Excitement Building as Season Comes to a Close

With the great start to the season (winning 16 out of the first 20 games), the Shaquille O’Neal trade and the trials that came with integrating him into the team and now the final end run where the Suns could easily end up anywhere from 1st place to 6th place in the conference, I would consider the 2007-2008 season to be one of the best seasons in recent memory.

This season I wanted to keep track of the numbers and see if I could find any trends that could predict whether the Suns would win or lose a game. Things like:

  • The Suns do better when they have more rest between games
  • You can almost guarantee a win if the Suns keep their opponents under 100 points (25-2 through March 29th – a 93% winning percentage)
  • Phoenix wins 80% of their games when they get 40 rebounds or more (35-9 through March 29th)

The last nine games should be just as exciting as the previous 73 as the Suns head into the home stretch and towards the playoffs. Enjoy the game tonight!

Playoff Musings and the 9-Game Road Trip

<“If a tie is like kissing your sister, then losing is like kissing your grandmother with her teeth out.”
- George Brett

 

The Celtics are the team to beat in the east because they have three closers and the Suns can’t double team all of them.
(NBAE Photos)

Tough loss last night in Boston, no doubt about it. After playing the first half to a draw, the Suns came out sloppy in the 3rd quarter (3 turnovers in the first minute plus), shots didn’t fall and the route was on. Having seen both of the Eastern Conference favorites this week, Steve Nash was asked which is the better team. Being the NBA’s version of Switzerland, he said “It’s a toss-up.” I’m not so diplomatic. Boston is the best team in the East. Even though Rip Hamilton didn’t play Monday night and the Pistons have beaten Phoenix twice this season, the Celtics are the team to beat out east.

You hear comments about Kobe Bryant being the best “closer” in the game – a title he has earned through the years with his ability to dominate a game down the stretch at both ends of the floor. Boston has three of those closers. KG, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen can be unstoppable offensive forces and all have the ability to score 20 points in a quarter. Since the NBA only allows five players on the floor at one time, you can’t double team all 3 of them. Garnett and Pierce are equally tough on the defensive end. Adding Sam Cassell to the mix will have its benefits in the playoffs as well – he’s a crafty scorer, clutch shooter and terrific decision-maker. Plus he always plays well in his first year with a team (see 2003-04 Timberwolves and 2005-06 Clippers) before things inevitably go sour. And while the Pistons have some scorers and play fantastic team defense, I can’t shake the memory of them losing to a one man team in the conference finals last year. They had better hope the Cavs fall out of the third seed or they will likely suffer the same fate – LeBron has their number and he knows it. Even more damaging is that they know it. [Read more...]

Having Fun Yet?

 

Shaquille O’Neal has brought the fun back into the Suns’ game – and it’s translating into wins. (NBAE Photos)

Talk radio blared with fans ready to jump off a ledge, internet message boards ran amok with Mike Kryzewski wannabees and even the national media roundly killed the Phoenix front office for making, as one scribe wrote, “the worst trade in pro sports history.” Hmmmmm.

What a difference a couple of weeks can make. The Suns have not just won 7 straight, but have won them in a multitude of impressive ways. They beat the Evil Empire two weeks ago in a playoff-style slugfest that has become the Spurs’ calling card, holding Duncan and Co. to a measly two points over the final 5:30. A few nights later the Suns outran the fastest team in the league, pasting the Warriors with a 10-0 3rd quarter run that Golden State never recovered from. Mixed in with those wins were a couple of boat races that were over by halftime – the Suns led Memphis and Sacramento by 31 points (each) at the intermission. Are you kidding me? I know Memphis is having a rough season, but Sacramento just beat the Lakers in LA and it is unbelievably difficult to post a 30-point lead in the NBA. The players are too good and pro athletes in general have way too much pride to take a beating like that. Saturday’s dismantling of Houston was the latest indication of how good this Suns team can be. The Rockets are fresh off the 2nd longest winning streak in NBA history at 22 games – something none of Jordan’s Chicago, Magic’s LA or Bird’s Boston teams could do – and they looked more like a lottery team against Phoenix than a true title contender. [Read more...]

