- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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It was, until Christmas comes, the most anticipated game of the season so far.
It really was.
It was a matchup that appeared on the ESPN schedule before the season started -- really -- and which convened the league's foremost trendsetters. The Suns and Sonics met Friday night at KeyArena as the two hottest teams in the new NBA, where smallish underdogs that attack the basket and pressure the opposition relentlessly can sprint to starts of 19-3 and 18-4.
It was just six months ago that the Detroit Pistons won the championship with defense and depth and no clear-cut star. Yet you haven't seen much copycatting of the Pistons, largely because of the edict from commissioner David Stern to referees to crack down on hand and forearm contact on the perimeter.
So, while Detroit struggles to adjust to the restrictions placed on handsy defending -- and with Dallas undoubtedly wondering if letting Steve Nash go to acquire Erick Dampier was a wise move in a climate that suddenly welcomes the run-and-gun approach -- Phoenix and Seattle are reveling in the virtues of penetration and open-court whimsy when they tip off an exciting rush to the end of the calendar year.
Just over a week before the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant reunion on Christmas Day in Los Angeles as well as the first Pistons-Pacers encounter since the teams' brawl last month, the treat was ours. To tip off an exciting rush to the end of the calendar year, it was Phoenix 112, Seattle 110.
A compare-and-contrast breakdown follows to give you a guide to what happens from here:
START TO THE SEASON
No team in the league has a better road mark than the Suns' 10-1 away record, but Phoenix has played the NBA's easiest schedule to date based on Jeff Sagarin's noted strength-of-schedule rating system.
And while that 20-3 overall record is gaudier than anyone in the desert dared to dream, Phoenix was widely considered a viable playoff contender in the West after signing Nash away from Dallas.
Seattle? You'd be pressed to find anyone who picked the Sonics to make the playoffs after an offseason in which so many other teams in the West made major upgrades.
The case for continuity? In amassing its 18-5 launch, Seattle has two victories against the Spurs already -- one at home and the second in San Antonio -- and road victories at Denver, Minnesota and Dallas.
Rashard Lewis is creeping into All-Star contention, but that doesn't nearly narrow the gap in this comparison. ESPN's George Karl recently labeled the Phoenix front line as the best in the West, and the production it's getting from Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and Quentin Richardson makes the argument pretty compelling, even though the Suns don't start a traditional center.
Richardson (6-5, 238) is a solidly built small forward who has always played bigger than he is. Marion is a small forward masquerading as a power forward and pulling it off -- in the mighty West, no less -- ranking third in the league in rebounding (11.9) and 10th in blocks (2.23) at a mere 6-7. And Stoudemire? "He's just turned into a monster," said one Eastern Conference scout. "If he continues to show he can make a 15-footer, he's going to be almost unstoppable. And the thing I like most about him is that he likes to play. You can see it when you watch him -- he's not just going to ride his talent. He's worth the price of admission to come watch him play."
For playoff purposes, odds are the Suns will eventually need a dependable banger to play alongside Stoudemire, who insists that we're still not allowed to refer to him as a center. The Suns are vulnerable defensively in the middle and on the boards, and Stoudemire's down-low game remains on the (very) raw side. Yet in the regular season, on a one-night basis, Phoenix can cover its weaknesses with all that athleticism. As Nash likes to say, his high-flying teammates often look like they're playing the video game NBA Jam out there.
The gap is far narrower here, with Allen in peak form and Luke Ridnour, a Nash starter kit, moving the ball like no one else on Seattle's roster can. The confidence McMillan has in Ridnour, after a trying rookie season, is a huge factor in the Sonics' early success.
Nash, though, is arguably the league's MVP at the quarter pole. His drive-and-kick game has never been more effective -- with an assist to the tighter officiating on the perimeter -- and the other Suns are quick to credit his arrival with their dramatic improvement.
Even the cocksure Stoudemire, a steady source of brash statements all season, attributes his jump in scoring (to fourth in the league at 25.8 points per game) to Nash's penetration. "Steve makes the game so much easier," Stoudemire says. "All the easy baskets are him."
The Suns' athletes, likewise, make the game easier for Nash because they're always flying around the rim. It's not like Dallas, where his passes led to jump shots. Nash's dishes result in layups or dunks now. Or open 3-pointers for guys like Joe Johnson, another unheralded contributor in the Suns' rise. Johnson is merely chipping in 16.3 points on average, while shooting a heady 46 percent from the floor -- and 54.5 percent from long distance.
