The defensive problems were second-generational - it wasn't like Diaw got many easy lanes to the basket off the screen or that Marion was able to drive baseline at will. The Clippers lost the game in the rotations off these sets - and the way you know is the balanced Phoenix scoring attack. Phoenix didn't exploit a particular matchup so much as they were able to anticipate soft spots in the Clipper rotation. When there's open space on the arc, it really doesn't matter who's there for Phoenix because they can all hit.
The Suns shot 12-27 from the arc; the Clippers finished 4-12, two of which were in the waning moments of the game while they were on life support.
Let's break down the possessions that yielded Phoenix's twelve 3-pointers:
- (1st, 6:30) Like most of Phoenix's long-range shots, the Suns first three-pointer of the night is initiated in transition - off a missed Cassell fadeaway. Marion collects the rebounds, dishes it off to Nash who pulls up with :21 on the shot clock and hits an uncontested three-pointer.
For the record, the Clippers are back - just not set. Exactly three seconds has expired on the shot clock.
- (1st, 3:47) Off a successful Brand FT, Barbosa brings the ball up, guarded by Mobley, with Nash on the wing. Thomas sets a high screen for Barbosa. Barbosa uses his quickness to elude the Kaman/Mobley trap/double-team. As Barbosa enters the paint he has (1) Kaman backpedaling, (2) Mobley trying to catch up to the play from behind, and (3) Q leaving Nash wide open on the perimeter to help on Barbosa. Seeing the triple-team, Barbosa passes it back out to Nash on the perimeter and, to their credit, both Cassell and Ross do a nice job rotating here -- Cassell up from the corner and Ross onto Diaw - whom Sam just left.
But all it takes is one loose screw and the entire wheel comes apart - and Nash finds a wide, wide...and I mean wide open Tim Thomas on the garden spot. He hasn't missed in two weeks and he doesn't now. What happened?
After the Barbosa penetration, Kaman never recovered and just blew the assignment.
- (2nd, 11:23) Quickly into their set, Thomas launches up a three and misses, but the long rebound comes out to Raja Bell. Before the Clippers - four of whom are below the foul line -- can reset their defense, the Suns have assumed their spots on the perimeter, including Boris Diaw. Bell kicks it out to Diaw immediately and with :22 left on the new shot clock, he hits it.
- (2nd, 10:18) Classic Phoenix set, even without Nash on the floor. Barbosa starts with the ball, with House on the wing, Bell in the left corner and Diaw in the right corner. Thomas sets a high screen for Barbosa and, again, both Mobley and Kaman end up chasing Barbosa into the lane. If Kevin Pelton were documenting this, he'd have to classify this tactically as a "trap," but trap implies that there's some measure of captivity...and that's not the case here.
Even though Dunleavy has chosen to throw two bodies on Barbosa in the paint, now Vlad leaves Bell in the corner to help on Barbosa - only this time the Phoenix spacing is far too good for any weak side rotation. Maggette would need to hail a cab to get from the right corner to Bell. The mistake was Vlad in leaving Bell in the first place. There was no help he could provide on the play that a weak side defender couldn't.
Wanna know the sick part? Had it not been Bell, it would've been Thomas, who was wide open at his garden spot.
If the Clips are doubling the ball off the screen, what's the sense of having a third defender collapse on him as well? If it's Andre Miller penetrating and Greg Buckner is your biggest perimeter threat, that's one thing. But Dunleavy realizes that if there's a guy in a gorilla suit running around the arena, then he's playing Phoenix, right?
- (2nd, 4:09) This is just bad luck and there's nothing you can do about it. Nash pushes it up. He wants Marion for the alleyoop, but misses. Marion is barely able to save the ball in bounds and it's tipped out to Thomas on the arc.
Look what I found.
- (3rd, 10:53) All it takes is one second of bad individual defense and the whole defensive set is shot to hell. It's a high Nash-Diaw S/R that Brand and Ross defend perfectly. Nash can't get Diaw the ball and Ross isn't providing Nash any room either to penetrate or step back and shoot. With nowhere to go, Nash swings it over to Marion on the perimeter, who is covered by Kaman. Diaw makes a strong cut to the basket, but Brand is with him every step of the way.
