Game Notes: Suns at Clippers
Suns are happy to be running again.
The last time I saw the Suns in L.A. was a mid-December game against the Lakers, and they were a mess. Steve Nash was shell-shocked over the trade of his good buds Boris Diaw and Raja Bell, the Suns were taking seven seconds just to set up their half-court offense under coach Terry Porter, and Shaquille O’Neal’s great-grandmother had just died.
So now it’s mid-February, and as recently as last weekend, the Suns looked ready to implode again. Jason Richardson was suspended a game for his second serious moving violation; Amar’e Stoudemire was on the trading block, and the Suns, ranked No. 9 in the West, were on the outside looking in at the playoff race.
A year ago, the Suns altered their team DNA by trading Shawn Marion and acquiring Shaq. This time, they fired the coach. With former Clippers coach Alvin Gentry replacing Terry Porter, the Suns announced a return to the run-and-gun approach they’d largely abandoned for the first 51 games of this season.
How happy is this team to get back to the style of play they’d grown to love under former coach Mike D’Antoni? Tuesday night, they scored 81 points in the first half and roasted the Clippers at home, 140-100. Last night, just to prove it was no fluke, they routed the hopelessly undermanned Clips at Staples Center, 142-119, scoring at least 30 points in all four quarters.
No reason to get too excited just yet; at this point, UCLA could probably rack up 100 against these Clips. But the players seem thrilled to be liberated from the restraints imposed by Porter – and sure that their old gun-slinging ways will be just what they need to punch their playoff ticket for 2009.
‘Twas the night before the trade deadline,
and no one was in a hurry,
to trade Camby or Kaman,
or even Amar’e
The rumors have been flying all week. Marcus Camby to the Cavs. Chris Kaman to the Bulls. Amar’e to just about everyone. Yet both coaches, Gentry and Mike Dunleavy, insist that no deals are imminent, and even the players don’t seem rattled, though Camby and Kaman are nowhere to be seen.
The Suns would be crazy to unload Amar’e, especially now that he’s the centerpiece of their up-tempo game, and indeed, it seems that hiring Gentry will wind up as their big move for the stretch run.
As for the Clippers, for whom the words ‘train wreck’ barely do justice to this season, you have to love Mike Dunleavy’s careful wording: “We are not actively looking to get rid of any players,” he said, while in the next breath adding that “We will consider all offers of any substance. We’ve had a lot of opportunities to dump salaries, and we passed on them.” Supposedly, they’re desperately trying to peddle Baron (Boom Dizzle) Davis and his $65M contract, but lots of luck there.
I ask Dunleavy is this is the worst season he’s endured. “Worst anywhere,” he says. “We’re inventing new ways to get hurt. I mean, in the annals of the league, what’s the percentages of one of your players (Camby) flying on an airplane and his ear drum caves in? I mean, it’s like, what other kind of injury can happen?”
The question Dunleavy really should be asking himself is, what did he really expect when he acquired three players—Camby, Davis, and Zach Randolph—who’ve all spent as much time on the D.L. as they have on the court?
Over on the Phoenix side, Gentry is careful to note that “the guy I replaced wasn’t doing anything wrong,” but that he thought it’d be best to go back to some of the tried-and-true stuff that’s worked in the past. “The one thing I think everyone has to understand is that this is a really unique team to coach. Everyone thinks, oh yeah, we want to run, but running is a mentality that has to be developed, and that’s what we’re going to try and do over these last 30 games. You’re either all-in or you’re not; the mentality has to be that you’re going to run on every single play.”
Amar’e Stoudemire sits at his locker, attacking a chicken sandwich and fries the way he will attack the Clippers interior defense in a couple hours (42 points, if you haven’t heard). The surest sign an NBA player doesn’t want to talk to you is when he keeps his headphones on and his iPod blasting, an understandable avoidance mechanism when a bunch of media guys are waiting to ask you how it feels to play knowing you could be in a different uniform tomorrow night.
Finally, the media has their way, as they almost always do, and Amar’e speaks between bites of chicken, not giving much away:
SLAM: Seems like overnight—judging by Tuesday night’s win—you guys are back to playing the game you guys want to be playing.
Amar’e Stoudemire: We just went out there and played. No hesitation; we had a great gamer offensively; tried to lock some guys down defensively, just gotta keep it going.
SLAM: Will there still be times when the ball goes into the post first? Or is it back to “7 seconds or less?”
AS: Whatever we see open first, we go with. If I have a guy sealed deep, it goes to me early. If nobody’s down there before the ball gets down there, we run it through our offensive plays.
SLAM: Is it hard playing with daily rumors that you could be traded?
AS: Not too hard. I tend to put everything aside and just play basketball. I never worry, I never stress. It never bothers me.
SLAM: But ego-wise, it’s got to hurt…
AS: Doesn’t hurt me at all. Whether I’m here or somewhere else, I got a lot to bring to the table. Whatever city I’m in. If I got traded, I’d be more trying to figure out where I’m, going, who are my new teammates, who am I going to war with. Trying to win a title.
More Suns have materialized, all of them eating, and watching the video highlights from Tuesday night. The star of one particular highlight is reserve forward Louis Amundson, who was the recipient of a Zach Randolph punch in Phoenix, a punch that got Randolph ejected and suspended for two games, starting with tonight’s rematch. The incident came in the first quarter, after several chippy encounters between the two. During Dunleavy’s pre-game, it was revealed that Randolph had received news that his father was seriously ill in the hospital minutes before game time, and that it had affected his play.
What did Amundson think?
