The Suns are back to Seven Seconds or Less and after a 4-2 record since replacing Terry Porter with Alvin Gentry, it seems to be working because they lit up the scoreboard for 642 points and an average of 128 points per game prior to the Lakers loss Thursday night. Looks like this collection of players got accustomed to playing only one way, especially with Steve Nash running the show.
The thought of scoring 140 points in three games in a row after the change in coaches and philosophy had a lot of basketball enthusiasts shaking their heads in disbelief, but this is who the Suns are and they have welcomed the change with an exuberance that has Phoenix fans feeling hopeful about the playoffs despite losing Amare Stoudemire to an eye injury for eight weeks.
I, for one, thought going into this season and coming off of another playoff loss to the Spurs that the Suns style needed a tweak in order to finally overcome San Antonio – similar to what the Isiah Thomas-led Pistons had to do in order to beat the Larry Bird-led Celtics or the Michael Jordan-led Bulls.
I viewed the combination of Shaquille O’Neal and Amare running the two-man game with Nash on equal basis with Tony Parker and Tim Duncan. I viewed the ability to post up Shaq and spread the floor with shooters as a way of getting high-percentage shots and maintaining a balanced floor, thus improving the transition back to defense and allowing Nash to stay fresh.
Porter was not wrong for trying to change the culture of this team. He just underestimated how tough it would be to communicate the change. I remember when Phil Jackson hired Tex Winter and told Jordan that he wanted to install the triangle offense. It took him a number of games to finally convince Jordan and Scottie Pippen that this system could work and, most importantly, win championships. That’s why I say he is the best coach ever- Because he had to convince arguably the best player ever to change and trust his teammates.
Unlike Jackson, though, Porter took over a winning team and attempted the change – which was and proved to be much more difficult.
Immediate success was the key to keeping the communication lines open and it seemed as if Porter was on the right track with regards to that. The Suns got off to a 8-3 start and although players were skeptical, the wins were piling up. People took notice especially when the Suns opened the season with a road victory at San Antonio. But six losses in their next nine games and five in double figures left them at 11-9. Then doubt and emotion started to cover the locker room.
I did not think it was a huge negative because I was comparing it to the track record of San Antonio and always marveled at how they got off to slow starts and picked up steam as the season went along. Once the playoffs started, they were in full gear and rested. There is plenty of sense in that thinking because I remember Larry Brown once telling me that he needed his teams and players to struggle at times so he could regain their focus to continue to teach and keep them on the track for the goal of winning a championship.
Because they can be off the track, but still moving forward and think everything is still OK when in hindsight a crash was about to happen. I felt the Suns were learning a lesson and would continue to listen and adhere to this new philosophy from Terry Porter and get back on track. Winning 11 out of the next 14 games proved my theory correct.
The Suns were a respectable 22-13 and it seemed Jason Richardson, who came over in the trade for Raja Bell and Boris Diaw, was finding his rhythm within the offense. With a favorable schedule, the Suns were apparently headed towards another 55-win season.
But a loss to Minnesota at home set them on a track where they lost to another five teams playing less than .500 basketball. That cost Porter his job and put the Suns in the position they are in today – fighting for their playoff lives.
The question remains- What is the best fit for this basketball team? Because, yes, they have won four out of six games with Gentry and are averaging 124 points. But the four wins were against sub-.500 teams and both losses were against the best two teams in basketball – the Lakers and Celtics.
Gentry can argue the fact he did not have Amare for either game and Nash was out with a sprained ankle in the Lakers defeat. Based on how this team picked up where it left off last year in reference to the running game, it is pretty obvious they are more comfortable with Seven Seconds or Less and the stats pretty much support their argument.
There are two statistical areas I felt the Suns were deficient in and it seemed to be costing them games: turnovers (16) and allowing opponents to garner more offensive rebounds (-3).
Those numbers, combined with their inability to force turnovers (12) or secure second chance attempts on the glass, left them with close to -7 possessions a game. So if we look at the +1 point differential the Suns have been hovering around all year, we see why weak teams have found a way to grab victories from them.
The last six games those numbers changed in the Suns favor. They have turned the ball over 13 less times than the opposition and they have scored 35 more points off turnovers. They are a +1 in offensive rebounds, which is a huge turnaround from the -3 they had entering those games. So if six contests tell us anything it is that the Suns are more productive all-around when they run. Yes, they will give up more points, but that has always been the beauty of this system – to fool teams into thinking they can score at will, but in the same instance allowing the Suns to rack up 133 points per game in the four wins.
The running game helps the Suns avoid the two-man game teams punish them with when they were a walk-it-up-the-court team, especially the middle pick-and-roll. The list is long- Parker-Duncan, Chris Paul-David West, Deron Williams-Carlos Boozer, Jason Terry-Dirk Nowitzki, Rajon Rondo-Paul Pierce, etcetera- They have all feasted this season on the Suns’ inability to defend it with regularity. The pace of the game baits teams into taking quicker shots and forgetting about what is their bread-and-butter play to get great shots against Phoenix.
The more the Suns can keep the great teams from running pick-and-rolls, the better their chances are of winning against them and that is why this group needs to run despite having arguably the most dominant big man in NBA history in Shaq.
The hope now is Nash will be back soon from a sprained ankle and Phoenix continues to make a run at the final playoff spots, but it will not be easy because the Suns embark on what I think is the most difficult stretch of games any team in the NBA will face this season.
These next two weeks will decide if the Suns have enough to get back in the thick of the race and secure a playoff spot. After playing Toronto tonight, they will play seven straight games beginning with another date with the Los Angeles Lakers at home on March 1 and by March 12. 11 days later they will have faced Orlando, Miami, Houston and San Antonio on the road and come back home to face Dallas and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
If the Suns can weather the storm and at least win three or four of the seven games, then they have a chance to make the playoffs. They seemed to have solved beating up the poor teams and they will get a chance to do just that after this stretch. They will have 17 games left and 10 will be against teams with poor records and six of those games will be at home.
It will be extremely difficult to accomplish this with Amare Stoudemire out the rest of the season, but if they find a way to get to the postseason they will automatically become the most dangerous team to face if Amare returns for the playoffs. How would you like to be the Lakers or Spurs having to deal with Shaq, Amare and Nash for seven games in the first round. Welcome to the Western Conference!
(Eddie Johnson’s blog originally appeared on HoopsHype.com and was reprinted with permission.)