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Suns Bounce Back Big

The Phoenix Suns absorbed a big blow to the team earlier during free agency when all-star forward Amar’e Stoudemire skipped town to sign with the New York Knicks. After a deep postseason run that ended in a near series victory over the eventual-champion Los Angeles Lakers, it became clear that, as constituted, the Suns would not be poised for another such trip without making a change.

And that’s exactly what Robert Sarver did yesterday. The Suns owner who likely squashed his chances at re-signing STAT when he dismissed former GM Steve Kerr went out and acquired two players who immediately recharge a depleted starting lineup, Josh Childress and Hedo Turkoglu.

Childress spent the last two seasons playing ball in Greece with Olympiakos, but before that he was a solid role player for the Atlanta Hawks, providing a spark of scoring and rebounding in an efficient manner. Though the deal isn’t officially done because Childress is a restricted free agent, the Hawks are extremely unlikely to match, now that Joe Johnson’s mammoth contract has financially handcuffed the team.

Turkoglu will come to the team as part of a trade, and the Suns’ major loss in the deal is Leandro Barbosa, the blinding-quick combo guard and former sixth man of the year. His loss is a tough blow to the shooting and quickness of the Suns team, but Turkoglu’s addition, assuming he plays up to potential, will more than make up for Barbosa’s absence.

Turkoglu leaves Toronto on fairly bad terms, after playing very bad basketball in his one year north of the border. Ideally, his change of scenery will remind him of his play the year prior in Orlando and make him a major contributor to Phoenix. If he does redevelop his skills on the basketball court, he’s a major asset.

At 6-foot-10, Turkoglu has the size of a power forward but the handling and shooting of a guard. As a result, he fits perfectly into the Phoenix run-and-gun system. While he’ll spend a fair amount of time in the post, making up for the void Stoudemire left behind down low, he’ll also be a major figure on the perimeter, taking plenty of three-pointers and running the point forward. This will give the aging Steve Nash a break on offense, allowing him to save his stamina and legs by not having the bring the ball up the court every possession.

Childress adds depth on the wing and an adept scoring touch driving to the rim and as a jump shooter. Expect his scoring numbers to increase playing alongside Nash in an uptempo offense.

While these acquisitions certainly don’t make the squad better than it was last year, it’s nice to see some degree of damage control and respect for Nash. Phoenix could have done nothing and suffered through a mediocre season while Steve Nash wasted away through possibly the final year of his career. Instead, the Suns still have a very good chance to making the playoffs in the West next year.

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Suns win on the strength of fundamentals

The Phoenix Suns played picture-perfect basketball in Game 4.

The Phoenix Suns have made the Western Conference Finals a lot more interesting than most could have hoped for after the Los Angeles Lakers took a commanding 2-0 lead in the series.

Behind the support of its home crowd, Phoenix took Games 3 and 4 against the defending champions after looking weak, uninspired, and apathetic.

I’ve already written about coach Alvin Gentry’s timely decision to have his squad try a zone defense on the Lakers, but in Game 4 on Tuesday night, that defensive scheme wasn’t what won the game for the Suns.

No, it was a return to fundamentals, instead, that sparked the Suns to a series-squaring victory.

When you think about Phoenix Suns basketball, fundamentalism isn’t the first thing that comes to mind for most. They run, they shoot a lot of threes, they have no back-to-the-basket post scorer, and they tend to “relax” on defense. But Tuesday’s game was a good illustration of how an unconventional team like Phoenix can win by embracing the basics of basketball.

This approach to the game manifested itself if three primary ways: (1) a balanced scoring effort; (2) superb bench production; and (3) exceptional shooting discipline leading to streaks.

In the usual Suns game, the offensive production is funneled through Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire, as they effortlessly run the pick-and-roll play for easy points. Throw in the occasional outburst from Jason Richardson, Grant Hill, or Leandro Barbosa, and that’s the typical makeup.

