PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference, first round; Game 1.
It’s time to see if the style the Phoenix Suns used to get the league’s best record can be successful in the playoffs.
Phoenix will keep riding a run-and-gun system and 3-point shooting in its first-round matchup with a Memphis Grizzlies team that features tough defense and depth—attributes often associated with postseason success.
Those are not characteristics shared by the Suns, leaving many to wonder if their outstanding regular season will carry over to the playoffs. Critics have long questioned, as they are doing with Phoenix, if a team that infrequently sets up a half-court offense and plays inconsistent defense can be a serious title contender.
“We’ve got to keep proving everybody wrong,” forward Shawn Marion said. “It’s kind of crazy. If we keep proving ourselves and keep going out and winning games, sooner or later they’re going to change their minds and realize they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.”
Steve Nash has engineered a fast-breaking Phoenix offense that led the league with 110.4 points a game, nearly seven more than any other team and 17 more than Memphis’ season average. The Grizzlies ranked fourth in the NBA in scoring defense, allowing 91.1 points per contest, about 12 fewer than Phoenix’s league-worst average.
“We had to play the way we’re most successful, and 62 wins, I think, shows we’re pretty successful with this style,” said Nash, an MVP candidate who averaged a league-high 11.5 assists. “Now we just have to prove to people that we can do it in the playoffs, too.”
Even if Memphis forces half-court games, Phoenix believes it has the talent to succeed.
“What’s our average on fast breaks? Twenty points a game?” Suns coach Mike D’Antoni said. “That’s 90 points in the half-court, so we’ve got a pretty good half-court game, unless my math fails me. People say we can’t play half-court. We can play half-court, we just don’t want to.”
Phoenix could get a challenge from the eighth-seeded Grizzlies, who won two of the regular-season meetings and lost the other two by an average of just 6.5 points. Memphis was able to slow down the Suns a bit, holding them below 100 points in three of those matchups.
However, the Suns don’t run set plays, so putting together a scheme against them is a challenge, to say the least.
“It’s going to be kind of hard,” Marion said. “Whoever you decide to stop, somebody’s going to be open. We’ve got five weapons on the floor at all times, so somebody is going to be open.”
Ten of the 12 players on Memphis’ playoff roster averaged more than 21 minutes per contest, and none played more than 32 a game. All five Phoenix starters averaged at least 34 minutes, and only one bench player—Jim Jackson — played more than 18 per game.
“We have to come out and give 110 percent. Phoenix is just a heck of a team,” Memphis’ Bonzi Wells said. “They have skill and position players.”
One of those players that has to most concern the Grizzlies is Amare Stoudemire, the 22-year-old All-Star who is entering his first postseason. He should be a tough matchup in transition and in the post against Lorenzen Wright and Stromile Swift.
The Suns led the NBA in 3-pointers made and attempted, as well as accuracy at 39.3 percent, and will need to keep hitting from long range to make a long run in the playoffs.
Phoenix, however, also knows its defense must be at its best.
“When the playoffs start, our intensity will pick up,” Suns guard Joe Johnson said. “To be honest with you, I think we’ll be one of the best defensive teams in the league.”
With his 10-man rotation, Memphis coach Mike Fratello will keep throwing fresh bodies on the floor so his team can keep up on the defensive end with the speedy Suns.
“We’ve got to be ready to play. Phoenix is going to be a team that gets up and down the court and wants to score,” Grizzlies swingman Mike Miller said.
The Grizzlies struggled down the stretch, losing five of their final six games. They gave up 100 points or more in four of those outings.
One bright spot for the Grizzlies was Pau Gasol getting his legs back after missing nearly two months with a foot injury. He has averaged 17.1 points and shot 55.7 percent from the field in 12 games this month.
Gasol has a tough matchup going against Marion, who averaged 19 points and 12.3 rebounds in the season series.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Grizzlies - 8th seed. Suns - 1st seed.
TEAM LEADERS: Grizzlies - Gasol, 17.8 ppg; Wright, 7.7 rpg; Williams, 5.6 apg. Suns -Stoudemire, 26.0 ppg; Marion, 11.3 rpg; Nash, 11.5 apg.
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Tied, 2-2. Each team won once on the other team’s home floor, but Memphis’ victory in Phoenix came with Nash sidelined by back spasms. The Suns shot 28.6 percent from 3-point range in its two losses, compared to 40.4 percent in two victories. Johnson totaled 58 points in the last two meetings. Stoudemire was held to an average of 15 points in the final three matchups after scoring 30 in the first one.