SAN ANTONIO SPURS v PHOENIX SUNS
Prediction: 4-3 SPURS
Of all the playoff games in Round 1, this is the series to watch. What promises to be an awesome matchup between two totally opposite games; defense versus offense and half-court versus fast-break (are the Suns still considered that type of squad with Shaq around?), the Spurs look to continue their success in the playoffs against a very angry Phoenix Suns squad who wants to get back at them so bad. This is not a potential rivalry anymore, but a deeply rooted rivalry between two teams that want to beat the heck out of each other.
Sources say that the trade that brought in Shaq was mainly because of the need to matchup with the Spurs. They needed a big guy to guard Duncan so why not get rid of Marion then! Tsktsk. And they believe that Shaq is the answer to their problem of being able to guard Tim. I don’t think so. If those experts haven’t noticed, the Spurs for the past playoff years, have been very lucky. They managed to beat the Mavs before because Dirk got injured. Then, with the bad luck of the Suns, they lost Amare for a pivotal game that practically decided the series, because of a scuffle produced by Bruce Bowen. So their core team last year, in my opinion, was strong enough to have beaten the Spurs and even win the championship. They just had bad luck on their side and it wasn’t meant to be that year.
They just needed to shore up their bench a little bit and keep their core squad, but they traded one of the most versatile players they have to the Heat to rot. Was it a good decision? I would take Marion’s hustle all game long than Shaq’s slow low post moves and crappy free throw shooting. The only good thing I see from Shaq’s entry into the Valley of the Sun, is the defense he provides and the double teams he will command. But other than that, he has more downside for the Suns as he slows their game down very significantly, and when it comes down to free throw shooting when it counts (and trust me, this will be the case), chances are he will fail you. Don’t be surprised to see the return of the “Hack-a-Shaq,” with how smart the Spurs are going to be.
The key for the Spurs to win this series is for Michael Finley to wake up and start shooting more consistently and contribute the points he is capable of producing. The key for the Suns, on the other hand, is to get their bench guys doing their thing as usual, but always be wary of Shaq’s weakness from the line in the end game. Phoenix is one of the best free throw shooting teams in the NBA, but with Shaq now in the lineup, they drop very significantly. He needs to make his free throws for the Suns to bring this series home.
Phoenix is up 3-1 in the regular season against the Spurs. Will there be a similar result in the playoffs? My answer is no. Defense still wins games, and the Big 3 of Tim, Tony, and Manu, will be at their very best again when this series begins tomorrow. So sit back and get ready for one heck of a series. I see the Spurs closing this out in 6 or 7, contrary to all the experts picking the Suns in the same number of games.
Spurs Season Summary:
The Spurs have had an up and down season, blowing hot and cold monthly, beating strong teams and getting beat by a weak one, and even scoring career team lows in points in some games. Add the injuries dealt to Tony Parker, Brent Barry, Manu Ginobili, and Robert Horry, the Spurs look like a severely wounded team this year. The starting five is still very potent, but the Big 3 will always show up when needed. The difference this year compared to all the other years is that when playoff time approached, they peak to end the regular season… but this time around, they did not. But hey, look, the Spurs have the 4th best record in the league with 56 wins. Not too shabby for a depleted old squad
The core of this team has been the same for a few years now. The dependable Big 3 of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili has stood the test of time. Manu has started more games this year but will still probably come off the bench as their sixth man in the playoffs. Tim is still at PF, and Tony at PG. Michael Finley is at SG, while Bowen is at SF, and Oberto rounds up the center spot. Defense is still the name of the game for the Spurs. Deliberate and slow offense will lull opposing teams to sleep. They are still one of the best defensive squads in the league and look to clamp down on the Suns in the first round. They picked up Ime Udoka from the Blazers supposedly to act as Bowen’s successor, and has a very similar game to Bruce. The weakness for the Spurs though, lies in their shooting. Other than Manu, Finley is not doing so well this season, Barry is injured but is at least ready to come back in the playoffs. The key for the Spurs to win this series, is if Finley can get on track and shoot the lights out. If he can do that, the Suns will be in trouble.
Suns Season Summary:
Oh dear, Phoenix, what have you done to yourselves? The Suns were again touted to be one of the favorites to win it all this year especially after they had brought in Grant Hill. The first handful of games showed that Hill was indeed back, and the Suns were a force to be reckoned with considering the first five they had. Their only obstacle really, is the Spurs as they have never gone through them to advance. The core of Amare, Nash, Marion, and Bell were still intact until the trading deadline came and Marion went to the sorry Eastern Conference. Enter Shaq.