"He's been very good -- quietly," said another East scout. "Johnson is more versatile than Marion or Richardson. If they don't have him, they struggle a little bit because he gives them another good ballhandler."
No comparison here.
The Suns have virtually no bench, which threatens their overall outlook for the season as much as anything else. Nash, logging 34 minutes a game, gets the most rest of any starter. Phoenix has to be worried about a long-term injury to any starter or simply what the 82-game grind might do to its first five.
The Sonics, by contrast, bring three of their most important players off the bench. Antonio Daniels ably backs up Ridnour as the league's No. 2 in assist-to-turnover ratio (4.45-to-1). Vladimir Radmanovic is the third long-ball threat who helps Seattle keep the floor spaced, and more than one scout reports that his defensive effort has improved noticeably.
Fortson, meanwhile, unexpectedly ranks as one of the impact acquisitions of the summer, injecting a nasty edge the Sonics were lacking. Like starter Reggie Evans, Fortson (generously listed at 6-8) averages better than one rebound for every three minutes on the floor, helping Seattle jump from the bottom five to the top five in rebound margin. The Sonics, on average, are getting six possessions per game more than last season, with all those deadly shooters to profit.
"The way Seattle shoots the ball, to also be a great offensive rebounding team is really impressive," said one Western Conference scout.
Good luck picking between them right now.
The Suns' Mike D'Antoni is the envy of many colleagues because he has Nash as his coach on the floor, but D'Antoni also has to deal with the league's youngest roster. Even after signing Bo Outlaw, Phoenix sports an average age under 25.
McMillan might face even more challenges, given the eight free agents-to-be on Seattle's similarly youthful roster and his own uncertain status. Despite knowing that Sonics owner Howard Schultz won't consider an extension until after the season, McMillan has inspired the current cast to bond against the selfishness that tends to rip apart teams when so many guys are playing for the next contract. He also has quickly inspired confidence in a group that got throttled by 30 points on Opening Night against the L.A. Clippers.
McMillan would probably win a Coach of the Year vote if the ballots were turned in today, but I'm guessing D'Antoni would be second.
It's not just the points-per-game reading (109.4) or the scoring margin (12.3 per game) or their ability to offset the lack of a post presence by constantly pushing the ball (even after made baskets) to create open shots. It's what has become known around the league as "spurtability" that makes Phoenix even more dangerous offensively than a Seattle club that hits the opposition with the combination of a 3-point hailstorm and ceaseless ball and player movement in the halfcourt.
"They have the best spurtability capability in the league," said the first East scout. "No one can extend a lead or put a game out of reach like (Phoenix) can. You think you're playing pretty evenly with them and all of sudden, wham. They just ran off 15 points."
Besides rebounding, this is Seattle's major area of improvement.
McMillan, in his fourth season, has been longing for a team that would at least remember that the floor has two ends. No one's confusing the Sonics with the Spurs or the Pistons or even the Sonics of McMillan's era, but they have two active point guards defensively (Ridnour and Daniels) and 30 fouls' worth of eager front-line defense: Evans, Jerome James, Radmanovic, Fortson and Collison. Fortson, especially, has added the defense-mindedness McMillan had been seeking for so long, and the team's commitment to making a better effort at this end (Radmanovic is a prime example) means McMillan doesn't have to rely as much on gimmick defenses as he used to.
Both teams are going to hear the same question for the next 60 games: Can they keep this up? Both teams will be reminded daily that success in the playoffs demands an interior presence at both ends and the ability to win games played in the 80s, not in the hundreds.
If you force us to choose one, Phoenix gets our vote simply because it has five top-shelf options on offense, increasing the likelihood that it can play its style in the postseason. It doesn't hurt that Nash has the experience of quarterbacking Dallas to the conference finals in 2002 playing a similar style.
Seattle has a more established pecking order offensively, but its ability to make this magic last beyond April depends on Allen and Lewis producing consistently as a tandem.
Either way, it's tough to envision either team's defense winning many games, and typically that's a playoff requirement.
It's an expensive future, after paying big dollars to Marion, Nash and Richardson and with Stoudemire and Johnson awaiting contract extensions. Yet Phoenix can elect to keep that fivesome together and continue to scour the landscape for reasonably priced role players to fill out its empty bench, or ultimately move a swingman (Marion, Richardson or Johnson) in exchange for size or depth.
Seattle's options are much more limited because Schultz has shown little willingness to spend. No matter what happens during the season, the Sonics have to address the free-agent status of Allen, McMillan and general manager Rick Sund before they can even plot a down-the-road course. Which is why McMillan is constantly reminding his players that they better treasure the present.
1dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann