The only person who knows more about the Phoenix Suns than Michael Schwartz is Steve Nash. Schwartz, the man behind Valley of the Suns, was kind enough to take some time to tell us all about his team and his thoughts on the upcoming playoff series.
Most Portland fans were quick to pick Phoenix as the lone team in the West that they wanted the Blazers to face. Now that it has come to fruition, the Blazers are meeting one of the hottest teams in the league. As someone who follows them so closely, do you think people underestimate this Suns team?
No question. The Suns aren’t who we thought they were. Before the season started Blazers fans would be wise to think that, but why would you want a team that’s just won 14 of 16 games as part of a 28-7 tear overall? Oh yeah, the Suns also went 14-3 to start the season, and if it weren’t for some midseason scuffles they would have overtaken the Lakers. There’s also a stigma that the Suns don’t play defense. That’s just not true. They have moved up to 19th in defensive efficiency, which is impressive because they were in the 26th range earlier this season, and I’m sure they’re in the top half of the league over the last 35. They also rank 11th in field-goal D for the season and have held seven of their last 18 opponents under 40 percent. Their field-goal D ranks better than San Antonio, Denver and yes, Portland.
It’s been a great last few weeks for the Suns, are you happy where the team is at heading into the playoffs? Is there a feeling with the team that they need to win this year, given Steve Nash’s age and Amare Stoudemire’s expiring contract?
I love where the team is at. They are not burdened by the weight of expectations like they were in previous seasons. There’s kind of a loose, carefree attitude that has enveloped the team. My only worry is that they start reading their press clippings and get cocky. That’s what happened during the 12-18 slump that followed the 14-3 start. They came out in November with a chip on their shoulder and then they stopped playing with the same intensity. Yes, everybody knows this could be it for the Nash-Amare era, but with where expectations started I don’t think they feel the pressure that they did in previous seasons.
Last season marked the first time since 2005-06 that the Suns didn’t lose to the Spurs in the postseason. That might have to do with the team not even making the playoffs, but regardless, why has this Phoenix team always struggled so much in the postseason? Is it because they crossed paths with a dominating Spurs team in its prime? Or does the Suns’ less-physical style of play come back to haunt them in the more aggressive nature of postseason games?
I really think the answer is a combination of both your questions: it’s because the Suns crossed paths with a prime Spurs team and their less-physical style haunted them against San Antonio. Duncan and crew knocked three of Nash’s four Suns teams out of the playoffs, and the fourth was missing Amare Stoudemire. This Suns team could win in the playoffs; it just couldn’t beat the Spurs. When you think about it, the 2004-08 Suns were 0-3 against the Spurs and 5-1 against everyone else in the playoffs. I think that stat about answers your questions. (P.S. If the Suns beat the Blazers, bring on the Spurs!)
Talk a little about the center position for the Suns. Since Robin Lopez is out with a back injury, the team starts Jarron Collins, but mostly relies upon Frye, correct? The weak-kneed Blazer big men are no more, but Marcus Camby is still (in defiance to all logic and God himself) one of the league’s best rebounders. Do the Suns have a plan to keep Camby off the boards?
Yeah, Collins starts both halves, but Frye and Lou Amundson get the majority of the minutes. I’m not sure if the Suns have a plan to keep Camby off the boards, but they sure need one. When the Suns win the rebounding battle, they often win the game, and believe it or not they out-rebound their opponents. Controlling Camby is one of Phoenix’s biggest keys to the series in my mind.
What about Phoenix’s bench? Dudley and Frye make a great combo and stretch out the floor, but what happened to Leandro Barbosa? For the longest time he seemed like the heir apparent to Nash’s throne, did he lose that job to Goran Dragic?
Phoenix’s bench is one of its most underrated strengths of the season. They go 10 deep, and their bench always keeps them in the game and sometimes lengthens the lead. Take Wednesday against Utah, the Phoenix bench decimated Utah’s bench with a 15-1 run and the rout was on from there. I think with all the injuries to the Blazers this could be a place where the Suns have an advantage. The bench is also the Suns’ defensive unit. LB has always been a combo guard so I would never call him an heir to Nash, but Dragic is certainly that. He has played with much more confidence than last year and has been one of the better backup point guards in the league. LB has struggled a lot with injuries and has had a disappointing year, but you never know when he can rip off 15 in a quarter.
What is your prediction for this series? (We assume you’ll pick Phoenix, but if you want to chose Portland your secret is safe with us.)
Phoenix in 5. I don’t think the Blazers can overcome Roy’s absence. The Suns are the hottest team in basketball, and I expect them to roll on to the second round.