How does this reflect on the type of play the Suns run? While many people were skeptical about the trade, a lot of people also saw that it made sense. I guess it depends how you look at it, but again, I would take Marion’s tenacity on both ends of the court over an old Shaq’s defense and presence. Marion is no ordinary player, so the trade really made no sense to me nor did it have to be made for the Suns to make it to the Finals. Grant Hill had been playing amazing all season long, even amidst the occasional DNP’s because of his recurring injury. Barbosa is still a spitfire off the bench scoring in bunches and being that valuable sixth man. Sorry again Leandro, but Manu is taking it again this year.
A quick prediction, I see Shaq being in foul trouble again thus making the reason for his trade useless, and I also see him shooting another horrid percentage from the line. This allows the Spurs to have a chance even if the Suns bombard them with an influx of offense, as they can always turn to intentionally fouling Shaq to put him on the line and try to get back on track. The Spurs should have a ready solution for the Suns by now, I guess they just didn’t expect Phoenix to help them out in the process by adding Shaq.
POINT GUARD: TONY PARKER v STEVE NASH
Two great point guards going at it in the first round. Tony Parker is going to drive Nash crazy with his speed. My worry was that Parker wouldn’t be able to get back on track in time for the playoffs from his injury. It’s a good thing I was wrong as he looked amazing the last 3 games of the regular season. Parker should be giving Phoenix fits with his penetration and dishes, not to mention his much improved outside shooting. I look at Tony to tire Nash out and get the Suns big guys in foul trouble either from his own drives or his dishes to the Spurs big men. Tony needs to sink those outside jumpers to be more effective, and that’s the only part of his game that needs to be fixed, as it is not as consistent as his other facets.
Steve Nash is number 2 or 3 as the best point guard in the NBA. He plays in a totally different style which is refreshing to everyone who watches him. His communication with Amare on court is very natural, and if anything, this leads to a ton of freebie points for the Suns. It’s funny also that commentators say that the opposing team already knows what Nash is going to do with Amare (pick and roll), but the play still works all the darn time.
SHOOTING GUARD: MANU GINOBILI v RAJA BELL
Manu is again going to be the sixth man of the year. Besides Barbosa, he is by far the most dangerous player off the bench this year, and in years past. He is a pesky defender and is one of the leaders in steals this year. What sets him apart from any other player is his style of play. It is very unorthodox, but so effective he is practically unguardable when he is on. And in the playoffs, more often than not, he is on his A game. I see Manu being the vital cog for the Spurs as he is going to be clutch when the game is on the line. And he has proven time and time again that he is capable of carrying the Spurs out of trouble with his aggressive play.
Raja Bell is like a miniature, less scary version of Ron Artest. He is the defensive specialist for the Suns, who will be tasked to guard Manu when he comes in. Bell’s value is not limited to his defensive abilities though as he is also a very prolific three point shooter. It remains to be seen what role he plays in the series, but if he shoots well for the Suns, the Spurs will have a very difficult time winning this series.
SMALL FORWARD: BRUCE BOWEN v GRANT HILL
Bruce Bowen is still as annoying as he was last year to opposing teams. He’s the type of player you would love to have on your team but would hate to be up against. And for the Suns, this fact is as glaring as ever. Players call him one of the dirtiest defenders in the game, having pummeled Nash last year enough to have penalized Amare and a friend for a game, and was the most pivotal point in crushing the Suns post-season hopes. He will again be there to pester Nash to the brink and will be key in shutting down whichever Suns player he is assigned to guard.
Grant Hill has been a new rejuvenated man this season with the Suns, showing everyone that he is still capable of being the great Hill of old. Not until the latter stages of the regular season when his injuries are again becoming very problematic, his stint with the Suns when he is healthy is very positive and encouraging. He can be a big difference maker in this series but remains a question mark due to his health. If they can get him healthy and raring to go against the Spurs, the 2nd round might be a bit clearer to reach.
