By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
The thing about having the best record in the Eastern Conference, as the Washington Wizards did at the start of last night's game, is that the big boys all pay attention. The Wizards got the Suns' attention when they won in Phoenix a month ago and kept it through the entire rematch at Verizon Center. Getting the Suns' "A" game was quite a compliment and also a reminder that there's still a little gap between the Wizards and the top teams in the NBA.
As great as Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are, there's nobody quite like Steve Nash, or quite as good, as he demonstrated last night by carving up the Wizards with 27 points and 14 assists. When Nash wasn't scoring, he was setting up six teammates, most notably Raja Bell and Shawn Marion. They each scored 21 points on a night when the Suns shot 60 percent, and hit nearly 58 percent of their three-pointers in the first half en route to a 14th straight victory.
"Nobody expects someone to come out on fire like that," Gilbert Arenas said. "You're out there thinking: 'We can't do anything with this. Okay, we've got to figure out something quick.' They played pretty much the perfect game that first half."
Arenas had a game-high 31 points, but by the time he got going, the Suns had a 41-20 lead. "They weren't messing around tonight," the Wizards' Jarvis Hayes said.
The Suns acknowledged as much. "I don't know all the stats, but I know Washington has been feeling good and playing well late," Nash said. "I think we were up for the challenge tonight."
And when the Suns are playing their best, only the Dallas Mavericks have the wherewithal to beat them. Suns Coach Mike D'Antoni half-jokingly said he was willing to bet $5 that 9 of 10 Suns players wouldn't know that Phoenix trails Dallas by half a game in the Western Conference standings. Turns out, D'Antoni was dead wrong. "We watch 'em," Nash said. "We all want home court. We know they're not losing -- so we can't. That's the race we're in."
So last night, the Wizards were merely in the way. The Suns' first-half performance was essentially a basketball clinic conducted at the Wizards' expense. Even with Amare Stoudemire reduced to 7 1/2 minutes of playing time because of foul trouble that first half, the Suns flashed just about everything in their repertoire. They outscored the Wizards, the top-scoring team in the East, 12-2 on fast-break points. They ran pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop. They spread the floor and let the 6-foot-8 Stoudemire, the team's secondary playmaker, post up in the lane and look for cutters or shooters.
In the first half, when the Suns scored 76 points on 67 percent shooting, Boris Diaw had six assists. Three times he passed up shots in the lane over shorter defenders to fire a pass to the corner for a three-pointer. James Jones, the Suns' seventh man, hit four three-pointers in the half and had 13 points in 14 minutes.
Marion scored in transition. Bell took consecutive charges on defense and hit open jumpers on offense. Arenas had asked Coach Eddie Jordan during the Tuesday morning shoot-around: "How come nobody double-teams Steve Nash -- or traps him? Why do people let Steve Nash just bounce around and kill them?"
Arenas was telling that story on himself after the game because he got his answer first-hand. "He shoots so well, he makes decisions so well,"
Arenas said: "It's like John Stockton, except Steve's got more people. Amare Stoudemire is dunking on people. If you double down on Amare, Nash will hit not just a jump shot, but a three-point jump shot. And if you pay all the attention to Nash and Amare, then he'll find Raja Bell in the corner or Leandro Barbosa in the corner for three. And then, there's the problem of what to do with Boris Diaw. They've got all the right elements."
Asked which team is harder to guard, the Mavericks or the Suns, Arenas said: "The Suns are harder to guard. Steve you cannot double. Dirk you can double. You can leave [Devean] Harris or A.J. [Anthony Johnson]. But you can't leave Raja Bell or Shawn Marion or Barbosa. Look at them. They've got shooters, shooters, shooters everywhere. I was looking at the game the night Steve got 21 assists and I'm sitting there thinking, 'It can't be that easy.' But he sees everybody and they're all smart."
Over in the other locker room, D'Antoni was saying he has the best job in basketball, and it's hard to argue. D'Antoni thinks he is seeing a slightly edgier Nash these days and believes the reason is Nash knows this team, as Arenas says, has all the elements to win a championship. "Here I am gushing," the coach said. "I'm sorry. I can't find anything really wrong."
To their credit, the Wizards took this whipping like men. They cut the Phoenix lead from 29 to 14 and kept playing, but it wasn't going to be a glorious night on 7th St. NW, not last night. Caron Butler ("That guy is good -- he's really good," D'Antoni said) scored 24 points and grabbed five rebounds. Arenas scored 31, grabbed five rebounds and made five assists. Antonio Daniels came off the bench to score 20 points on 8-for-9 shooting.
But the Wizards were simply overwhelmed by a team that has won 30 of its last 32 games. They weren't bad, but they can't play with the Suns at their best -- not yet. "I think we surprised them a little bit this time," D'Antoni said. "We knew this would be a tough game and our guys were up for it."
Pressed to come up with some weaknesses he's going to work on between now and the playoffs, D'Antoni talked about his team's tendency to fall asleep after scoring three consecutive times. "We take a little nap -- have some lapses in concentration," he said.
But that didn't happen last night because the Suns were a little stung by losing to the Wizards in Phoenix. Championship teams take offense to losing at home. And the fact that the Suns took the Wizards so seriously is surely a sign that the Wizards are a threat. But threatening and winning are entirely different things, a point Nash and the Suns drove home repeatedly.