CHICAGO | The Phoenix Suns are back in the postseason.
The Suns went 14-of-28 from three-point range and outlasted a plucky Bulls bunch 111-105 at the United Center on Tuesday. After a slow start, Steve Nash picked apart the Bulls' defense down the stretch, while Chicago was unable to chase down Phoenix's three-point shooters.
The win was the eighth straight and 16th in 19 games for the Suns, who missed the playoffs last season despite a 46-36 record. There was little drama in whether or not Phoenix would get into the postseason, but clinching was just the jumping off point for the Suns, who are only one game back of second-place Dallas in the West and a half-game back of third-place Utah.
As coaches are wont to do, Phoenix's Alvin Gentry downplayed the importance of landing a high seed.
"To be honest, it doesn't really matter," Gentry said. "At some stage, you're going to have to go to L.A. to get where you want. ... If the seventh-place team beats the second-place team, I don't think it would be that much of a surprise to anybody that plays and coaches in the West."
Suns forward Amare Stoudemire, whose post-All-Star tear was a popular topic in pregame discussions, had a different take.
"We've still got room to improve," Stoudemire said. "We've got a shot at the second seed and that's going to motivate us for the rest of the season."
To get there, the Suns will have to navigate a relatively tough schedule while at the same time dealing with Robin Lopez's injury and Steve Nash's balky back. The Suns have three more road games between today and Saturday, at New Jersey, Detroit and Milwaukee. After that, the Suns finish with the Spurs, Thunder, Rockets, Nuggets and Jazz.
The final game, at Utah, could well have a seed riding on the outcome. The Suns are hot, but Gentry is going to have to balance the twin tasks of getting his roster playoff-ready while still securing the best-possible position in the bracket. It's not going to be easy.
1. Two-time MVP.
Because of his ailing back, 36-year-old Steve Nash looked his age at times during the first half of Tuesday's game. He wasn't getting up and down the floor particularly well and it looked like he was expending maximum effort just to get his three-point shot up to the rim. Besides the back, Nash was also battling a head cold.
"If I'm honest, I was taking so many meds for my back and my cold that I was feeling a little bit loopy for most of the game," Nash said. "It helped my back, but I was really hazy out there. At the end of the game, I just tried to hang in."
Hang in he did. Nash dominated the fourth quarter for Phoenix, scoring nine points, handing out four assists and also picking up a couple of steals in the final frame. All of his damage came inside the arc, as the Phoenix offense that is once again the league's most efficient was on full display. Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro can describe the Suns attack, even if he can't stop it.
"Nash dribbles around and they try to pop (Channing) Frye and duck Amare in," Del Negro said. "They just keep on setting screens for Steve to create. If you don't switch it, Frye pops so far that they string you out, and Frye has such good range that, if you rotate to Frye, then they dump it into Amare in single coverage. So they spread you out in a triangle, which makes it tough. That's what they do to a lot of teams."
Nash's health creates a quandary for Gentry going forward because Phoenix has such a cluster of games, plenty of travel and a tangible incentive to win every time out. Nevertheless, the Suns are likely would be in trouble in what will be a highly-competitive first-round series, regardless of opponent, if Nash isn't operating at something near peak efficiency. As has happened often this season, Nash spent his rest periods during the game sprawled out on the floor next to the photographers.
"(Nash) knows how important these games are," Gentry said. "I almost feel like I just (have) to take him out and not let him play."
That's not likely to happen, not with his aging star motivated make another championship run and knowing seed does matter in the NBA playoffs. Nash is too competitive to sit out and as long as he's not hurting himself further, he's sticking in the lineup.
Afterward, Nash morphed from the pesky on-court presence who has the heart of an assassin into the quirky, aloof character he seems to be away from the action. As we waited to chat, Nash pulled on a pink checkered button-up shirt and a blue knit tie--an ensemble that would have made him a perfect character for "Hot Tub Time Machine." He'd made it through the night, but Wednesday is another city, another game, another battle with his own body.