POWER FORWARD: TIM DUNCAN v AMARE STOUDEMIRE
Are there two better big men in the league right now than these 2 guys? Tim Duncan is the focal point of the Spurs offense, and has been for the years after David Robinson had retired. A very effective and efficient big man, he has drastically improved his horrendous free throw shooting to help his squad win more games than they would have if he had shot the same percentages from the line like last year. He is a great post player and is smart enough to cause the Suns headaches all series long with his foul-baiting abilities and strong inside game. He is also a great playoff rebounder and shot blocker, and always has great assist numbers in any series that they play. I see Tim going for around 22 points a game with 11 rebounds and at least one and a half blocks a game against the Suns.
Amare is the man! One of the most consistent scoring big men in the NBA, he has also come back from an injury that could have cost him his career. His return has been nothing short of miraculous as he barely missed any game this season and has been the focal point of the Suns offense. If there is one player in the Suns lineup that drives opposing teams nuts, it is Amare scoring at will after getting pinpoint passes from Nash. Amare should average around 28 points a game but he needs to rebound the ball better for someone in his position. He should also be careful as Duncan is crafty enough to bait him into unnecessary fouls. He should realize that its better to let a few go than to get in foul trouble and linger on the bench and have Duncan score all night long against less credible post defenders.
CENTER: FABRICIO OBERTO v SHAQUILLE O’NEAL
Oberto is a role player, who is quiet all season long, but will shoot a very high percentage from the floor. I think his minutes will be quite scattered as the acquisition of Kurt Thomas was intended to be meant for the playoffs. What you can count on with Oberto though, is his toughness inside, and his hustle off the boards and in defense. The simple things he does are things that can cause the opposing teams big men to unnecessary fouls, and that is exactly what Popovich wants to happen.
Shaq’s entry into the Suns late this season has brought many different opinions. Some people think he’s going to be good for the Suns while others think otherwise. I am part of the latter. Shaq is now slower and is still a horrible free throw shooter. Unlike the player he replaced, he has no outside game, or slashing game, but does have the post moves that may cause problems for the Spurs. The key is actually not even his scoring, but his ability to draw double teams for kickouts to the Suns shooters. It will also be key to see if he can draw fouls from Duncan that will cause him to sit out and without Duncan, the Spurs are a mediocre team at best.
BENCH: Kurt Thomas/Ime Udoka/Brent Barry v Leandro Barbosa/Boris Diaw
I’m taking out Manu from the bench for the sheer reason that he plays more minutes than the starter anyway. I see Kurt Thomas playing a very big role in this series especially against Shaq and Amare. Thomas is probably going to even start in front of Oberto, or he will definitely play more minutes. Either way, for a bench player to average around 7 rebounds a game is a good thing for the Spurs in this series. But his defense will be the biggest factor as he is one heck of a defender down low. I’d like to see Barry or Udoka come off the bench for Bowen for sparks in terms of threes, but other than those 3 guys, there really isn’t much else in the Spurs bench. Thing is, that is all they really need to beat the Suns. If Kurt does his job on the Suns big men, man, the Suns will be in deep trouble.
The Suns practically changed nothing off their bench. It will still be the two old reliables, Barbosa and Diaw doing their thing. The key of course, is Diaw, as it is certain that either Shaq or Amare will be in foul trouble, at one point or another. Diaw needs to quickly fill in and give the Spurs problems because of his versatility. Barbosa needs to be that constant spark off the bench triggering fastbreaks through pesky defense that will result in steals and easy points. His game revolves around quick layups and spot up threes and has given the Spurs a ton of problems in the past. The Suns also added another shooter, Giricek, but I don’t see him being a factor as the minutes will be rotated around 7 players by Coach D’Antoni, with the 8th playing sparingly.
So will the hype of this series disappoint everyone? I think this series will go down as one of the best ever first round matchups in NBA playoff history. It’s going to be up and down, and I think all the games will be close. I see the Spurs winning in 6 or 7 games, simply because they defend better, and have more control over the game than the Suns do. They also don’t have a liability like Shaq who can’t shoot free throws down the stretch when they need it. So it defeats the purpose of his inside presence when all San Antonio needs to do is foul him everytime he gets the ball so he can brick freethrows and return possession to the Spurs.
I may eat my words as Shaq may prove to be good enough from the line, but I will bet substantially that it will not happen. If ever the Suns lose, it’s definitely going to be a combination of Shaq’s free throws and the Spurs defense doing what it has always done in the playoffs… and that is shutting high-octane teams like Phoenix down.