[As it turns out, Hakim Warrick's monster jam on Yi Jianlian at the end of the first half was a sign for things to come for Washington in the second half.]
There was a battle for momentum toward the end of the second quarter during Sunday night’s Wizards-Suns game. Steve Nash had just penetrated the lane (as he did with ease all night), and dished off to Hakim Warrick (again, as he did all night) for a thunderous slam, and there were just four seconds left on the clock. John Wall then took the ball, ran down the court and launched a shot from just inside the three-point line.
After Wall’s attempt went in off the glass just before the buzzer, Channing Frye looked in disbelief and then ran towards the locker room. Wall briefly looked at the crowd, tapped his chest twice, and then he too ran off the court. His shot had cut the Suns lead to three points, and momentum seemed to be firmly on the Wizards’ side.
In the first 90 seconds or so of the third quarter, it seemed like the Wizards were up to matching the Suns’ intensity. Jason Richardson and Channing Frye both scored off passes from Nash, but the Wizards countered with scores of their own courtesy of two free throws from Wall and a dunk from Alonzo Gee. At that point, the Wizards were still within three points.
But then the Steve Nash show really started to kick into full gear. The Wizards could not keep pace and things began to get out of hand. Nash was either scoring or dishing on every basket, and each of Phoenix’s other four starters (Grant Hill, Channing Frye, Richardson and even Earl-freaking-Barron) scored within the first six minutes.
The Wizards weren’t nearly as fluid. Gee took and missed two three-pointers, which really isn’t his shot, while JaVale McGee and Wall took turns turning the ball over. Andray Blatche, who started quickly with 12 first quarter points, went almost half of the third quarter before he scored a basket, but at that point, the Wizards were already down 85-73.
After calling a full timeout, Flip Saunders decided to substitute Gilbert Arenas and Nick Young into the game. Arenas (6 points and 5 assists) and Young (10 points) had given the Wizards a substantial offensive boost in the first half, and I’m sure Flip was looking for them to do the same in the third quarter.
Unfortunately for Saunders, neither player could re-create their first quarter magic. Arenas did not score or dish out an assist in his four minutes on the floor in the third, and Young went 0-for-3 from the field and committed two fouls. In that same span, Warrick and Richardson combined to score eight points for the Suns, and when that third quarter horn sounded, the Wizards were down 95-77. They went on to lose the game 125-108.
On the surface it would be easy to blame the Wizards’ third quarter woes on the brilliance of Steve Nash. He had three points and eight assists in the period, and that’s not even counting the hockey assists. But Nash played just as well in the first quarter (eight points, four assists) and the Wizards were in the lead. A look beyond the surface shows that the Wizards lost that quarter for one main reason: Wall and Arenas were not on the floor together.
When Wall and Arenas played together in the first half, the Wizards extended their lead from 16-14 to 26-18, and their open court style caused difficulty for the Suns. In the second period, the Wizards weren’t able to stretch their lead as they had previously, but the duo still helped their team to score 30 points in the quarter. The formula was pretty simple: Wall was a threat to drive and get to the basket, and Arenas was a threat to shoot from the outside, or get to the hole if he needed to do that as well.
In that putrid third, when the Wizards only scored 17 points, Wall and Arenas were on the floor together 53 seconds total, and during the other 11 minutes, the offense was predictable. There were forced shots and bad shots, but not enough easy shots, because the two best players were simply not on the floor. By the time the fourth quarter started and the pair was on the floor again, the complexion of the game had vastly changed because the Suns were so far ahead.
After the game, Flip seemed to blame the Wizards third quarter play on the team’s mentality:
“When things don’t go right as a team, we get down on ourselves and let one mistake compound on another and that’s when teams go on an 6-0 runs or that 8-0 run that turns a 6-point game into a 14-point game. And then your mentality, how you play is totally different.”
If Wall and Arenas are the best players, and they don’t play together during a pivotal part of the game, it’s the coach’s mentality that has changed, not the players’. This shift in mentality, against a Suns team just one game above .500 going into the meeting, saw the Wizards get blown out in the quarter from hell, which cost them the game. When the Wizards take on the World Champion Los Angeles Lakers tomorrow night, the failure to coach and play better will lead to a similar fate.
Wizards-Suns: Top Quotes.
I can’t even attempt to count the number of times that I’ve seen Steve Nash play in person, but the guy never ceases to amaze me. Over the past five years, the league has been overwhelmed with talented, fast and electrifying point guards — Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry and now John Wall.
But even at 36, after a series of injuries, thousands of miles on his wheels and the loss of Mike D’Antoni and Amare Stoudemire, it’s impossible to knock Nash out of the discussion of the league’s top five point guards. Try as you might, you just can’t. He still has enough speed, and much more intelligence, which makes him a difficult cover. He carved up the Wizards on Sunday with the precision of a surgeon; dropping those passes that make you just shake your head in wonderment.
Nash became the first player in NBA history to twice record 17 assists without missing a shot since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976-77. Only three other players have done this once and the list isn’t too shabby: Magic Johnson, John Stockton and Mark Jackson. Nash also pulled the trick April 3, 2007, when he hit four shots and dished 17 dimes in Memphis, and before that it hadn’t been done since Stockton in 1994.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Nash became the second player in the shot clock era (since 1954-55) to post a 20 points and 10 assists game without missing a field goal or free throw, and that hasn’t been done since 1985 when Lester Conner did it.
John Wall, despite bouncing back from his disappointing outing against Portland on Friday with 12 points, 12 assists and three steals, seemed like a pawn in Nash’s plan every time he guarded him. For all that Wall does getting his hands into passing lanes and disrupting as a help defender, he’s always a bit resigned to let a screen completely take him out of the play. The problem is, while Wall was trailing Nash, the Wizards big men froze in front of him, whether it was JaVale McGee or Hilton Armstrong or Yi Jianlian. And rotation has been an issue on defense all season. It’s not that Nash wasn’t great. But the Wizards, who were easily baited into an up-tempo game that was always going to be difficult for them to sustain, looked like orange cones the way Nash ran through them. Phoenix probably gets fewer dunks doing shell work in practice than they did on Sunday night.
In the midst of a third quarter run that effectively killed the Wizards’ hopes at a win, Eddie Johnson said, “And here I thought this was going to be a game decided in the fourth quarter.” I thought the same thing, especially after a nearly-defense lacking first half that had the Suns leading 64-61. However, to start the second half, the Suns, would have none of that.
And to end on a somewhat positive note, here are a couple big-time Trevor Booker slams: