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NBA Breakdown

In NBA on February 4, 2010 at 5:48 pm

We continue our NBA Breakdown series with a high octane clash between two teams that are right in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race, the Phoenix Suns and the Houston Rockets.

Here’s how it went down…

The Phoenix Suns came into this one on a 5 game road losing streak, and with only one win to show for their travels since the end of November. They didn’t seem like a team low on confidence though, as they blasted their way to an early lead.

Veteran Grant Hill was their early go to option, as he burned the Rockets on a number of break aways. They took advantage of any misses to launch Hill up the court, and quickly racked up 8 points on the fast break. That’s the strength of this team, and if they’re given an opportunity to run, then they will score some big points.

The home side were still yawning and rubbing the sleep from their eyes as the Suns stealthily took a 19-6 lead. The Rockets were clanging their jump shots and managed to miss 14 of their first 16 attempts from the field, which set the tone for their wayward efforts all night. They went six minutes without a score in the 1st quarter, as Russell Brand lookalike Luis Scola and the normally clockwork Shane Battier each went 2 for 7. Point guard Aaron Brooks was coming off a 33 point game against Portland, but with him only hitting 1 of 7, the Rocks were in serious trouble.

They were playing right into their opponents hands by trying to outrun them, and the game began to resemble some kind of celebrity shuttle run as Brooks and the ageless Steve Nash bounced their teams up and down the court. Houston aren’t as well built for this as Nash’s puppets though, and while 6 of the the Suns’ 8 baskets were layups, Brooks’ boys just didn’t have the same kind of quicksilver ball movement. A ‘points in the paint’ differential of 16-4 in favour of the Suns should have persuaded them that things had to change, and their second string began to play a bit tighter, closing the gap to 28-21 at the buzzer.

They kept hustling on the defensive end to kick off the 2nd quarter, forcing the Suns to settle for low percentage shots. Unfortunately, they were giving up far too many offensive boards, and these 2nd chance points saw the lead balloon out to 41-27. With 7 footer Robin Lopez up against 6’6 Chuck Hayes in the centre, the youngster was having a field day. In fact at this stage, the Rockets were being out-rebounded by 26-13, and couldn’t get any kind of grip on proceedings.

They were also jacking up far too many 3 pointers, hitting only 2 of 10 as they continued to sink. Their 2nd unit helped to drag them out though, as they outscored the Suns bench 23-7 to keep them in the game. Backup forward Carl Landry was coming into the game in searing form, averaging 29 pts and 9 rebounds in his last couple of outings, and he kept up his production levels to boost Houston. They were still only shooting 28% from the floor, with Phoenix nailing 49%, and Grant Hill had now merrily frolicked his way to 17 points, 15 of which were layups.

Amare Stoudemire was also being eased into the game, with Nash finding his favourite target on a series of high pick and rolls which the home team had no answer for. Half of Nash’s assists this season have gone to the towering power forward, and any time they needed a bucket, that’s where he looked. Things were going well for Phoenix at the half, as they led by 12, 60-48.

Trevor Ariza tries to put a move on Grant Hill

The half time stats were damning, as the Rockets were being soundly beaten out in every category. Their bench had kept them in it, but the starters needed to get it together if they were to have any chance of slowing the Suns down.

Phoenix always seem to give teams a chance though, and had thrown away five leads of 15 points or more already in the season. They started the second half like they were intent on doing it again, as the previously quiet Trevor Ariza opened up with a fast break dunk and a long 3-ball to energise the home crowd.

Rick Adelman obviously had some harsh words for his players, and they came out in the second half with some crucial adjustments. They were moving the ball more, attacking the rim, and finally denying Stoudemire his free mid-range looks by clogging the paint on those pick and rolls. They forced some early turnovers as their defence began to lock it down, and suddenly the Suns were in the kind of battle of attrition that they hate.

Despite Nash connecting on an outrageous fall-away jumper, it was all Houston as they raced out to a 69-68 lead in the midst of a 16-2 run. Aaron Brooks had finally found his range, and they were playing with a controlled ferocity which saw them finally shutting down the Suns high-powered offense by forcing the ball out of Steve Nash’s hands.

