Rising from the ashes
By Charley Rosen
Page 2 columnist

Like any sensible coach, Frank Johnson knows what to worry about:

  • His team's habit of falling behind early and then having to win too many games in the stretch. (The first "key" he always writes on the grease board in every pre-game locker room is: "Set aggressive tone!").
  • Getting all five of whatever combination of players he puts on the court to play defense with a sense of urgency.
  • His guards and wings settling for quick jump shots.
  • His young players' inability to adjust whenever he wants to switch defensive schemes during a game.
  • Somehow, somewhere, finding a veteran center whose wheels still work.
  • Winning a game on the road.
  • These are the chronic problems and obsessive worries that furrow Johnson's brow and prematurely turn his hair gray. But there's one vital issue about which Johnson no longer has to fret -- the mindset of his point guard and most important player, Stephon Marbury.

    In the NBA, the point guard is the most difficult position to master. As a group, they're easily the quickest and trickiest players in the league, which makes the task of adequately defending each other well nigh impossible. Since trying to rip an opposing point guard's dribble mano-a-mano is simply a gamble not worth taking, there remain only two realistic goals on defense: staying between him and the basket (something no one has ever been able to do to Alan Iverson), and making him turn his back to his teammates. (The all-time best at "turning" his opposite No. 1? Dennis Johnson.)

    Stephon Marbury
    Stephon's point play will make or break the Suns.
    The point guard's primary responsibility is to safely carry the ball into the attack zone, then to initiate the offense with the right pass to the right player at the right time. (AI was never a successful No. 1, because he disdained the set-up pass and insisted on starting any and all plays with a penetrating dribble.) Aside from the requisite physical abilities, point guards must also manifest wisdom, vision, timing, discipline and unselfishness. Because of zone defenses, and because most teams routinely double-team the ball in the low post, the modern-day point guards must also be respectable shooters.

    Magic Johnson, the best ever at the position, succinctly summarized a point guard's job description: "To make his teammates play as well as they possibly can."

    Every team has at least two point guards, yet only a handful can be considered outstanding -- Jason Kidd, John Stockton, Steve Nash, Gary Payton and Mike Bibby. Stephon Marbury used to be one of the worst, but these days he's one of the best -- and that's why, despite the many recurring concerns that bedevil Frank Johnson, the Phoenix Suns have a bright future.

    Phoenix's game in New York on Jan. 26 figured to be a pushover for the visitors. (That's what every team anticipates coming into Madison Square Garden, but Don Chaney is very quietly doing an excellent job. It's inconceivable that the current edition of the Knicks could be playing any better than they are.) After all, rookie sensation Amare Stoudemire is out to prove in the media capital of the world that he's got the goods. Shawn Marion wants to prove his case for being named an alternate to the upcoming All-Star game. And Marbury wants to show his hometown fans that he's not the same selfish, petulant, abrasive malcontent that he was in his last incarnation as a New Jersey Net.

    Johnson has his own rationale for Marbury's dramatic transformation: "The success that Jason Kidd and the Nets had last season really got Stephon to thinking about what was what. It was Jason this and Jason that, and how one-sided the trade was. That's why Stephon has been playing more like a point guard than a scorer this season. He has been more patient on offense, because, while he knows he has to take care of Shawn and Amare, Stephon also knows that when the shot clock is running down, he'll have the ball."

    Even so, the Suns' first play of the game calls for Marbury to unload the ball to Marion, slice through the middle, then curl around a double-pick to receive a pass and launch a shot (which misses). The next number Johnson calls is for Marion, and he also misfires.

    As the game unwinds, Marbury spreads the ball around with diligence and élan. Driving and kicking, faking and twitching, virtually every touchdown pass he tosses is completed, but his teammates don't always convert catches into points.

    Amare Stoudemire
    Stoudemire has shown signs of greatness.
    The Knicks forge into an early lead, and I turn my attention to Stoudemire. The 6-foot-10, 245-pound rookie is clearly energetic, forceful and unafraid. He's inclined to shoot either a jump hook or a TAJ, both over his left shoulder. Otherwise, his offensive repertoire is limited to putbacks and hustle dunkensteins. Yet the youngster is so dangerous in the low post that the Knicks tender him the ultimate compliment -- double-teaming him on every catch. Too bad Stoudemire panics every time he is doubled. His instinct is to angle his way through the nearest real-or-imagined seam and force up something off-balance and awkward. When he remembers his instructions, he holds the ball for a count or two, frantically looking for a cutter before dribbling out and away from the pressure as fast as he can.

    A typical rookie, right? Confounded by the speed and complexity of NBA action.

    But then Stoudemire snatches an offensive rebound and, knowing that he's about to be pounded by Kurt Thomas, executes a nifty midair, right-to-left adjustment and fliperoo that draws iron and a foul -- definitely a big-time move. (The release-point on his subsequent free throws is too low, and he misses both.)

    As the game unfolds, Thomas (a k a "Crazy Eyes") relentlessly pushes, shoves, hacks and elbows Stoudemire at every turn. While the Knicks veteran center is blatantly guilty of child abuse, the attendant refs just suck on their whistles.

    Here's Johnson's scouting report on Stoudemire: "I'm totally surprised at how well he's playing at this level. He's hungry, smart and an amazingly quick learner. Show him a move in practice, and he'll show it back to you during the game that night. Amare makes up for his inexperience by playing all-out, all the time. Except when he's doubled, I trust him completely in the low post. I don't trust him when he's passing, dribbling or doing anything on the high post.The best thing about him? The kid's a winner."