"I'm planning on playing tomorrow," Nash said. "We're just kind of taking it day by day right now, and we'll just go out there and see how I feel."
2. The joy of floor-spacing.
This was the first time I had ever seen the Suns play in person and I was impressed, to say the least. When watching them on television, you can see how Nash orchestrates the attack and how dominant Stoudemire is when he's going well. You can also see open three-point shooters drilling open looks. It's harder to see on the tube how the Suns make defenses scramble. Basically, it's a game of choosing the weapon of your own destruction. Either Nash and Stoudemire will beat you inside the arc with the pick-and-roll, or one of several competent three-point shooters is going to hammer you from the outside. If you're a fan of offensive basketball, it's a joy to watch and the Suns make it look simple.
One aspect of the Suns' system that I'd never really considered before is how proficient they are at getting wide-open looks from three-point range during second-chance opportunities. Last night, the Bulls actually had more offensive rebounds than the Suns--13 to 12--but Phoenix had the edge in second-chance points to the tune of 19-10.
"We try to do that for sure," Gentry said of the rebound-and-kick-it-out action. "We've gotten better at rebounding the ball offensively and when we do that, we say that if everybody's in the lane, then we look to throw it back out.
"They usually close out on the first guy, and we look to swing it to the next guy. So when the ball goes up and we go for the offensive rebound, we do try to get guys back out on the floor. We're a spacing team and we look to take advantage of that. If Amare or Lou (Amundson) can't put it right back up, they do a good really job of kicking it out for a three."
3. Alvin Gentry really, really likes the Bulls.
Gentry is a likable, amiable guy who obviously buys into the convention of always being complimentary of your opponent. In fact, he was so complimentary of the Bulls, that Chicago should consider hiring him for the P.R. staff if things don't work out in Phoenix. He makes the '10 Bulls sound like the '96 Bulls. A few nuggets:
"I think Vinny (Del Negro) has done a great job. They play at a high level. They went through a the kind of like we did where they had a hard time closing games out. Somewhere in there they get a little six- or eight-minute stretch where they don't play very good. You can't do what they did when they came out and played us (before). They went on the road and played five plus-.500 teams and won every game. No one has ever done that, not even the Bulls that won 72 games. Of course, that's only because that team never had to ... (trails off laughing). You guys were ready to jump all over that."
"The thing with (Derrick Rose) against us is that we did a great job of keeping him out of the lane, but he hit seven or eight jump shots. If he makes eight jump shots against you, you're almost rendered helpless. I don't know what other avenues you can take. He's a great player. I love his court temperament. He does a great job of playing with the utmost composure, he's never really up or never really down. If you just take a look at him, you'd never know if his team was up 20 or down 20. That's a great thing for a young player to be able to do that."
"They've got a lot of good young players, guys. Taj Gibson can play for any team in the NBA, he really could. I've never seen a young kid that has such a feel for the game. He has unbelievable knowledge of the game. He's a great defender, a helluva rebounder, does all the dirty work. I can't believe that he wouldn't be able to play for every team in the league. You look at Derrick Rose and James Johnson and you can see the potential. They've just got a lot of young players, but they're going to be a great team at some stage."
"Pargo played pretty good and he's a good, little defensive player. Not anywhere close to Hinrich. To me, I think that Hinrich is the best on-ball defender in the NBA at his position. (Hinrich's injury) could have been a factor, it really could have. He does a great job of fighting through screens and just gets into guys individually."
4. A matter of execution.
Whereas we got to see how well-designed the Suns' offense is and how well it fits their personnel, we got to see a Bulls team that fell flat in the area of execution during some key sequences late in game.
The first play happened when an ill-advised defensive switch left Brad Miller guarding Nash on the wing. Phoenix was quick to recognize the mismatch and all four of Nash's teammates cleared out to the other side of the floor. All of their Bulls counterparts went with them. Miller was left to fend for himself, and Nash drove right around him, hit one of his patented scoop layups and got a whistle. The three-point play put Phoenix up 103-101 with 1:14 to play.
