Well, here we go again. Those annoying Phoenix Suns are meeting our Spurs in the series that begins on Monday night. While it's no secret that San Antonio has completely owned the Suns over the last several years, things have changed since the last time these playoff dance partners met. And the changes don't benefit the Spurs.
Note: this isn't a series preview, just an attempt to put this year's Spurs and Suns teams into a historical perspective.
As we all know, the Suns have been among the league's leading offensive teams ever since the re-arrival of Steve Nash in the 2004-05 season. We also know that they push the tempo, which has a tendency to make their points per game total look inflated. A faster tempo means more possessions and more opportunities to score, while a slow tempo gives you less possessions. So, to figure out how these Suns stack up to their previous incarnations, we'll look at efficiency ratings, where we can see how well teams score when they all have the same number of possessions in a game.
This will also give us a chance to look at their defense compared to previous years, and give us a better picture of what we're up against.
Efficiency Rankings by season
The tables that follow were put together using efficiency ratings from basketball-reference.com.
Did you expect this to be the best season the Suns have ever had offensively? Because I had a suspicion, before doing the research, that it would be this way. This is a well-oiled machine at the pinnacle of its efficiency, and we're going to have to be downright amazing if we want to limit their scoring opportunities.
The good news for us, though, is that the much-lauded Phoenix defense is actually not as good as many would have you think. From the year Nash arrived(2004-05) up until the 2007-08 season, the Suns were actually a middling defensive team in the league. This year, they ranked 23rd. However, they were ranked 28th right around the all-star break, so my impression is that they've rediscovered the type of defense they used to play until Shaq arrived, putting them right back in the middle of the pack if they had played that way all season. Underrated? Yes. Stifling? Hardly. But, combined with the best Suns offensive attack ever, it presents a very formidable challenge.
As you can see, the 2004-05 Spurs were a meat grinder on defense. That defensive rating is completely unreal. Just for the purpose of comparison, this season's best defensive team, the Charlotte 'Cats, had a defensive rating of 102.8. It's fairly obvious how far the Spurs have slipped on that end of the floor - something that must be addressed this offseason, regardless of how well the team fares in the remainder of the playoffs. But it should be noted that the Spurs' worst defensive team of the last six seasons will not be shutting down the best Suns offense of the past six seasons - not consistently or for long stretches, anyway. The good news for us is that our team defense improved dramatically over the final month of the regular season, and it showed against Dallas. Spurs defense has made an appearance just in the nick of time - it will be desperately needed against these Suns.
We also have at our disposal the best Spurs offense of recent years, even though we have arguably underperformed on that end of the court. The big 3 have lots of help in the form of Hill, Dice, RJ, and Blair. And we're going to need them all if we want to burn Phoenix's defense enough to outscore them. I think this is entirely possible, because we're going to present one ugly matchup problem for Phoenix: Nash can't hide on defense anymore, much like Kidd couldn't in the series with Dallas(and Nash is much worse on that end than Kidd). He's going to have to guard one of our 4 perimeter scorers at all times, and that gives us an opening - once we beat Nash, smart and decisive ball movement can beat their rotations and lead to easy buckets.
What does this mean?
I'll say this as plainly as possible. This is going to be the best Suns team that San Antonio has ever faced in the postseason. And they will be highly motivated by their playoff history against us. There are definitely reasons for Spurs fans to be confident, but victory in this series is far from a foregone conclusion. I would not be the least bit shocked if Phoenix won this series, but I'm obviously hoping we continue using them as our postseason plaything. Regardless of the result, let's have fun watching it all play out, shall we?
But don't assume anything. Not this year.