Well, I’m an idiot. I wrote a bunch of bullet points during the third and early fourth quarters, before the Nets became AWESOME CONQUERORS. Somehow, I failed to anticipate them following an 18 point quarter with a 43 point quarter. Here are those, rest of the thoughts to follow:
– Shaq looked moderately better tonight than he did against the Heat, but the only real reason for the difference was Steve Nash, who unlike apparently everyone else on the Suns roster can throw a decent entry pass. The Nets defended the big man the same way the Heat did, largely fronting him with Brook Lopez. They did send double teams much more quickly than the Heat did because Shaq was getting more touches in decent positions.
– Bobby Simmons was covered for large chunks of time by Steve Nash, which is a PG renowned for bad defense trying to guard a big small forward. Simmons’ final line: 24 MP, 2-8, 1-5 from 3. 5 points. I believe he only posted Nash up once or twice, which is not a good sign; neither is that Lawrence Frank was the one to move away from the mismatch, pulling Simmons for Jarvis Hayes.
– Yi Jianlian vs. Ryan Anderson is an interesting contrast to watch on the court. If you want to understand the term “basketball IQ”, and why it can’t really be taught, watch this pair for a game or two. Anderson has good anticipation and is a pesky, ball-slapping defender without gambling excessively. He moves well on the court especially without the ball, sensing where to be in order to give the ball the option to move to him, and his athleticism is good enough for his shot to make him a threat. Yi, meanwhile…well, some men you just can’t reach. There was a stretch of this game in the first half when, in a span of 4 minutes, he managed to botch two handoffs, wildly overpersue several non-shooters on the perimeter and collide with his own man trying to defend a screen/roll. All night he would ball watch and pay no attention to his man when his man was moving without the rock, and that man was AMARE STOUDEMIRE. This led to several colossal dunks, as did Yi’s habit of alternating between charging the man and getting blown past on the dribble, and laying 6 feet off and watching an easy jumper go it. Oh, and on one play in the 4th quarter he misjudged a screen/roll so badly that he, zealously closing down the man setting the pick, was whistled for a foul when he wildly swung his hands into the ball carrier who he was totally oblivious to. I recognize Stoudemire is as hard a man to guard as there is in the league, but this was still tragic stuff. He’s twice the athlete Anderson is and almost as good a shooter, but he’s just not got an intuitive understanding of the game.
– It’s also worth noting that Anderson had a crappy shooting night (4-10, 04 from 3), but never let that effect the effort he put out in other aspects of the game. That sounds like a little thing, but for a lot of guys and most rookies it’s rare. Brook Lopez has been the same way.
– Lopez twins guarding each other: high comedy. They were going at each other in the exact manner you would imagine they did as kids in the driveway, with about twice as much energy and thrashing about as the standard cagey, coiled-spring NBA matchup. These two desperately trying to dunk on each other was the easy highpoint of the game.
The real story of the night ended up being Devin Harris, however. 47 points in 41 minutes, 14/25 from the field, 17/17 from the line, 2/3 from beyond the arc, 7 boards, 8 assists, only 4 turnovers, and he ended his post-game interview with “Thundercats, hoooooo!” This is a great, great man. He’s totally come into his own this year, putting up a PER of 26 and change over a previous career high of 17ish, and a huge part of that is a TS% of 60.2% over two previous years at just about 57. He still has excellent quickness and ability to draw contact, but he’s also got far more confidence in his jumper which makes him truly deadly. Throw in that he’s slashed his turnover rate while using far more possessions than ever before and you have a guy whose individual play is suddenly at an elite level. When you take those numbers in the context of the way he’s made the Nets his team, and the way he carries them in games like this, and you start to realize that he’s in the process of making the leap from good sideman to potential franchise player. If this is truly his new performance level, he’s probably one of the 5 best points in the league.
