As Nash goes, so do Suns

Game Time: Suns 123, Warriors 101

Because the Warriors surrendered midway through the third quarter, all of the Suns got to show what they could (and could not) do while playing freely and under minimum duress.

Here’s the rundown:

STEVE NASH: As in the almost-glory days of seasons past, Nash played with the ball on a string. With Shaq out of the picture (and out of the lane), the middle was generally open, giving Nash room to do whatever he wished. A familiar highlight reel of tricky interior shots, drives and dishes, long touchdown passes and three-ball swishes had Nash in total control of the Suns’ up-tempo offense. Indeed, he single-handedly out-assisted all of the visitors, 20 to 16.

As ever, Nash’s defense was earnest and clever but ultimately weak.

AMARE STOUDEMIRE: Understandably, Stoudemire will need more time to get his mojo working. Meanwhile, he forced too many shots, was confused while trying to defend several high screen-and-rolls, wasn’t as aggressive in the rebounding scrums as he used to be, failed to hold several screens in his anxiety to execute dive cuts and seemed to have lost a step.

Still, he was totally in tune with Nash, making timely weak-to-strong-side cuts when Nash had the ball, and following in Nash’s wake on his favorite point guard’s ventures into the paint.

Moreover, Stoudemire’s totals of five turnovers and zero assists were a telling indication of his only having eyes for the basket.

LEANDRO BARBOSA: He certainly hasn’t slowed down to any meaningful degree. His backdoor cuts, curls around weak-side screens and dribble-drives after accepting high handoffs are still executed at warp speed. When on the run, Barbosa always gets to the ring from the left side.

Unfortunately, his defense hasn’t improved, particularly when playing off the ball. He turned his head on several occasions and was consistently out of position.

GRANT HILL: Early on, when the game was competitive, Hill was sent into the low post on several possessions. Mostly using some variation of a turnaround jumper, Hill either scored or was fouled. It looks like he’ll be the go-to scorer whenever Phoenix absolutely needs a bucket in the clutch.

A savvy veteran, Hill easily moves without the ball in anticipation of winding up in open spaces where Nash can find him.

In his 15th season, however, Hill’s lateral movement has greatly diminished. He was never a top-notch defender, but with his wobbly wheels, he’s more of a target than he ever was. Like Barbosa, Hill was too often guilty of playing defense with his head on a swivel.

CHANNING FRYE: This guy has finally found the team and the system that can maximize his game. He can’t handle, bang, or pass, but Frye can shoot the lights out when his feet are set — he was 6-for-7 from downtown. Strictly a catch-and-shoot kind of guy, Frye simply moved into the open spaces created when the Warriors’ defense (such as it was) had to scramble to cover Nash’s routine penetrations.

Frye remains a soft defender, but most of his baseline rotations were timely and effective.

JARED DUDLEY: This third-year forward plays outstanding on-the-ball defense. Plus, he understands when to leave his man and execute an effective double team. However, head-turning is apparently contagious, and Dudley occasionally proved that he also lacks the proper immunity.

Dudley can also run and finish, and he’s not afraid to launch treys. He was 0-for-3 versus Golden State, but he does hold a career 33 percent.

LOUIS AMUNDSON: His job is to rebound, defend, block shots and energize the team. And he does everything with a workmanlike diligence that’s easily as effective as the over-hyped antics of Chris Andersen. Indeed, his man-to-man defense is much better than the Birdman’s rather flighty efforts in this department.

GORAN DRAGIC: Given sufficient time and space, Dragic demonstrates a nice stroke. But he unleashed an airball when his shot was pressured. He’s an alert and willing passer, yet his crossover dribble is shaky. Worst of all, there’s an inherent stiffness in the way he moves that makes Dragic’s defense unsatisfactory. He just might be among the worst backup point guards in the league.

On offense, Nash runs the show with multiple weak- and strong-side screens employed to get him and his hot-shot teammates into open gaps.

Here’s the Suns free-wheeling money play: If nothing immediately develops after a weak-side curl, the weak-side screener will approach Nash and set another screen for him.

Meanwhile, there are also dive-cuts galore coupled with shooters (usually Barbosa and Frye) fanning to open spots past the arc. When their outside shots are falling, Phoenix can be an extremely dangerous team.

On defense, the Suns are reluctant to switch on high screen-and-rolls. Instead, the guard/wing will go under, the big will step out and show long enough for the guard/wing to recover his position. If the ball-handler is patient, however, he can usually find an open jumper while the big and his erstwhile defender make their adjustments.

The first baseline rotations behind these high screen-and-rolls are usually adequate, but if this rotator has to vacate the middle and move to the ball, there’s rarely a subsequent rotation to keep the basket protected.

And for a team that will run even after makes, the Suns’ transition defense is sub-par.

Overall, when their shots are clicking, when Nash can bedevil his opposite number and when Stoudemire gets re-acclimated, Phoenix will trounce bad teams, compete with mediocre teams and sometimes surprise good and very good teams. But they’ll mostly have their greatest successes in the cozy confines of the U.S. Airways Center.

Grabbing the sixth seed come playoff time is a distinct possibility.

Straight Shooting

There have been insistent suggestions from various sources as of late that the NBA should abolish its age limit and allow any player who has completed his high school eligibility to be draftable.

Numbers are cited to demonstrate that, in recent years, 19-year-old NBA rookies have registered higher-than-normal game averages in points, rebounds, shooting percentages, assists, etcetera. Plus, they’re less likely to get into hassles with the law than are veteran players.