“In my life, I’ve never hit anyone on the court, so I don’t think that changes anything,” he said. Amundson confirmed that the punch was open-handed – Randolph had said after the game that if he’d really meant to hit Amundson, he wouldn’t have gotten up – but didn’t think it was precipitated by anything dirty.
“The two possessions before that, it was physical, but nothing out of the ordinary, nothing cheap, I think he took exception to me playing physical, but you’d have to ask him,” said Amundson.
By now, about five Suns—none of them named Nash, O’Neal, or Barbosa—were gathered around the video screen, replaying the incident as if they were watching a De La Hoya fight. “Where were the refs?” one player shouted. No one was more animated than reserve Alando Tucker. “Who’s got your back, Louie?” he cried. “Who’s got your back?” Tucker proudly rewound the tape a bunch of times, showing us how he was first to Amundson’s aid, pushing Randolph to the side. “I didn’t want to throw a blow ‘cause I couldn’t afford to,” said a grinning Tucker, as teammates hooted. “I’m just back from injury.”
Back on the Clippers side, the room’s about to be closed to the media. Baron Davis, a film buff who has his own production company, makes some Oscar predictions, including “Slumdog Millionaire” for Best Picture, Kate Winslet for Best Actress, and Mickey Rourke for Best Actor.
During player introductions, for the second night in a row, Shaq is carried on to the court, Superman-style, by four teammates.
– With Camby and Randolph out, undersized Al Thornton gets the thankless task of covering Amar’e, and it turns ugly real fast: Amar’e scores eight of the Suns’ first 10 points, including a thunderous dunk that seems to scream out, “Trade me now, bitch”!
– Stirring memories of his days with Kobe, Shaq blocks a shot, grabs the ball, and leads the break, weaving between two astonished Clippers, before he finishes with a nifty bounce pass to Nash, who hits a driving layup that brings the Suns bench to their feet.
– Louis Ahmundson checks into the game. Fans can’t even summon up the energy to boo.
– The Suns are slicing through the defense like silly putty, but this whole 7 seconds thing is a myth. Plenty of shots are going up after, 8, 9, 10 seconds have run off the shot clock.
– The back-to-back effort is clearly taking a toll on the Suns; they can only muster 30 points in the quarter (Tuesday they had 41) and Al Thornton’s buzzer beater brings the Clippers to within a point. Amar’e already has 14. I like to think our little chat got him fired up, all that talk about the possibility of being traded and whether his ego is bruised and stuff.
– As Amar’e continues to pile up the points—29 by halftime—I’m starting to take credit. After one nifty move inside, grabbing his own miss and tossing it back in while fouled—I can swear he’s looking around for me, as if trying to say, “You did this. I thank you.”
– During a timeout, a note is passed to me. It appears that I am on the trading block. Rumor has it that SLAM may be sending me to The Sporting News for a used laptop and a writer to be named later. I’m stunned. Now I know how Amar’e must feel.
– Goran Dragic would like you to believe he’s Steve Nash. He blows by the Clippers on a beautiful coast-to-coast dash, only to blow the layup.
– Midway through the second quarter, it’s 39-38 Suns. Tuesday night, by the time the Clippers got 38, the Suns had, like, 120 or something. Big improvement.
– Boom Dizzle has missed all five shots on the way to a scoreless first half. Boom Fizzle is more like it.
– A night after piling up 81 points in the first half, they score 67 on 54.9 percent shooting. Not too shabby.
– A Fred Jones three-pointer pulls the Clippers to within 72-65, after they trailed by 14. It’s great how this undermanned, uninspiring bunch never gives up. Until now—shortly after, the lead balloons to 14 again, and will eventually reach 25.
– I’m surprised there’s not more on-court interaction between Nash and Shaq. Nash thrives on constant flow and motion. He loves to hit guys on back-door cuts, whereas Shaq spends many possessions with bodies draped over him in the low post.
— An airball by Baron draws boos, but shortly after, BD catches fire. 12 points in the quarter, and as the last second ticks down, he hits on a layup that’s whistled off. An argument ensues, and Davis is ejected—not Baron, but Ricky, who somehow picks up two technicals as the quarter ends.
– If you had told Mike Dunleavy before the game that the Clips would have 90 after three quarters, he’d have hugged you. Only problem is, the Suns already have 103.
- Fourth quarter is entertaining if you’re a fan of garbage time.
Not much to tell here. Predictably, the Suns were happy but measured in their responses. Steve Nash said: “It’s good for us to get a feel for what we want to do, get a rhythm and some cohesion for what Alvin wants us to work on… we got two wins, which is important in the West.” He felt that the return of the running game gave them a better shot to make the playoffs, and insisted he wasn’t nervous at all about today’s trade deadline.
While we crowded around Nash, The Big Fast-Breaking Center slipped out to greet family and friends, never to be seen again.
On the Clippers side, BD was overheard telling a teammate, “Only 25 more of these mofos to go.” Meaning, games. The season can’t end fast enough for the wounded and weary Clips, while the Suns won’t really know where they stand until they face some decent competition, and they won’t have to wait long: they get the Celtics and Lakers next week.
Gentry has them moving in the right direction, and the revitalized Shaq says he can adapt to the running game, but we’ve seen this act before, and while it’s entertaining as hell, the basic Phoenix limitations still remain: their high-octane offense is not matched on the defensive end, Richardson has not made them appreciably better, and the better teams have been able to bottle up Nash, cut down the Suns’ spacing, and outperform their bench. On the other hand, a weakened West (assuming the Suns can avoid a first-round matchup with the Lakers) means the Suns just might get to outscore some folks, and no team does it with more flair than this bunch.