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A Team So Hot, Even Their Mascot Was On Fire

By Michael Erler on May 5, 2008.

Second Round Game 1 @ New Orleans: Hornets 101, Spurs 82

This post should’ve been written a few days ago, but as always life intervenes, so I apologize. I spent Saturday night at a soccer game, watching the San Jose Earthquakes battle FC Dallas in a contest every bit as thrilling as the 0-0 final score suggests. The teams combined for four shots on goal and the home side had their one attempt eight minutes in, meaning that for the final 82 minutes, I could’ve been the Dallas goalie and the outcome wouldn’t have been any different.

The day before, I had to attend, of all things, a San Jose Earthquakes practice (“We’re talkin’ ‘bout practice! Not a game, not a game, not a game… but practice!”) and then interviewing their coach and star player and writing about those exciting people.

Oh, and the night before I couldn’t do it because I saw “Ironman.”

So yeah, sorry.

Anyway, Sunday night and Monday morning I finally took in Game 1, and honestly, it wasn’t as horrific as I’d feared. A lot of what we did wrong is correctable. A lot of what transpired was unlucky. That long mascot delay robbed us of some of our rhythm, particularly Manu, who had made his first three bombs. I choose to look more at the positives of the 49-45 first half (including an 11 point lead at one point) rather than the negatives of 56-33 second half. The game wasn’t as lopsided as the score indicated, the Nooch ran it up there at the end pretty good. Call me a blind homer, but I think we’ve played our worst half of the series already. Yes, I’m aware that this is the third time they’ve gotten away from us in the second half, and that is certainly a pattern, but now I’m positive the Hornets have the team’s complete attention and I’m expecting them to come out focused in both halves.

Why we lost: Tim was definitely terrible, but most of the shots he missed were shots he regularly makes. It was very much a fluke game for him, plus he only took nine shots. What bothered me more is that we never changed it up, never got him going on the pick-and-roll, never got him any jumpers. And what really bothered me was how Duncan let his offensive struggles influence him on the other end, where he was so soft on the boards and in help defense.

The stats say Tony finished with 23 and 5, but I think he was pretty freakin’ crappy. He forced a lot of shots early in the clock, and many of them were contested. He looked for his own shots too much and didn’t get other people involved. His decision making was poor and his defense was soft, especially as the game wore on. We’re not going to beat these guys with him having five turnovers and having two of his shots swatted. Also – and yes, Matthew will think I’m crazy, but I did watch the game – Tony will not pass the ball to Manu unless it’s a simple little hand off at the top of the key and Pop is specifically calling the play for Manu. In regular open play, it just doesn’t happen. If you don’t believe me, count them the next game and prove me wrong.

And speaking of Manu, he was a bit too three point happy and he missed the final six he took. I think his ankle was still bothering him pretty good because he never made it all the way to the paint on any drive and in the second quarter he looked to be a creator after having gotten off to that hot start in the first. A healthy Manu would’ve tried to take the game over there. Also, his defense was only so-so and he had a couple of horrendous turnovers back-to-back in the 3rd quarter. Just awful, no chance passes that led to five Nooch points. He’s got to play smarter and he needs to realize that any tricky pass he tries for Horry or Oberto is a very low percentage play.

Bowen started off decent enough on Paul, but his defense (and offense) got gradually worse as the game went on. I doubt we’re ever going to get 17 points out of him again, so either he has to really buckle down in his end or go sit.

Robert Horry: Really, you can’t blame him anymore. It’s like picking on a cripple. He can’t play. The whole world seems to realize it but Pop. Horry was routinely outhustled to rebounds and loose balls, (though I don’t know if one can be outhustled if he himself isn’t hustling at all) he was absolutely powerless to stop David West from doing anything he wanted, and once again he provided zero offense and was more of a liability than anything else. At the end of the 1st quarter he and Tony let Chris Paul go right between them at the three point line for an uncontested lay-up because both were too lazy to move one foot to the side. In the 3rd quarter Horry let Mo Peterson snatch a ball on the baseline that was literally a foot from him and just watched like a sap as Maurice backed up and canned a three. Why he got 12 meaningful minutes but Barry and Udoka got 0, I’ll never understand.

Adjustments for Pop to make:

1) Bite the bullet and have Duncan guard West. It’s really the only card you can play. Oberto and Horry can’t guard him at all. Thomas is too physical and foul prone. Duncan is the only one agile enough to do it who can also play intelligently enough to avoid foul trouble. It’s really our only way to slow down their best scorer and even if West draws Tim too far out on the perimeter for him to recover and rebound, it’s not like Duncan was cleaning the glass last game.

2) Vary Duncan’s touches. Play the high-low game with him like you did in Game 3 at Phoenix. Give him some free throw jumpers, some wing bankers, and let him see and attack the defense. He’s got to get more than nine shots. And definitely more pick-and-rolls.

3) Have Bowen guard Peja. I want Stojakovic to be a non-factor the rest of the way. Make the Hornets a two man team. Let Tony guard Paul and treat them like we treated the Suns in ’05, taking everyone else out of the equation.

4) Play Ime and Barry. Especially with Manu in the 2nd unit. Neither Finley or Horry have deserved the playing time they’ve gotten this series or this season. We need guys in there who can hit threes and play with energy.

5) Start Manu in the 2nd half. The best way I can think of to avoid the 3rd quarter letdowns. Plus his ankle will already stiffen up enough in the half time break. There’s no sense waiting 15 minutes more after that for him to check in.

I still think the Spurs are the better team and should be expected to win the series. But tonight is practically a must win and the guys have to come out tougher and play smarter. The rebounding, the shooting, the turnovers, the defense, all of it needs to be better. The effort was disappointing and I don’t know what more Pop needs to see to sit Horry for good. And he needs to make Tony understand that these guys aren’t the Suns. He’s got to be more aware of his surroundings. It remains to be seen if he will.

Other thoughts:

Spurs-Suns Game 5: This was, quite possibly, the most depressing close out game of the Duncan Era, was it not? I mean, sure, I was sad when we lost in ’04 and ’06, but at least we had championships to be proud of and to look fondly upon the previous seasons. The Suns demise, on the other hand, I believe was the textbook example of “Going out with a whimper.”

Steve Nash: 4-16, 11 points, 3 assists, 5 turnovers, miserable, matador defense. This guy won MVPs in ’05 and ’06. We were TERRIFIED of him as recently as Game 1. By the end he was an afterthought, spotting up for jumpers like Steve Kerr while the mighty fun-n’-gun Suns offense – Steve Nash’s Offense – was being facilitated through the post-ups of Boris Diaw.

Amare Stoudemire: 6-14, 15 points, 11 rebounds, 44 minutes. S.T.A.T., who had been unquestionably the most dominant forward in the NBA ever since the Shaq trade, struggled with foul trouble all game and was a passive shell of himself, deathly afraid of making any sudden or forceful movements at either end for fear of hearing the almighty whistle. Without Nash to steadily feed him the ball on the pick-and-roll and no other teammates looking for him, he was rendered largely mediocre.

Shaquille O’Neal: 2-8, 9-20 FTs, 13 points, 9 rebounds, 29 minutes. He promised that he’d be the difference in this series, and give him his due, he was. Thanks to O’Neal beating the Suns has never been easier. His pick-and-roll defense was every bit as atrocious as we’d hoped and his woefully inept free throw shooting not only made him look bad individually, but it completely threw off the Suns’ rhythm offensively and took the ball out of Steve Nash’s hands again and again. From now til’ the end of time, the answer to the previously rhetorical “How do you stop Nash and Amare on the pick-and-roll?” will be “Easy. Foul Shaq.”

O’Neal, who once famously uttered that he makes free throws “when they count” has a long, long offseason to ruminate on his Achilles Heel and one wonders if his massive ego will ever permit him to realize that he was more responsible for the Suns loss than anyone. I’m gonna take a wild guess that it won’t. Also, now that he has more vacation time than he or the Suns front office could’ve possibly imagined, we can only gleefully speculate how grossly out of shape The Big Mistake will be when he waddles into training camp in late August. Four spins would be a conservative estimate, right?

Now, on the other hand, look at the Spurs. They won the game with two double digit scorers and a gimpy Gonzo doing practically nothing. Offensively Trash and Blotch had some nice moments, and The Hooligan did the job on Shaq and on the boards, but really, we didn’t play that well at all. And more importantly – we didn’t have to. The Suns were that limited. Some trademark Spurs defense and the annual increase in Duncan’s intensity was all it took to put them to rest, perhaps for good.

The Series Overview: Coming in, I, like most everyone else thought this would be a long, tough, classic series, and would quite likely go the distance to a nerve-wracking Game 7. Three factors changed everything:

1) Game 1. We had no business winning that game, plain and simple. The Suns made clutch play after clutch play to keep us at arm’s length and yet we wouldn’t go away. In critical moments the Spurs needed five different plays to go their way and all five did.

In our last possession of regulation if Amare rotates out on Fin, B.O. doesn’t get his three attempt off and we lose. If Barbosa’s free throw leaner goes in, we lose. In overtime if the Suns foul Hulk or just let him dunk the ball, we lose. If Duncan doesn’t hit his first three of the season, we lose. If Diaw makes that turnaround baseline shot, we lose.

And after all that, we STILL needed Plainview to hit that lay-up to avoid triple OT and another crapshoot where anything could’ve happened. Never has Game 1 of any playoffs meant so much and can argue this was the most influential Game 1 of ANY playoff series in ANY round since the ’88 World Series when Gibson took Eck deep.

I think when that game ended Nash knew they were done. He didn’t say it of course, but he knew. He threw his best punch – 25 pts, 13 assists – at us in Game 1. In each subsequent game one can argue he played worse and his assist totals reflect that. Plus the comeback from 16 down in that game gave us the confidence (and them, the lack of same) to turn the trick again in Game 2.

2) Shaquille O’Neal. Thank God the Suns made the deal. What would’ve otherwise been a stressful, hard fought series with Marion’s athleticism and energy instead turned into the usual grinding slugfest that the Spurs have patented in prevailing consistently down the stretch. Hack-a-Shaq is like the Swiss Army Knife of basketball strategy, it’s versatile enough to be used in a multitude of ways. Want to come back from a deficit? Foul Shaq. Want to protect a lead? Foul Shaq. Want to ruin Nash’s rhythm? Foul Shaq. Want to give the big three a rest without taking them out of the game? Foul Shaq. Want to take Shaq out of the game? Foul Shaq. Best of all, the tactic gave the national media and fans yet another avenue to bitch and moan about the vile, cheating, boring San Antonio Spurs. Perfect.

3) Grant Hill’s injury. Without him the Suns didn’t have anyone who could remotely check Parker nor could they expose Finley’s defense (or lack of same) on the perimeter. This guy had some big games against us earlier in the year, so his groin injury was very unfortunate for them. Really, an eight man rotation of Amare, Marion, Nash, Bell, Hill, Barbosa, Diaw and Giricek would’ve been a tough out. Everyone there can hit a jumper and most of them can pass and dribble and run. Defensively they’d be horrid in the post, but what’s Timmy going to do, score 50 a night? That might have been interesting to watch. The Suns took us to six tough games last year, without Hill.

Mike D’Antoni: I don’t feel the least bit sorry for him. At all. From what I hear it was he and the owner, Robert Sarver, who were the strongest advocates for the Shaq trade, not Steve Kerr. Tom Tolbert, the ex-Warrior power forward during the Run TMC years is very good friends with Kerr, because they were teammates at the University of Arizona (along with Sean Elliott) and he said on his Bay Area radio show that he speaks regularly with Kerr and that Steve was the one who had to have his arm twisted on the trade. D’Antoni was done in by his usual weaknesses: Didn’t play enough of a rotation, (I think D.J. Strawberry or Alanzo Tucker could’ve contributed this year) didn’t stress defense until it was too late, and he thought it was sound strategy to take the Spurs role players out of the game and give all the shots to the Big Three. Dude, are you kidding me? Our role players stink. The less shots they get the happier I am (especially if Oberto and Barry aren’t the ones getting them). D’Antoni will probably land softly in Chicago and Toronto, and I think he and Jose Calderon would be a perfect marriage, and maybe the Italian connection would enable him to get Andrea Bargnani to produce where Sam Mitchell couldn’t get it out of the big softie. I like Toronto a lot though, they might be my favorite Eastern team, so ultimately I think the hire won’t be good for them. You need defense to advance in the playoffs and D’Antoni and defense go together as well as Shaq and the game show Jeopardy.

The Suns: Run Stevie, run! Get out of there. You have no chance. And I’m talking to both Kerr and Nash. Dead team walking. No salary cap flexibility, the team is way too old, and they’re even in worse shape on the wings than we are. It might be time to trade Nash for 50 cents on
the dollar, just as a “thank you” for all the good work he did down there and to give him a chance to win somewhere. The Spurs will probably have a backup point guard job available. I don’t think the Suns make the playoffs next year if this roster comes back intact. Portland will take somebody’s spot, and the Warriors are out there too.

Avery Johnson: Let me see if I express myself here without being too vague or subtle. FUCK Avery Johnson. Fuck him in the ear. He’s petty, immature, manipulative, back-stabbing, and a weasel. He openly preaches dirty play and whines about officiating. He went behind Dirk’s back to Cuban and tried to have him traded (why do you think Dirk returned the favor once the Mavs got eliminated?). Avery was the perfect coach for the Mavs with their thug players and douchebag owner and wherever he goes, it won’t be as seamless as his takeover of the Mavs was. Pop and Duncan seem to be convinced that like Anakin Skywalker there’s still some good in Avery and that it could be salvaged in the right situation, like Chicago maybe. I’m of the opinion that he always was a prick, long before Mark Cuban entered his life, and he’ll continue to be one wherever he goes. Just keep him the hell away from the Spurs, please.

The Mavs: I like their roster more than the Suns’. At least they’re not that old. Plus, they can always trade Kidd, in the last year of his contract coming up. Somebody will bite on that for the salary cap flexibility it will open up for them in 2010. I’m curious about what they do with The Big Bug. If they can somehow move him and get quality in return, it should be enough to get them back in the playoffs. Plus whoever comes in to coach will probably run the offense through Kidd’s strengths, which Avery didn’t do either because it was too late into the season, or because he was too stubborn (which Dirk suggested). Either way, their window as contenders is probably shut and I can see Cuban looking to sell the club and diverting his time and money to the Chicago Cubs.

The NBA Playoffs: I was seven for eight in the first round, missing only Cavs-Wiz, my one upset pick. I gave Dallas and Phoenix too much credit, in retrospect, and not enough to Houston. I said that series would be a “bye” and a “formality” for the Jazz, and naturally, it went longer than any other Western series. I thought it was interesting that all the experts (and Pop) said the Western playoffs would all be long, grueling drawn out affairs where no one was a favorite and that in the East Boston and Detroit were far superior to everyone else and would boatrace their Round 1 opponents. So what happened? The top two seeds in the West, the Lakers and the Nooch, finished off the Mavs and Nugs in a combined nine games while the Celtics and Pistons required 13, one short of the maximum, to dispatch the frisky Hawks and Sixers. The West still has the gap, regardless of what the standings say, and it was obvious to those paying attention who the contenders were and who the pretenders were. I expect the Lakers to dispose of the Jazz in five games, with Game 4 being the “classic.” Our series with the Hornets, on the other hand, will be trickier. In the East give me the Pistons in five and the Celtics in seven, this time with each team winning one road game.

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  1. May 7, 2008

    FYI, the SA news was reporting that Timmy had a 103 fever the day between games 1 & 2, which I think explains a lot. My current theory is he passed whatever bug he had to Tony and Manu, considering NONE of them hit in Game 2.

  2. Anonymous May 7, 2008

    Amazing columns this postseason. Keep it up.


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