When we looked at the schedule a week ago and saw four games against teams with worse records then the Suns we assumed it would be a fairly easy streak. Especially coming off the previous 6 straight losses all at the hands of statistical betters.
None of us expected the wins to come in the way they did though with an average margin of 19 points. It was the way the Suns won those games that has me excited and just a little more hopeful going into another stretch against tougher competition.
This season has been a well documented roller coaster of at least five different attempts at forging a winning identity. I've felt all year that the key was achieving the right balance between Nash's ability to push the ball, Shaq's low post dominance and maximizing the potential of the rest of the players including the bench.
Defensively, I've come to accept that having Nash and Shaq on the floor is going to leave the Suns vulnerable to the pick and roll and that the best the Suns could hope for is to pack it in and force teams to win over the top. The second unit however, has always had the potential to be better defensively using their energy and athletic ability to get stops and hold leads.
These last four games (against inferior opponents) have given us the first real signs all season that this basketball nirvana was possible.
We've finally seen the Seven Seconds of Shaq work for an extended period with both Nash and Shaq on the floor. The Suns are running more but mostly off stops and rebounds and only after the occasional made basket. Unlike the first three games of the Gentry era which was much more traditional run and gun this is fast but still efficient. There are a lot fewer quick jump shots early in the clock then in a D'Antoni or Nellie up-tempo offense and improved bench play has shown signs that the Holy Grail may be in reach.
The Quest for B (where in B = balance)
It may be too late to help the Suns make the playoffs and it has yet to be tested by adversity but if this trend plays out and the Suns can finish not only strong but balanced it will provide extremely valuable insight into the off-season moves that must be made.
Here's a few key points of improvement:
- Better balance in the half court. Nash is finding Shaq and not turning the ball over on the entry pass. I still believe the mental dynamic between Nash and Shaq is the story of this season and during the losing streak it seemed that Nash was trying to do too much. Now, they are finally finding a better rhythm together letting Nash be Nash in the open court and Shaq be Shaq in the half court. It is such a simple concept and it is unfortunate it took losing 6 games to find it
- By establishing Shaq early in the game teams are forced to double team more and the Suns are doing a better job moving the ball and finding either great open looks or using the chaos to drive the lane and create
- Gentry seems to have taken peices of D'Antoni's system such as have the wing defender leak out after the other team shoots a jump shot with the inside-out power game using Shaq. Most notably though is the use of his athletic wing players to slash and create in the half court. Guys are encouraged to break their man down and the Suns roster (unlike prior years) is well built for this.
- Hill, Richardson, Barnes, Dudley, Barbosa, Tucker, Dragic and Nash can all take advantage of of mismatches and create for their team mates off the dribble. The key is going to Shaq early to establish his post game which has created foul problems and forced double teams to come which opens up the court for everyone
- The turnovers have dropped to 11 per game during the stretch and only 8 per game in the last two. Since the all-star break (aka the Gentry era) the Suns are averaging only 13.9 turnovers per game which is about where the Lakers are at 11th in the league. I believe this is mostly mental as the players are more focused and are not trying to force passes that aren't there. Porter talked about solving the turn over problem by making the simple play and that's what we are seeing
- For the first time in Nash's tenure as a Sun he can go out of game and not assume the lead will get diminished. Kerr has assembled a solid group of young, energetic and skilled bench players and Gentry is counting on them to deliver. And they are
- Despite being small, the Suns since the all-star break are staying even on the glass with just a slight .6 advantage in total rebounding
- Dudley, Amundson and Dragic are leading the way with better defense and good enough offense. Dudley and Dragic both have shown a marked improvement in their ability to beat their man off the dribble and get into the paint and create. It will be harder without Barbosa leading this unit to score, but I still think when given the chance Tucker can provide a solid punch off the bench
- Effort, energy, chemistry and fun. Winning has a tendency to do this, but this team is having fun again and playing as loose and free as they have all season. It is unfortunate that it took being in this position of having nothing to lose and everything to gain to finally find this mental framework and it remains to be seen if it will carry over once the quality of competition increases and/or the playoff race tightens more. I hope it does, but if this season's history is any guide we are fully justified in being skeptical (yet still hopeful) about this team's ability to battle through adversity
Over this streak the Suns have shown they can beat up on the weak sisters and now its time to see if that will carry over. The Suns have had stretches this season where they've looked good and had some nice wins at times but have yet to stay consistent in the face of adversity and rely on who they are to carry them though.
This next four games against the Nuggets, Jazz and Blazers will once again give the Suns an opportunity to show us who they are.