By John Carroll, Scouts Inc.
The Phoenix Suns are a very dangerous team to match up against in the playoffs. They give opposing coaches fits because of their unique style of play and put a lot of pressure on their opponents because of their talent. They push on makes and misses, run a high volume of pick-and-rolls with Steve Nash and shoot quickly in order to create more possessions. Playoff basketball is normally slower and much more of a grind. Not with the Suns.
Nash is a two-time MVP who is averaging 11 assists per game, and when he has the ball in his hands, anything is possible. If you struggle with pick-and-rolls defensively, the Suns, and Nash especially, will make you pay.
Amare Stoudemire is a freak athlete and a nightmare of a matchup. If you do not have a power forward that can match his strength and athleticism, he will score at will. The Blazers could have their hands full.
Suns’ bench is a big strength, as it basically has a personality of its own. Whether it is Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley, Leandro Barbosa, Channing Frye or Louis Amundson, the Suns’ bench players can score and change a game when they are on the court. Dudley and Frye each have deep range and tremendous consistency from behind the arc.
The Portland Trailblazers, meanwhile, could not have gotten worse news recently when they found out that star player Brandon Roy has a torn meniscus in his right knee. He had arthroscopic surgery on Friday and will most likely miss the 2010 NBA playoffs, despite the Blazers’ optimism about a second-round return.
This is a crushing blow to the young Blazers because Roy is the go-to guy on their team. He has the ball in his hands all the time offensively and leads them in scoring at 21.5 points per game. And the Blazers could not have matched up with a worse team than the Suns. Phoenix’s style of play and the amount of points they put on the board will put a lot of pressure on Portland.
The Blazers are a halfcourt team that plays at a very slow pace. The Blazers must be efficient offensively and limit their turnovers against the quicker Suns. They have a veteran point guard in Andre Miller who should be able to control the ball and pace of the game.
The Blazers have talent even without Brandon Roy. The problem is that they do not have much playoff experience. How will they deal with the pressure and limelight of the playoffs? Veterans like Miller and Marcus Camby must lead the way, and even young-gun LaMarcus Aldridge must step up his game. And complimentary players such as Rudy Fernandez, Nicholas Batum and Martell Webster must produce more than they have during the regular season.
Point guard matchup
Nash is hard to guard because he can run forever, has incredible ball-handling skills and has a very good first step. Whether it is on the fastbreak or in the halfcourt Nash can get the ball wherever he wants, change directions and make plays. The vision he displays, as well as the tremendous body control he exhibits, allow him to do some special things on the court. He has an unbelievable basketball IQ and feel for the game, and he is a great guy to play with because he can set up teammates and makes their jobs so easy.
Nash has also improved his own scoring, and when called upon, he can put up big numbers. Nash is a tremendous shooter that has great form and technique on his shot. Although only 6-3, he gets his shot off on anyone because he has a quick trigger. Nash is one of the best pick-and-roll players to have ever played the game. He has a terrific feel when he comes off the pick, he reads the defense and almost always makes the correct play. He is extremely crafty when he drives the lane and rarely gets all the way to the rim. When he gets into the paint, he has tremendous footwork and creativity -- he has all the shots.
But Nash’s Achilles heel is defense. He struggles to keep opponents in front of him because of a lack of lateral speed and overall strength. He never really gets down in his stance and is always up, reaching, gambling and looking to get out on the break. That may work during the regular season when you can outscore your opponent, but in the playoffs, the games always become more about what you can do in the halfcourt. In order for the Suns to win in the playoffs, Nash must be able to contain the likes of Miller, Deron Williams, Jason Kidd and Tony Parker.
Miller is a smart and crafty player who is productive year in and year out despite some very obvious limitations to his game. He is a terrible 3-point shooter with almost no confidence in that stroke, so it is rare to see him even attempt a shot from behind the arc. He doesn’t have great quickness in his first step either, but is nonetheless very adept at creating off the dribble. While he rarely creates separation from his defender, he is the rare player who doesn’t need to blow by his man in order to get into the lane and make a play. He is a good shooter off the dribble in the mid-range area and is very good at creating enough space to get his shot off. He is also very poised and crafty inside the lane and he is one of the best there is at getting defenders off their feet.
Miller struggles at the defensive end of the floor, where his lack of lateral quickness can be exposed. He will be challenged in the playoffs, where he will have to contain Nash and defend a high volume of pick-and-rolls. However, Miller is one of the better rebounders in the league from the point guard position thanks in large part to his physical strength and willingness to mix it up in the paint.
Shooting guard matchup
Jason Richardson, one of the best combinations of raw power and athleticism at the scoring guard position, is one of the toughest matchups in the NBA. Everyone knows about his leaping abilities but he has become one of the top scoring guards in the league. He can score in transition and is nearly impossible to guard in the open court because of his ability to attack the basket. Even worse for opposing defenses, he has improved his jumpshot over the past few seasons.
Richardson scores out on the fastbreak with feeds from Nash and can create his own shot in one-on-one isolation situations in the halfcourt. Richardson has worked hard on his perimeter shot during his time in the NBA and has made himself into a deep threat. He is an average ball-handler and is much better going to his left than right, especially when getting into this pull-up jumpers. He is excellent getting to the rim because of his athleticism and can take the contact and with his strength finish at the rim.
Richardson has never been the defensive player that he should be. He has all the tools to be lock-down defender, but because of a lack of attention to this area of the game, he has never developed into one. Much more of a gamble -and-steal guy than a stopper, Richardson should be able to guard the other team’s best player but that has never been his role.
Rudy Fernandez has been disappointed with his lack of playing time, but with the injury to Roy, Rudy will likely be inserted into the starting lineup. This will give him a chance to show his coach and teammates what he can do. He has been stuck behind Roy and lost time to Nicolas Batum and Martell Webster. Fernandez he is not a very good defender, but he is one of the most exciting young players in the NBA. He is a big-time athlete and crowd favorite. He plays with a lot of energy and is an exciting player to watch. Fernandez is a high flyer who will run out on the break and throw it down on his opponents.
Rudy does a little of everything on the court. This season, he averaged 8.0 points, 2.0 assists, 1.0 steals, 2.6 rebounds in 23.2 minutes. The Blazers hope his numbers go up significantly when his minutes go up in the playoffs.
Small forward matchup
Grant Hill has always been a smart, tough-minded winner. Earlier in his career, before a string of injuries, Grant was a player who could score 20-plus points on any given night, defend, rebound, handle the rock and dish out assists. He was an athlete who combined grace, fluidity and explosiveness; Grant was one of the poster boys for the NBA. Age and injuries have limited his ability to play at the same level, but he has resurrected his career with the Suns.
Although Grant is not the player he once was he is still a productive small forward. He lacks the explosiveness he once displayed -- which shows up in his low free throw attempts -- but he can still motor in transition and finish at the rim. Grant has a great feel around the rim and has always had a smooth stroke. He gets good elevation on his jump shot and has been a consistent shooter his entire career. He can shoot the spot-up jumper or get it off the bounce, and can shoot it from mid-range. Although Grant has good shooting mechanics and a nice stroke, he has never been able to develop a lot of range on his shot. Playing alongside Nash, he also learned how to play without the ball. He knows how to cut and move in order to score. He has turned himself into a very nice role player with the Suns.
Grant had all the physical tools to be a great defender when he first joined the league; height, length and quickness – he had it all. He can’t play at that level defensively any more, but he still works at it and is extremely smart. Grant knows how to play.
Nicolas Batum is a long, athletic forward whose calling card is defense. He has the physical tools to guard multiple positions, gets into passing lanes and makes opponents work hard to score.
However, Batum is not a skilled offensive player, and is often the fifth scoring option when he is on the court; he is more of a blender, a glue guy. Still, he does a lot of the little things to help his team be successful offensively. He averaged 10.1 ppg this season in 24.8 mpg.
Power forward matchup
Stoudemire is one of the most skilled athletes in the NBA. He is a physical specimen with the unique combination of raw athleticism, power, speed and skill. He is one of the most difficult big men to cover in the NBA because of his freakish skills. He can outrun and out jump most big men in the league. He has a tremendously quick first step for a 6-foot-10 player and he is unbelievably explosive around the rim.
