Usually I lead with a national story, but when the Phoenix Suns last five games were @ the Los Angeles Lakers, @ Dallas, vs. Orlando, @ Denver and vs. San Antonio I thought it might be a nice time to do a Suns edition of The Jump.
In the five straight measuring stick games Phoenix finished with a 2-3 record (up next is vs. Portland on Saturday and on 12/23 they get Oklahoma City at home – that is the Suns playing what could be the sixth of the seven other Western Conference playoff teams in a span of 17 days). Alvin Gentry gave the media a 20-25 game window before they judged the team (thanks to Sports 620 KTAR reporter Craig Grialou for the reminder on that) and in the first 25 games the Suns are 17-8 – they should be better as they have inexcusable losses to the New Orleans Hornets without Chris Paul and the New York Knicks.
Before the season started I said the Suns would be the 5th seed in the Western Conference. If the playoffs started today they would be the 4th seed, a little better than I expected. There are reasons to be excited about the 17-8 start and there are reasons to be worried.
Steve Nash had an incredible beginning of the season. He seems rejuvenated playing in Alvin Gentry’s offense and is the best offensive point guard in the NBA (only because Chris Paul missed too many games to this point and pay close attention to the word offensive, we must remember basketball is played on both sides of the court). If Nash can play at this level the Suns have a chance to make some noise in the playoffs.
There is reason to question whether the two time MVP can keep this up. Nash is 35 years old, played 13 years in the NBA, and this year is the 11th time he will average 33 MPG or more. #13 played an additional 102 playoff games, which is more than another full season. Don’t forget the two summers (2000 and 2004) he spent playing for Team Canada in the Olympics. That is a lot and wear and tear on a small, slender build. There is no question Nash keeps himself in incredible shape, but it’s only a matter of time before time catches up to him (the athlete that has defied time better than anyone I have ever seen is New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera – if Nash plays at this level for a two-three more years he enters that class).
Amare Stoudemire has not played his best basketball on a consistent basis yet. STAT is a player that I am consistently critical of. I watched him play Tuesday night against the San Antonio Spurs and saw the type of player he can be. I just do not see him being mature enough to perform at that level regularly.
Check out Vote4Amare.com and you can find a funny video on YouTube.com if you type in Amare Stoudemire All Star Game. I admit I laughed when I saw the video, it was funny, but this reeks of immaturity. Stoudemire wants himself to be considered one of the top players in the league, a superstar. Do true superstars need to put a campaign together to make an All Star team? Does Steve Nash, LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant or Dirk Nowitzki worry about making an All Star team? The answer to both questions is no. Toronto Raptors forward Chris Bosh did the same thing last year to try and get selected to the All Star team. With the possibility of both of these player being free agents this upcoming summer, it is selfish motives like this that make me seriously wonder if I could build a championship basketball team with either of them as the centerpiece.
Head Coach Alvin Gentry has done a masterful job of helping the Phoenix Suns regain the chemistry that they had during the Mike D’Antoni era. The players get along and there is a clear pecking order with PG Steve Nash and SF Grant Hill at the top of the food chain.
The main job of an NBA head coach is too put their team in the best position to win at all times. I felt that Coach Gentry hurt his team in the closing moments in two of the five measuring stick games that I mentioned before.
Let’s start with the Dallas Mavericks game from 12/8. After two Jason Terry free throws the Suns trail the Mavs by four points with 12 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Gentry takes a timeout and draws up a phenomenal play that opens up Nash for a three pointer than cuts the lead to one.
Phoenix proceeds to foul Jason Terry and he hits another two free throws increasing the lead back to three with six seconds left. So far so good. Gentry has no timeouts remaining so Phoenix cannot move the ball to half court, which gives Rick Carlisle the easy decision to foul and not let the Suns get off a game tying three point attempt.
This is where Gentry messed up. With Steve Nash at the foul line, Suns down by 3, and only three seconds left Nash needed to hit the first free throw and miss the second one intentionally. The Suns best chance to tie the game was with a put back off the missed three throw. With so little time left Phoenix did not have time to play the fouling game because whichever Maverick got fouled was going to miss the second free throw intentionally, not giving the Suns a chance to get off a legitimate shot attempt.
For some reason Nash hit the second free throw. As a two time MVP and a player who has a reputation for having a high basketball IQ Steve should have known to miss the free throw on his own. Ultimately, Coach Gentry is responsible for the strategy his team uses and he missed the boat on this one. Nash hit the second free throw, Jason Richardson fouled Jason Terry, JT missed the second free throw on purpose, and Stoudemire missed a full court shot.
The Phoenix Suns pulling this game out in the final seconds was unlikely, but Coach Gentry made it even more unlikely by not using the correct strategy.
The next game I wanted to hit on was at the Denver Nuggets from 12/12. Let me state this from the beginning it was improbable that the Phoenix Suns would have been able to pull this game out, but once again Coach Gentry did not put Phoenix in the best position to win.
Down by two with 30 seconds left the game was in Steve Nash’s hands. As the shot clock wound down #13 took the ball to the basket and he felt he got fouled by Nuggets Center Nene Hilario. After missing the lay up and Denver got the rebound Nash looked at the ref and argued instead of fouling immediately wasting precious time (Frye eventually fouled Anthony with two seconds left-could have saved 2-3 seconds and the Suns still had their 20 second time out to advance the ball to half court in case a Nugget missed a free throw).
Even though the situation looked grim, Phoenix still had a chance to win the game, albeit it needed a miracle. The tiny sliver of hope they had evaporated when Gentry got thrown out of the game for arguing with an official.
I am all for coaches sticking up for their players, but there is a time and a place. Coming off a horrific loss to the New York Knicks the night before followed by getting blown out in the first quarter of a game at Cleveland is the perfect time to get a technical and make a point. Maybe getting thrown out fires up the team and they can make the game interesting, or worst case scenario your down by 20 anyway, you continue to get blown out and you move on.
Down by two points with two seconds left is when Coach Gentry needs to lead by example and keep his head on his shoulders. So many basketball games are decided in the final two minutes, it is essential that you have a team that can find ways to win in the closing moments of these games. The Suns are going to take their cues from their coach. If he is cool, calm and collected at the end of games the players will follow suit. If Gentry gets frustrated, panics, and is scared the players will follow suit.
These are correctable mistakes that Coach Gentry has made. Overall his body of work with this team in a year and a half has more positives than negatives. The Suns got off to a red hot start and are now staying afloat through the most difficult stretch of their 82 game schedule. We have already seen what the Phoenix Suns have been through the first 25 games; I am very interested to see what they are in the next 57.