Suns Continue to Improve All Aspects of Their Game

Shaquille O’Neal jumps for the ball to begin the Suns victory over the Houston Rockets.

(NBAE Photos)

Where the old version got most of its power from one dynamo this one features twin dynamos, Amare Stoudemire and Shaquille O’Neal, aka Mr. Inside and Mr. Even Further Inside.

Last night, Amare had 36 points and 13 rebounds and set a franchise record by making all 20 of his free throws. And as the game wound down every time he made a shot the crowd broke into an “MVP…MVP…MVP” chant that had to be sweet music to his ears.

And while I know it’s a shopworn line, his numbers tell only part of the story of how much better he’s gotten in just the last three or four weeks. There just aren’t any stats to describe how he has elevated his game from star to superstar status in every respect and at both ends of the court. He always had the devastating speed to size ratio and raw power, but now he’s using them so much better. And that’s just the good news. The great news is he’s STILL improving

Indeed, when Coach Mike was asked if he was surprised Amare broke the free throw record, he replied, “Nothing he does really surprises me anymore.”

As for Shaq, he continues to post phenomenal numbers, especially when you consider he was pronounced DOA in Phoenix by many “doctors”. Last night he had 23 points and 13 boards and brushed off defenders as easily as one picks a small piece of lint off one’s suit. He also hit the surprising (no, astonishing) number of seven free throws — a feat of such rarity it inspired his teammates to go 33 for 33.

With Amare and Shaq wreaking havoc inside and Leandro Barbosa shooting like he always does when he is pressed into service as a starter, the Suns scored 74 points on the NBA’s fourth-ranked defense in the first half while shooting 76 percent against the NBA’s second-ranked field goal percentage defense.

But while this trio combined for 82 points on 69 percent shooting, this department’s MCGB (Most Coveted Game Ball) goes to a guy who scored only two points and hit only 25 percent from the field.

That would be Grant Hill, who had 10 assists and zero turnovers at one end, and was the key to harassing Tracy McGrady into 11 for 31 shooting at the other. It’s hard to overstate how much he means night in and night out in so many ways to the Suns, who by the way have now won seven straight and moved up to number the three seed in the West – just two games (counting the tiebreaker factor) behind the number one Lakers.

They pretty much blew Houston away in that first half, building a lead that stretched to 23 points at its widest. And even though the Rockets predictably mounted one or two surges in the second half, they never got any closer than eight points.

And mind you, this is a Houston team that recently ran off 22 straight victories, the second longest such streak in NBA history. Well, okay, it’s not exactly the same Houston team. This Houston team has lost three of its last four games, one by 20, one by 21, and one by very deceiving not-nearly-that close 9.

The main reason this score looked so misleadingly semi-respectable is that while the Suns wound up hitting 57 percent of their shots, they also completed only 57 percent of their passes, finishing with 16 turnovers leading to 24 Houston points.

The bottom line: We’re going to have to add another bandwagon to a parade that was a death march just three weeks ago, because the ones we have now are getting dangerously overcrowded.

Campaign Season

<“I’m Adam Beechen’s mother, and I approved this message…because Adam promised me he’d come home for Passover if I did. Don’t forget the matzo, honey!”

Kevin Johnson could use the fact that he dunked on Hakeem Olajuwon as one of his campaign slogans. (NBAE Photos)

* * *

As the Suns wind up their campaign toward the NBA playoffs, having finally seemed to jell around this new guy O’Neal (who really fills out a uniform), and this other new guy, Giricek, another former Sun is also knee-deep in a campaign of his own. That would be Ring of Honor member Kevin Johnson, who’s running for Mayor of Sacramento.

(First of all, how can KJ be old enough to run for anything? He still looks as fresh-faced as the day he arrived in the Valley. I find it very hard to believe he’s 42.)

