Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Suns Leadership Vacuum

Michael from Bright Side of the Sun was good enough to participate in a discussion with me today on a number of topics. Here's how I started things off:

"The Suns put together an almost historically brutal 3rd quarter against the Spurs in the second game of their first-round playoff series. If it weren't for Shaq making his free throws and rendering Hack-a-Shaq useless, the Suns are lucky to total double digits in those forgettable 12 minutes.

Clearly, this was the turning point of the game, as the Spurs were able to once again dig out of a hole, throwing the Suns into a hole of their own in the process.

Who's to blame?

It's been suggested Amare's disappearance is reason #1 the Suns failed to close the deal in Game 2 but I beg to differ. I realize he hit just two shots in the second half (a tip-in and a meaningless 3-pointer in the last minute of the game) but there was quite a bit more going on in this contest than Amare dominating in the first half and being kept in check in the second.

The Suns as a whole came out sloppy and with a lack of focus in the second half, whereas the Spurs regained their focus and made effective adjustments on both ends of the court. Nash had just one assist after the intermission. In the 4th quarter Coach D gave the Spurs a steady diet of an inefficient Boris Diaw on the block (note to Coach D: Boris exploits big men much better than he does small, as he can outquick them. We all know power isn't Boris' game.) And again, Amare couldn't hit water falling out of a boat.

The entire Suns squad stunk it up in that third quarter, not just Amare. As we all know, when the Suns are going good, it's incredibly fun to watch. When they're not firing on all cylinders, it doesn't get much uglier. Every cylinder misfired, not just the Black Jesus model."

Bright Side of the Sun:

Michael's original post
Gimlet (gim•let): 1. A small tool with a screw point, grooved shank, and cross handle for boring holes

Gimlet-eyed: 1. Sharp-sighted; 2. Having a piercing stare

The Phoenix Suns cannot let a 2-0 hole get them down. It is ugly, yes, but they must, in fact, refuse to acknowledge that the is even a hole there. In fact, they should see right through it to the prize on the other side.

We have seen our worst enemy and it is not Tim Duncan or Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili or the myriad easy looks at the hoop they got. It's not Bruce Bowen's occasionally dirty defense or Michael Finley's sudden rejuvenation. The real enemy is the Phoenix Suns themselves. This is true now. It has been true the last 3 years. And it will be true again if they do not face themselves down. It is Leandro Barbosa going 0-7. It is Shaquille O'Neal losing his man on the break for an easy 2. It is Steve Nash insisting on going behind the back in the lane because he is not taking the shots the Spurs give him. It is Boris Diaw, failing to convert 4 straight shots over mismatches in the lane. It's Mike D'Antoni, not drawing up plays to get Nash or Stoudemire the ball when the game is on the line. (Via Hardwood Paroxysm.) It is Amare Stoudemire, not realizing that an MVP does more than score 30 points a night. Hell, 'Nique did that and how many rings did he get?

You know who it's not? Raja Bell going 2-7 and grabbing 5 rebounds. Those stats belie that fact that he plays his guts out every night and takes care of business. Some nights the shots fall and others they don't, but he never forgets who he is and what he is supposed to do once he takes the court. Most importantly, I don't think he forgets why he's out there. He's not there to beat the Spurs. Raja Bell has gimlet eyes. He doesn't see Manu Ginobili or Tony Parker. He sees the ring on the other side of them.

Steve Nash has gimlet eyes but facilitates instead of dominates. Amare Stoudemire confuses gimlet eyes with with thundering, but ultimately meaningless dunks. Shaquille O'Neal has gimlet eyes, but no longer has the skills to carry a team. Barbosa never had them (let's face this: The Suns have a Sixth Man, the Spurs have a Sixth Hombre.) Diaw can't find them and D'Antoni can't coach them.

The Spurs have them in spades. Pop knows what he is doing. His boys got ice in their veins. His boys got discipline. His boys got execution. What his boys don't got is nerves. His boys don't see their opponents and can't be rattled by them. They see the gold and the glory that is past them and keep on marching.

And let me tell you, it does not do the Phoenix Suns a lick of good for Raja Bell to have gimlet eyes when the rest of them do not. Steve Nash will find his, if D'Antoni lets him. I don't worry about him.

