The Phoenix Suns know what it’s like to have those ups and downs.
Beat the Lakers, lose to the Grizzlies. Blow out the Celtics, lose a shootout to the Pacers. Head coaches with vacant stares at post-game press conferences. With all of that, the Suns are 24-15, a record fairly close to that of the hawks, and good for fifth place in the West. Atlanta meanwhile, stands at fourth place in the East, at 25-13. And now, the two teams meet for the first time this season.
Tale of Two Teams
In regard to personnel, the Hawks and Suns have gone in different directions. Gone from Phoenix is Shaquille O’Neal, arriving was Channing Frye, making the Suns what they once were: smaller and faster, with more perimeter capability. Has it worked so far? A winning record would indicate that it has. And the Suns are back to doing what they’ve had the most success with in recent years: outscoring and out-assisting opponents. Phoenix didn’t make the playoffs last season. This season, they figure to be in the postseason if all keeps going as it is now, and they can stay healthy.
Meanwhile, the Hawks added speed and firepower of their own. Gone is the hard-nosed Flip Murray, along with little-used point guards Acie Law and Speedy Claxton. In is Jamal Crawford, possibly the top candidate for Sixth Man of the Year. In also is Joe Smith, giving the Hawks a legit power forward off the bench when Josh Smith is out of the game.
So while the Suns won’t bring as much size as they did last season, in which they won both meetings (Shaq had big games both times), they will probe the Hawks’ defensive weaknesses elsewhere, namely from the three point arc, where they are shooting nearly 42%. On the other hand, Phoenix is giving up about 107 ppg game to opponents, meaning they are facing a more offensively potent Atlanta squad than they did last year, with a less defensively capable squad. And speaking of opposite directions, it’s now the Hawks who have a winning record on the road, with the Suns losing more than they win away from home.
Irresistable Force vs. Immovable Object….er, not exactly
The Suns score like there is no tomorrow (roughly 110 ppg), but they aren’t exactly unstoppable. With that high point total comes a turnover average of 15.3 per game. Interestingly enough, the Hawks are forcing 14.9 turnovers per game from opponents. Phoenix will not be able to maintain a high pace of scoring if they keep losing the ball, which is the one obvious flaw in their offensive armor.
The Hawks are limiting opponents to 97 points per game, but when their defensive intensity and execution is off, they are highly susceptible to giving up points in the paint, and/or getting torched from the arc. Either way it makes for a tough game. But with the Hawks, it’s not a matter of “can’t” nearly as much as it is a matter of “didn’t.” Both teams will try to impose their will in this game, and must do so to win. Will it be the Suns, dictating the pace on offense and bombing away from the outside, or will it be the Hawks, dictating the pace on defense by creating turnovers that lead to fastbreak opportunities?
Steve Nash is playing about as well as he ever has in his career, and it’s a large part of why Phoenix is back in the thick of things in the West. With averages of 19 ppg, 11 apg, and shooting nearly 55% from the field, he looks to be in the form that he had back when he was getting MVP awards. Nash is still a sieve on defense, however. Can Mike Bibby expose him on defense and slow him on offense, or will Nash continue his nearly-20-and-10 nights? If he does, the Suns have a great chance at winning. However, if the Hawks are smart, they will run Bibby off of screens to tire Nash out and even the odds a bit. It won’t be easy, as Nash is only averaging 1.2 fouls per game, meaning he is either playing no defense at all, or he is careful to avoid being baited into foul trouble. Off the bench, Jamal Crawford figures to get the bulk of the minutes, (particularly if the Hawks offense struggles) though Teague may see some. Nash won’t be the fastest guy on the court, but he’ll likely be the most deadly with the ball in his hands. Limiting him means limiting Phoenix’s offense. Between Atlanta’s three guards (not counting Joe Johnson), somebody has to slow him down. Who will get the job done?
Nash may be the firestarter on this squad, but Amare Stoudamire is the finisher. Enjoying another all-star caliber year, Stoudamire puts up nearly 21 and 9 each game. Of course, this isn’t the best we’ve seen of him, but hey, who are we to complain about that? Stoudamire has few weaknesses, but defensive effort is certainly one. Add to that a 3.8 fouls per game average, and already there is a formula for slowing him down. Amare can block most shots that he can get to, but he either doesn’t have the instinct for it, or doesn’t care. When you’re far and away the team’s best big man, averaging .87 blocks per game is a downright travesty. To put that into perspective, Louis Amundson (1.03) and Channing Frye (.95) are doing better than that. Say whaaaaat? All the same, Stoudamire is not to be ignored, and will prove to be a bear to deal with down low, whether it’s Al Horford or Josh Smith who gets the task of guarding him. And along with Channing Frye, he gives the Hawks something to think about, as tall guys who can shoot from the outside are never an easy matchup for them.
Simply put, the Hawks should go inside to Horford and Smith early, often, and all game long. The Suns’ only hope of stopping them is to play a heavy zone and force a bunch of turnovers. But that’s not really their game. Or, they can try to impose their will on offense and keep the Hawks on their heels. That is more likely Phoenix’s strategy. Either way, getting into a jumpshooting contest with a jumpshooting team is not the way to go. That’s not to say that the Hawks shouldn’t shoot jumpers, or keep the guards from getting scoring opportunities. But if the Hawks go inside first, where Phoenix will have a tough time stopping them, it should open up good looks for Joe, Bibby, and Jamal. And while Marvin Williams is not part of the guard contingent, his recent play and inside/outside capability would suggest that getting him the ball early is also a good idea.
Our Sixth Man is Better Than Yours Is!
What sounds like a sandbox challenge just happens to be the truth. Leandro Barbosa was once the cream of the crop in this segment, but no longer. It’s not that he has fallen off the map. He’s still zipping up and down the court, shooting when he can. But his minutes have gone down, and so has his production. With Raja Bell gone and Jason Richardson in town, this is not entirely unexpected.
Watch Out For This Guy
My pick for “danger guy” is Jason Richardson. J-Rich isn’t putting up the numbers he used to, but the ability is still mostly there. If the Hawks don’t clamp down on him quick, he could have one of those nights where he’s 6 for 9 from the arc, and throws down 2 or 3 high-flying dunks.
So who is the “danger guy” for the Suns? Which Hawk do they have to worry about the most?