Here's a great way for a struggling team to get better: Find an opponent who is struggling even more. That was Phoenix's formula on Thursday night, and it worked to perfection. After consecutive blowout losses had the Suns reeling, they rebounded with a 114-104 over the sliding Pacers to right the ship. In doing so, they sent the injury-wracked Pacers -- playing sans Jermaine O'Neal and losing both Scot Pollard and Stephen Jackson in the first half -- to their fifth straight loss, and dropped Indiana below .500.
With Kurt hurt, Suns' D suffers
Yet even in victory, there are still some ominous signs for the Suns. Their defense once again provided little resistance, giving up 104 points to the NBA's 23rd-best offense. A great shooting night saved Phoenix in this case, but the long-term trend is clear: Phoenix isn't defending nearly as well as it used to.
Three weeks ago, I wrote a story noting Phoenix's defensive improvement as a major reason behind their surprising success this season. As luck would have it, they've done almost nothing since then to live up to my praise. Phoenix ranked sixth in Defensive Efficiency at the time, but heading into the Indiana game they had slumped to 12th.
Even that sixth-place ranking they held at the start of the month was a major drop-off from their early-season success. In mid-January, Phoenix ranked second only to San Antonio in Defensive Efficiency -- a pretty impressive accomplishment for a gang that supposedly was only interested in offense. But the defense that already wasn't as sharp as it had been early in the season, and it softened like a stick of butter in Death Valley once Kurt Thomas went out with a stress fracture in his right foot.
Minus their only "real" center, the Suns' already undersized lineup has become positively Lilliputian, with 6-8 Boris Diaw manning the middle and 6-7 stringbean Shawn Marion alongside him as the "power" forward. When I wrote my article praising Phoenix's defense, one of the main points I made was that they didn't have the statistical profile of a small team -- they rebounded OK, didn't foul a lot and shut off the 3-point line fairly well.
Without Thomas, however, they've looked very small indeed. In 17 games without Thomas heading into Thursday, the Suns had allowed 40 percent 3-point shooting and 49 percent shooting overall. Indy kept up the trend on Thursday, shooting 10-of-17 from downtown to help keep itself from being blown out.
You might wonder how losing a center can affect a team's 3-point defense, but there are two reasons. First, the Suns have to keep double-teaming post players in order to help out Diaw and Marion against bigger opponents. That wasn't much of an issue against Indiana's low-scoring frontcourt on Thursday, but picture Diaw having to defend Jermaine O'Neal and you'll quickly see the problem.
With Thomas, Phoenix could choose to double-team or not as they saw fit. But without him, there's no longer a choice -- they have to double, and the opponent knows it. It's reflected in the numbers, too. According to 82games.com, the Suns allow 6.5 points per 48 minutes more when Thomas is off the court, the biggest differential on the team.
Unfortunately, this defensive weakness isn't likely to go away soon. Amare Stoudemire's comeback has been aborted and he may be shut down for the season, while Phoenix's other big men, Pat Burke and Nikoloz Tskitishvili, clearly aren't ready for prime time.
As for Thomas, he's still wearing a cast and will need to wear a boot for nearly a month once the cast is removed. He's not expected back until the conference finals, if the Suns make it that far. Until recently that was thought be a sure thing, but given Phoenix's recent defensive shortcomings, one can no longer be certain.
The Suns' offensive brilliance saved them on Thursday, and it probably will against most of the NBA's middle-of-the-pack teams between now and the end of the season. But come May, requiring them to do it four times in seven games against playoff-caliber defense is asking an awful lot -- even for this offense.
AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt
Before his number was hoisted skyward, former Indiana Pacer Reggie Miller, right, gets some help with his microphone from sister Cheryl Miller for an interview prior to the Suns-Pacers game.
Farina (Henrietta): Are the Nets a championship contender come playoff time?
Chad Ford: I think they're a sleeper. Kidd, Jefferson and Carter have been great and Nenad Krstic has really developed into a good player. Their bench is a little thin . . . but so is Detroit's. The way they've been playing lately, I think they pose a bigger challenge to the Pistons than the Heat.