"You want to handle the screen-and-roll a little bit better," Del Negro said about the play, "but Frye set (the pick) and he's popping so far that we gave up middle penetration. Then the shot clock is running down and you have to get up on Steve because he's such a great three-point shooter. He got the penetration on Brad and made a nice little scoop shot and got the (foul)."
On the next Phoenix possession, Frye popped out off a screen on which the Bulls defender got hung up and hit an uncontested three-pointer, putting the Suns up 106-103 with :41.6 left on what turned out to be the game's biggest shot.
"I'll have to look at (the play on film)," Del Negro said. "I wanted us to stay with Frye, but Nash gets below the free-throw line and draws everybody to him, then picks you apart with his great vision. Give them credit, they executed it."
Rose made a driving layup, which was followed by another surgeon-like Nash possession for Nash, who drove the lane, attracted the Bulls' shot blockers, then left a little pass for Grant Hill for a dunk. Del Negro called timeout with :23.2 to go, down 108-105. After the timeout, Rose ended up taking a double-clutch, three-point leaner that missed. When Joakim Noah and Miller fought over the rebound and lost it out of bounds, it was ballgame.
"(The play) was for Flip (Murray) coming off of a high screen by Brad (Miller), then a hand off to Derrick (Rose) for the three," Del Negro said. "Which we got, but it wasn't a real good look. I thought we were a little tight on our execution. We needed to be a little more spread out on that to get the pass over the top to Joe (Noah) and then to Flip."
In addition to the gap in execution during the crunch time, I was also a little dismayed by the lack of adjustments made by the Bulls as Nash began to dissect their defense. Despite Gentry's praise of Pargo's defense, Nash was blowing by him with very little resistance. Del Negro was short of bodies, but there were enough stoppages in play in the last 90 seconds that he was able to go offense/defense with Gibson and Miller. I didn't understand why he couldn't have done the same thing with Pargo. He could have brought back James Johnson, slid Flip Murray to two (he played most of the game at three) and put Rose on Nash. Best I could tell, Rose did not guard Nash the entire game.
"We haven't been able to get over the hump against some of the better teams," Del Negro said. "Give Phoenix some credit. They executed when they had to. ... Players have to make plays down the stretch. I thought we ran some good sets and got on the glass, but weren't able to convert."
Luol Deng sat out again for the Bulls, but Del Negro reported that he resumed running on Tuesday and there is even an outside chance he might be ready for limited minutes when the Bulls return to action on Friday. However, Kirk Hinrich sprained his ankle late in the first half on Tuesday and didn't return. He came out for second-half warm-ups, but it was apparent he couldn't go and he returned to the locker room. That didn't help the effort to contain Nash, whom has struggled against Hinrich in the past.
"Kirk does as good a job as anybody guarding me," Nash said. "(Him getting hurt) didn't hurt our cause, but I thought we had a lot of grit tonight. We were going to try to find away to win that game no matter what."
Hinrich's availability going forward is uncertain, not good news as the Bulls fell 1 1/2 games back of Toronto for the final playoff slot in the East.
Poss oRTG eFG% oREB% FT/FGA TO% THCH
First Quarter 24 137.6 .591 .333 .318 .125 7.00
Second Quarter 24 98.0 .477 .000 .136 .163 5.05
Third Quarter 21 114.5 .447 .385 .368 .095 3.67
Fourth Quarter 23 132.5 .591 .222 .182 .088 5.38
FIRST HALF 48 117.6 .534 .238 .227 .147 6.03
SECOND HALF 44 123.8 .524 .304 .268 .048 4.32
FINAL 91 121.8 .529 .279 .247 .121 5.28
Poss oRTG eFG% oREB% FT/FGA TO% THCH
First Quarter 24 104.3 .523 .300 .091 .209 7.30
Second Quarter 24 142.9 .675 .182 .400 .000 6.80
Third Quarter 21 114.5 .364 .333 .364 .048 4.53
Fourth Quarter 23 92.8 .412 .333 .412 .221 3.88
FIRST HALF 48 123.8 .595 .238 .238 .105 7.05
SECOND HALF 44 103.2 .385 .348 .385 .070 3.92
FINAL 91 115.2 .494 .289 .309 .121 5.63
NOTE: THCH is an estimate of team touches per minute
GAME FLOW COMMENTS
(These are the notes that I typed to myself during the game. Presented as typed ... no attempt at cleaning them up or to provide context.)