On Tuesday night, though, that wasn’t the case. The team’s leading scorer was Stoudemire, but he put up a modest 21 points. Steve Nash contributed only 15. More importantly, though, the Suns had six scorers in double figures, and everyone who played in the game posted no fewer than 6 points.

Spreading the wealth with that kind of ball distribution allows the whole team to get in to a groove, preventing the Lakers from keying in on anyone in particular on defense. Usually, Phil Jackson can sit back and expect his team will defend Nash and Stoudemire while not having to worry about anyone else. In Game 4, everyone was hitting shots, so it spread the Lakers’ defense thin to the point that it couldn’t keep up.

In a similar vein, the Suns’ bench played brilliant basketball against the Lakers. Led by a gritty performance in relief of Nash by Goran “Enter the” Dragic (8 points, 8 dimes), the Suns drilled the Lakers with 54 bench points and were absolutely on fire from the perimeter. At one point in the game, Channing Frye, Leandro Barbosa, and Jared Dudley hit consecutive threes to ignite the crowd and knock LA back on its heels — it was a meaningful turning point for the game.

The solid play by the reserves allows Nash and Stoudemire to get their well-deserved and much-needed rest without a cause for concern. In the fourth quarter, Gentry even elected to stay with his second unit a few minutes longer than usual because it was playing so well. That’s a good sign for your team.

Lastly, the Suns used the power of momentum to their full advantage. I mentioned above that streak of back-to-back-to-back three-pointers; those weren’t lucky shots. Phoenix spread the floor very well, creating space for the shooters on the perimeter. Each one of those shots was sufficiently open.

But it takes rare confidence for Barbosa and Dudley to fire off those long-range bombs after Frye’s make. They sensed the opportunity to create some distance between the Lakers and themselves, and they took advantage. They knew they could hit the shots, and they had the power of the crowd behind them as further encouragement.

If the Phoenix Suns can continue to pair this fundamental execution with their effective zone defense, the Lakers have to be careful. Sure, the series is going back to the Staples Center, where the Lakers play much better than they do on the road. That won’t stop the stranglehold that the Suns’ zone has on their paint production, though. If the perimeter players can find their rhythm from the outside like they did in Game 4, the Lakers won’t stand a chance.

It’s the Phoenix offense at its best — with a twist of defensive prowess and fundamental execution.

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Game of the Day: April 3

Phoenix Suns at Milwaukee Bucks — 8:30 PM eastern

The Suns have won 10 straight games, coming off a road win against the comparatively “hot” New Jersey Nets. Tonight they close their road trip in Wisconsin, and getting its 11th consecutive win should prove a challenge for Phoenix.

The Bucks have played great ball since the all-star break (although they’ve cooled down of late, going only 5-5 in their last 10) thanks to a trade-deadline acquisition of John Salmons from the Chicago Bulls. Add him to a roster with two solid young pieces in Andrew Bogut and Brandon Jennings, and you have a pretty solid squad.

However, Phoenix’s roster is no slouch itself. Sporting perennial all-stars Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire, the Suns’ pick-and-roll game is an incredible force to be reckoned with. Factor in Jason Richardson, Leandro Barbosa, Grant Hill, Channing Frye, and a solid second-year showing for center Robin Lopez and you can see why they’re climbing to the top of the Western Conference.

The Suns won the only matchup between these two teams 105-101 on January 11. Nash lead the Suns with a stat-stuffing effort, scoring 30 points, recording 7 rebounds, and dishing out 11 dimes. Amar’e and Richardson also chipped in 23 points apiece. Hakim Warrick, no longer on the team as part of the Salmons deal, lead the Bucks with 21, and Bogut added a double-double of 13 points and 13 boards.

The Bucks hung with the Suns then, and they’re a much better team post-trade. Accordingly, I chalk this one up for the Bucks. They’re significantly better at home, and the Suns (Nash, in particular) will be tired closing out a long road trip. Salmons should have a big scoring game against the “supervisory” Suns defense.

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