Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Steve Nash ... It's now time

Lots of analysis swirling around the Spurs-Suns series, which is easily the most intriguing first-round matchup. Everything, it seems, is up for discussion: strategies, matchups, prior personnel moves, officiating, etc., etc. I've tackled some of these items already and will have much more to say as the series progresses.

A few things, however, are clear after two games:

* If the Suns indeed acquired Shaq primarily to improve their defense against Duncan and offer more interior resistance to the Spurs' drivers (Parker and Ginobili), they badly overestimated Shaq's abilities in those two areas.

* The things Shaq has provided -- rebounding and post scoring -- are offset by a change in culture to a post-first offense that has reduced the effectiveness of Bell and Barbosa, two key cogs who in the past have thrived in Phoenix's fastbreak style.

* The Suns miss Shawn Marion's versatility, primarily as an option to use his quickness, size and length to slow Parker.

* Every one of Phoenix's non-Amare-Stoudemire-rolls-to-the-basket possessions also should be initiated and dictated by Nash.

It isn't easy to fault Nash, who is averaging take-him-for-granted Nash numbers through two games: 24 points, 11.5 assists, 3 turnovers, 54 percent shooting from the field, for the Suns' 0-2 hole. It's more, however, than the numbers. The first half of Game 2 was pure Nash, who looked for his shot, kept his dribble alive, probed behind the basket, found teammates in their comfort areas. But for some reason, for much of the second half -- primarily during the Spurs' game-controlling 27-11 third quarter -- Nash deferred.

Throwing the ball into O'Neal in the post is wasting Nash and giving San Antonio a break. Throwing the ball into Diaw in the post on four key possessions? Not only is this also wasting Nash, it's inexcusable.

"I guess we had an offensive meltdown in the third quarter," said Nash. "It just wasn't a productive quarter. Offensively we lost our rhythm and that was pivotal."

Chances are Phoenix won't ever stop Parker and Ginobili from getting to the basket, but it's useless to spend time worrying about things that can't be changed at this point. What the Suns can change and should change is this: Nash now, Nash all the time.

Just prior to the playoffs, ESPN Classic aired Game 6 between Dallas and Phoenix from 2005. Nash, who had just been awarded his first of two MVP awards, posted a line of 39-9-12 as the Suns rallied to beat the Mavs in OT to wrap up the West semifinal series. In Game 5 Nash had 34-13-12. In Game 4 he scored 48 points. He averaged 45.3 minutes in those three games too.

I'm not sure Nash can physically do it anymore, but I'm certain the desire is there. Go ahead and run pick-and-rolls with Stoudemire. Push the ball on the break and in early offense to get Bell and Barbosa going. Wave away the screen and get by Parker in the lane, probe for cutters and 3-point spot-ups. Accept the switch, retreat, survey, and abuse the big man with lefty finishes and fadeaway jumpers.

Allow Nash -- the Suns' best player and best decision-maker -- to leave his stamp all over the remainder of the series. It might not change the outcome, but it is a basketball sin for a team to be eliminated without its best player having a 48-minute say in it.