Over the past week we’ve tried to give as much insight as we could on the upcoming WCF match up with the Suns. But, in order to get more of an insider’s perspective I exchanged emails with Michael Schwartz of the excellent Suns blog Valley of the Suns. Michael was kind enough to answer my questions on topics such as the Suns defense, Steve Nash’s longevity, and who he has winning the series. When you’re done here, you can go read the answers I provided to his questions over at his site (represent us FB&G’ers well). Thank you to Michael for taking the time.
Recently, much has been said of the Suns’ improved defense. I mentioned it myself in my preview of this series of when the Lakers have the ball. However, some question if the improvement is real or if it’s exaggerated. What have you seen from the Suns on that side of the ball? Are they a better defensive team than earlier this year? Than in years past?
They certainly are better on both counts, but then again that’s not saying much. One of the biggest differences is that Grant Hill (believe it or not) has stepped up as a legitimate wing stopper in these playoffs. Andre Miller didn’t do much when the Suns switched Hill onto him after Miller shredded Richardson in Game 1, and Ginobili was terrible from the field (a combined 4-for-19) in two of the games of the series thanks in large part to Hill. Getting Robin Lopez back should also help a lot. He’s without question the Suns’ best interior defender. He defends the paint and can at least put a body on Bynum/Gasol better than anybody else on this roster. The other big difference is the bench. While Nash and Amare will never be confused with all-world defenders, the bench unit defends very well across the board. It’s kind of the Suns’ defensive lineup. There’s also been an attitude adjustment. From Day 1 Gentry has preached taking pride in defense, and the Suns have bought in. Stoudemire has talked about defense being fun for the first time in his career, and Hill has spoken about how the Suns actually talk about needing to get stops in huddles. That might sound obvious for most teams, but that’s not exactly how a D’Antoni huddle used to go.
It’s been reported that Robin Lopez will make his return in this series. What are your expectations for him in this series considering he’s coming off an injury and hasn’t played since late March?
Suns people have said it all along, if you’re expecting Robin Lopez to be your savior then you’re in trouble. But he will certainly help. Being that he hasn’t played in a game since March 26 I expect some rust, particularly at the offensive end, but the Suns don’t need him to score. Offense is always a bonus with Lopez. I do expect some of that rustiness to translate into a propensity to pick up quick fouls (a problem for Lopez to being with), but I think he’ll definitely help the Suns on the boards and be one of their better options on the Lakers’ bigs. I do question how many minutes he can play effectively, though.
You asked me if I thought Kobe was still in his prime. That question got me thinking about Nash and his continued strong play after many had expected him to start to decline by this point in his career. How much longer do you think he can perform at this level?
I really think he can play at a high level like this for two more years, at which time he will be 38. Nash just enjoyed the best season ever for a 35-plus point guard bar none, and aside from a blip in stats during the first half of 2008-09 when Terry Porter slowed things done, he hasn’t slipped from his 2004-10 prime despite turning 36 back in February. What he’s doing is really unprecedented, certainly from a statistical standpoint but also from the fact that he’s the No. 1 guy on a conference finalist at 36 despite having never before reached the Finals. Nothing Nash does surprises me at this point, and I think he can still be this guy for another couple years and possibly still an effective player a few years after that as the transition to the Dragic era begins.
Speaking of Nash, everyone understands that he and Amar’e are what make this team go; they’re the stars and get much of the praise when discussing the Suns’ success. However, who would you say is the next most important player to the Suns?
Jason Richardson. When he scores 20 or more points, the Suns are 31-4 this season, including 5-0 in the postseason. The reason is because, like you said, you know that Nash and Amar’e will play like stars every night. When the Suns get that third star offensively, they’re just deadly, especially considering they are normally flanked by two more shooters that you can’t leave open. When J-Rich is hitting his threes and very involved in the offense, the Suns’ offense is virtually unstoppable. Another name to keep in mind: Jared Dudley. It doesn’t always show in the box score, but according to advanced stats guru Wayne Winston, the Suns are +95 points in 234 minutes with Dudley in and only +4 in 246 minutes when he’s out. Of course, some of this has to do with the fact that they are terrible with Jarron Collins and he didn’t play much with Dudley, but that’s still a staggering statistic to me.
When I’ve discussed this series, I’ve mentioned that I think the combination of the Lakers big men and Kobe will put enormous stress on the Suns defensive schemes. Do you agree with this sentiment? Is there a particular match up that concerns you the most?
I think those guys put enormous stress on anybody’s defensive schemes, and I absolutely agree with that sentiment as it comes to the Suns. Really I’m most concerned about Gasol. Amare and Frye are obviously better on the offensive end, and Amundson might be too small to do a good job on Pau. Then there’s Robin, but we don’t know how many minutes he’ll play or even how effective he’ll be. I’d expect to see some zone principles once in a while as well as some doubling, but unlike in the Portland series when the Suns sometimes just loaded up on Aldridge, you obviously can’t do that against Pau and the Lakers. So yeah, I think defending Pau (and really Bynum and Odom, too) will be a big headache for Phoenix.
On the flip side of that coin, what match up do you have the most confidence in?
I’m confident that the Suns will bait Ron Artest into shooting threes, and you know how that often turns out. What the Suns have done really well defensively in the first two rounds is forcing the players whom they want to shoot the ball to beat them. Against Portland that meant containing Aldridge and Miller but letting bench players and their weaker starters shoot it. Against San Antonio that meant loading up on Ginobili and forcing Jefferson and McDyess to take jumpers. In that same vein I would expect Artest (and really Fisher, too) to get some jump shots. If Artest is feeling it then the Suns are screwed, but I’d certainly rather see that than easy hoops for Pau and Bynum.
Finally, who do you have advancing to the Finals? And as a bonus, who do you think is coming out of the East?
Well, the easy answer is I think the Orlando Magic will be in the Finals. They’ve steamrolled everybody so far, and I just don’t see any way that Boston is good enough to beat them four times (not that I thought the Celtics would take down the LeBrons either, of course). At the risk of being skewered for homerism, I’m picking Suns in 6. A lot of the advanced stats favor the Suns (which is why Hollinger and Winston are taking Phoenix in 6 as well), and the Suns are playing as well as anybody in the league right now, and that was without Robin Lopez. They play so well together as a team and have such great chemistry. Then there’s the fact that Nash and Hill know this could be their last chance at a Finals and the fact that teams naturally don’t possess that same killer instinct after winning it the previous year. All that makes me thing the Suns will pull the upset.
Thanks again to Michael for taking the time to answer my questions. His insight on the Suns will surely help us when looking at the upcoming games in the series.