open looks and easy baskets. His baseline break to the basket from beyond the arc with Nash getting him the ball as he hit the paint was a thing of beauty and virtually unstoppable (see video here). This season it seems as if he has had to work harder to get shots, which results in him taking more contested shots. When open, he is deadly. When guarded, he becomes less reliable. Also, his tendency this season to take floaters and running jumpers, a la Steve Nash, is not helping his shooting percentage. While a good mid-range shot would make him that much better, not everyone can hit shots like Nash.

All that being said, it was a nice win for the Suns last night. While i don't believe it was a statement game, it was a nice showing after a bad loss to the T-Wolves. The Suns still have more wins than any team in the Western Conference, and second most in the entire League. They are still on pace for 58 wins and a Top 3 seed in the playoffs. And while everything is not perfect, i think they're doing ok...

Friday, January 25, 2008

NFL Coaching Carousel

What the hell is going on? Are you kidding me?

Al Davis, of the Oakland Raiders, has asked head coach Lane Kiffin to resign. Kiffin, understandably, has stuck a finger at Davis and flat out refused to do so. Which i applaud him for. That's some BS right there. He has been the coach for ONE year.

On a related note, as most of you know, among Bill Parcell's housecleaning since joining the Dolphins front office was firing head coach Cam Cameron, who had also been in his post just one year.

What the hell is the league coming to where guys are getting fired after one year? Is it a sign of the times, a win-at-all-cost mentality that has overtaken the NFL? Or is it just sheer stupidity on the parts of owners and GM's, who apparently are hiring the wrong people if they are firing them after one year...

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Suns vs. T-Wolves

AKA the game the Suns didn't show up for.

Really, that was a pathetic effort. Other than Amare, who was fantastic offensively (I'll get to his defense later), the rest of the Suns just straight did not show up tonight. Roll Call!

Shawn Marion: Only 3 shot attempts and 3 rebounds.

Leandro Barbosa: 5-12, 1-5 from three.

Brian Skinner: 14 minutes played, 4 fouls, 2 rebounds, 0 shot attempts.

Boris Diaw: 1-2, 2 rebounds.

Hard to win with numbers like those from half our rotation.

All in all, just a terrible game all around from the Suns. The effort was not there, the intensity was not there, and the sense of urgency was not there. And we all know that when those things aren't there, the Suns are mediocre at best. Which is strange, since when those things are all there they are arguably the best team in the league.

And really, that's what it comes down to this team. Anyone living here in the Valley that reads the newspapers or listens to the radio hears one thing over and over, beat into our heads: The Suns go as their effort goes. After every win, they talk about the effort they put forth that night. After every loss, they talk about the effort they lacked that night. And while it is a repetitive and monotonous theme, it is nonetheless true.

The Suns go as their effort goes.

It seems strange to say that, as if a professional basketball team should never be lacking in energy on any night they are playing a game. But watch this team, watch them day in and day out. When the Suns are playing hard, defending the ball, have active hands, getting in passing lanes and running the fast break, they are as close to unbeatable as is possible in the NBA. When they aren't, their shots suffer, they give up huge chunks of points, don't get the rebounds, and look pedestrian at best.

It is frustrating to say the least.

Regardless, i am not worried. And while i am definitely in the minority here in the Valley with that opinion, i am not an extremist. The peaks are not that high and the valleys are not that low.

I am of a firm belief that, much like the Spurs have mastered the last few years, the Suns just aren't that interested in the regular season. Three years ago, when Nash came on board and the Suns became good, winning was fun. They were hungry. They went out every night with the intention to run everyone out of the building, score a ton of points, and win every game they played. And each year, some would say, they peaked in the regular season and flamed out in the playoffs, reaching the conference finals a couple of times but never the League finals.

Now? Well, the core of the Suns have been through that. They have seen regular season success and playoff disappointment. They have matured, become a championship-caliber and veteran team. And, i think, learned something along the way: Winning the regular season doesn't matter.

The Suns are one of the best teams in the league, anyone and everyone knows this. They are going to win 55-60 games, they are going to finish first in the Pacific division (most likely), and they are going to be a 1, 2, or 3 seed going into the playoffs. They knew this going into the season.

The result? They relaxed. Plain and simple. They saw the Mavs kill themselves to win 67 games last season, then lose in the first round of the playoffs. They also see the Spurs take it (relatively) easy the last few years, then turn it on in the playoffs. And the Suns decided they were good enough to do the same. They don't need to kill themselves in the regular season. They don't need to win 67 games. The team, and Steve Nash especially i think (judging by some of his comments), believes it can somewhat cruise through the regular season, get to the playoffs, and then turn it on.

And you know what? I think they can too...

Amare And The Suns

I'm not usually one for posting mid-game, but this warrants a quick post. The Suns are playing the Timberwolves tonight in Minnesota. The T-Wolves are the worst team in the NBA, the Suns have the best record in the West. Despite beating the T-Wolves by 20 a week and a half ago in Phoenix, the Suns lost the last time they were in Minnesota. Going into the game you figure the Suns have a good chance to win, as they are finally starting to play good ball and, well, it's the T-Wolves. They started out good, jumping out to a 16-6 lead to start the game. However, it is now halftime, and the score is 65-50 in favor of the T-Wolves. The difference? Well, let me get into that...

Steve Nash and the Suns had a pretty obvious gameplan early on, going to Amare early and often. He scored the first 6 points for the Suns, and was 6-6 for 12 points when the Suns were ahead 16-6. What happened from there on out? Well, Amare stopped playing. Or they stopped getting him the ball. I'm not really sure which.

From the point Amare was 6-6 in the first 5 minutes of the game, he has taken only three shots since. And he made two of them. So he is 8-9 with 19 points at halftime. That sounds like a good line, but when you consider how he started, how he finished, and how the team fared during those two times. you notice something is missing.

I don't care what anyone says, or thinks, or believes. The Suns run through Amare, and they go as he goes. He is ON FIRE in this game, yet somehow only got 3 shots in the last 19 minutes of the first half. And in that time, the Suns got outscored 59-34. Coincidence? I don't think so.

Time for the second half, let's hope they get Amare the ball early and often, as i don't want to see them lose to the T-Wolves again. More thoughts after the game (including how terrible LB has played so far and how Hill looks getting his legs back...)