I'll tell you one thing: There's no better winter getaway for a New Yorker than Toronto. Want to know what Toronto looks like in the winter? Here:
(Note: I think one of those bears might be able to beat Jake Voskuhl off the dribble).
We trekked through another snowy day to see the Raptors host the Suns, always a hot ticket here because of the affection (warmth?) Canadians feel for Steve Nash. It was also a chance to see how the Suns looked with Jason Richardson in and Raja Bell and Boris Diaw out. Coming in, Phoenix was 8-5 since the trade, but a look at the numbers showed two obvious trends:
1) Phoenix is running--and scoring--a lot more.
2) Their average scoring margin is way up since the deal, suggesting they are probably a better team with J-Rich and a fast-paced offense.
Here are the Suns overall points for/against numbers:
Before trade: Suns 102.2, opponents 101.7
Since trade: Suns 108.8, opponents 104.6
Interestingly, most of their shooting stats haven't changed at all. They are shooting 49.7 percent since the trade and 49.8 overall; they are attempting almost exactly the same number of threes per game (17.8) and making them at the same clip (about seven per game). Their turnover margin (minus three per game) hasn't changed, either.
The one major improvement (other than the sheer number of points) has come at the foul line, where the Suns are getting 28 attempts per game since J-Rich came aboard compared to 23 per game with the Bell-Diaw combo. That can probably be chalked up to the Suns running more and using more possessions per game. Still, their FT margin (attempts vs. opponent's attempts) has improved from even before the trade to about plus 2 since.
They are also out-rebounding opponents by about 2 per game (43-41) since the trade; their rebound margin was about zero before the deal.
The conclusion to draw is probably this: The Suns are running more, and they are a slightly better team when they run than when they don't.
And boy, did they run against Toronto, racking up 71 points in the first half on better than 60 percent shooting. (Of course, they also allowed the Raps to score 63 points on 55 percent shooting. More on this later). Nash, who received as big an ovation as any Raptor, didn't score in the first half. He dished out 11 first-half assists and led a fast break so devastating it was if the "seven seconds or less" rule was still in play. Richardson, Barbosa and Matt Barnes streaked down the wings after every miss and waited for Nash to deliver the ball. It was beautiful to watch.
Some thoughts from an entertaining 117-113 Suns win that came down to the last minute:
• It was fascinating to watch Nash. He's not the same player he was two or three years ago. He rarely penetrated into the paint and couldn't find space for those trademark 15-foot floating jumpers. Credit some of this to Anthony Parker, who is long enough and quick enough to keep Nash out of the paint and contest those floaters. But Nash spent nearly all his time above the foul line in this game and almost never looked to score. It is a credit to him that he was still the most important player on the floor and still asserted himself as a scorer when it mattered most (more on that later).
• It's hard to overstate how entertaining Shaq is in person. During the national anthem (U.S. version), a cameraman walked along the line of players and stopped for a brief close-up of each one. Most of them ignored the camera; Shaq, however, glared right at it but didn't quite crack a smile. When it was his turn to be introduced as a starter, he got up and threw a fake punch at Robin Lopez, who took a nice pratfall onto the floor, feigning injury.
At one point in the third quarter, Toronto turned the ball over in transition and Shaq, who had been trailing the crowd on defense, found himself alone at half court. Barnes (I think) led him with a football pass that Shaq caught at about the three-point line. The crowd stood in anticipation/excitement/terror as Shaq got his momentum going toward the rim for a fast-break dunk. Would he lose control of the ball and tumble into the crowd? Break the rim? Get going so fast he'd jam, swing on the rim and fall on his back? Anything was possible. Luckily, Joey Graham swiped the ball away as Shaq brought it up for the jam. (The ref called a questionable foul).
• The Suns can play transition ball with Shaq in the game. It is possible. With about eight minutes to go in the second quarter, Nash grabbed a rebound and sprinted into transition. Toronto recovered, but Shaq had established deep post position on Bargnani after just a few seconds had elapsed on the shot clock. Nash fed him, Shaq spun around Bargs and laid it in. There were still 18 tics on the shot clock. It was Seven Seconds or Less--the Shaq version.
• Toronto has an ambivalent relationship with this team. They cheer loudly whenever Bargnani takes it strong to the rim--even if he misses. They are begging him to show some toughness, and, to his credit, he went right at Stoudemire a few times early for easy scores. If he misses two or three jumpers in a row, the groans come out.
Poor Jamario Moon. Every time he set up for a shot, the guys next to me would scream, "No! No! No!" And this was on a day when he was 6-for-9, including 4-of-6 from deep, though he is shooting only 43 percent on jumpers this season, according to 82games.
• The Nash-Stoudemire high screen-roll remains among the hardest plays to stop in the game. The Big Love Fest finished with 31 points, almost all of them off screen-rolls with Nash. Sometimes he'd pop out for a jumper, and sometimes he'd careen toward the rim like only Amare can do--bouncing off defenders, sinking awkward-looking shots, etc.
But with 30 seconds left and the Suns with the ball up 114-113, Toronto decided to switch even before Stoudemire set the screen in order to avoid giving him even a split second's worth of open space. This left one of Toronto's big guards (Parker) on Amare and a big man (Bargnani) on Nash. This made a lot of sense--Nash had only one field goal through the first 46 minutes of the game, and Parker was quick enough on the switch to prevent Nash from squeezing a pass to Stoudemire.
But this is why Nash is a great player. He saw the mismatch, and, for one of the only times in the game, he took the ball hard to the rim and sank a circus lay-up. Biggest shot of the game. He may not be able to throw up 20 or 30 point games regularly anymore, but he can score in key spots.
• The Suns defense is...interesting. They mix in a lot of zone and box-and-one looks, with Shaq or Amare hanging around the paint, two guys sliding along the baseline and two others along the foul line. There is a bit of the Lakers strong-side zone (as explained beautifully here by Forum Blue & Gold), with Richardson, Hill and Barnes cheating over from the weak side and daring you to swing the ball crosscourt (Richardson intercepted two passes this way). But it left the Suns vulnerable to open threes (the Raps were 7-of-15 from deep), and the Raps were occasionally able to find players in open spots along the baseline.
• As for the Raps, they miss Jose Calderon badly. His backup, Roko Ukic, played a solid game but was only on the court for 18 minutes. For the remaining 30 minutes, the Raps lacked a true point guard who could break down defenses and get teammates open for easy shots. They rely heavily on jumpers set up by screens. It's not an easy way to score points.
• Finally, a personal note: A Jake Voskuhl siting!! As a Connecticut native, this was thrilling for me. Voskuhl went to UConn and started for the '99 team (Rip Hamilton and Khalid El-Amin, AKA "The Beached Whale," were the stars) that beat the Elton Brand-Trajan Langdon Duke team for the title. At the time, my college buddies coined "The Voskuhl," which was the rare occurrence when a player's fouls + turnovers were greater than his points + rebounds. I'm happy to say Voskuhl recorded "a Voskuhl" today, with zero points, zero rebounds, two turnovers and a foul in six glorious minutes. Thanks for the memories, Jake.