ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz (also the force behind Clipperblog) was up late watching the Suns lose to the Lakers, and got to thinking about the post D'Antoni offense in Phoenix.
Has there ever been a point guard who could find a high-percentage shot for his team more quickly and effortlessly than Steve Nash? You can credit Mike D'Antoni's "Seven Seconds or Less" transition-oriented spread offense for much of that. Under D'Antoni, Steve Nash was encouraged to let his spatial intuition run wild to create those open looks. The result was an offensive juggernaut. Unfortunately, Phoenix could never quite get over the hump in the hyper-competitive Western Conference, and ... well ... you know the rest.
In the clutter of the Suns' new offense, Steve Nash looks like a hummingbird trapped inside a sandwich bag.
Last night against the Lakers, there was an eight-minute stretch over the second and third quarters when nobody except Shaquille O'Neal recorded a single point for the Suns. Amazingly, Nash was on the floor for all of it.
You can learn a lot about how the offense is different in Phoenix this year by looking at what happened over that part of the game.
It's important to note that the Lakers' defense has made the entire league look like ineffectual slugs this season. Few teams apply that kind of pressure, and even fewer do it with three agile guys 6' 10" or taller. Still, watching Nash slog his way through the torpor of halfcourt sets that demand nothing more of him than an entry pass is painful. Worse, the slow-it-down exercise in Phoenix seems to be a sacrifice without a reward.
At the time this sequence begins, the Suns and Lakers are tied, thanks to Amare Stoudemire's mid-range game and some mismatches for Boris Diaw. This is how Phoenix played the last five minutes of the first half on offense (before going on to lose by a baker's dozen):
First Possession: 14 Seconds, Zero Points
Nash walks the ball upcourt and immediately feeds O'Neal in the post against Pau Gasol. O'Neal manages a single dribble before Lamar Odom arrives for the double-team. The length of Gasol and Odom, along with the Lakers' weak side zone, cuts off O'Neal from Phoenix's shooters. O'Neal is ultimately called for an iffy offensive foul trying to create some space for himself against Gasol.
Second Possession: 20 Seconds, Zero Points
Stoudemire checks into the game. The Suns now have Nash-Bell-Hill-Stoudemire-O'Neal on the floor. Nash is more kinetic pushing the ball upcourt. He glides along the left sideline with Derek Fisher in front of him, but here comes that Lakers' trap in the form of Lamar Odom. Before things get too hairy, Nash manages to kick the ball out of the corner and back out to Hill.
Remember that great Phoenix spacing? Forget about it. Pause the frame, and you'll see the Suns have Stoudemire and O'Neal stacked up on the right post -- Stoudemire high, O'Neal low. But that's the outermost frontier of the Suns' offense, because there's nobody on the weak side perimeter, where a shooter would have been stationed in seasons past. The ball works its way to Bell up top. He feeds Amare, who is immediately smothered by Gasol and Odom. Stoudemire desperately throws it away trying to hit Nash on the opposite side of the court.
Third Possession: 19 Seconds, Zero Points
Off a Laker miss, Nash is earnestly trying to create a transition opportunity. He pushes the ball, with Bell running the wing. Nash gets it to Bell, but Bryant closes before a 3 can be launched. Bell instinctively looks for an open shooter cross-court, but there isn't one. Instead, Phoenix is forced to back it out. Nash feeds O'Neal in the post, but Shaq kicks a bounce pass out to Bell when the double team arrives. Shaq reposts, rinses, and repeats. After the second kick-out, Bell goes to Grant Hill in the far corner. Hill launches a shot that's, frankly, well out of his range. Shaq then comes down with the offensive rebound and shuttles it over to Amare, who has it blocked by Bryant underneath the hoop.
Fourth Possession: 13 Seconds, Zero Points
Nash walks the ball up joylessly. He gets a high screen from Amare Stoudemire, which Derek Fisher evades nicely. Nash dishes it over to Stoudemire who drives down the heart of the lane. In years past, Amare would have had a clear path to the rim. But O'Neal and Gasol are fighting for position before him. Amare pulls up short and scoops the ball to Shaq while almost landing on him. There is now a scrum of tangled arms and legs inside the restricted circle. O'Neal tries to lay the ball in, but he's too far under the basket.
Fifth Possession: 13 Seconds, Zero Points
The easiest way to beat the Lakers' strong-side pressure is spot up lethal long-range shooters on the far side. Nobody is better at orchestrating that kind of attack than Steve Nash. Unfortunately, other than Raja Bell, he doesn't have any teammates on the floor who can hit a shot from beyond twenty feet. This gives the already stifling Laker defense even more freedom to strangle the Suns.
Out of a timeout, Nash gets the ball to Stoudemire above the left elbow against Lamar Odom. Nash curls through the lane, sets a back screen for Grant Hill, then slips the screen to receive the dribble hand-off from Amare out on the arc. Fisher is there to contest the 25-footer, and it's way off the mark. Nash is scoreless on three attempts.
Sixth Possession: Nine Seconds, Three Points
Matt Barnes is now in the game for Bell. The Suns get into their offense early here at the 2:00 mark. Nash drops it into O'Neal in the post. The Lakers double-team quickly with Odom, right? Nope. Whether it's intentional or not, Amare doesn't move below the foul line. This keeps Odom far enough away from the box to give O'Neal some space to work. Bryant comes over to help, but by the time he arrives, O'Neal has already muscled his way up. He hits the shot and draws the foul.
This is the first made field goal of the sequence and, not coincidentally, the first shot Phoenix has taken in under 10 seconds.
Seventh Possession: Nine Seconds, Zero Points
The Suns try this again. It goes in quickly to O'Neal deep in the post, but Amare hangs back just as he did on the last possession. This creates another, more manageable double-team for O'Neal. He pivots, squares up, pumps, but heaves up the shot awkwardly in traffic. The rebound is tipped, but rolls O'Neal's way. He floats a lazy pass that's tipped away, allowing the Lakers to get out in transition.
Eighth Possession: 19 Seconds, Two Points
Inside the 1:30 mark, Nash dribbles the ball in place as the Suns deliberately set up. O'Neal is hunched over on the low block, his palms resting on his knees. Matt Barnes sets a cross-screen down low that rouses O'Neal into action. He plods his way from the post to the arc, where he sets a screen for Nash. With :10 left on the shot clock, Nash finally penetrates into the key where he's met by Gasol. Nash kicks the ball out to Barnes on the circle. Radmanovic closes, but Barnes finds O'Neal, who trailed Nash into the lane and is now alone under the rim for the easy slam.
The set is slow to materialize,
but it's the first possession in a long while that relies on what Steve Nash does best -- dribble-penetration. In the salad days in Phoenix, a Steve Nash dribble-drive generated space out on the perimeter for a shooter. Here, it creates a vacuum underneath for a big body. Different effect, but same result.
Ninth Possession: 12 Seconds, Zero Points
The next Phoenix possession is one of the first times tonight that Steve Nash dribbles his way below the foul line before the defense can set. Off a Laker miss, he pushes the ball in transition and pulls up below the left elbow. He wants the jumper, but Fisher has guarded him closely from one end of the floor to the other. Nash doesn't have the look, so he dishes it over to O'Neal at the foul line. Matt Barnes gets himself wide open in the far corner when Radmanovic falls asleep, but his attempt is no good.
Tenth Possession: 4.6 Seconds, Zero Points
The only way to get Phoenix to launch a shot in seven seconds or less these days is to give them fewer than seven seconds. Off a Bryant bucket, Matt Barnes heaves a court-length pass to Grant Hill. Running a fly pattern, Hill catches in motion with 4.6 left in the half. He sets, spins, but misses the layup, and the Suns head into the tunnel trailing by six at the break.