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Old 08-23-05, 12:10 PM
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Suns looking to protect their own basket next season

Suns looking to protect their own basket next season

Getting Defensive

By Brad Friedman link
August 22 -- Nobody ever said three-pointers win championships. Last season, the San Antonio Spurs showed the Phoenix Suns why.

Coming off a magical regular season campaign in which Phoenix set an all-time record for three-pointers made (796) in addition to leading the league in wins (62), points per game (110.4) and three-point percentage (.393), the Suns were handily defeated by the eventual Larry O'Brien Trophy-winner San Antonio in the West Finals, 4-1.

"We didn't really find an answer for Tim (Duncan)," said Suns guard Steve Nash, who helped the team complete the third-best regular season turnaround in league history after joining the team as a free agent. "He's just such a terrific player."

'04-05 STATS PER 48 MIN
Raja Bell Joe Johnson

20.7 ppg 20.7 ppg
5.4 rpg 6.3 rpg
2.4 apg 4.3 apg

UNDER CONTRACT Leandro Barbosa, Jim Jackson, Shawn Marion, Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, Kurt Thomas
FREE AGENTS Walter McCarty, Charles "Bo" Outlaw, Paul Shirley
NBA DRAFT Dijon Thompson (54)
FREE AGENTS Raja Bell (Utah), Pat Burke (Spain), Brian Grant (L.A. Lakers)
TRADES Boris Diaw (Atlanta), Kurt Thomas (New York)
FREE AGENTS Steven Hunter (Philadelphia)
TRADES Joe Johnson (Atlanta), Quentin Richardson (New York), Jake Voskuhl (Charlotte)
GUARDS Steve Nash, Raja Bell
FORWARDS Shawn Marion, Amare Stoudemire
CENTER Kurt Thomas

Duncan averaged 27.4 points, 13.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game and shot .527 from the field against Phoenix, which lacked mobile, big bodies to collapse on him in the post when Amare Stoudemire tried to check Duncan one-on-one. Spurs guard Manu Ginobili also had his way versus the Suns' defense, tallying 22.2 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.8 assists a night, numbers that far superseded his regular season contributions.

San Antonio, a team nobody thought could score, averaged 108.2 points per game over the five-game series.

"We're going to keep the (up-tempo) style, but we have got to get a lot better defensively," Suns coach Mike D'Antoni admitted after Game 5.

This summer, the Suns have been on a mission to upgrade a defense that ranked last in the NBA in points allowed last year.

Jump shooting swingman Quentin Richardson was dealt to New York on Draft Night in return for Knicks forward/center Kurt Thomas. Richardson struggled in the playoffs -- where defenses are tighter and open shots fewer -- tallying a pedestrian 11.9 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.7 assists.

At 32, the 6-9 Thomas averaged a double-double for the first time in his career last campaign and is regarded as one of the toughest defenders in the league. He'll start alongside Stoudemire in the post, where the pair will interchange between the 4 and 5 spots. All-Star Shawn Marion, who played out of position last year, also benefits from the move, as he'll be able to slide to the more natural small forward slot.

On the free agent market, Phoenix tapped burly 6-8 pivot Brian Grant and 6-5 shooting guard Raja Bell to advance its defensive transformation.

The physical Grant comes from Los Angeles, where he was the Lakers' amnesty cut. Over 11 seasons, he's averaged 10.7 points and 7.6 rebounds, and at the very least gives the Suns another body to throw at Duncan.

"When you’re the opposition, speaking from experience, you can’t penetrate his defense," said Suns assistant coach Marc Iavaroni, who was a Heat assistant when Grant was in Miami. "It makes it very difficult to throw the ball inside against this guy. He really does a great job of using his body, putting his body on people.

"Anybody who comes near the basket, whether it’s to go for a rebound or to catch the ball and make a play, they are always met by Brian very early.”

The Bell acquisition helps absorb the loss of restricted free agent Joe Johnson, a valuable component of last season's team who requested Phoenix allow him to make an Atlanta exit via sign-and-trade.

When you look at the numbers of Bell and Johnson side-by-side, the differences aren't quite as significant as their reported contract terms. Per 48 minutes last season, Johnson averaged 20.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists on .461 shooting compared to Bell's 20.7 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists and .454 field goal percentage. Bell isn't the shooter that the NBA's leader in three-point percentage was, but he converted a highly respectable .403 from beyond the stripe.

In the sign-and-trade, the Suns acquired Hawks swingman Boris Diaw, who has a reputation as a stopper and will help Bell improve a perimeter defense that looked invisible versus the Spurs.

Phoenix will look like a very different team than they did last season, when its knees gave out against San Antonio. While there's no guaranteeing the Suns will be able to topple the defending NBA champs, they'll surely stand more proudly alongside of them.
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