By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 23, 2007
Few teams have adapted to the NBA's recent efforts to step up movement and scoring as well as the Washington Wizards and Phoenix Suns.
The Suns enter tonight's game at Verizon Center leading the league in scoring, and the Wizards rank second. Both teams have coaches who prefer to play fast and pile up points. And both squads feature superstar guards: the Suns' two-time reigning MVP Steve Nash and Washington's Gilbert Arenas, who is having an MVP-caliber season himself.
"Gilbert is always saying that we're the Phoenix Suns of the East," said Wizards forward Caron Butler, who finished with 34 points, 10 rebounds and 3 steals in a 144-139 Wizards overtime win on Dec. 22 in Phoenix. "So we know what kind of game it's going to be. Both teams like to get up-and-down and both teams can put points on the board, so it's going to be a fun game."
The Suns (32-8) are on pace to win a franchise-record 66 games and are only the eighth team in league history to post two winning streaks of at least 13 games in the same season.
The Wizards (24-16) have won four straight and snapped the Suns' previous streak, a 15-gamer, with the overtime win
That game started fast and never slowed. Arenas torched the Suns for 54 points and Brendan Haywood and Antawn Jamison each grabbed 12 rebounds to offset a 42-point, 12-assist effort by Nash.
As wild as that contest was, tonight's could be even more explosive because both teams should have fresh legs. In December, the Suns' team bus arrived at the arena around two hours before tip-off because a blizzard stranded the team in Denver for two days. The Wizards were playing on the second consecutive night after an exhausting 126-119 win at Sacramento.
Though their respective styles are as different as their MVP candidates -- Nash is passer first and scorer second, Arenas is the opposite -- the Suns and Wizards both play an up-tempo game; neither team has a problem getting into a shootout.
One key difference, though, is scoring differential. While the Suns average a league-high 111.4 points, they allow an average of 102.5 and their margin of victory is a league-best 8.9 points per game.
The Wizards average 107.4 and allow 105.9, giving them a differential of just 1.5 points. The Suns do a better job of closing out on shooters, but both teams use opportunistic defense to feed scoring binges.
The Wizards did that during one of the more impressive wins of late, a 114-93 victory at Orlando on Friday night when they blew open a tight game by repeatedly forcing Magic turnovers and converting those miscues into points.
The Suns often force opponents to play at their rapid pace and then bury them by turning steals, deflections and blocked shots into fast-break opportunities.
That was the case during their 131-102 rout of the Kevin Garnett-less Minnesota Timberwolves Sunday night. Phoenix turned a 71-65 lead into a 102-67 advantage with a third-quarter run that was keyed by their defense and rebounding. Phoenix scored on 20 of 24 possessions at one point and blew the short-handed Timberwolves off the court.
"It starts with containing the basketball," Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan said of preparing for the Suns. "First in transition because you can't let Nash just take the ball to the basket; and then you have to try to contain their draw-and-kick game. Then, they get going with their pick-and-rolls and he can really cause you problems. He's like a veteran quarterback out there."
One of the keys to the Wizards' win at Phoenix was their 48-46 edge in rebounding and their ability to maximize offensive opportunities due to only 11 turnovers. Of course, it didn't hurt that the Wizards made 10 three-pointers, including one Arenas banked in from the top of the key with 31 seconds left in overtime.
After he departed Team USA before the world championships this summer, Arenas said he planned to total at least 100 points against the Suns this season, a form of payback leveled at D'Antoni, who was an assistant with Team USA.
Arenas later backed off those comments, but the former University of Arizona star always gets up for Nash and the Suns. He insists that he holds no grudge against D'Antoni or Suns chairman Jerry Colangelo, who is the head of USA Basketball, but it was clear following Saturday's win over Boston that he was looking forward to tonight's game.
"It's the kind of game you love to play," Arenas said. "They like to score and we like to score. It's going to be one of those high-scoring games they used to play in the '80s."