Stoudemire is one of the best scoring big men in the NBA because he scores in all types of ways. He can run and score in transition. He finishes with explosive power dunks. And he can knock down mid range jump shots. He has really worked on his jump shot and developed more range and consistency.
Amare is has a great first step and is extremely explosive going to the rim, where he finishes everything. Because he is so explosive off the dribble and often beats his opponents, he gets fouled and goes to the line at a pretty high rate. Stoudemire is a very active offensive rebounder, as his length and explosiveness make it tough to keep this guy off the glass.
Amare has never been known as a defensive stopper, although he has all the tools to be one. He does not really concentrate at this end of the floor and refuses to get into a stance, focus on defending his man one-on-one or helping with team defense. Stoudemire is much more interested in roaming the middle and blocking shots. Still, he is a big-time rebounder who has averaged big numbers over his career.
LaMarcus Aldridge has tremendous length, excellent reach and great athleticism. He’s also a sweet-shooting big man who has all the offensive tools needed for a post player. He has an excellent face-up game off the lane and can hit the 15-footers easily. In the low block, he loves the turnaround jumper off either side. He will sometimes settle for turnaround and fade away jumpers, and because of this, he does not always get to the free-throw line. He Needs to take the ball to the rim more with stronger power moves and finish.
Aldridge has some strength issues and it shows up in certain areas of his game. He sometimes appears to fumble the ball and not have a strong grasp of it in traffic. He has gotten stronger throughout hisa time in the NBA and the lower body strength he has developed has allowed him to handle the digs and bumping in the post. He works hard to post-up against stronger players but does get pushed out a bit.
Aldridge is very active on missed shots and often attacks the glass with ferocity. Although his upper body is till a bit weak, his rebounding has improved dramatically since he entered the league. Aldridge is a big time shot-blocker who is very active defensively. He has quick feet and can move laterally. He knows how to rotate defensively and help his teammates.
Robin Lopez was a great pickup for the Suns when they drafted the Stanford center with the 15th pick in the 2008 draft. There are not too many people as big as this young man, and he has excellent mobility for his size.
This kid has excellent NBA potential and has gotten better and better every season in the league. Lopez is still raw offensively and he’s not ready to make an impact there yet. But he has nice hands and catches the ball well in the low post. He has a somewhat rudimentary post game, but he also knows how to catch in the post, read the defense and pass it back out. Still, he does not have the ability at this point to step off the block and face up or move up to the elbow and cannot shoot the ball. However, Lopez is a very good offensive rebounder who can finish deep in the paint because of size and strength.
Lopez’s biggest strengths come on defense. He can guard most big men one-on-one in the post and can contest and block shots. He plays with intensity and passion, and is one tough guy.
Marcus Camby is a very good role player that can defend and rebound. He can score as a complimentary player and can help facilitate others on offense. He has worked hard on his jumpshot and has become a reliable shooter over time. He can make the spot-up shot in catch-and -shoot situations off drives and pick-and-pops. Camby is very effective in transition because he has the speed and athleticism to beat most big men down the floor. The Blazers will not run plays for Camby. Rather, he gets everything off secondary action. He is the consummate role player.
Frye is a perfect player for the Suns’ offensive system. Frye is a big-time shooter and, at his height, he forces the other teams and coaches to make some critical decisions. Defenders must either come away from the paint to guard and contest his shots or the opposing coach must change his lineup and go smaller. Either way, it plays right into the Suns’ hands. Frye plays 27.0 minutes per game for the Suns and there are many games where you will find him on the court at the end of the game. His mere presence spaces the court and gives Nash and Stoudemire room to operate.
Martell Webster is a young player who was drafted by the Blazers directly out of high school in 2005. But the Blazers will need him to play at a very high level in order to upset the Suns. The question will be if Webster can produce with more playing time.
He has averaged 9.4 points and shot 37.4 percent from behind the arc in 24.5 mpg for the Blazers. Webster is a big-time shooter that can hit the 3 from far out. He can defend when he is locked in and focused. He is a sparkplug off the bench for the Blazers.
Prediction: Suns in five