With about five
minutes left in Sunday's game at US Airways Center in Phoenix, the Dallas
Mavericks went to a matchup zone, their dozenth defense of the afternoon. The
Suns appeared confused, but eventually forward Shawn Marion darted to his left
across the lane and put up a righthanded floater that was nearly blocked. It
was an awful-looking shot. It also went in, giving Phoenix a 109--96 lead that
all but sealed its 126--104 victory.
To some, the shot said it all about NBA basketball, 48 minutes of seemingly
spontaneous, even chaotic action packed into 24-second intervals. While
football coaches plan with the precision of generals and baseball managers rely
on cold, hard percentages (not to mention countless bromides), basketball
coaches can apparently do nothing to affect the outcome. They're left to pace
the sideline, scream at referees and add a sweat-ring pattern to their Armani
suits as their players ad lib.
Not the case. When
the league's two best teams took the court, they did so with meticulously
calibrated game plans in place. In fact, every NBA team goes into a game with a
plan, even the Memphis Grizzlies, who appear to have no plan at all except to
lose as often as possible and add Greg Oden or Kevin Durant to their roster.
The schemes of the Mavs and the Suns were more hastily constructed than ones in
the NFL (both teams had played last Friday night) and were extremely fluid. But
they had been formulated--just as those in the NFL are--only after hours of
film watching and with an attention to detail that would amaze even an
aficionado, never mind the guy who thinks the NBA stands for No Brainpower
With the win
Phoenix tied the season series at 2--2, took a 12--11 edge (playoff games
included) in meetings over the last three years and added further intrigue to
the MVP race. Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki probably had a slight edge going in
but had a subpar game (21 points on 6-of-18 shooting), while Suns point guard
Steve Nash had 23 on seven fewer shots to go with 11 assists.
But those stats
are only numbers. Before the teams took the court, they gave SI a glimpse into
their pregame strategies. It's possible they will meet in the playoffs for the
third straight year, so as Phoenix assistant Marc Iavaroni said, "We're not
going to throw everything out there, and neither are they."
Joe Prunty is in charge of the initial game plan because the Suns have been
"his team" throughout the season. Most NBA teams do it that way,
divvying up responsibility for all opponents among the assistants. If Nash
starts tying his sneakers a different way, Prunty will know about it. He began
studying the Suns--"not that I ever really forget about them"--a few
hours after the Mavs beat New York 105--103 last Friday in Dallas. (The Knicks
are Prunty's team, too, so he had been busy with them to that point.) Prunty
went home and watched parts of Phoenix's last three games, including that
night's 125--108 win over the Denver Nuggets, looking for anything new the Suns
had been doing since their memorable 129--127, double-overtime win over the
Mavericks on March 14. He came away wondering about two things:
injured, coasting or just less involved in the offense? His quickness had hurt
Dallas in recent seasons, but over the last month his play had been subpar.
?Should he include
much about the Suns' reserves in the game plan? In their 124--119 loss at
Golden State last Thursday, the bench players had staged a fourth-quarter
play in the win over the Nuggets persuades Prunty to emphasize him heavily in
the game plan and not to worry too much about the reserves.
The Mavs get a
chance to work on the Suns' tendencies twice: at a light practice on Saturday
before they leave Dallas, and on a Sunday-morning run-through in a ballroom at
the team hotel before the 12:30 p.m. tipoff. At practice, little-used rookie
guard Jos� Barea is excited because he gets to impersonate Nash.
"Especially what I do is keep my dribble longer, go through and around the
basket," says Barea. "I don't usually play like that. No one does
except Steve Nash." Prunty presents the rudiments of the Phoenix
pick-and-roll, and coach Avery Johnson frequently stops the action to talk