Last night the Dallas Mavericks managed to do what few teams have this season: shut down the high-powered Phoenix offense. The Suns’ game is built on speed. Fast break basketball. They play fast break off of misses, makes, turnovers and steals. It’s tantamount to football’s “No Huddle O.” But the Suns’ style of play is no secret. What did the Mavs do that others failed to?
Dallas shut down the Suns’ jitterbug point guard Steve Nash, that’s what. They also managed to thoroughly stymie PF Amare Stoudemire. But in hindsight, although Stoudamire’s thunderous dunks and overall powerful play in his team’s prior wins were instrumental, the Suns really do orbit around their electric PG. And even though Nash dropped 48 points on the Mavericks last night, they still succeeded in shutting him down: Nash dished but a handful of assists, finishing with a playoff-low five. And therein lies the secret to eclipsing the Suns. Deny Nash the assist. When teams faced the dynastic Chicago Bulls of last century, the only option open to them was to allow Michael Jordan his baskets but to deny his teammates theirs. Last night, the Mavericks played a smothering style of defense, forcing turnovers, clogging passing lanes, pulling down rebounds and generally frustrating the heck out of Phoenix and, in particular, Nash.
But there’s one more component at work here. Could it be that Phoenix is its own worst enemy? Yesterday, both Josh Howard and Dirk Nowitzki had good games for Dallas, but the team also received exemplary bench play. Phoenix doesn’t really have “bench play.” Sure, backup point guard Leandro Barbosa can spell Steve Nash for a few minutes and Walter McCarty can trot onto the floor for a couple; he’s always good for a few fouls. But the team sorely misses their dead-eye shooting guard, Joe Johnson. He’s out with … well, a bad eye. A fall that resulted in a fractured orbital bone has him watching, and wincing, from the sidelines. So, while the Suns “run ‘n gun” style of offense exhausts opponents, it also wears their own players down as well. The difference? Dallas can bring Jerry Stackhouse, Darrell Armstrong and Marquis Daniels into the game and receive quality minutes. Phoenix, in contrast, is far more reliant on their starters. The Suns received a grand total of three points, two assists, and two rebounds from their bench, while the Mavericks picked up 36 points, six dimes, and ten boards from theirs. Coincidence? I think not.
In order to win last night’s game Dallas had to deny Phoenix the three-pointer, a weapon the Suns used with impunity in earlier games. The Mavericks also had to capitalize upon their possessions. And going into last night, Dallas had to limit the Suns most dynamic weapon, Steve Nash. They managed to accomplish all three tasks, and now the series is knotted up at two games apiece.
Jamey Feuer is closely following all the NBA playoff action from his home in New Jersey.
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