Monday, May 08, 2006

Clippers-Suns Preview

I have lots of theories about playing the Suns. Theories about how to beat them; theories as to why they are a regular season team, not a playoff team; theories about why guys go to Phoenix and automatically have career years. Only problem is, these theories are almost never right.

The LA sportswriters are all predicting a Clippers win, and I can follow their logic, and I hope they're right. But I find it interesting that they all point to the Clippers 'Most impressive road win of the season' when they beat the Suns 119-105 back on April 5. However, they mostly remain mute on the subject of the Clippers 'Most embarassing loss of this or any recent season' when they lost to the Suns 126-95 on National TV back on March 15 (in a game that was not as close as the final score would indicate - beware the Ides of March indeed).

Everyone correctly points out that if Lamar Odom and Kwame Brown (neither of whom ever having been mistaken for a great post up player) had their way with the Suns on the low block, then Elton Brand and Chris Kaman are going to destroy them. And that should be true. In fact, I remember a game where Kaman had 16 rebounds against the Suns, and the Clippers outrebounded the Suns 24-3 on the offensive glass. And that game was on March 15.

What's my point? Well, for one thing, statistics lie. The Clippers had 24 offensive rebounds, but of course the Clippers missed an astounding 67 shots (that's how many they missed, not how many they took.) The Suns on the other hand missed 40 shots. So when you consider that the Clippers had 21 more offensive rebounds on 27 more chances to get offensive rebounds, sure, that's pretty good offensive rebounding, but taken as a whole, it represents a big problem, not a big advantage.

But more importantly, I fear that this series is really in the Suns hands. If they make shots, they will win. If they don't, the Clippers will win. The season series is tied 2-2. In each of the two Clippers losses, the Suns shot 42%. In the Ides Massacre, the Suns shot 55%. In the Suns other win, they shot 47%, but guess what? They shot 55% in the first half, during which they built a 67-48 lead, and the game was essentially over.

Now, it's not like I was a math major in college (oh, wait, yes I was), but there's a BIG difference between 55% shooting and 42% shooting. Something like 13 percentage points, unless I miss my guess. As I've mentioned before, NBA analysts and beat writers always want to attribute shooting percentages to something the defense is doing, but sometimes teams are just 'on', and sometimes they are 'off'. Of course the defense can affect it some. But unless you just let them go through their lay up drill, I'm not sure you can affect it 13 percentage points.

Having said that, one of my theories concerning the Suns is that their regular season success is inflated because they are the ONLY team in the NBA that plays such a wide open style. For a regular season game, you have MAYBE one practice to prepare for the Suns. (More likely, you watch some film and go over some things in a shootaround, and don't even have a full practice.) In a seven game series, you can eat and breathe Suns and gear up for their style. This theory looked brilliant through 4 games of the Lakers-Suns series, where the Lakers were winning simply by playing the right style of basketball against the Suns (as if that wasn't the case while the Nash-led Suns had run off 7 straight against the Lakers in the regular season.) Then the Suns go and win game 5, 6 and 7, when my theory should have dictated that the Lakers would be completely acclimated and ready to win. Oh well, there's go that theory.

Of course, it may simply be that the Suns are just that much better than the Lakers, and that the superior talent prevailed in the end. And then again, it may just be about who was making shots. As I pointed out before, while Devean and Sasha were outshooting Barbosa and James Jones, the Lakers were winning. When we returned to normalcy, the Suns won.

One big thing working to the Clippers advantage is that Dunleavy is a very good 'game plan' coach. More than perhaps any coach in the league, Dunleavy will look at what his team needs to do differently against their opponent. (BTW, I'm not always convinced this is a good thing. He takes it to ridiculous extremes, even changing his starting lineup to matchup better. It seems to me that if you are changing what you do to matchup with your opponent, then you've already lost round one - do we not have the confidence in our best lineup to say, 'Hey, you matchup with me!'?) The Clippers will be ready for the Suns, that much is certain.

On the flip side of that, the Suns are EXACTLY the kind of team that has killed the Clippers this year. Teams that can spread the floor and make jump shots from distance have consistently beaten LA this year, because the switching, rotating defense the Clippers employ can keep you away from the rim, but it can't always make it out to the shooters. Being completely healthy at the wings (Ross, Maggette, Mobley and Livingston are all healthy at the same time for the first time this season) is going to help a lot, but the fact remains that the Clippers have suffered against drive and kick teams all year, and the Suns are the drivie-est kickie-est team around.

Do the Suns have an answer for Elton Brand? Certainly not. I found it funny the way the announcers were talking about Lamar Odom punishing Shawn Marion, as if Marion were just recently forced to play power forward. He's played power forward all season long, and in the west, Lamar Odom is a friggin' picnic compared to Brand and Duncan and Dirk and Garnett and Gasol.... Don't get me wrong; Lamar is a major talent and a tough matchup, but he's a significantly better matchup for Marion than half the guys in the Western Conference.

The Clippers will try to limit the Suns fast break points, and if the Denver series is any indication, they should be able to do so. And let's face it - getting back on defense is as basic as it gets. If you're (a) paying attention and (b) hustling, you should be able to get back on D. However, unlike Denver, Phoenix will shoot jump shots, and more specifically 3's, in transition. So it's not enough to get back and protect the basket. Against the Suns, you have got to find their shooters in transition, or they will kill you. In this regard, success in the Denver series has no bearing on the next round.

But every time I try to find a 'key' to this series (Kaman-Diaw is the key, rebounding is the key, transition defense is the key, QRoss' back is the key, turnovers are the key, etc.), I look back at the box scores from the season series and I find out that it simply isn't true (or hasn't been true to date at least.) Shooting is the one and only key, and I fear it is all in the Suns hands. They will win games in which they shoot a high percentage. If they shoot well in enough games, they'll win the series. It's as simple as that.

I'm saying Suns in 7. They shoot better than 50% in 4 games, including game 7.