GAME TIME: Suns 123, Nuggets 101
For sure there were postseason seeding considerations at stake here. But there was something even more significant to be gleaned from the proceedings, i.e., how prepared were the Suns and the Nuggets to engage in the intense second-season competition.
Let's start with a look at what's right in Phoenix:
? Amar'e Stoudemire is at the top of his game. He seems to be completely recovered from his knee surgery and is running the court like a guard. In addition, he's now able to make the quick, tight spins with the ball that characterized his game before his knee was damaged. And, of course, Stoudemire reacts brilliantly whenever Steve Nash penetrates.
? Even when he receives the ball in the low post, Stoudemire likes to turn and face. Although he's almost impossible to contain when defended straight-up, it's extremely dangerous to send a double-team at him. That's because after his turn he can easily see all of his teammates, and can therefore pick out whoever's been left unguarded and make the appropriate pass -- something that he's been somewhat reluctant to do in the past.
? Stoudemire has also become more adept at coming from the weak-side to block shots.
? Nash, of course, is a super-duper passer, creator, and shot-maker. He's a relatively small engine that makes Phoenix's offense run with power, speed, guile and maximum efficiency.
? Because they know Nash will feed them cookies if they're open, his teammates are in constant motion -- screening, rolling, cutting, fanning, curling and filling lanes in early offense.
? The Suns' exceptional long-distance dialers make opponents pay dearly for clogging the middle on ball-penetration, and for switching on high screen/rolls. Also, Nash easily makes chumps of big men who wind up trying to guard him on the perimeter.
? Jared Dudley's 3-point prowess sets up the rest of his hard-driving offense. Moreover, he's also a plus-defender.
? Channing Frye's accurate bombs spread the floor and keep the middle open for Stoudemire.
? Jason Richardson is another bull's-eye shooter, if more streaky than either Dudley or Frye.
? Louis Amundson provides manic defensive energy off the bench.
? Goran Dragic has developed into an excellent backup for Nash. Dragic's shooting, scoring, and ability to organize the offense has been so good that Leandro Barbosa has been relegated to marginal playing time.
? Grant Hill is a steadying force and an excellent auxiliary scoring option.
? Above all, the Suns are peaking at just the right time.
Naturally, there are also weaknesses in the Suns game plan:
? Their perimeter defense is shoddy.
? In particular, Frye, Dragic, Richardson and Nash are inferior defenders.
? Stoudemire can be controlled to some degree if he's fronted when he sets up down low.
In sum, no matter where they're positioned when the playoffs commence, none of the other higher-ranked teams are looking forward to playing the Suns.
There are several positives that are evident as the Nuggets prepare to participate in the playoffs:
? Carmelo Anthony is the most versatile scorer in the NBA. He's absolutely unstoppable when played straight-up, but he's also learned how, when, and where to pass when he's doubled. And two-timing 'Melo is a risky tactic because so many of Denver's guards and wings are such dangerous shooters.
? Chauncey Billups has lost a half-step, but he's still a reliable clutch shooter, and he can also overpower just about any other guard he's matched against.
? J. R. Smith is an explosive point-maker who is capable of scoring 30-plus against any given defender in any given game.
? Arron Afflalo plays hustling, aggressive defense.
? Nene is a powerhouse when he receives the ball on the left box.
? Anthony Carter and Kenyon Martin play quick-handed defense.
? The Nuggets have as much, or even more, sheer talent as any other team in the NBA.
At the same time, the Nuggets have several flaws that must be corrected in a hurry for them to be competitive when the playoffs begin in four days.
? Their offense depends almost exclusively on individualistic efforts.
? Consequently the ball is rarely reversed, and proficient defenses can cut the attack zone in half.
? Yes, he's coming back from a serious knee injury and he's a long way from being in game shape, but even when healthy K-Mart has always been an overrated defender. He's especially vulnerable when guarding an opponent who can turn, face and go.
? Nene is always in foul trouble, and there's no adequate backup in the middle -- only Chris Andersen (who can't score) and the undersized Malik Allen (who can't defend).
? Their defense is soft and slow to react.
? Denver's only attempt to play aggressive defense is to double-team a wing, but their baseline help is so poor that if the trapped player escapes, one pass invariably leads to a layup.
? The players as a whole lack poise and get overly emotional when close calls go against them.
? This particular game constituted a must-win for the Nuggets, and yet they demonstrated a remarkable lack of focus and an absence of intensity.
? They seemed dispirited, as though they really didn't believe in themselves.
? In the past several weeks, Denver has demonstrated that they are light years away from being legitimate championship contenders.
The Nuggets have enough talent to scare any first-round opponent, but they still lack the maturity, the unselfish game plan, and the defense to put up a fight for seven games.
For Phoenix, the regular season ends at just the right time. For Denver, the regular season ends about a month too soon.