Steve Dallas, TX: With Amare Stoudemire likely out for the season, is there any way that the Suns make a run in the playoffs?
Chad Ford: Sure. Losing Amare hurts, but the Suns were performing just fine without him. I think San Antonio and Dallas are better. But it's likely that they'll meet in the second round. I think the Suns will still be in the Western Conference finals. Not sure they'll go past there, but that's quite an accomplishment considering their most dominant player was out all year.
Rob (Los Angeles, CA): KG says he doesn't want a trade and the owner says he won't trade him. Should we believe them, or are they just trying to say the right things in public?
Chad Ford: I'm sure KG would love a trade. He's just the type of guy who doesn't want to demand one in public. The problem is that the Wolves have zero motivation to trade him. You can't get anything close to equal value in return and the team just added a number of long term contracts to the roster mid-season. Now, even if they traded Garnett, they still would have little flexibility to rebuild. The Wolves have done as bad of a job as any team in the league the last five six years trying to build a team.
Ryan (Southborough MA): Where do you see the Celtics in 2 years?
Chad Ford: I like all of their young talent. But at some point they're going to have to figure out how to consistently win basketball games. That may just come with time. The team is very young. But will it come in time to take advantage of Paul Pierce in his prime? I'm a little pessimistic. Celtics might make the playoffs next year. But I think they're several years away from being a championship contender. By the time they get there, will Pierce still be dominant?
Rob (San Jose, CA): The Golden State Warriors have tremendous young talent, and after another disappointing year, what do you think is preventing them from reaching their potential and the playoffs? Chad Ford: Chemistry and coaching. Too many personal agendas on that team and they don't have a coach strong enough to control folks like Baron Davis. Either Chris Mullin has to find a veteran coach who will command respect or he's going to have to dump Baron. My guess is that the coach goes first.
Big Change In Clips Since Vlad Arrived
Reggie Miller, who ended his career last season as the NBA's all-time leader in 3-point goals, saw his No. 31 retired Thursday. Indy could have used him in its loss to the Suns, 114-104.
(AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)
Pacers center David Harrison can't bear to watch his team fall below .500. Indy had a plus-seven rebound margin, but the Suns had seven fewer turnovers, and won.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
The chant of "Reg-gie! Reg-gie!" filled Conseco Fieldhouse one more time.
The cheer rang out from the full house Thursday night as Reggie Miller, surrounded by his four siblings, pulled a rope that raised a No. 31 banner into the rafters as the Indiana Pacers retired his jersey number. Miller, now a TNT basketball analyst, said he was honored to have his number sent to the rafters less than a year after his retirement.
"Those things usually take time, but the Pacers always do things first class," he said. He was first Pacer from the team's NBA days to have his number retired, joining ABA stars Roger Brown, Mel Daniels and George McGinnis and former coach Bobby "Slick" Leonard as the only such honorees in franchise history. Miller ended his career last season as the NBA's all-time leader in 3-point goals. He was a five-time All-Star, led the NBA in free throw percentage five times and is No. 12 on the league's career scoring list.
The Knicks allowed 40 points in the first quarter Wednesday to the Celtics. It was the first time in more than 10 years that the Knicks allowed that many first-quarter points (40 to Washington on Nov. 10, 1995) and the first time since April 10, 1987 that they did it in a game at Madison Square Garden (41 by Milwaukee).
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Ben (Philly): Who is going to be playing you in the new show?
Paul Shirley: I should debunk this myth before it gets started: Our little show is about a character based on my own personality while I played for the Suns last year. It is not, though, biographical. (I sound like one of those disclaimer guys at the end of a radio ad.) My personality isn't quite interesting enough to warrant a completely true account of it.
Jess (Seattle): So Paul, now that you have creative license with this show, will you take the opportunity to create characters that openly mock the more mentally challenged guys you played with in the league? Now that you're not on a team, and you're a huge Hollywood star, what do you have to lose?
Paul Shirley: I would never do that. I can't believe that you would even suggest such a thing. Satirize the absurdity that is the NBA and its employees? Poppycock, I tell you.
Jesse (Billings, MT): What will be the name of the fictional team your "fictional" star plays for?
Paul Shirley: The Cincinnati Crash.