You can't give Steve Nash a mousehole and expect him not to whip through it and wreak havoc. On Friday, the Kings gave Steve Nash gaping hole after gaping hole, and he wrecked the defense. Sacramento couldn't capitalize on its size advantage on the other end, and the Suns won 103-89.
The Kings countered Nash in two ways: with Beno Udrih and with a zone defense. Did it work? 1) Ha!, 2) Occasionally, and only that. The Kings also seemed to switch on every screen (almost a necessity with Beno guarding Nash), so the two-time MVP was able to exploit mass confusion in the Sacramento defense.
The result: for Nash, 28 points on absurd 13-18 shooting, 14 assists and just two turnovers. For the Suns: 103 points in about 86 possessions, an offensive rating of 120.
That's right: the final score doesn't indicate that this was a case of the Suns offense click-click-clicking, but that's exactly what happened. The pace was rather slow. I assure you that had everything to do with the Kings being slow to get into an offense much of the game, resulting often in challenged shots. (There were also a ton of offensive rebounds, which contributes to fewer possessions. The Kings had 21 offensive boards themselves.)
Nash was the only starter who went off. From my vantage point (couch, suburban Sacramento), it looked as if Tyreke Evans and Omri Casspi did good jobs denying Jason Richardson the ball in open spaces -- Evans and O.C. cheated over (as they always do), but J-Rich, a fantastic scorer, never really made them pay. The Suns' starting big men also struggled to get much going, and Grant Hill was a non-factor with either Evans or Casspi on him the bulk of the time. This was not a can't-guard-the-small-forward problem. It was a can't-guard-Steve-Nash problem. A problem every team has (Nash's career playoff line: 17/9 on 47% shooting), but one that simply killed the Kings on this night.
The Kings also had a can't-guard-the-bench problem. Hakim Warrick, opposite Darnell Jackson, Carl Landry and DeMarcus Cousins (as Jason Thompson didn't see a second of action), was ultra-effective with 18 points on 6-8 shooting. Channing Frye, typically marked by Cousins or Samuel Dalembert, hit a couple threes. Josh Childress went for 10 in his 25 minutes, and had two straight cuts to the rim resulting in free throws that essentially ended hopes for a Kings comeback late in the game. (The plays also disqualified Cousins with his fifth and sixth fouls.)
Cousins was productive, with nine points, seven rebounds and zero turnovers in 21 minutes. But the two Childress fouls late in the fourth were indicative of the team's defensive problems, as the zone that worked fairly well against the Goran Dragic-led Suns simply crumbled under Nash's assault. Cousins was sucking air as Childress slid through, and, after reacting too slowly, all DMC could do to stop an uncontested lay-up was reach.
Paul Westphal teased a change ahead of the Phoenix game. The only lineup change was that Antoine Wright played (9-1/2 minutes) and Thompson didn't. Not exactly the change this fan had been hoping for. Donte Greene also didn't play, and Luther Head didn't take a shot in three minutes.
Positives, positives: the Kings were much better with Evans on the floor. In fact, pulling Evans for a rest in the fourth, with the Kings down two after trailing by double-digits, essentially ended the game. Phoenix went on a 13-4 run in three minutes Evans sat, spreading the Suns' lead to 11. The Kings wouldn't get closer than 10 the rest of the way.
Wait, that was supposed to be a positive. How did it turn into a negative? Most superstars, if they take a break in the second half, do so from late in the third until early in the fourth. Theoretically, the ends of quarters typically take longer to finish due to foul shots (from teams in the bonus) and potential timeouts (to set up quarter-ending plays). There is also a brief intermission between quarters. So if your player sits the last minute of the third and the first two minutes of the fourth, in theory he'll have a much longer rest opportunity than if he sits for three game minutes in the middle of the fourth. Nash, for example, sat with 1:42 left in the third, and rested for the first 3-1/2 minutes of the fourth, as well.
I don't know Westphal's thinking on this, and I don't aim to question or challenge him on it. Perhaps he thought Evans could play the entire second half, but that the up-and-down flavor of a few wild possessions early in the fourth gassed him. That certainly could have been the case. It just stuck out that when Westphal pulled Evans with the Kings down two (they were actually down three with Dalembert headed to the line), it seemed like it was too late in the game to rest your superstar. The result seemed to bear it out. (Had Evans played the entire fourth, he would have played 45 minutes in the game, something he's never done in regulation under Westphal.)
More positives: just 11 turnovers for the Kings, with no King earning more than two. Just one foul for Evans, whose recent foul trouble I cannot begin to attempt to explain. Carl Landry, the invisible man at times, was solid with 20 points and 11 rebounds. Udrih did what he could to give back to Nash what Nash gave to Udrih, which was a beating. Beno was particularly effective at the beginning of the game; he's a confident fellow, and it shows.
One thing I didn't like from Beno: near the bitter end of the game, Evans seemed to be coming over to pick up Nash in the halfcourt, but Beno yelled him off, so 'Reke went back to Richardson in the corner. If memory serves, Nash went screen-roll, got the switch, and shredded the Kings' defender. With one foul and literally nothing but a game to lose, Evans ought to be on players like Nash. There's nothing Beno can do on defense that Evans can't already do better. The lovely steal Evans had on Nash earlier in the game was a beautiful example. Beno wouldn't be able to do that against an 8th-grade girls team. He just doesn't have the physical gifts. Give 'Reke a chance on the faster, craftier star.
One more Beno note: Cousins blew a rotation on defense, leading to a foul. Beno turned to the bench and went ballistic. Casspi also had a play where he looked somewhere between offended and flummoxed regarding Cousins' positioning. Given that it seems we'll be talking DMC today, I figured it was worth pointing out.