Wednesday, February 13, 2008

"Let's Play Through the All-Star Break!"

Perfect quote from Beetlejuice (see: item #1 in glossary of terms) during tonight's Warriors-Suns game. With just over two minutes to play in the thrilling 120-118 Golden State victory, JVG gushed, "I don't want this game to end. Let's play through the All-Star break!"

Amen to that.

Lost in all the hype surrounding the Shaq trade (not to mention that Gasol deal and the rumored/blocked Kidd trade) is that the Suns have now played two of the most exciting games of the season and lost both in the closing seconds - at home against the Hornets when Peja hit a game-winner in double overtime, and tonight at Oracle.

There was so much to observe and analyze from tonight's game that any attempt to lasso it all into a coherent post would be ill-fated. So here are a bunch of random thoughts:

Grant Hill = Shawn Marion?. My biggest complaint about the Shaq trade when discussing it with friends is that the Suns were failing to consider Marion's true value to their roster. Frankly, I'm tired of hearing about Marion's defensive versatility, because while it is largely true, it is also becoming a massive exaggeration. Yes, he can guard point guards and power forwards alike, but it's not like he shuts them down. I've heard at least five people mention Marion's ability to guard "Tony Parker one minute and Tim Duncan the next." What? He couldn't guard either of those guys! Duncan destroyed him in the rare instances in which the Suns dared to put the Matrix on him, while Parker routinely lit up Marion. That said, Marion's plug-and-play ability was helpful (if overstated), particularly in light of his active hands, which made him a strong help defender. But to me, Marion's real value was on offense, where his speed advantage at the power forward position is what made the Suns the Suns. No 4 could keep up with him in transition and few could track him on those back cuts that often resulted in quick dunks near the rim.

I strongly believe that Steve Kerr made this trade under the assumption that Shaq would be a bonus on the court - that O'Neal's locker room presence alone would allow the Suns to become a better team. Part of this is based on the leadership qualities that Shaq brings to the table. He's smart, funny, and respected, and he's basically a player-coach at this point. It's not unlike adding Greg Maddux to your pitching staff. However, the other part of such an approach would have to include the belief that the Suns can be just as good without Marion as they were with him.

This is where I was having some problems. As I mentioned above, Marion was the guy keeping the Suns ahead of the curve in the increasingly speedy NBA and I personally didn't think that they could simply give his minutes to Boris Diaw and be okay. And a look at their record post-Marion indicates that they probably aren't quite as good. However, I watched every minute of that Hornets game and the game tonight and I can tell you that they don't look a whole lot different. They don't protect the rim well, but that is nothing new. They run like crazy, which is an old story as well. In fact, they could very well be 4-0 if it weren't for monster games from Chris Paul last Wednesday and Monta Ellis tonight (more on that below).

Furthermore, to watch Grant Hill tonight was a revelation. Short of slamming home a couple of dunks that Marion could have performed blind-folded, Hill did everything the Matrix used to do and more. He leaked out on the break and finished plays 1991 Final Four-style (see #2). He pounded the glass with 15 boards (!), including six on the offensive end. And, most importantly, he guarded everyone from Baron to Crazy Glue (see #3) and did an admirable job in the process. In fact, I would argue that his intelligence, experience, and complete unselfishness made him more effective in the "guard everyone" role than Marion. It got to the point where the Warriors just went to the hot hand who wasn't being guarded by Hill. Grant's on Baron? Let Ellis torch Nash or Jackson work Barbosa in the post. Hill switches to one of those guys? Baron goes to work. For all of the Suns' issues on defense, they really didn't miss Marion in this one. Grant Hill did the job.

As for Diaw ...

Boris Diaw can't find the magic. Against the Hornets a few weeks ago, Diaw was operating in the paint and looking like his 2006 self again. But then he kind of broke down in the closing minutes and now appears to have regressed completely. What is with this guy? In a previous post I linked to an old column about Devin Harris that moonlighted as a Boris Diaw column about halfway through and it was shocking to re-read. Diaw was destroying people back then, milking those guard switches for all they were worth on the way to monster games (such as the 34-point outburst that came complete with a game-winning shot against Dallas in the Western Conference Finals). I don't know if the game was just too fast tonight or Baron is too strong to exploit on a switch or what, but Diaw just couldn't do anything out there. This is the part where the Suns might have misfired. I suspect that they thought Diaw just needed minutes and touches - which weren't coming with Marion out there - and he would be fine. He's not.