Oh, and he’s signed for a good contract for the next 4 seasons after this one. And the Mavs still owe the Nets an unprotected first from the deal which brought him to town. And the Nets, in their rebuilding year, are above .500 (for the moment). Not. Too Shabby.
So I caught Suns/Heat tonight, and made it a point to focus on Shaq. Here’s the box score.
On the face of things, he looks alright- 75% from the field, 9 boards, a block and a steal in 29 minutes. But if you watched the game…brutal. I haven’t seen enough of the Suns this year to know if I was seeing something out of the ordinary, but what I saw was the Suns turn over the ball on 3 of their first 4 possessions trying to force the ball into the post, and things not improving much from there.
For the majority of the evening Shaq was single-covered by Joel Anthony, a Canadian center out of UNLV in his second year, who appears notable mostly for his uncanny resemblance to a younger version of pro boxer Bernard Hopkins. Anthony would, time and again, front Shaq in the post and deny him the ball; and partially because Steve Nash wasn’t playing and thus unable to throw the proper entry passes, and partially because his athleticism is gone, Shaq just couldn’t find the position and timing to break this defense. The Suns were determined to try, but all through the game lobs would go over his head, short passes would bounce past his hands, and O’Neal would end up utterly neutralized as a threat. He ended up getting his points mostly on putbacks and bailout passes from cutters, but…he also ended up with no free throw attempts. No ATTEMPTS. He was so ineffectual that there was only one occasion when the Heat even felt compelled to foul him to prevent a shot. The Suns finished with 19 turnovers.
I hate to say it, since his career is almost an exact match for my serious period as an NBA fan, but the Big Diesel is just about done. When he’s reached the point when an anonymous second year center who gives up maybe 4 inches and 100 pounds can render him peripheral at best, it’s just about time to go. The Suns, regardless of their record, have all the look of a team which is one year shy of being blown up; they’ll make the playoffs, lose to the Jazz in the first round, and after that someone will realize that paying luxury tax money for an aging, badly designed also ran is crazy. Some of their guys will land soft with contenders, but O’Neal…I think this is it for him. He can more or less fake it this year, but right now he’s only just this side of Willie Mays-on-the-Mets territory regardless of what his PER says, if this game is any guide. I don’t disregard the statistical information lightly, but I look at the Suns’ record and see very few good wins- San Antonio without Ginobili, Portland twice, Detroit in a game where Shaq was ejected in the second. Meanwhile in the loss to New Orleans he produced 8 points, 8 boards, 2-5 from the line, 2 turnovers; against Houston, a much better 18 and 13, with still only 4 foul shots; against centerless Utah, 9 points on 3-11 shooting, 1 rebound. And so it goes, good games against Sacramento and Minnesota keeping him above water.
At this point if Shaq were willing to be a 4th option or 6th man for short money on a contender, he might be worth something; as it is on Phoenix, he’s trouble, as their offense seems to want to force the ball to him to prove a point about the trade which brought him to town. Turnovers are created by plays in which the team forces the ball to a position which, say, Andrew Bynum could reach today, and which would have been an easy Shaq dunk 5 years ago, but which today are uncatchable for a player whose lift is gone. No one fouls him because the league has caught up to the way his skills have diminished. Defensively he’s useless against a decent screen/roll, has lost some of his mobility on rebounding, and is effective at most as a space eater and weak-side helper. The overall sense I get of him is of a player who, when he does something, does it well and thus keeps a high individual rating on a stat like PER; but the effects on his team of his defensive immobility and the degree to which they force plays for him on offense which he can’t make likely has a substantial negative impact relative to an average center with an average useage rate. Sadly, there’s not enough +/- data worth the name to make this more than conjecture.
Shaq’s one of the greatest ever, and it may well be the case that I end up feeling like a fool for writing this (there’s still a LOT of season to go), which wouldn’t be the first time; but at the moment Phoenix has the stink of death on them, and big man’s part of the reason. When you consider the way he tends to wear down and miss games, this could end up fairly depressing by the end.