The Suns are in town today, and in advance of the game, we exchanged a set of questions with Ben's Suns Blog. Here are the questions we answered
. He also has this reminder of how physical a Celtics-Suns game can be:
Red's Army: How have the Suns changed their game to accommodate Shaq so successfully?
Ben: I think the answer to that question really begins with Amare Stoudemire. In my opinion, the biggest surprise this season has been the underproductiveness (is that word?) of Amare Stoudemire. Based on the way he finished last year, Suns fans pegged him to have an MVP type year this season. He certainly started that way, scoring 49 in the Pacers game and having one of the best games I've ever seen a NBA player play. However, I think his decline correlates with Shaq's production. The more Shaq produces, the less need the Suns have for Amare to be dominant.
Amare has, at times, turned into a complimentary player to Shaq and Nash this year – much different than I expected. However, I don't think we'd be having this discussion if Amare made more of an effort on the defensive end and rebounding. Plenty of players have had to sacrifice their play for the betterment of the team (see Grant Hill) – but I'm not sure Amare is ready to do that based on his comments to the media etc. I do give him credit that he is putting more of an emphasis on rebounding and defending than recent years. To be fair, I think it will just take time for Amare to find his niche in this newer/evolved offense. It's clear that he isn't the focal point we thought he'd be, but we do need his energy and determination to go anywhere in the playoffs.
In fact, when he scores 15 or more points the Suns are an amazing 21-3. Part of this has to do with the Suns also making a conscious effort to rest Shaq more in that he isn't usually playing two games in a row.
One of my colleagues for the site I write for stated that our head athletic trainer, Aaron Nelson, is actually our MVP this year. It's hard to argue against that. He and his staff have kept Nash, Shaq, Grant Hill, and knee-surgery-Amare healthy and active in an up-tempo pace.
2: How much does Steve Nash have left in the tank? And furthermore, is how much he has left directly connected to the Suns championship "window"?
Nash, as displayed by his phenomenal game against the Raptors, still has some left in the tank; a lot actually. I will admit there are a few stats that are on a "decline", but his value to the Suns certainly isn't. It's actually a common misconception – he is only averaging 2 less points a game and about 2 less assists per game compared to last season. However, it obviously correlates with less playing time and less shot attempts. Perhaps more importantly, the Suns aren't relying on him to do everything – and that's a good thing. They're success isn't solely dependent upon Nash's play anymore.
The Suns have made a commitment not to run Nash into the ground this year. Why? Because the same old formula didn't work in the playoffs time after time. They made a conscious effort to surround Nash with more play makers and (attempt) to find him a capable back-up point guard; though it hasn't panned out the way we thought it would with Goran Dragic. The Suns got off to a slow start initially because they completely stopped running.
At that point, anyone in the league could've done Nash's job which, essentially, was dumping the ball into Shaq or Amare. When the Suns realized that wasn't working they adjusted (something D'Antoni never was good at). Now, with the addition of J-Rich giving Nash another Joe Johnson-type player – and Nash is creating again getting 11 or more assists in 5 of the last 6 games.
It's no secret that they are making every possible attempt to win now, with Nash and Shaq, before 2010. If they don't, look for even more of a blow-up.
3: Could the Suns have made it work with Mike D'Antoni, or did the Shaq trade make his style impossible?
There was a lot of excitement in Arizona when Terry Porter took over the coaching reins. Good or bad – it was apparent that both the organization and Suns fans needed a change. As much as everyone loved D'Antoni, the system just didn't work in the playoffs – that's just a fact. After Game 1 against the Spurs last year, we all felt a sense of hopelessness (much like the feeling I recently felt on Christmas and against the Pacers) and began to question some of D'Antoni's philosophies. Sure, it was fun and exciting to watch the Suns…but with the teams we had from 2004 – 2008, we felt the team could've done more. Fair or unfair, D'Antoni took the majority of the blame. Having said that, the Porter experiment has made some fans excited and driven others crazy (I'm guilty of both).
I think that he and Steve Kerr have a bold, yet necessary, vision for the Suns and it will certainly take some time to develop. At the beginning of the year, we virtually stopped running which translated into losses. However, I think it was necessary that we went through that phase and experimentation period to discover what our strengths and weaknesses are. Porter has a more disciplined approach to coaching which I think was absolutely needed four our younger guys.
All in all, many of us are still in a wait-and-see phase. But, hey, the Cardinals inspired me and have given me hope that anything can happen.
4: People are talking about 4 teams right now: Celtics, Cleveland, Orlando and the Lakers. Do you think the Suns have what it takes to enter that discussion this year?
Well, I think the talk about those 4 teams is highly justified, and the lack of talk for the Suns and other teams is too. Meaning, the aforementioned teams have clearly demonstrated they are capable of playing at a high level, against anyone, at any time.
In the West, teams #2 – #9 are all still finding their identity and sticking to the middle of the pack. A good thing for the Suns is that they have one of the better schedules in the next two months that they should definitely benefit from. However, I also think that in the playoffs, it's all about the teams who are playing the best or getting hot at the right time (see 2007 Warriors).
Ahh, the eternal optimism of a Suns fan.