Oh, Amare. For all of Amare Stoudemire's brilliance, the guy can't seem to put it all together. When he's amassing huge numbers, he's getting kicked around for his defense. When he plays good D, he gets called for highly dubious fouls. And tonight, when he makes his 36th straight free throw, he misses one with 3.5 seconds left. Brutal. This is the second time in two weeks (the other against San Antonio) that Amare has missed from the line in a potential game-tying situation. But it's not like he's shanking them or getting nervous. The stroke tonight was pure, the ball just circled the drain and rimmed out. What are you going to do? It just seems like Stoudemire is cursed a little bit. Against GSW he was making incredible plays at the rim, abusing Crazy Glue in a way that Dirk never could (poor "Captain Jack" draws some of the worst defensive assignments), and playing with real passion. Yet he still got screwed on multiple foul calls and had a game-tying free throw rim out when it mattered most. Hopefully he can stop walking under ladders, because despite Nash's brilliance, Barbosa's speed, Hill's (reborn) versatility, or Shaq's arrival, this team is only going to the Finals if Amare Stoudemire carries them there. I'm sorry, but there it is.

Enough Phoenix. Already over a thousand words in and nothing about the winning team. The Warriors continue to be, in my opinion, the most exciting team in the NBA. I had lunch with a couple of fellow NBA junkies yesterday and I told them that when it comes to making TiVo choices off of NBA League Pass, I pretty much just go with the Warriors whenever they are at home. Anything at Oracle is Must See TV at this point. GSW might still leg an egg on the road, but they never quit on their home floor and with that frothing crowd, you just aren't getting a more exciting NBA experience in the middle of February.

Tonight, the specific Warriors highlights included: Baron Davis overcoming yet another slow start and Hill's pesky defense to elevate his playmaking skills and make some huge shots down the stretch. Stephen Jackson hitting some monster threes in that deliberate way that only he can make work. Monta Ellis making me feel really good about my post from two days ago by destroying Phoenix to the tune of 37 points (on 18-of-27 from the floor), 9 boards, and 5 assists, while playing all 48 minutes (I'm not quite finished raving about Ellis). Plus, Baron Davis bringing his usual brand of comedy to the post-game interview by jokingly blaming Ellis for letting Barbosa get loose for a potential game-winning three.

More Monta. I might have a new favorite player, folks. Ellis is just so much fun to watch and aside from his lack of deep range and the occasional defensive lapse, is pretty much doing everything perfectly right now. His pull-up jumper is absolutely unstoppable and as JVG said during tonight's telecast, "It's pretty much a layup at this point." Speaking of layups, Ellis is quickly becoming one of the best finishers in the NBA. He has the speed of Tony Parker, the handles of Allen Iverson, the leaping ability of Dwayne Wade, and the body control of Devin Harris (got my boy in there!). I'm not sure anybody can leave the floor and then slide by defenders the way this guy does. He almost never gets called for charging even though he routinely takes off from outside the circle and he possesses tremendous concentration that allows him to finish while simultaneously dodging defenders. He's also a great rebounder for his size and is really developing as a passer, which makes him even more dangerous off the dribble. To top it all off, he showcases an emotional maturity far beyond his years. People have always said that Tim Duncan is unflappable and that his demeanor never changes, but that isn't true. Duncan complains more than virtually any other player in the league. He's just not real demonstrative in a reactionary sense. Ellis, on the other hand, truly seems to be wearing a mask while on the court. He's like a cyborg! Personally, I don't mind if a guy sneers a bit or slams the ball down, but I can also appreciate when a player has such control over his emotions while still playing hard. He's an extremely impressive player and I feel like we're seeing him come of age right now, but that very few people are taking notice. Perhaps that will change after the big game on national TV tonight, but with all the trades going down and the All-Star game bearing down on us, less attention is being paid to the actual games. Hopefully folks aren't missing the birth of Monta Ellis: NBA Superstar. Because it's happening.


1. Beetlejuice - Jeff Van Gundy, former NBA head coach and current ESPN analyst. Known for witty comments in the booth, hard-nosed defensive schemes as a coach, and for riding Alonzo Mourning's leg like a mechanical bull during the 1999 Playoffs.

2. 1991 Final Four Style - This describes the ridiculous dunk that Grant Hill threw down on virtually the entire Kansas team back in, yes, 1991. And no, Hill wasn't jumping quite like tonight and his finishes were more of the finger roll variety, but you get the idea.

3. Crazy Glue - Stephen Jackson, both certifiably crazy and the glue of this Warriors team. I'm still not sure which entity has seen the bigger resurgence since the Pacers-Warriors trade last year, Jackson or the city of Oakland.

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