Finally! Finally we get the Christmas Day win. It wasn’t just any old win, though. This game featured maybe the most highlights we’ve seen in one game for our team this year, along with a message to Phoenix. The message was this: We aren’t the same team you’ve embarrassed these last 2 years. If you think you’ll just walk right through us like you did last year, we’ll make you pay. This season we’re more dynamic, deep, hungry, focused, and more importantly, mature.
- Great call by Phil in starting him for this game. It’s unbelievable at how big he’ll be for us this year on defense. How many times did he deflect passes and rotate quickly? Too many times to keep count. His athleticism made the starters versatile because he was running the floor and crashing the boards on every shot. Even when he didn’t get the rebound, he made his presence felt when he went into the lane.The offense is becoming easier for him, too. Instead of settling for jump shots or staying in the corner off the ball, he made the proper cuts along the baseline and ended up getting some spectacular dunks. He also somewhat contained Grant Hill. He stuck with Hill off the ball and wouldn’t allow Phoenix to run the offense through him in the high post along with closing out on his mid range jumpers. Once his jump shot improves, wow. Final stat line: 14 points, 7-12 from the field, 7 rebounds, 3 assists.
- With Ariza being such a big factor in this game, that made it easier for Lamar. He didn’t shoot the ball well, but the shots he made came during spurts. Marion elected to leave him open and Lamar took advantage. But he still was able to balance out attacking Marion in the post. Lamar’s impact was felt with just about everything besides scoring, though. He grabbed every rebound Bynum didn’t gobble up himself and made Marion a non factor. When you look at Marion’s stats you’d say “15 points, 10 boards, not bad.� But sometimes it was easy to forget Marion was even out there. If you ask me, that’s pretty ironic for a PF, especially if his team relies on his hustle. You can thank Lamar for taking him out of this game. Final stat line: 15 points, 14 rebounds.
- Bynum had me impressed from the start. One play in particular came in the 1st quarter: Stoudemire and Bynum both had their hands on the ball when they went up for the rebound, but as soon as they hit the floor, Bynum yanked it away with force as Stoudemire tripped towards the baseline. If that wasn’t enough, the “are you kidding me?� look on Bynum’s face had me chuckling a bit. Mark Jackson hit it right on the head: This kid is starting to develop a swagger about himself. There’s been a few times this year where he’s celebrated after making a big play, but in this game that happened maybe 2 or 3 times. He knows how good he is and isn’t going to back down from these great centers in the West. Whenever he had the ball and nothing was there in the offense, he took it right at Stoudemire. And like he’s done all season, he got a lot of points off of easy passes from Kobe and the other starters along with offensive rebounds. He committed 5 fouls, but none of those, I believe, were back to back. Stoudemire didn’t know how to attack him because his shot wasn’t falling and Bynum’s aggression was just too overpowering for him to handle in the paint. The best game of his young career comes on the biggest stage of the regular season. I’m very proud. Final stat line: 28 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks, 11-13 shooting from the field, 6-8 from the line, and a team-leading 42 minutes.
- I don’t think Kobe could’ve played any better. Forget the 8 turnovers, he willed his team to such a big win. When you look at the stat sheet and you notice those 8 turnovers, you might think they came as a result of forcing the issue. That’s not true at all. In fact, most of Kobe’s turnovers came from trying to set everyone else up. What other player in the league can score 38 points on only 20 shots? That’s unheard of in this league. At the tail end of the 3rd quarter when Phil sat Kobe down, I felt like Phoenix wanted to take advantage of that the best way they could. It’s similar to a bully picking on some little kid when they know that little kid’s brother isn’t there to protect him. That’s how big of an impact Kobe had in this game. He was vocal throughout the game and never stopped working. After 2 years, I think he’s figured out the best way to attack Phoenix. Which is not forcing the issue because that’s what they expect for him to do, but just simply having the ball in his hands and controlling the game. He was selective with all of his shots attempts, waiting until emotional points in the game to actually score. When he wasn’t scoring, he ran screen roll and took advantage of Phoenix’s weak defense with quick hitting passes. Once the 4th quarter came, he took over. Bell and Barbosa didn’t get it done up until that point in defending him, so D’Antoni gave Marion a shot. Did it make a difference? Hell no. Kobe Bryant proved why he’s the best player on the planet. Even when his jumper was falling, he still attacked the basket. If he has it going like that, there’s just nothing you can do as a defender. The man is unstoppable. Final stat line: 38 points, 5 rebounds, 7 assists, 12-20 from the field, 13-14 from the line.
- Nash had a great night, but it was obvious in the 4th that he got a little winded there because Fish made him play defense all game. You could tell that was the plan from the beginning, Fish just had this killer look in his eyes after every shot. His defense on Nash, however, was somewhat suspect. But still, a great night for Fish. Final stat line: 19 points, 6 assists, 7-15 from the field.
Final Thought- We’ve had some impressive wins this year, but this one might be the most encouraging. Why? Because we all expected Phoenix to come into this game heavily motivated after we not only beat them earlier this season, but embarrassed them on their homecourt, not to mention it being on national tv. Phoenix came out looking to run and their body language gave me the feeling they thought this would be an easy win. But we were the ones who controlled the game. This is a team that we’re looking up at and trying to move up into their status as far as eliteness, but we proved that we might actually be the better team this year. At this point, I’m not sure what team in the West we should be concerned about in the playoffs other than, of course, San Antonio. We were quicker, more athletic, aggressive, and smarter than a great team today. It’s one thing to run, but it’s another thing to run selectively and actually play defense. Farmar, for example, shut Barbosa down. He works better off the ball in their offense, coming off cuts, screens, etc. But Farmar made it difficult for him, along with help from his teammates. Whenever Barbosa, who in case you didn’t know averaged more points by himself than our entire bench in last years series, would move off the ball, the other players were aware of where he was at all times. With a player like him, I always think the best strategy you can go to in defending him is just trying to keep him out of the paint. But he wasn’t even the recipient of a lot of open perimeter shots. The other players gave him little bumps off the ball and were physical with him to the point where he couldn’t receive the ball. And even when he did and attacked the rim, the rotations were precise. Bynum made him alter his shots more than once and pass back out to the outside.
Who would’ve thought that we’d get away with winning this game with our benching contributing only 8 points? It’s because of how well we played defense. Yes, Phoenix scored 115 on our home floor. But they only managed that many points because of the pace. We got the big stops when they were needed in the 4th. Other than the poor offensive play of the bench, what more can you ask for out of a young team? We’re only 1 game back now from surpassing Phoenix and taking over not only 1st place in our division, but 2nd place in the West. Can we extend this 3 game streak to 4 against Utah Friday? We’ll have to see. But I know one thing, this might be THE year. You heard it here first.
Trials are but lessons
that you failed to learn,
presented once again.
So, where you made a faulty choice before,
you can now make a better one,
and thus escape all pain
that what you chose before has brought to you.