Western Conference Finals Preview: The Suns Set in the West
First of all, this is a matchup of the two best coaches in the postseason thus far. I happened to see Mike D'Antoni interviewed the day after the controversial last-second loss to the Lakers (Nash fouled then stripped as he tried to call a timeout) sent Phoenix down 3-1 and the guy just exuded calm confidence. Right then I knew that Phoenix had a decent chance to get to the second round. The other thing you have to admire about D'Antoni is that he plays unlike anybody in the league and goes out and gets parts to fit his system. Boris Diaw was obviously the main coup this year, but the acquisitions of Raja Bell and Tim Thomas weren't too shabby either. Granted that's the GM (now toiling in Toronto) but D'Antoni was obviously consulted and made it work. And flipping Barbosa over to the two-guard was a bold and savvy stroke that is all D'Antoni. This is a team that has won the divisional title and reached the Conference Finals two years in a row playing without a center, in constant transition. They're just a hell of a lot of fun. And the brains behind it all on the sidelines fades into the woodwork as much as he can.
As for Avery Johnson, well, I am now munching on my vote for Flip Saunders as coach of the year after AJ's insertion of Devon Harris at the point totally flummoxed the Spurs and literally changed the equation of how the entire second round series would be played.
Just like that; one bold masterstroke and San Antonio was exposed for its lack of foot speed, and forced to keep a money player like Robert Horry chained to the bench. Johnson's decision to not automatically double team Tim Duncan in the low block was another gutsy, if not as wildly successful, decision. And it is well known that Johnson's emphasis on defense has provided the Mavs with a personality transplant. (BTW, doesn't this throw a little more dirt on Don Nelson's reputation? D'Antoni did a "double Nelly" better than the original with his peddle-to-the-metal small-ball and crazy matchups, and Avery demonstrated that Nelson already had championship caliber talent if he just knew how to use it--and that's minus Michael Finley and Steve Nash.)
So, do the favored Mavs follow form and knock off Phoenix, or are the Suns just too charmed to go away just yet?
Dallas in 7.
If this was simply about talent and cohesion, I'd say Dallas in 5 or 6. Now that the Spurs are gone--and right up until Nowitzski's unbelievable three point play at the close of reg in Game 7 I would have bet good money on San Antonio repeating--the Mavs have depth, versatility, a superb young coach, an inspirational team leader, and a lovably iconoclastic owner (at least I've always appreciated the way Cuban has been the only nouveau moneybags who honestly acts out every hoop schlub's fantasy of owning a team and treating it the way any die-hard fan would).
But playing Phoenix takes both discipline and some accomodation, especially after series against a Fratello-coached Grizzlies and a Popovich-coached Spurs. You don't think Nowitzki, Terry, Howard, Harris, Daniels and the boys aren't going to succumb to the temptation to run with the Suns? Yes, if anyone from the NBA's final eight could have beaten Phoenix at its own game, it's Dallas. But the odds of the Mavs winning still plummet the fewer times the ball is dribbled. Phoenix will win at least one, and maybe two, abject shootouts, where the loser tops 105 points. And I think Phoenix will spurt enough and draw upon their eerie karma enough to steal a game that is relatively low-scoring for them. But Phoenix beating the Mavs more often than not? Uh-unh. Here are three reasons why:
1)Less rest for Steve Nash. At the beginning of this year, I predicted Phoenix wouldn't even make the playoffs because Nash would get injured (another brilliant prognostication, eh?). It didn't happen, but the rationale for it was based on the fact that Nash simply lacks the stamina and durability to perform at peak level for as long as the Dirks and Kobes and KGs and, apparently, even the foot-impaired Duncans of the world. It's already been bandied about a fair amount, and I hate to follow the pack, but the fact that there is less rest between games in the finals, and that the Mavs are quicker than the Clips, is going to take its toll on Nash.
2) The quickening superstardom of Nowitzki. The big Kraut is in a zone, and if the Spurs couldn't rattle him out of it, what with Bruce Bowen and Duncan and their black and blue style, how are the Suns going to disrupt this guy? He'll get 40 one night, dish for 8 assists another, grab 23 rebounds a third. And it will all be in the flow of the game. If the Suns elect to guard him with Shawn Marion they are going to get killed on the boards--never mind Diop and Dampier, Josh Howard will go nuts. Boris Diaw probably isn't quick enough. Tim Thomas doesn't have the bulk. I mean, Nowitzki's a legit seven feet. Oh, and if Phoenix doubles him, Nowitzki demonstrated against the Spurs that he'll dish to Terry, Harris and the rest of the crew.
3. Avery Johnson will grab the reins often enough. The Suns' only hope is what the Suns only hope always is--run like banshees for 48 minutes in hopes of transition hoops, and if the opponent gets back in time, spread the floor, then drive and kick out for treys, or dish to the perimeter and then hit the cutters down the middle. It is up to Johnson to prevent a track meet as often as possible, and to let his bigs handle the penetration on their own so the Mavs can contain the perimeter. Personally, I think Diop is better able to handle this than Dampier, who will accumulate many fouls per minute in this series, so Dallas has to hope his broken nose is not a problem. But Avery Johnson has built this team to succeed in the playoffs, and as good as Mike D'Antoni is, he and his squad simply don't have the horses to overwhelm Dallas. We all get to have a hell of a lot of fun watching them try, though.