Hmm… maybe that line wasn’t so ridiculous.
The Suns are clearly a much better team right now than the Warriors. Yes, the Warriors got a horrible whistle in the first half, which makes it hard to win against anybody. Yes, they shot 42%, which shouldn’t happen often. Yes, they turned the ball over 22 times against a defense that is among the worst in the league, which is uncharacteristic. And yes, it was a road game. But still it can’t be denied that the Suns were the far better team.
Which kind of took me by surprise. Why? Because at mid-season of last year, the Warriors were clearly a better team than the Suns. I’m referring to the moment in February when the two teams played a home and away series. The Warriors dominated the Suns in the home game. In the away game the next day, on a road back-to-back, the Warriors were tied with the Suns with a couple of minutes left in the third quarter when Andris Biedrins suffered the first of the severe ankle sprains that effectively ended his season. Only then were the Suns able to separate themselves for the victory.
So what’s changed? Let’s begin with what’s different about the Suns:
- Alvin Gentry as head coach instead of Terry Porter. Defensive genius Terry Porter was hired by Steve Kerr to pound a square peg into a round hole. And pound he did. His attempt to turn Steve Nash and this Suns team into a walk-it-up half-court system built around Shaquille O’Neal was one of greatest basketball crimes in history. Comparable only to what defensive genius Mike Brown is doing to Lebron in Cleveland. With an honorable mention to what defensive genius Nate McMillan is doing to the team of wondrous athletes assembled on the Blazers. Did you know that the Blazers were dead last in fast break points last season? (And did you know that Channing Frye couldn’t get off the bench for McMillan?) Alvin Gentry has the Suns back to running and gunning, and letting Nash run the offense. That makes all the difference.
- Channing Frye for Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq is completely washed up, and was a horrible fit for the system. Deadeye Frye is perfect for the system.
- Steve Nash. With the ball-and-chain removed from his ankle, Nash played like a 2-time MVP. His greatness can mask a whole bunch of flaws in his team on any given night.
- No J-Rich. I’m talking about this game. J-Rich’s gunning hurt the Suns in that first game last year. He was under better control the second game, but against the Warriors in particular, I think Barbosa is a better option for the Suns. Barbosa makes the Suns so much faster, he drives the basketball, and his size isn’t a liability against this year’s Warrior’s backcourt.
What’s different about the Warriors? Where to start? I’m just going to free-associate, rather than rank these points:
- Chemistry. Its early in the season, and the Warriors are working in a rookie point guard, but there is simply no chemistry right now. Whether it has to do with simple unfamiliarity, mismatched pieces, injuries, disgruntlement or a mixture of all four remains to be seen. Other than Curry, the players on this team are not “playing well with others.”
- Point-Monta. In last years matchup, Monta played but was not running the team. That was left to Crawford and Jackson, and sadly they did a much better job. Monta is simply doing a lousy job running this team. He is failing to look for his teammates, and forcing his offense. And when Curry leaves the floor, the team has fallen into the abyss.
- Turiaf. Rony sat out training camp with what was revealed to be a slightly torn cartilage. He came up lame on the same leg tonight. If Turiaf is out for an extended time, the Warriors are in trouble.
- Randolph. In the rotation now, wasn’t last year. Not sure if the injury affected his play tonight, but he looks like he’s not yet ready for prime-time. He has no offensive game right now. When you combine that with a strong desire to look for his own shot, you get a player that hurts his team. He’s playing selfishly and out-of-control, and if that keeps up he’s going to be picking splinters out of his butt.
- Morrow. In the rotation now, wasn’t last year. Once again Morrow found himself matched up against the opposing team’s best defender, and the result was not pretty. The Suns played him with Grant Hill. Many thought Monta’s comment to the press yesterday that Morrow needs to work harder to get open reflected a bone-headed selfishness. There was nonetheless a grain of truth to it. Teams have done their scouting, and they are blanketing Morrow. Every time he catches the ball they are right in his face. And he’s struggled. It remains to be seen whether at 6’5″ and no athleticism he can get his shot off against teams that are focused on him.
- Morrow. Now I’m talking about the defensive end of the court. Barbosa simply lit him on fire and roasted marshmallows on him in the third quarter. If Morrow can’t defend better than what we saw tonight, he will be a sharp-shooting role player off the bench, and nothing more, for the rest of his career.
- Private Jackson. Jack’s role on this team has changed in a big way. The offense is no longer running through him, and it is a long time between touches for him. He’s also being rested far more often than last year. And, he hasn’t been asked to guard the other team’s best scorer in either of the first two games. So it’s completely natural that one of the big impact players on the Warriors has had next to no impact so far. Right? I sure hope that’s the case, and not a sign of something worse.
I’ll end, as is my wont, on a positive note:
Stephen Curry was taken to master class by Steve Nash tonight. Still, I loved what I saw from the rookie, on both ends of the court. He gave tremendous effort on Nash all night, and seemed preternaturally intelligent in his positioning. Nash didn’t have a great shooting night, and I credit Curry with that. The out-of-this-world 20 assists I lay at the doorstep of Curry’s teammates.
On offense, I again thought he was spectacular. He played with poise and control, initiated the offense well, made a couple of beautiful dishes, but also showed something new: the deep jumper off the dribble. I can’t believe the talent I see in this kid. As a Don Nelson fan, I watched most of the Mavericks games in the Nellie era. I watched Steve Nash play his first season under Nellie, which was his third in the NBA. What my disbelieving eyes are telling me is this:
Stephen Curry is better, right now, than Steve Nash was in his third NBA season.