Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Nash no longer an elite point guard


As I watched the San Antonio Spurs slip past the Phoenix Suns in a mere five games, I couldn't take my eyes off the teams' starting point guards.

On one end, San Antonio's Tony Parker caused endless headaches for the Suns with his interminable dribbling and drives to the basket. As a TNT announcer stated correctly, with Parker and sixth man Manu Ginobili, it was as if the Spurs had two additional post-up players to Tim Duncan.

On the other end, there was Steve Nash. Just the name can be enough to scare opponents, but the player didn't live up to his reputation as one of the NBA's best point guards during the series.

On defense, Nash was a liability, continuously letting the slippery Parker penetrate the lane. Granted, Parker can do that against most opposing players, but Nash hardly made him work. And offensively, Nash was a shell of his former self, especially in the Spurs' clinching Game 5 win.

In the final minutes, he committed three costly turnovers -- getting stripped by old man Robert Horry, throwing a pass at Amare Stoudemire's feet, and allowing Bruce Bowen to deflect an inbounds pass off his hands. Nash made just four of 16 shots and had more turnovers (5) than assists (3).

Now that's a shocking statistic.

Rewind a year ago. Several media members were clamoring for Nash to become just the fourth NBA player -- ever -- to win three consecutive MVP awards. Even with up-and-coming studs such as Deron Williams and Chris Paul filling the highlight reels, Nash was easily considered the league's top point guard.

Since then, nothing has been easy for the 2005 and '06 MVP. Now, a case could be built that he's not even a top five P.G. Think about it. Paul has clearly taken the No. 1 spot with his MVP-caliber season. Williams is up there along with Parker. Chauncey Billups remains an elite player for the Pistons, and a case can be made that Golden State's Baron Davis is better than Nash.

It's been a quick fall from grace. Of course, ask the worldly Nash about his spot on the list, and he'd deflect the question. All he cares about is his team getting the huge "never been to an NBA Finals" monkey of its back. And Phoenix was extremely competitive against the defending league champions.

But two of the four San Antonio wins -- Games 1 and 5 -- were decided by a few plays, and as Nash admitted late Tuesday night, his team didn't make the big plays. That responsibility has to fall on the point guard, the pronounced leader of the team, the guy who has the ball in his hands at crunch time.

Nash can't be blamed for all of his team's miseries. Consider the transformation the Suns have gone through since they dealt wingman Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks to Miami for Shaquille O'Neal. They used to be a run-n'-gun team. Heck, a book was written about them trying to shoot on each possession as quickly as possible.

During the series, however, the announcers actually said -- and were right -- that the Spurs were the team that wanted to push the ball. The Suns wanted to play a half-court game?

As much as Nash welcomed O'Neal to Phoenix, he had to know that it's much easier to score in transition than in a set offense against a ready defense. The trade was more about defense, and believe it or not, the Suns gradually become a more effective half-court defensive team -- though O'Neal still can't guard a pick-and-roll.

The trade hurt Nash's offensive production. He still put up decent numbers, but his assists and points dipped a little bit. It's much easier finding an open man who's streaking down the right side on the fast break than trying to zip a bounce pass through a defender's legs.

And it was clear Tuesday that the Suns aren't completely comfortable in their offensive system. As Nash said afterward, the Spurs knew exactly what they wanted to do on every trip down the floor. The Suns didn't, and players often were not in the proper positions to give Phoenix the best chance to score. This was evident in the final minute, when a posting-up Boris Diaw threw the ball away when he was double-teamed.

Diaw will be blamed for the terrible pass, but the fact that both Stoudemire and O'Neal were in the paint, clogging up any chance of a pass for an easy score, didn't help Diaw. He didn't have a good play to make. All he could have done was throw the ball back out to the perimeter to reset the offense.

Now comes another long summer for the Suns, this one even more protracted than those of the past three years when they at least advanced to the second round. If everyone, including O'Neal, returns, it will be a positive chunk of time off. The players can really work on their chemistry and learning each others' games.

But it shouldn't be glossed over that with each missed opportunity, the 34-year-old Nash becomes a year older.

As this early exit demonstrated, Nash might still be a very good point guard, but he's no longer Mr. Automatic every night.

And his major off night Tuesday was a major reason why Phoenix -- just like that -- is no longer playing in these NBA playoffs.

1 comment:

J-bo said...

With Nash and Shaq getting up there in age, Phoenix will only have a year or two left to make the finals. After that there will likely be a transition period. If they don't make it next year they're not making it for a good while.