They were also crashing the boards to pick up some big offensive rebounds, and began to dominate in 2nd chance points, 24-8.

The Suns closed with a 9-0 run though, as Nash rallied. He found Channing Frye for a 3, and then sent him a beautiful flip pass in traffic for an uncontested dunk, and the Suns had survived to lead 79-73 entering the 4th.

Both teams looked slightly sluggish at the start of the final quarter, but the Battier, Landry and Ariza continued to come up with some big rebounds for their side. Battier in particular had been enduring a sub-par game, bricking six 3 pointers and unusually getting burned on defence, but he started to step up as Ariza continued to rage. Two consecutive Battier steals and some more clutch shooting from Aaron Brooks dragged them to within a point of the Suns on an 8-0 run, but neither team seemed to want to win.

The hitherto anonymous Jason Richardson threw a crazy pass for the Suns, but the Rocks were missing easy shots, Ariza even muffing a go-ahead dunk. Lopez continued his fine game with another dunk, but Brooks levelled matters with a 3.

The game became a straight shootout between Stoudemire on the Suns side, and Brooks and Landry for the Texans. Landry was having only mixed success in a crowded lane, but Stoudemire was dominating. Even his free throws were exceptional, as he hit a perfect 11/11. He was on five fouls though, and had to be tentative on the defensive end. Suddenly, he’d scored 11 in a row for his side, but Landry kept notching scores in return in an enthralling series of call and response.

The awesome Amare Stoudemire had a huge game for the Suns

As the clock wound ever down, Nash technical allowed Aaron Brooks to score on a 2+1 to level the scores on 97, but the stung Canadian redeemed himself with a huge 3 to leave his team 3 up with just a few ticks remaining. There followed a stunning passage of play, with the home side giving up a backcourt violation, Frye missing a 3, and Lopez mustering a huge block on Landry. It all came down to a jump ball, which Landry came up with, allowing Ariza to nail the game-tying shot. Nash missed a lollipop on the buzzer, and we were headed to overtime.

The Rockets were 3-1 in OT games this year, with the Suns 0-1, but an ice cool Nash revealed that he was still confident. Stoudemire continued to score at will before a smart play from Scola saw him fouled out, but Richardson finally stepped up to take the scoring baton.

He picked up a couple of key baskets to leave the visitors in command, and a late lane violation on Brooks as he tried to retrieve a missed free throw iced the game, with Nash drilling a couple of free throws to give the Suns a highly entertaining 115-111 win.

The Suns finally shook off their away-day torpor, mainly thanks to Stoudemire’s 36 points and Nash’s 16 assists. It was Stoudemire’s 16th double-double of the season as he also claimed 11 rebounds, and Nash continues to be a playmaker par excellence. With Hill and Richardson in the line-up and Leandro Barbosa and Lopez adding some length, they can score with the best of them.

Unfortunately, they won’t challenge for a Championship. Running gunners like this Phoenix side are great to watch, but if they can be reined in then they can’t defend well enough to keep things tight. Defences win Championships, and this side is all about the O.

As for the Rockets, they have some great pieces in place. Aaron Brooks is blossoming, and when Kyle Lowry gets back they can afford to rest him and keep him fresh. Shane Battier remains a lock down defender, while Trevor Ariza will always try his heart out. Scola and Landry are solid role-players too, but the Rockets are badly missing their two stars.

Houston badly miss injured giant Yao Ming

Yao Ming is one of the best centres in the league, adding a delicate shooting touch and dominating rebounding. It remains to be seen how he recovers from his injury though. The inactive Tracy McGrady could be on his way out of Texas, with a deal reportedly being brokered that would take him to Washington. That would clear some cap space, but they could badly do with his explosive presence on the court.

Last year’s second round epic against the Lakers was a high point for this Rockets roster, and unless they can get Yao back or some scoring pieces in place post McGrady, it’s likely to remain so.

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