    But New York inexorably lengthens its lead.

    With the game threatening to get out of hand, Marbury concentrates on scoring. Swish! A quick pull-up jumper from the outskirts. Bang! The bank is open from the left elbow. Hunh? A miraculously smooth yet powerful driving layup under and through a threatening tangle of hands -- only the overhead slo-mo replay proves that Marbury didn't simply vanish and then reappear in another dimension. A stunning move.

    Meanwhile, Shawn Marion can't drop a rock down a well. For the game, he'll wind up shooting 9-for-23, and his misses will include four --count 'em, four -- airballs. And it's no wonder, because Marion has the worst hand mechanics in captivity. Whereas coaches cringe when a shooter's shooting arm is bent and flapped outward as the ball is unloosed, Marion showcases two chicken wings. As a consequence, the ball has a slightly sideways rotation and spins out whenever it catches any part of the rim.

    "I don't know how his shot ever falls," says one incredulous teammate, "but Shawn's a streak shooter who can set the gym on fire when he's hot."

    The Knicks lead 64-48 at halftime.

    Rest assured that Marbury singed his teammates' ears during the intermission. "He's certainly not afraid to get in a guy's face," reports Scott Williams, the Suns' veteran center, "but we all take in whatever he says, because we know that Steph also walks the walk."

    To prove Marbury's uncompromising competitive spirit, Williams points to the ankle surgery that his teammate underwent early in the offseason: "Steph didn't postpone the operation just so he'd miss training camp like Shaq did the last two years. Not Steph. He had his ankles done in July so he'd be in tip-top shape when the bell rang. Steph's become a leader on the court and off."

    Shawn Marion
    Marion's streaky shooting is one of the Suns' biggest question marks.
    As the game resumes, the Knicks quickly extend to a 22-point lead.

    Most of New York's defensive strategies are pointed at Marbury. Every time he dribbles over a pick, he's aggressively double-teamed (or "blitzed"). Also, even though he's a dead-eye shooter, the Knicks would rather see Marbury fire away from the perimeter (and either make or miss on his own), than allow him to drive hoopward (and get his teammates involved with layups, dunks, and/or open jumpers). These are the identical tactics with which opponents attempted to control Larry Bird -- and, like the Birdman, Marbury maintains his equilibrium and rarely makes a foolish move.

    Marbury also takes pride in his defense -- he's constantly nagging Johnson for the privilege of guarding the opponents' toughest backcourtsman, however big he is and whatever his position might be. And whether he's shadowing Howard Eisley, or he's switched onto Latrell Sprewell, Alan Houston or even 6-11 Michael Doleac, the 6-2, 205-pound Marbury always digs in on defense.

    Kurt Thomas continues to brutalize Stoudemire. Marion keeps misfiring. And out of desperation, Marbury starts forcing shots: an airball in a broken field, a headlong drive into the teeth of two defenders produces a clanger. And the Suns appear to be eclipsed as they trail 89-69 at the end of the third quarter.

    Thus far, I can find only two flaws in Marbury's game: his feet are much too close together when he shoots free throws -- forcing him to slightly adjust his balance every time he raises up to shoot -- and he's also much too strong for his own good . On a slick drive hoopward, Marbury is slammed by Charlie Ward. But Marbury is a tank with a Ferrari engine and the blow fails to derail him, so the refs remain mute. On the next trip downcourt, the refs toot in unison when Marbury barely taps Houston's shoulder. Marbury makes a mild protest and gets nailed with a T.

    Steph, you've got to flop and flail whenever you're hit! Make the calls easy for the refs and easier for yourself! Don't be a martyr to your own macho-toughness!

    As a last resort, Johnson plays his small lineup (Marbury, 6-7 Marion, 6-6 Casey Jacobson, 6-7 Joe Johnson, and at center, 6-8 Bo Outlaw), and suddenly, the Suns are blazing. Marbury can't miss. Jacobson nails a pair of triples. Outlaw wipes the glass clean. Even Marion buries a 3-ball. The Knicks lead shrinks faster than a cheap suit in a rainstorm.

    Here's Marbury blasting his way to the hole -- a miss but a foul. Toeing the free throw line, his feet almost touching, preparing to shoot two with the Suns only down 101-95. Clang and bang, he misses both, and the game is gone.

    The final tally is 106-98.

    Marbury's line is as impressive as his game: 31 points, nine assists, four steals, zero turnovers. Marion needs 23 shots to score 24 points. And Stoudemire is a meager 1-6 for three points.

    In the post-game locker room, Stoudemire is complaining to the media about being rough-housed all game long. "Thomas is the worst I've ever seen," the young man moans. "He was holding me every time I tried to move. I guess I've got to get used to it, but I'm not going to get into doing stuff like that just because somebody else is doing it to me. No, sir. Playing like that just ain't right."

    You've got it bass-ackwards, young fella. The trick is to start banging guys around yourself, if only to show the refs that's how you intend to play in this league. Refs are like puppy dogs -- they've got to be trained. Take a few fouls now so that you can get away with beaucoup fouls later on.

    What does Marbury have to say? "We'll get even when they come play us in the desert."

    And the coach always has the last words: "Let's see. We came out of the box with no intensity. We settled for perimeter shots. Our young guys didn't recognize defensive rotations. We fell into a deep hole and, by the time we climbed out, we had no juice left. And we came up short again on the road. It seems to me that I've already seen this game before."

    Don't worry too much, Coach. You're only one biggie and some off-season seasoning away from a year full of pleasant surprises.

    Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."



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