GAME TIME: Bobcats 114, Suns 109 (OT) This particular matchup is the NBA's version of the irresistible force versus the immovable object. That's because Phoenix scores 109.9 points per game, tops in the league, while Charlotte yields only 93.1, also the NBA's best.
The game also provided prime evidence of what makes each of these teams so effective in their respective specialties.
The key figure is, of course, Steve Nash. He can pull-and-shoot on the run -- which is precisely how he bagged two of his five 3-pointers. Moreover, three of his nine assists resulted from incredibly accurate long lead passes -- a skill of his that's unsurpassed by any of his peers. To take fullest advantage of this skill, several of Nash's teammates looked to run out as soon as the Bobcats fired up a long-range shot. Jason Richardson, Jared Dudley and even Robin Lopez were the Suns' main cherry-pickers.
The Suns are most dangerous on the run. They'll take the ball out of the net, look for Nash, and then get out and go. Once Nash carries the ball across the time line, he's usually presented with a variety of high screens -- brush-screens, double-high-posts, and an occasional double-screen. Sometimes a screener will fan -- Channing Frye -- and sometimes they'll execute a diagonal cut and set a down-screen on the weak side. But normally the Suns look to screen/roll with Lopez and Amare Stoudemire, both of whom can bury mid-range jumpers.
Yet as long as Nash maintains control of the ball, the action never stops. He'll turn the corner, draw the nearest wing defender and then pass to the now-open wingman. Or else Nash will simply drive and kick, a favorite maneuver that results in dozens of uncontested 3-balls for his teammates. Indeed, Phoenix hoisted up 34 bombs, with 15 of them dropping through the hoop. The Suns average nine 3's per game, second only to the Magic.
If Nash can find an open lane, he also looks to dribble the ball along the baseline and under the basket. In so doing, he forces all of the defenders to turn away from the players they're guarding and focus their full attention on him. The result is more open shots for everybody. And whenever Nash's dribble lives, his teammates are forever cutting, curling and/or moving to vacant spaces.
Sometimes Nash -- and Goran Dragic -- will give up the ball, fake a dive-cut off a high screen, then simply step back, receive a pass, and catch and shoot.
When they must employ their half-court sets, Nash often makes a perimeter pass, then goes through several possible maneuvers that allow him to receive the ball in an optimum attack position. For example, he'll cut along the foul lane, then use a staggered screen to come up, catch, then shoot or go.
At least 30 percent of their half-court sets involve double high-posts, meaning two players come above the free-throw line to set screens. This enables Nash to use a screen going either way. Plus a pass to either one of the high-posters initiates another series of screens, cuts and cut-backs. Lopez does a much better job of sealing his defender and being available for the high-post pass than does Stoudemire.
The Suns didn't run many isolations: one for Richardson that eventuated in his stepping out of bounds on a baseline drive, several 1-2-2 open sets for Nash and several foul-line isos for Stoudemire -- who was so determined to take full advantage of these opportunities that he once tried to drive hoopward while being defended by five Bobcats. Stoudemire missed the shot, but he also scored a layup in a 1-on-4 situation.
With Nash setting the example, the Suns almost always make the extra pass -- Stoudemire being the notable exception. And it's Nash who generally hits the clutch shots -- a big-time 3-ball in the last minute of regulation, quickly followed by a running lefty hook.
But the Suns have to move in order to groove. Their run-and-gun game plan is designed to wear down their opponents. To beat Phoenix, the other guys have to be willing to run full speed for at least 48 minutes. The bottom line is that the Suns' race-horse style challenges their opponents' will to win.
The Suns shot 57 percent and scored 33 points in the first quarter. But they only tallied 65 more points over the course of the following three quarters and finished the game shooting only 44.8 percent.
After getting blitzed from the get-go, here's how the Bobcats amped up their defense.
Attending to Nash was their first priority, and they used several strategies to do so.
After the Bobcats scored, the player nearest to Nash jumped between him and the in-bounder, thereby denying him the ball. This forced another player to carry the ball across the time line or made Nash run hither-and-yon to free himself -- which in turn allowed the Bobcats enough time to get set on defense.
Raymond Felton frequently picked up Nash at three-quarter-court. This forced Nash to cross over, recross, and/or turn his back to Felton. In so doing, precious seconds ticked off the shot clock.
The Bobcats generally executed aggressive double-teams whenever Nash came off of a high screen. This often served to push Nash farther away from the basket than he wanted to be and disrupted the Suns' spacing.
Sometimes, switches were in order when Nash used a high screen. As the screener subsequently rolled to the basket looking to post-up what had been Nash's defender, the Bobcats made another switch with the strong-side wing defender assuming responsibility for the big man.
In screen-fades with Frye, Dudley or Richardson, the Bobcats still doubled Nash and allowed this trio to launch 3-balls. This trio combined to shoot 9-21 from deep, or 42.7 percent. Advantage Phoenix.
When Nash (or more often Dragic) turned his back on his defender in the frontcourt, a double-teamer rushed over to attack him from behind.
Flash double-teams were also in effect whenever the ball was carried into any of the four front-court corners. Dragic had some difficulty making accurate escape passes in these circumstances. Whatever the immediate outcome, this defensive tactic usually clipped 3-5 seconds off the shot clock.
The Bobcats' weak-to-strong-side interior rotations were quick, coordinated and precise whenever Nash came off a screen and looked for the roller.
Sometimes Nash's defender overplayed him on the screen-side, thereby forcing him to help. Otherwise, the Bobcats sought to deny each and every entry wing and pivot pass with great success. Stoudemire didn't work to establish adequate receiving position on the high post, so pass-denial forced him farther out -- which effectively ruined the spacing of the Suns' offensive sequences.
Post players were often fronted, and alert weakside help provided. Indeed, a pair of layups by Stoudemire and Lopez constituted the only post-up scores registered by Phoenix.
Although Phoenix managed to grab 12 offensive rebounds, five of these came on one sequence. Overall, Charlotte maintained firm control of its defensive glass -- and rebounding is, after all, the last act of defense.
What else did Charlotte accomplish on the uphill end of the court?
Made good close-outs on open perimeter shooters. Hustled in transition defense. Jammed the middle on ball-penetrations. And demonstrated a willingness -- if not an eagerness -- to run with Phoenix.
In the previous meeting of these ball clubs 10 days earlier, the Bobcats enjoyed even more defensive success, winning 125-99 in Charlotte.
All of which proves the following:
The best aspect of Charlotte's game plan is more effective than the best aspect of Phoenix's game plan.
The worst aspect of Charlotte's game plan (scoring 94.2 ppg, 28th in the league) is better than the worst aspect of Phoenix's game plan (giving up 108 ppg, 29th).
And, above all, having a superior defense usually trumps having a superior offense.
If you have a question or comment for Charley Rosen, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and he may respond in a future column.