In the case of the Suns tonight, I think it was mostly all mental. As former Yankee great Yogi Berra once said, “90 percent of the game is half-mental.”
STAT and Co. lost their focus in the third period.
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Ok, but you get my drift. When you are in the playoffs, teams cannot lose focus for a second. They can’t rest on their laurels against any team, let alone against the defending champions… and maybe the most mentally tough team in the league.
Now a lot of fans don’t like to hear that. They want to hear that their squad was merely outrebounded or that they didn’t get enough bench production. You know, something that has a nice, pretty bow wrapped around it.
But tonight, that wasn’t the case. The Suns’ mission was to start the game off hot, which they did. Then at halftime, they relaxed. And then they came out and played the third period, but never stopped relaxing.
The Spurs, on the other hand, came out on a crusade to recapture the lead. If I had to guess, Coach Popovich probably told them that he wanted them to head into the fourth with the lead, and the team rallied behind that one thought.
So the Spurs scrapped and clawed to get the momentum back and disrupted the Steve Nash-Amaré Stoudemire pick-and-roll by clogging up the lane. The Suns, who historically give up leads (especially in the third period), allowed a traditionally great third-quarter team to reverse the flow of the game.
Even though basketball is a game of runs, the Spurs are unique in that they are tougher than most clubs to make a run against when they have the momentum on their side. Due to their grittiness on the defensive end, a team has to expend more energy than most to regain the momentum. Due to that defensive intensity, the Suns didn’t make their fourth-quarter run until about four minutes left in the contest. There just wasn’t enough time on the clock.
But the odd thing was that the Suns only put up 11 points in the third quarter. 11 points. That was their lowest total for a quarter the entire season. The Suns were one of the top three scoring teams in the league this season. That is their forte`, but they completely shut down.
Now was some of that due to the Spurs’ defense? Of course. But to have the lowest total for a quarter in the season, that’s also a psychological breakdown. That’s not everyone focusing on the little mini-goals of the game. Little milestones throughout the game like holding a team under 20 points for a quarter, getting a specific player into foul trouble and outplaying a team at the beginning of the quarter is the type of execution that can determine whether you win or lose.
As I said in my earlier blog this evening, that’s the difference between a championship team and a really good team. The Suns and Spurs were pretty much dead-even on rebounds, turnovers and field goal percentage. Both teams’ stars cancelled each other out. The top three for the Suns totaled 75 points, while the Spurs’ big three posted 79.
But the major difference was that all of the Spurs’ zeroed in to make their run, whereas only the majority of the Suns’ did. Even though Michael Finley only pumped in eight points, they came during their main third-quarter run. Ime Udoka played solid defense, and Brent Barry hit a couple of jumpers to stretch the defense.
Winning the mini-games within the game matters.
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But for the Suns, Grant Hill never got involved, scoring 0 points in nearly 20 minutes. Boris Diaw was out of synch and Leandro Barbosa, who usually is an energy boost as the second-leading bench player in the league, registered 0 points. Besides Boris for a few minutes, no one besides Shaq, Steve and STAT ever really got into a rhythm
One of the keys for the Suns all year has been the play of Raja Bell, Diaw and Barbosa. If two out of the three of them score over 15 points, the Suns almost never lose. Also, Mr. Consistency, Hill, has always been a guy who has made plays when Phoenix has needed them. In order for the Suns to get back on track, these guys are going to have to feel involved.
Maybe Coach Popovich is trying to shut out those guys and make the Suns’ big three do all of the damage. Maybe. But for players of LB and Grant’s caliber to have games like they had in Game 2, they weren’t tuned in (although G-Hill may be hurting more than he’s letting on).
But one thing is for certain, those key guys have to show up in Phoenix, or it is going to be a short series. The silver lining for Suns fans is that players that talented usually rebound from poor games to conquer the world. We’ll see in Game 4…
On a related note, I wasn’t oblivious to the fact that the Spurs spent more time in the paint than Michaelangelo. Any screen-and-roll with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili seemed to give the Spurs an easy bucket and the Suns fits. When the Suns defenders play off, they hit the jumper, when they follow behind, Manu and Parker take it to the hoop.
But since I felt everyone who watched the game witnessed that all night, I figured I’d point out something a little less obvious…