In defense of the Suns' defense
The Suns can score, sure, but can they play D? As Michael Smith writes, that's what will decide whether they win a title.
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published on April 27, before Game 2 of the Phoenix-Memphis series.
PHOENIX Along with their unconventional style of offense, the Phoenix Suns take what you might call a "Randy Moss" attitude toward defense.
They play when they want to. Well, when they have to.
"When we need to lock down and hold teams," veteran guard Jim Jackson said Tuesday, two days after the Suns' 114-103 win over Memphis in Game 1, "we've stepped up and done that."
With Phoenix up 104-91 and 4½ minutes left Sunday night, Quentin Richardson, best known for his long-distance bombing, might have been excused by the 18,422 on hand at America West for stepping out of the way of a two-on-one break and conceding a layup to the Grizzlies' Jason Williams. Williams had jacked Steve Nash at the other end, and he and Stromile Swift had the advantage over Richardson.
Let's put that on play on [PAUSE] and go back to something Suns head coach Mike D'Antoni said prior to the game about his team, which allowed a league-high 103.3 points per contest during the regular season. D'Antoni was talking about the need for the Suns to be "active" on the defensive end.
"They know that's where we're going to win or lose," he said.
[PLAY] Richardson forced Swift to give up the ball as he approached the basket, and then made what could have been an easy finish just difficult enough for Williams to miss it. Richardson collected the rebound and got it ahead to Nash, who threw up an alley-oop to Amare Stoudemire, who got the crowd up when he threw it down over Brian Cardinal, who fouled Stoudemire, leading to an old-fashioned three-point play. Phoenix went up by 16, its biggest lead of the night.
A minute and change later, Richardson drew a charge on James Posey, again robbing Memphis of any possible momentum.
Look, the Suns obviously aren't the Spurs. Or the Pistons. Or the Bulls or Rockets or Heat or Mavericks or even the Grizzlies several of the 13 teams who finished ahead of Phoenix in the all-important field-goal percentage defense category. But that statistic deserves a little perspective: the difference between the Suns, who allowed opponents to connect on .445 of their shots, and Dallas, tied for seventh with the Timberwolves at .438 percent, is seven one-thousandths of a point. So we're talking about a Suns team that was a fraction from finishing in the top 10.
Phoenix won seven of nine games decided by three or fewer points. You don't do that without coming up with key stops like the ones Richardson produced down the stretch.
We all know it's the Suns' offense, the highest-scoring in the league, that makes them a favorite to win the NBA championship. Not their defense. They're not walking around spitting out the cliché that "defense wins championships." But they know theirs is going to have a big say in whether they win it all.
"If we D it up and we rebound, then we are going to be pretty good," D'Antoni said after Game 1, in which his team held a 48-46 rebound advantage. "As everyone says, the key is defensive rebounding, and sometimes we're relaxed and sometimes we have mental breakdowns, but this style of play does not dictate or say that you can't play defense. It has nothing to do with that.
"There's no reason why we can't run and play good defense and rebound."
There's certainly plenty reason to do so.
Phoenix's up-and-down, random, freelancing offense feeds off the Suns' defense. It's like this: A transition game is most effective when the defense doesn't have a chance to set itself or match up properly. After Game 1, Memphis center Lorenzen Wright talked about the difficulty the Grizzlies had in transition with getting correct matchups on the Suns. And it's a lot easier to run off missed shots than it is off baskets, and an opponent is more likely to misfire on jumpers than on layups, Williams' aforementioned miss notwithstanding. The Suns' defensive objective is to collapse the middle and make opponents settle for the J, betting that they won't make enough to beat them.
There wasn't a single foul called in the first quarter Sunday night, when the Suns exploded for 39 points on 67-percent shooting. That's how they like it. Phoenix wants to avoid fouls because if the other team is at the line, the Suns have to walk it up the floor, thus slowing the pace of the game.
Therefore, in the remainder of the series, Memphis needs to take it to the basket instead of settling for the outside shot. Pau Gasol and company need to be more aggressive inside and force Phoenix to send them to the line.
Bottom line: The defense has been good enough all year for Phoenix to outscore opponents by a healthy average of 7.1 points on the way to compiling the league's best record. In defense of the Suns' defense, that's all that counts, the final score, whether it's the regular season or the playoffs.
"We're a lot better defensive team than people think we are," assistant coach Alvin Gentry said. "When we've had to come up with stops we've been able to.
"Defense does win championships, but it has to be there at the other end, too. I've yet to see someone win the championship game 2-0. Defense is great, but you still have to put the ball in the basket."
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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