The Phoenix Suns have struggled all season to find their identity. It might sound ridiculous to you that a team of professional athletes playing at the top tier of the best league in the world would be trying to "find themselves," but that's exactly what the theme of this season has been.
Starting with the pre-season notion of adding more defense and focus on developing that part of the game through the various Porter iterations of fast and slow and now to Alvin Gentry's return to Seven Seconds or Less and finally pulling back from that after three 140-point games.
The Phoenix Suns' "issues" should not align more closely with the work of Dr. Phil than of Dr. Jack Ramsey, but perhaps this team has finally found inner peace and has achieved the balance and harmony needed to get the most out of a very talented roster.
When Alvin Gentry promised a return to the old days of run and gun and unleashed the hounds, there was a lot of excitement both inside and outside the locker room. Fans were happy to see the team happy and everyone was thrilled with 140-point games. Not everyone was thrilled with the idea though.
Then Amare went down for the season, followed by Nash for a few games with an ankle sprain and a funny thing happened on the way to the rim ... the Suns might just have stumbled on the harmony they've been seeking all season long. A style of play that balances the strengths of their two aging MVP warriors. Two guys whose individual games mesh about as well as Stan Van Gundy and collared shirts and yet need each other like Barney Rubble and Fred Flintstone.
We first saw glimpses of this new style in the Suns game versus the Bobcats. The pace was far more under control and the ground work seemed to be laid. Then in the Suns next game against the Lakers, Gentry took a step back to the D'Antoni playbook and started Hill at the power forward, along with three guards, including seldom used swing-man Alando Tucker (who had 18 points in the blowout loss).
The result was a disaster. The Suns could not run the ball without Nash and Hill was stuck trying to bang in the paint. The Lakers used their size advantage to record a 26-point beat down.
To his great credit, the next night against the Raptors, Alvin made the adjustment and started Barnes at the four with Hill back where he belongs at the small forward where he could both leak out on the break and also run the offense from the perimeter.
It is no surprise that Grant had 12 assists feeding Shaq in the post but also was able to work with Leandro to facilitate the early offense. We saw a similar approach against the much better defense of the Lakers as the Suns balanced inside out play with creating and capitalizing on fast break opportunities.
And Seven Seconds or Shaq was born...
The game plan is simple:
1) Run the ball whenever possible off misses, turnovers and even made baskets with the intent of getting into the lane for easy baskets. The Suns have a bevy of wing players that can slash and finish and this allows them to be aggressive and attack the rim.
Quick jump shots are not part of this plan. When the Suns jack up jump shots and even open threes in transition, it plays against the Suns' strengths by putting the defense out of position and runs Shaq off the floor. This approach is more disciplined than the wild chaotic and only randomly successful Warriors approach.
Plan A - Run the ball and attack the rim but don't jack up early jump shots
2) If those easy looks in the paint aren't there, then the next option is Shaq as the trailer. This is something we did see for a time early in the season and is quite the effective (and terrifying) weapon.
Plan B - Find Shaq as he trails the play and barrels into the lane
3) If unable to feed Shaq on the trail then pull the ball back out and work it around. The key to using Shaq effectively in the post is something Gentry pointed out after the Lakers game
"If we are going to throw it to him we have to do something on the move, and if it's on the move where we can throw it to him in the middle of the lane where he can score we are in great shape".
Feeding the post requires more than just tossing the ball into Shaq regardless of how good position he has and then standing and watching. The Suns over the last two games have done a much better job moving without the ball and setting screens so that Shaq is catching it in a position where he is unstoppable. His improvement at the free throw line makes this all the more dangerous and effective late in games.
Shaq doesn't need 30 points to be effective, but getting him the ball in good position will force teams to double him, which creates opportunities for the rest of the guys.
Even if the result is a missed jump shot, Shaq is in good position for an offensive board and the floor is well balanced resulting in good transition defense.
Plan C - Feed the Beast, but in a smarter way
It is a high efficiency offensive scheme that takes advantage of the Suns' strengths both in the post with Shaq and with the athletic finishers like LB, Hill, Barnes, JRich and even Lou.
The beauty of this system is that it is geared towards high percentage close-in looks. The Suns don't have to hope that the threes are falling to win a game. Some nights they will fall, but for games like Sunday's where the Suns were 6 - 18 (33%) from three, you can still score 118 points and dominate in the paint.
Defensive improvement on the perimeter
A key component of the Suns improvement has been better defense on the wings. The line-ups we are seeing allow the Suns to switch everything not involving Shaq and the activity of guys like Hill, Dudley, Barnes, Barbosa and Amundson is generating turnovers and easy points.
The Suns are still vulnerable to guards coming off the pick and roll since Shaq isn't going to come out and trap the ball, but you can live with that as long as you deny penetration into the lane.
With Shaq off the floor, the Suns are very small and need to be even more active. Unless Gentry gets more confidence in Lopez (who had a beauty of a block that led to a fast break bucket at the end of the second half Sunday, that was a four point swing) the Suns bench will be vulnerable to bigger teams in the paint.
Offensively, the bench is reliant more on Barbosa to create for himself and we've also seen some moments of really nice off-the-motion oriented offensive play with Lou, Dudley and Barnes. That activity without the ball is a much needed improvement.
Can it work with Nash and Amare?
You can't help but wonder if this style was even possible with Amare on the floor. Not only is the perimeter defense far better with Barnes and Dudely at the four but not having the option to run the Nash / Amare pick and roll and not needing to get Amare his touches seems to have freed up a lot of room for the other guys.
It is ridiculous to think the Suns are better without Amare but perhaps if he can come back for the playoffs, fitting him in now will be somewhat easier.
Nash, on the other hand, is a different problem.
I am concerned that he will buy in to "Plan C" and find a way to work with Shaq on the floor in the half court sets. So far this season it really hasn't been that effective. Guys end up standing around waiting for Nash and his entry passes are questionable, as evidenced by three straight turnovers in the third quarter against the Bobcats.
I am hopeful, however, that his time on the bench will have convinced him of the merits of letting Grant take over some of the half court offense and that he can adjust to playing off the ball more when the early offense isn't there.
The defensive end is even a bigger concern. As we saw against the Celtics, Nash simply cannot stay in front of aggressive point guards and as he's said before, he can't afford to gamble much and go for steals. With Barbosa's improvement this season, Nash's defensive liabilities have become even more noticable.
The only answer I have is that it will have to work. The Suns are better with Nash on the floor but perhaps we've seen enough without him to be more confident in giving him more rest and reducing the overlap between he and Shaq.
How Nash fits into the 7SOS system will be the thing to watch for over the next few games.
Gentry, Shaq, Richardson and Barnes talk after the Lakers win
Kobe and Gasol talk after losing to the Suns. Kobe had a tooth knocked out during that game.
Post game Audio provided by Sports 620 KTAR