However, I believe that these particular arguments are entirely misguided for the following reasons:

  • The youngsters in question avoid trouble mostly because they’re too young to frequent bars and clubs where most problems occur.
  • If these kids can tally impressive numbers, it only proves that they have extraordinary on-the-ball skills.
  • Very few of them know how to play without the ball in their hands, and have little or no understanding of what team-oriented basketball is all about.
  • Moreover, their grasp of fundamentals is either shaky or non-existent.

    All of which tend to greatly diminish the overall level of play throughout the NBA.

    The critics also claim that the main objectives of the NBA’s age-limitation are to curry favor with the NCAA, and to prevent superstar players from becoming free agents while still in their early 20s.

    There’s some truth to these statements, but with the proviso that the NBA’s decision-makers are also trying to protect the quality of their product.

    Furthermore, the critics say that collegiate basketball programs get absolutely no benefits from recruiting players who will only stay in school for one season.

    Tell this to all of the colleges who qualified for the NCAA tournament behind the superb performances of their freshmen players, thereby enabling their schools to receive mega-buck checks.

    It says here that rather than lower the league’s minimum age, the NBA should raise it to 20. However, players as young as 18 should be permitted to play in the D League.

    Vox Populi

    Which of the following teams has the best starting five: Celtics, Lakers, Spurs or Magic? — Newton Anastacio, Paulau

    Here are the rankings by position:

    Point guards: Tony Parker (Spurs), Rajon Rondo (Celtics), Jameer Nelson (Magic), Derek Fisher (Lakers)

    Shooting guards: Kobe Bryant (Lakers), Vince Carter (Magic), Ray Allen (Celtics), Michael Finley (Spurs)

    Small forwards: Paul Pierce (Celtics), Ron Artest (Lakers), Richard Jefferson (Spurs), Mickael Pietrus (Magic)

    Power forwards: Tim Duncan (Spurs), Pau Gasol (Lakers), Kevin Garnett (Celtics), Rashard Lewis (Magic)

    Centers: Dwight Howard (Magic), Andrew Bynum (Lakers), Kendrick Perkins (Celtics), Matt Bonner (Spurs)

    Assigning four points to the best at each slot, three to the next best, and so on, the Lakers lead with 14 total points, followed by Boston (13), San Antonio (12) and Orlando (9).

    However, these numbers are entirely misleading, since what really counts is the overall quality of the players on the court at the end of games.

    So, substitute Lamar Odom for Bynum, Manu Ginobili for Finley, most likely Antonio McDyess for Bonner, and probably Rasheed Wallace for Perkins.

    In this scenario, the rankings would be significantly altered at three positions:

    Shooting guards: Kobe, Ginobili, Carter, Allen

    Power forwards: Garnett, Odom, Lewis, McDyess

    Centers: Duncan, Gasol, Howard, Wallace

    The Lakers and the Spurs would both have 14 points, Boston (13) and Orlando (9).

    Nevertheless, the importance of these ratings fails to consider such vital components as team chemistry at both ends, matchup advantages and disadvantages, individual and collective intelligence, and so on.

    But making purely subjective lists is always fun!

    Travels with Charley

    Over the years, I’ve interviewed scores of basketball celebrities for various magazines and several books. Here are some brief impressions:

  • Elvin Hayes was highly suspicious of me, but called Tex Winter (who had coached him in his rookie season) the “anti-Christ” for asking the Big E to pass, set screens and run plays.
  • It was snowing in Buffalo when I visited with Jack Marin, an intelligent and dedicated conservative thinker who joked that Bill Bradley and Phil Jackson were probably both Communists. In any event, we had a fruitful connection. Marin did scare the daylights out of me when he drove his Porche along a snow-blown highway at 70 miles per hour while he was digging in the glove department to show me something or other — and while he controlled the steering wheel only with his knees.

  • Julius Erving was playing with the Virginia Squires and had a total game — except for his lack of a reliable jump shot. When I asked why he couldn’t shoot, he said, “Because I don’t need to.”
  • Ralph Sampson was only marginally cooperative. Bill Fitch was the Rockets coach and on the record he called Sampson “a wimp”. The very day that the story appeared, Sampson threw a punch at an opponent.
  • When I interviewed Swen Nater in San Antonio, he insisted that his wife always be present. Indeed, he conferred with her before offering an answer to even the most innocent questions, reminding me of a mobster continually consulting his lawyer while being grilled by a congressional committee.
  • Dominique Wilkins kept me waiting in a hotel lobby for over three hours, and then gave me vague answers.
  • Scottie Pippen never showed up to two appointments.
  • Calvin Murphy was all business.
  • Bobby Knight wouldn’t speak to me at all, then called when the article came out to scold me for several inaccuracies.
  • Hubie Brown was remarkably candid, but his most scathing remarks were off the record.
  • Louie Carneseca was an ever-smiling, blatantly phony con man.
  • Gene Shue was honest and real. As were Red Auerbach, Jimmy Rodgers, Pete Carril and Mike Riordan.
  • Dan Issel was bored. Jim Chones was flattered. Bob “Horse” Kaufman was dull.
  • When I alluded to Bill Bradley’s being a modern-day Renaissance Man and mentioned Sir Phillip Sydney, he actually knew to whom I was referring.
  • Before Red Holzman deigned to speak to me, he pointed at my tape recorder and said, “Shut that frigging thing off.”
  • Mendy Rudolph was probably the best referee in the history of the NBA. In civilian life he was noted for being a slick dresser. I was in my hippie mode when I met him in his office, wearing long hair, jeans, sandals, a Grateful Dead T-shirt and peace beads. Even before he shook my hand, Rudolph said this: “Who’s your tailor? A blind man?”
  • David Stern’s father owned a delicatessen and the teenaged Stern played for a team sponsored by his dad. “I was only five-nine,” said Stern, “but I was a terrific rebounder for my size.”