Now, anyone who saw Kevin play basketball knows he doesn’t need any help running for any reason. But we’re Phoenix, we back our sons and our Suns, so here are a few campaign slogans for you, KJ, feel free to use them or not as you see fit:

“SOLID LEADERSHIP ON ANY KIND OF FLOOR – JOHNSON FOR MAYOR!”

“VOTE KJ – IMPROVE SACRAMENTO’S FREE-THROW PERCENTAGE BY SIXTY PERCENT!”

“FASTER THAN THE OTHER CANDIDATE – GUARANTEED!”

“I DUNKED ON OLAJUWON, GUARDED JORDAN IN THE FINALS AND HAD A LOCKER NEXT TO BARKLEY…YOU THINK I CAN’T HANDLE CITY COUNCIL?”

All of which got me thinking, just in case any of the current Suns wanted to take a run at any vacant political offices, I’ve got a few more slogans that might be of use:

“EXPERIENCE, DETERMINATION AND PROFESSIONALISM…VOTE GRANT HILL!”

“RAJA BELL, MINISTER OF DEFENSE – CHECK YOUR BALLOT BEFORE HE CHECKS YOU!”

“A MAN WHO TAKES CHARGE ON OUR COURT – NASH FOR ATTORNEY GENERAL!”

“SECRETARY OF THE INTERIOR…AND ANYWHERE ELSE HE WANTS TO BE – AMARE STOUDEMIRE!”

“VOTE BORIS DIAW FOR ANY POSITION YOU LIKE.”

“GORDAN GIRICEK FOR DIRECTOR OF INTERCONTINENTAL BALLISTIC MISSILES – THE GOOD KINDS, THE ONES WORTH THREE POINTS.”

“YOU MIGHT AS WELL VOTE FOR LEANDRO BARBOSA…YOU SURE CAN’T BEAT HIM.”

“MIKE D’ANTONI FOR PRESIDENT – HE CAN TAKE THE HEAT!”

“SHAQUILLE O’NEAL FOR MAYOR – YOU WANT TO TELL HIM NO?”

And Al McCoy will serve as Speaker of the House – a lifetime post.

In all seriousness, Kevin Johnson, as has been well-documented has done even more good work off the court than he did on the court which, frankly, is hard to believe, given how well he played for the purple and orange. Shooting, passing, defending, serving as a public face for a franchise in the years immediately following a terrible scandal, KJ did it all for the Suns. Now, his St. Hope Academy in Sacramento has helped countless kids, at-risk or not. KJ has dedicated his post-hoops life, as he did much of his life while he was playing, to making the world a better place to live in.

It’s a shame they don’t let Phoenicians vote in Sacramento elections. He’d be a shoo-in.

Send/Receive 2: Kerr Answers Fan E-Mail

Hello again. I want to thank you for all your support, particularly the past month or so since Shaq arrived.

 

Skinner is the Suns’ best shot blocker and can help the team in certain matchups the rest of the season. (NBAE Photos)

The response to the trade has been overwhelmingly positive, and I just want
you to know how much we appreciate your passion for the Suns. We’re doing everything we can to make sure our team is prepared every night and making improvement as we head towards the playoffs.

Thanks also for the emails, of which there have been plenty the past month! The interest in the Suns is at an all time high, and I’m going to do my best to respond to your many inquiries. Keep ‘em coming!

———————————————–

Question: First of all, you were the guy I idolized on the Bulls. Secondly, I was wondering if you have ever considered giving speeches at colleges? I have listened to your interviews over the years and you are a wonderful speaker. I would love to hear you hold lecture or write a book.
– Joseph Henderson, Overland Park, Kansas

Joseph,

Thanks for the compliment – I really appreciate it. Those Bulls teams were special – I was lucky to be a part of NBA history. As for speaking, I have done my share over the years in various forums, but now that I have this job there’s really no time. I’m so busy with the Suns that I’m not doing much public speaking anymore. Plus, when we started our Shaq-era 3-6, I was trying to stay out of the public eye altogether! (I guess it’s safe to go outside again).

———————————————– [Read more...]

Transition Period Is Officially Over

Gordan Giricek had a breakout game against the Sacramento Kings on Saturday night.

