Trouble in the middle of the Suns

April, 19, 2010
4/19/10
2:59
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Andre Miller
Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images
With the game on the line, the Suns couldn't keep the Blazers out of the paint.

Amare Stoudemire is a certain kind of NBA big man. Call him an All-Star. Call him a multi-talent. Call him a bucket-getter, a shooter and a dunker.

He's all that and a bag of chips. But do not accuse him of shutting down the paint. That game is all about holding firm, building walls, reducing options and directing traffic. Stoudemire's special talent is breaking through walls, not building them.

The question is: What kind of big man do you play alongside Stoudemire? A big paint-patrolling behemoth, like say, Shaquille O'Neal, drags down the tempo of Steve Nash and company, and eats up the real estate around the rim that is integral to Nash's drive-and-kick game.

The Suns have experimented through the years. This season they found two players who fit. Robin Lopez has the energy, muscle, length and tenacity to hassle opponents around the rim, and Channing Frye has blossomed as a 3-point shooter.

But Lopez is out with a bad back, and likely will miss the entire first round.

The Suns recognize they have a problem. Frye is their "next best" big man. Why not just play him?

The theory here is that Frye and Stoudemire together give opponents too much access to the paint, where there are all kinds of rebounds and easy scoring opportunities.

So the Suns did something a bit desperate and odd three weeks ago: They declared an emergency and broke the glass surrounding Jarron Collins. His skill is to be large and a little mean, and to patrol the parts of the neighborhood Stoudemire can't. The Suns seldom give him the ball, and despite letting him take the court with the starters, could hardly ask for less. Is there any other NBA starter who hasn't played more than 18 minutes in any game all season?

Against Portland in Sunday's Game 1, the Blazers had some luck in the paint, especially through Andre Miller and Jerryd Bayless layups, as well as never-ending possessions fueled by bunches of offensive rebounds. As Lopez and Collins looked on in street clothes, neither Frye nor Stoudemire nor gloom of night could keep those Blazers from their appointed rounds under the basket.

There was one Phoenix big man who frustrated the Blazers, though, and that was the high-energy benchwarmer Louis Amundson. As Amundson's ponytail bopped around the court, stifling drives, catching lobs and closing out shooters, Portland's interior game suffered.

There will be dozens of articles about the only series that started with a road team's win. Many will pinpoint key moments, like Miller's 3-pointer or Martell Webster's twin blocked shots near the end of the third.

But to me the essential moment came with 6:26 left. That's when Suns coach Alvin Gentry sat Amundson in favor of the shooter Frye. Phoenix is unapologetic in its commitment to offense, where Frye excels. But everyone in the building knew the substitution had the potential to hurt at the other end.

The game was tied at 83.

Things happen fast in the NBA. Little leaks in the defense can quickly flood. Miller, Bayless, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum ... The Blazers scored on eight of their next ten possessions to lead 99-92 less than five minutes later. Try as the visitors might to let the Suns back in over the final 1:29, the contest was decided.

The signature play of the run came off a Batum miss. Aldridge waltzed down the lane and flipped up an unlikely putback, which dropped in. It was a little lucky the shot fell, but it was no coincidence that Aldridge got to the hoop unimpeded. No Sun touched him, which will be something to think about for Game 2

Henry Abbott | email

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