Suns fans can sleep well tonight. We finally saw what Kerr and Porter have been preaching for months now - a balanced team.
This message was engrained into our heads since Steve Kerr took over as GM and Terry Porter took over as coach. After previous years of losing to incredibly balanced teams in the playoffs, it was a message I think we were all ready to hear. Seven Seconds or Less was dead and we weren't going anywhere unless our defense and bench improved. After the addition of a new coach, new role players and a new philosophy, Suns fans were anxious. Excited, but nervous. Hopeful, but reserved.
The start to the 2008-2009 season hasn't necessarily calmed our worries. Already, it's been reported that players and staff aren't on the same page, aren't sure when to run and when not to, and question when it's okay and not okay to shoot.
Sure, 8-3 is a good record and many teams would love to face the problems we have. But this is a team that has been expected to contend for a championship for several years now. We are equipped to make a run against anyone in the playoffs.
That is...if we could figure out a way to balance our run-n-gun style with our depth and better defense.
Tonight we did.
The Suns picked apart one of the best defensive teams in the NBA, and it wasn't solely through our known run-n-gun style. Much of our success tonight came from defensive stops. This has been Porter's message since he got the job; sure, we can run - but it will be after a missed shot.
Tonight, the Suns held the Pistons, a good shooting team, to 39% shooting overall and 23% 3-point shooting. More importanly, we saw the pick & roll defended much better, especially by Lopez. A few of us here were talking about how bad the Suns are at defending the pick & roll earlier today and how we expect the Pistons (and every other team for that matter) to exploit it. However, our help defense was stellar compared to what it usually is allowing the Pistons few open looks at the basket. Whether it was Prince, Stuckey, Iverson, or Hamilton who got by their defender there was someone in the paint to help out. Well, If we want to nitpick, there were a few times (Kwame's three dunks) where absolutely no one was there to help...but hey, we'll take it. Plus, who can nitpick when our boy, Steve Nash, got a blocked shot?
From an offensive basis, we finished with 104 points. This total could've been much higher had we not missed 12 free-throws and not tried to run out the clock for the last four minutes. However, what most of us fans wanted to see was not only balance between the inside-out game and running, but the reassurance that the players knew when to do both. At the start of the game, the offense clearly was being ran through Shaq and it was working extremely well. After his ejection, there was more of a shift to running and distributing. That worked too. Perhaps what encouraged me most was that the balance wasn't completely polar with Shaq out. When we needed to run to get some momentum, we did. When we needed to slow it down and work it through Amare, we did.
Overall, ball movement was much smoother. For our inside-out game to work, ball distribution and movement are absolutely essential. Before tonight, we hadn't played a complete game where our passing and movement of the ball was consistent and flowed well - and it's showed through our (almost) league high turnover rate. Tonight, the extra pass was made by multiple players at a consistent rate. More important, when we started to run, there wasn't a noticeable increase in turnovers. Guys were making the extra pass, and the shots were going in.
Though ball movement creates shots, we still have to make them. In the Rockets game, no one shot well (37%) even though we got a lot of open looks. Tonight, our shots were connecting (finally) which allowed us to gain confidence and affirm that ball movement works to create shots intead of relying on Nash, Amare, or Shaq to go 1 on 1.
Contrary to previous Suns rosters, we now have a balanced bench that is capable of contributing positively. Though, ultimately, Amare and Nash were the keys to the game (29 points/11 rebounds by Amare and 17 points/7 assists by Nash) there was a comfort for me when the bench was on the court. Did anyone else notice that tonight? I wasn't simply waiting for someone to screw up leading to high minutes for our starters. Amundson really helped us with his energy and defense, Singletary and Goran played well, Diaw (who gets way to much criticism) played in my opinion his best game all year, and Robin Lopez was a fitting replacement for Shaq.
This was the game us fans have been waiting for. This was the game that showed us how good the Suns could be. The Sun hasn't set yet, not even close.
This was the game the Suns showed the league they now have something they've been missing for years - balance.
And boy was it fun to watch.