FIRST QUARTER: Collins starting again in place of Lopez ... Hinrich starts out on Nash. Taj on Amare ... Suns start by going to JRich in post vs DRose ... Hill is on Rose, and vice versa ... Nash is on JJ--all sorts of interesting assignments ... Collins can't guard Miller, so why is he out there? ... Bulls blitzing Nash early and forcing him into mistakes ... First TV TO: 13-12 Chi ... Amare's jump shot just looks smooth--quick release and deadly ... Amare dunk over JJ in transition puts Phx up 24-17. He's got 11 ... Flip for JJ first Bulls sub ... JRich w/ a three & a lob lay-in, Phx goes up 29-17. Bulls struggles against Phx drive-and-kick attack and not getting back in transition. JRich also has 11 ... Bulls getting good looks on drive-and-leave sets ... Nash sitting on the floor because of his back trouble ... Pargo doesn't work p-n-r well when he doesn't take a jump shot. Gives ball to bigs in bad spots... Frye for three, Bulls slow on their closeouts. Phx up 36-25 after 1Q.
SECOND QUARTER: Noah starts 2Q w/ jam off a nice interior pass f/ Taj ... Another jam for Noah after leaks out on miss ... Phx 2-unit start Q intact ... Pargo 3 pushes Bulls run to 7 ... Suns go zone to curb run, but Pargo hits another 3 & Phx folos w/ turn. Tied 38. ... After the way the Bulls let an early deficit turn into a blowout vs. Mia on Thurs, this 2Q run is big. TO @7:56, Phx 44-40 ... I think that Phx zone was just 1 poss ... Like Kevin Garnett, Warrick kills his team when they run a clear out for him if he faces up and misses his jumper, because he shoots a flat shot that when it's off, it's always long. Since the side was cleared out, there is no one to rebound. I'd have to check, but I suspect Hakim is quite a bit less accurate with that shot than KG ... Bulls run clear out for Flip on Nash on the block. His wheels blow out, but Derrick Stafford bailed him out with a foul call on Nash ... There were 19 assists in the 1Q. Both teams over 7 touches per minute ... Bulls getting great looks in transition ... Noah back on floor after already having an 8-min stint this half. A good sign. 50-49 Phx w/ 4:38 ... Flip has 12 pts in qtr, Bulls up two ... Bulls call TO because Hinrich hurt himself. He's going back to locker room. Didn't see what happened--he wasn't really limping, it may be his back ... Vinny brings Pargo for Hinrich, sticking w/ Flip @3 ... Hill still checking Rose ... Noah gets a stop on Amare on a post, then trips him in transition and finishes w/ a dunk. He and Flip have sparked this run. Rose has been playing fine and has been willing to facilitate with others going well. He does have 4 assists this Q ... Gary Zielinski just hit NOah w/ a ??? looseball foul and now is making a spectable of himself ... Bulls go four flat and Rose takes Hill and scores in lane ... With Bulls up 5 & 1.2 secs left, Chris Richard commits a flagrant foul on Jarron Collins of all people. Perhaps an indication why Richard can't stick. Collins made both FTs and Gentry calls timeout. If Phx scores, it's a terrible way to end half and Collins wasn't like to make that shot anyway, he was too fare under the basket. Idiotic. Richardson loses Rose on screen, but misses open . Bulls up 60-57 @half. Great second quarter (35-24) vs. team w/ excellent bench ... Oh, Noah got hit w/ a T on his way off the floor. Nice.