But Diaw doesn't have to break free of Brand to be effective and here's why:
When Diaw makes his move, Mobley momentarily shifts his balance away from his man, Bell, in the corner and toward the cutting Diaw. The instant Marion picks up on this, he swings the ball over the now-open Bell in the right corner.
An awful decision by Mobley on one of his worst games of the year. What kills here is that you've got four guys out there playing smashmouth defense - particularly Ross and Brand. But the slightest shift of your weight can cost your team three points against Phoenix - and that's what happened with Mobley here.
- (3rd, 9:14) Off a long Cassell miss, Nash pushes it up and - quite appropriately - hits the PUJIT while Sam is still on his heels at :21.
The PUJITer becomes the PUJITee.
- (3rd, 1:23) Nash brings it up left side covered by Livingston with Barbosa on the left wing being guarded by Maggette. Barbosa goes to meet Nash at the arc. When Nash leaves Barbosa with the ball, it's simply a matter of Clipper miscommunication - Maggette thinks there's a switch, so he picks up Nash...but Livingston remains on Nash as well. By the time Livingston figures out that he's sitting in the wrong seat, Barbosa has heaved up his open 25-footer.
- (3rd, 0:02) This is a possession that never should've exited if not for Shaun's awful entry pass into Brand that gets knocked away by Diaw with :12. And there's absolutely nothing to explain these ten seconds other than to stick an adhesive label on it marked, "Phoenix Suns Basketball":
Nash rushes the ball upcourt, weaves his way - first through Brand at about 35 feet, then through Vlad at the arc - through the entire Clippers' defense. When Shaun and Corey finally collapse on Nash in the lane, Nash - falling down -- squirts the ball out to Diaw at the foul line with :05 left in the quarter. Diaw recognizes Raja Bell doing the crossword puzzle in the left corner with no Clipper within ten feet of him.
Diaw to Bell. Three points.
Now you see how this 6'9" French center that was wasting away in obscurity in Atlanta manages routinely to rack up, like, eight assists?
- (4th, 6:01) This score emanated from that Nash-Diaw screen roll drag we broke down earlier. Livingston starts on Nash, with Kaman on Diaw. Ross is monitoring Barbosa on the left wing. A pattern is starting to emerge here because the brainfart looks and smells much like two earlier sets where a Phoenix cutter attracted too much Clipper help at the expense of the Clips' perimeter coverage.
Nash keeps the ball with Diaw dragging toward the hoop and what happens here is that both Livingston and Kaman double Nash, with Ross leaving Barbosa on the wing to take Diaw.
Fine...except...who's rotating up on Barbosa?
That would be no one.
- (4th, 4:16) Yep. The High S/R, this time for Marion. The hedge works nicely here as Kaman picks it up and, as Marion pulls up, Corey meets the Matrix at the spot while Kaman returns to his original man - Diaw. It's one of those sets where you're saying, "good team defense!" All good, until you realize that...
...while Corey closed on Marion, his man - Raja Bell - snuck over to the far right corner and now nobody is within ten feet of him. Hell, he isn't even on my television screen - that's how sick Phoenix's spacing is!
Marion swings a vicious cross-court pass to Barbosa on the wing who touch-passes it over to the wide open Bell.
If it wasn't breaking your heart, it'd be beautiful to watch. Suns by 12 and the writing is on the wall.
- (4th, 2:56) It's pretty much over now, but this is vintage Nash, as Doug Collins points out. Nash first tries the high S/R with Marion, the Clips hedge and the Matrix doesn't get the shot he wants, so he dishes it back to Nash to reset.
The next set is the ol' Diaw S/R. Livingston starts on Nash, Vlad on Diaw. When Diaw makes that cut to the basket, Livingston covers him well, leaving Vlad on Nash. Nash toys with Vlad for a second on the arc, then quickly steps back and fires before Vlad can even put up a hand.
Some more general observations tomorrow. There's some good to be gleaned from Game One, but you can see how eight to ten bad split-second decisions can doom an 18-22 night from your franchise player.
That's all it takes.