(NBAE Photos)

In fact, it’s working out so well that Coach Mike, who only a week ago was doing a slow internal burn over suggestions his team might slip out of the playoffs, now feels constrained to try to slow down the suddenly overcrowded bandwagon a bit.

“We’re not as good as we think we are,” he cautioned after the Suns blew the Kings away, “but we are better than we were.”

Better indeed!

Shaq has added the inside presence at both ends he was brought here for without sacrificing any of the team’s speed. In fact, there he was Saturday night finishing off a fast break with a lay up after beating everybody down the floor.

And instead of taking away from anybody’s game, his arrival seems to have picked up everybody’s – including the fans.

Last night’s win was the Suns’ fourth straight, moved them up a seed to number five in the West, and positioned them to make a very strong run to regain number one down the stretch. And as far as the Shaq deal meaning Coach Mike was giving up on his fun-and-gun offense, the Suns have averaged 127 points over the last three games in spite of playing their regulars either not at all or very little in the fourth period in two of those games.

What’s more, the team is now scoring the points in mega-bunches – reminiscent of what used to be their trademark.

Take last night for instance. The teams battled on even terms throughout most of the first period of what looked like a pretty interesting matchup. But then the roof fell in on the Kings, followed swiftly by the sky, and before you knew it the Suns had gone on a 28-2 run. The final damage in the period was 42-14, with the Suns shooting 79 percent from the field.

And lest you say, “Yeah, but the Kings aren’t very good,” be advised this is the same team that beat the Lakers in Los Angeles the other evening. Or at least the same players.
But with Amare’s game soaring to even higher levels, Steve Nash back on his, and Shaq looking downright frisky and hustling like a rookie trying to make the club, this was more about how good the Suns have become rather than how bad the Kings are.

Not only that, but Gordan Giricek, the “consolation” prize the Suns signed when Brent Barry opted to stay in San Antonio, came off the bench to score 23 points, grab 5 rebounds, and contribute two steals in 32 very athletic minutes. It also should be noted he hit four of seven threes.

The bottom line: As for Coach Mike’s caution that the Suns are still quite a ways from being as going as they’re eventually going to get, he’s absolutely right, of course. And that’s the good news. In fact, that’s great news if you’re thinking in terms of a shot at the prize the Suns had their eye on but kind of lost sight of last year.

Watching A Game On Tivo Harder Than It Looks

For example, last week’s big game against the San Antonio Spurs started when I was 25,000 feet over Amarillo, Texas. That’s fine because nobody can use the Internet or the cell phones when you’re on a plane. The problems start when you’re plane lands. Usually the other people on the plane are too uncomfortable standing next to you waiting for their turn to leave to actually make conversation. No spoilers there.

The next stage was more difficult. I had to walk through Terminal 4 with Ninja-like discipline. I couldn’t look left or right for nearly a quarter of a mile because there are TV screens everywhere. Just to be safe, I put on my Mean Face just in case I ran into a friend and they unwittingly blurted out the score of the game. If you think this is a little extreme, you don’t understand that my friends would do something like this, and you also forget that this was the Suns/Spurs game–the first with big Shaq. This is playoff basketball two months early.

While I waited for my wife to pick me up, I opted to leave the massive crowds inside the airport and stand among a handful of smokers outside, because statistically, there was less chance that I’d overhear someone yapping about the game in progress. I smelled like smoke for the rest of the day, but at least I got to enjoy the game from beginning to it’s glorious end. (Even if it was technically three hours after the final shot of the game.)

I’ve spoken to my friends about this anxiety, and they know what it’s like. My friend Justin had problems–coincidentally–over last year’s final regular season game against the Spurs. His girlfriend’s parents were in town for the weekend, which would have been fine, maybe even fun. Welcome to Phoenix…now lets watch the Suns! Unfortunately, these folks didn’t care much for basketball.

He knew this fact a week in advance and decided that watching the game together was a bad idea. Something that could end the whole relationship. So he crafted an brilliant plan. He set the DVR to record the game, and then he took the family to the only event that he could find that would be absolutely insulated from the game: The Renaissance Festival. Genius! Shear genius! Give the man a trophy!

Think about it: it’s so hard to avoid hearing about the outcome of a big game. I almost punched a bag boy at Basha’s last year because he asked me if I bought all this party food to celebrate the “big win.” I looked at him sideways for five seconds and then slowly explained to him we hadn’t seen the game yet. He felt so bad he jumped to the next register to start bagging groceries for a lady who bought a pack of gum.

Really, where do you go? Even if you took them on a hike up Camelback Mountain, there would be a group of girls from ASU laying out in the sun listening to the game on the radio…debating on who is cuter, Raja or Leandro. There’s no safe place. Three years ago, the priest at my parish ruined the outcome of a game during his sermon. How messed up is that? Isn’t that a sin?

Big Cactus is Bringing Energy Back to the Valley

Shaq jumps back onto the court after a dive into the crowd during Sunday afternoon’s win over the Spurs.   (NBAE Photos)

My response was always an honest one. I said I didn’t know whether or not the trade was going to alter our style, but I guaranteed the season was about to be a lot more fun.

The Diesel has since proven me right, bringing an energy to the Valley words just can’t describe. Since his arrival it isn’t just the contests against the Spurs or the Lakers which fans are anticipating, it’s each and every game. But that’s what happens when you’ve got a guy like O’Neal always providing the unexpected.

Before the match-up against the Golden State Warriors, FSN Arizona broadcaster Gary Bender and I talked to Mike D’Antoni in his office about O’Neal – specifically the play against the Spurs which saw him diving into the second row of Section 113. Bender suggested that could be the kind of play that turns around a season and the coach in no way dismissed the possibility.

D’Antoni broke his gaze from the Cavaliers/Wizards game on TV and said, “You know, it really could be.” [Read more...]

Suns Regain Swagger in Win Over Warriors

Beating the methodical World Champion Spurs at their game, running up a 39-point lead even against a bad team like the Grizzlies, and then sort of beating the very athletic Warriors at THEIR game will do that for you.

The Suns had just enough speed and a little too much size, even with Shaq shackled to the bench with foul problems, for the trigger-happy, athletic Warriors. And oh yes, too much defense.

It was the second time in two games that a top quality opponent shot far below its average against the Suns. The Spurs misfired at a 36 percent clip Sunday and last night the Warriors missed 62 of their 105 shots (41 percent to save you doing the math). True, Baron Davis scored 38 points, but he needed 30 shots to do it.

Coincidence? I think not!

The difference both times was that the Suns really tightened the defensive screws, especially in the second half of both wins.

This one didn’t start out that way. Golden State, who leads the league in point production by a narrow margin over the Suns, opened with a 39-point blast. But the Suns cranked up their aggressiveness about four notches (from zero to four to be precise), and pretty much shut down the Warriors in the stay-alive second period decisive third. period.

Meanwhile, the Suns happily fired away at a sizzling 55 percent clip, aided by Amare Stoudemire and abetted by just about everybody but Grant Hill, (who played on a sore wrist the second half). And their starting guards, Steve Nash and Raja Bell, were a combined 8-12 from Three City. (Hill, by the way, hurt his wrist in the second period, and had to gut it out in the second half).

Even without Shaq, and Coach Mike consequently “having” to go with small ball, the Suns still were a little bigger than a Golden State team that never met a shot it didn’t like. Because of those foul problems, the debate over whether or not Shaq can be effective against a team like the Warriors was unresolved.

Meanwhile, the Suns got a big lift with from another of their alleged problem areas, namely the bench. Boris Diaw and Leandro Barbosa combined for 30 points, and the schizophrenic Diaw (sometimes a tiger, sometimes a pussycat), also had seven rebounds and five assists, and also blocked a shot. Grrrr.

The bottom line: Although you can crunch some pretty impressive numbers after this one, the MOST impressive thing for me was the continuing upgrade of the team’s body language.