THIRD QUARTER: Hinrich's injury was a sprained ankle. Return questionable. If he doesn't go, we'll see if Vinny puts Rose on Nash ... With no Hinrich, it'll be interesting to see who Vinny Del Negro puts on Nash. Will he put Rose on him for a whole half? ... Chi's Kirk Hinrich sprained his ankle in 1H ... he came out for 2H warmups, but wasn't moving well & they took him back to locker room ... JJ is working hard, but he's just no getting off the floor well. Hurting him on close-up shots in traffic ... Bulls have 2 quick fouls on Phx in first 1 1/2 min, need to keep attacking ... Pargo has been on Nash by the way, don't like that matchup, but Pargo can't guard anybody else, 'cept maybe Collins ... Noah played 12 min in 1H, now comes @8:02 because Miller gets 4th foul. Game tied 70. Flip also checks in for JJ ... Pargo 2 Js in a row, see if he's hot ... Bulls getting hurt on off glass this Q ... Might just be me, but it seems like Flip is unwilling to give teh ball up to Rose at times ... Phx is 9-of-18 on 3s, up 77-74 ... Nash shoots an airball. Really seems like he is using max effort on his shot ... Taj open J in transition puts Bulls up 78-77 ... Flip-flop: Bulls w/ edge on FB pts; Suns on 2nd chance points. Sizable in both cases ... Pargo J puts Bulls up 80-78. TO Phx @ 2:32 ... Rose goes coast-to-coast for an And-1, but misses FT. Bulls up 84-78 ... Biggest lead ... Flip just made the most ridiculous halfcourt shot you'll ever see, ball tipped away and he chased it down beyond the line, then turn and "flipped" it right through the hoop. Officials go to to replay, but it doesn't count. Ugh. Bulls up 84-81 after 3Q.
FOURTH QUARTER: Hmmm. Acie Law on for Pargo to start 4Q. Pargo needed the blow, but still interesting ... Flip for 3. He's got 19. Bulls up six ... Another 3 on 2nd chance for Phx. 19 second chance pts ... Noah 20 min & counting ... Rose hasn't plyd in Q, Pargo repl Law ... 7:07 Bulls 92-91 .... Here comes Rose ... Great bounce pass f/ halfcourt by Pargo leads to Flip layup ... Phx working hard to get the ball out of Rose's hands in the middle of the floor ... Amare's number w/ & w/o Noah on the floor have to be startling ... TO Chi @5:38, up 94-91 ... Flip w/ a drive and kick to Miller for 3, Bulls up 97-93 ... Pargo just can't stay with Nash ... Bulls get a stop after Frye misses uncontested 3, up 97-95 @3:28 ... No touch for Rose, Pargo misses offbalance shot ... JRich 3 puts Phx up 98-97 ... Rose answers, drive and spinning jump hook in lane. TO Phx, Chi up 99-98 @2:41. Terrific game ... Out of TO, Suns run iso for JRich vs Rose on block he misses a fadeaway ... Nash beats Pargo off dribble, puts Phx up 100-99 @ 1:45 ... Rose goes hard, draws PF on Hill, makes 2 FTS, 101-100 @1:33 ... Bulls have just 2 team fouls ... Nash ends up on Miller on switch, everyone clears out, no help, Nash scores And-1, Phx up 103-101 ... Was a bad call on foul, Miller didn't touch him ... Rose goes hard again, gets fouled by Amare, Chi down 2 @ :59.8 ... VDN comes back w/ Taj for Miller, going off def, Rose makes both FTs, tied 103 ... Taj loses Frye off pick, Frye buries 3, Phx up 106-103 @ :41.6, TO Chi ... Out of TO, Rose goes right to rim, 1 pt game ... Pargo on Nash, gets beat, feeds Hill on leave for dunk ... don't understand how you don't put Rose on Nash ... don't understand, even if putting Pargo on a bigger players causes a mismatch, then again, if you're going off def, why have Pargo on the floor? ... Out of TO, Rose forces 3--a double clutcher--when he doesn't have to. Jo and Miller fight over rebound, lose it oob, Bulls foul Nash ... makes both, Phx up 5, that's all she wrote. Heartbreaker.
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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