Amare Stoudemire, though, I call you out. You want to be MVP? You want to get your foot in that door? Then turn that 25 point first half into a 50 point game. Refuse to lose. Lead. This. Team. Realize that a final score is more important than a box score. Nash might be the quarterback, but it's your turn to be the general. Nash says he is passing the torch to you . And when (or perhaps, if) you claim that torch, you have no choice but to lead your team from darkness of disappointment to the light of a championship or let it burn your hand off trying. Lead. This. Team. Kevin Garnett has them (and we could have had him!). You'll have to pry a ring from his cold dead hand. You want your name mentioned with his? Be like him. Lead. This. Team.

Right now, the championship goes through San Antonio, and eventually through Boston. Make it go through you. You are gifted. Freakishly gifted. You've got the potential to be Karl Malone, Shawn Kemp and Charles Barkley rolled into one. And that's great, if you don't mind never winning a ring. But if you want to hold the Larry O'Brien, you've got to channel Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and Magic Johnson. Contest everything; concede nothing. This is your series, STAT, your legacy. If averaging 30 a night is your goal, then do us all a favor and hang that "Mission Accomplished" banner already. But if being the best, if truly being Number 1 is your goal, then find your gimlet eyes and see through the highlights and the numbers to your destiny behind them. KG sees it this year. And as I said, you will have to pry that ring from his cold dead hand. My question is do you have it in you to make him or anyone else pry it from yours?

Black Jesus Disciples:

Well hell, Michael, you're preaching to the choir on this one. You're right, Amare needs to grab the proverbial bull by the horns and wrestle it to the ground. He needs to take the next step as a leader and put this team on his back and lead them to victory. Amare has to dig deep and set the tone at both ends of the floor if this team is to climb out of the hole they've put themselves in.

Let's go ahead and swap Amare with KG for a moment then, as he's the gold standard for leadership and certified insanity on the hardwood. Do the Suns score 11 points in the third quarter with KG on the floor? Do Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli continue to get easy buckets at the rim with KG patrolling the paint?

It's fair to say a leader like KG would prevent the situation from becoming so dire but when a team crashes and burns as badly as the Suns did in that pivotal third quarter, General Patton could be running the point and it wouldn't matter.

What would you have Amare do?

Bright Side of the Suns:

It's true, the Suns as a whole melted down. Leandrinho can't be going 0-7 against the Heat in the first game of the season, much less in a Game 2 vs. the Spurs and if the Suns are going to give it to Boris to exploit a mismatch, then he better deliver.

Here's where I think the KG insanity would come into play. KG is constantly, constantly, in the face, ear, or up the ass of his teammates from wire to wire. If he's on the floor, he's congratulating, encouraging, or putting the fear of God into the likes of Rajon Rondo and Leon Powe. From the bench, he's like Mark Madsen, but you know, with the ability to play NBA basketball. It's not simply the focus of his intensity, it's the infectiousness of it and his willingness to spread it like that monkey in "Outbreak." I don't see any of this from Stoudemire.

He's now in his 6th year (5th if you want to write off the microfracture season) as a pro. He may not have the gravitas or experience of a KG, but he would certainly do well to show some of the fire in the belly. Maybe next year he makes The Leap. But these are the times when leaders rise to the occasion.

So to answer your question, would the Suns score 11 points in the 3rd quarter with KG? Maybe, but the difference would be that the Suns would have been inspired to hold the Spurs to less than 27.

So, back at you, if the blame does not rest entirely with STAT, what player or aspect of their game do the Suns need a boost from so the load isn't on Amare?

Black Jesus Disciples:

You're absolutely right, Amare hasn't shown a fraction of the fire KG does on the court. To be honest, I'm not so sure he has the huevos to lead in that fashion. Not many do. Only a select few in the basketball world are as batshit crazy as KG.

If the Leap were to occur in the next four games, the timing would be impeccable. To channel Rage Against the Machine:

"It has to start somewhere, It has to start sometime
What better place than here, what better time than now?"

No one wants to see STAT drop 50 on Duncan and Co. more than I do. He's definitely capable but to do so he needs the ball in his hands. It's no coincidence he put up 25 in the first half when he was the first option on offense. I didn't see that in the second half.

Chalk it up to lockdown defense from the Spurs, place the blame on Coach D for not making adjustments, but when arguably the best player on the court suddenly becomes the third option on offense, it's increasingly difficult for that player to take over a game.

This is probably the point where you're thinking "fine, for whatever reason, things aren't happening on the offensive end, affect the outcome of the game in a different manner. Rebound the damn ball! Make it impossible for your man to put the ball in the basket!"

It's something we're all waiting for from Amare. The Leap we're discussing doesn't just entail leadership qualities, it's becoming the total package and exerting maximum effort in all aspects of the game. On this point we can only continue to wait and hope.

As for who needs to step up or who should carry the load, I'll again point the finger to the team as a whole. Take a look at our opposition. Duncan was his usual steady, consistent, annoying self in Game 1 and the Spurs took the win due to his contributions and the two-headed monster that is Tony Parker/Manu Ginobli. However, what can't be forgotten, is Brent Barry coming off the bench and drilling a three, or Michael Finley suddenly catching fire in the 4th quarter.

These guys don't panic. Think about Game 2 as another example. They come out of the half, suddenly figure it out on defense, get Finley immediately involved and ride that wave of success to victory.

The Suns on the other hand looked disjointed and well, panicky, because what worked so well in the first half simply wasn't working anymore. TNT cut to Coach D mic'd up and caught him screaming "don't panic guys! Don't panic!" Unfortunately, they did just that, with Coach D ignoring his own advice as well.

Boris Diaw on the block a dozen times in a row? Going away from the 4th quarter bread and butter of the Amare/Nash pick and roll, that's panic. Steadfastly refusing to trap San Antonio's pick and roll or go underneath, that's panicking.

Rather than following Coach D's lead and just believing they're the better team despite being down 0-2, this team needs to stop waiting for the other shoe to drop, get the Spurs out of their kitchen, and just friggin' do it.

So after all that babbling, I've only somewhat answered your question and in the process strengthened your point for the need of a Suns leader. I know it sure as hell isn't Coach D (at least at this point) and Shaq seems to be content to lead only when the team is winning.

So why not our two-time MVP, Steve Nash? Doesn't he set the tone for the team? Shouldn't he lead by example? Doesn't the team catch fire when he looks for his shot?

Bright Side of the Sun:

I couldn't agree with you more on the panic factor. This is probably where a healthy Grant Hill would have helped. Another veteran floor leader and go-to guy would have mitigated a lot of the poor decision making on offense.

Admittedly, I've been pretty easy on Nash. The Sixty Million Dollar Man was absolutely smothered by Bruce Bowen in the second half. Until Amare makes The Leap, he's the guy that needs to get the No-Effing-Way-We're-Losing-This-Game Face. I would have preferred to see him looking for his own shot rather than trying to get Amare going with those 3 behind-the-back-in-traffic passes that resulted in turnovers. Or I would have liked to see him sacrifice some of the flash and subterfuge in order to insure a completion to Amare as a way of saying, "Here's the ball, now show'em what you got." But there is no denying that when Nash finds his shot, it has a way of inspiring the rest of the team (I'm looking at you, Raja Bell.).

But back to my point with Amare. He opened his mouth about being an MVP candidate without having much of a resume beyond STATs to back it up. If he wants a seat at the table, now is the time to earn it. Chris Paul, in his 2nd year, is demonstrating more leadership than Amare, and for that matter, Steve Nash. And, while I'm at it, where's Shaq in all this? I know, he's The Big Role Player now, but isn't championship poise (Oh, man, I can't wait for Bill Walton to start calling games) one of the reasons they brought him in? And, of course, Coach D is great at coaching his system, but is routinely out-adjusted by Popovich

The Suns have a leadership vacuum right now and no one seems to be (visibly) stepping up to fill it. And until they do, I think we can expect to see more stretches in games where they seem to be rudderless and overwhelmed. I'm challenging Amare to make it his team now, and I think the Suns should as well.

Black Jesus Disciples

Michael, thanks again for participating in the discussion. It's abundantly clear the Suns needs a shot in the arm of some sort if they're to do the unthinkable and win this series over the hated Spurs. Someone needs to step up. If Amare can make the Leap and do so, we're in great shape. If not, the onus is on the rest of the squad to shake the monkey off their back.

1 comment:

clydesdale said...

great points by both parties, but i thought one the main reasons why the suns brought shaq to the desert was his playoff experience and leadership? where was that in the third quarter?

the suns do need to run their offense through shaq or stat everytime. the spurs do with that with there big 3.

on defense, wow, what to even say...maybe fight through a pick every once in a while. oberto's main job is to set screens.

suns better win on friday, or it's o-v-e-r! i am sure the last 3 years of nba playoffs have taken at least 10 years off my life! and made me drink more as well!