If you didn't enjoy watching this game, you don't like basketball. The two fastest teams in basketball, and two of the most highly skilled, put on an incredible show in the Oracle tonight. And after having come up just short in their last few games, the Warriors finally put all of the pieces together. They were led by Monta Ellis' 33 points and 10 assists, and Corey Maggette's 33 points and 8 rebounds, but they also finally received solid contributions up and down their lineup. Including a gritty fourth quarter performance from their newly returned big man, Rony Turiaf.
You might think it would be hard to describe a game this fast-paced as being a chess match. But on one level, that's what it was. The game began with a chess match, and it ended with a chess match.
Jump for the moves that checkmated the Suns:
Don Nelson started with a lineup of Anthony Randolph at center, Corey Maggette at power forward, Anthony Morrow at small forward, and Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis in the backcourt. Nothing remarkable there, if you follow the Warriors. But Nellie assigned the 6-5" Morrow to guard Channing Frye, the Suns center! On the surface, you might think this isn't completely crazy. After all, Frye likes to play on the perimeter and jack threes. Only Gallinari of the Knicks has made more threes this season. Putting Morrow on Frye allowed Nelson to play Randolph and Maggette closer to the basket, for shot-blocking and rebounding.
But Suns coach Alvin Gentry is a pretty good chess player himself. He recognized the Frye/Morrow mismatch right from the start. In the Suns first two possessions they posted Frye up, getting a foul on Morrow the first time, and a bucket the second. Morrow struggled mightily in the first quarter, and wound up going to the bench with three early fouls. Did Nellie get outfoxed?
Well, consider this: Don Nelson has a saying, that a team can only attack one mismatch at a time. By tempting the Suns to attack Morrow, Nellie lured them away from attacking Anthony Randolph with Amare Stoudemire. Stoudemire had an astonishingly quiet 7 points in the first half, and only 9 for the game. Randolph, who has been tremendously foul prone in his young career, only picked up 1 foul in 26 largely effective minutes.
This wasn't the only trap that Nellie set for the Suns in this game. The first time these two teams met, Steve Nash picked up an incredible 20 assists in leading the Suns to a blowout victory. The Warriors played Nash straight up in that game, and he simply diced them up off the dribble-drive and dish. In this game, Stephen Curry and his teammates sagged off Nash, denying his drive, and forcing him to become a shooter. And shoot Nash did, putting up a not very Nash-like 22 shots. To his credit, the 35 year old legend hit more than half of them, including 6 threes. In the third quarter alone, he was 7-7 and 4-4 from three for 19 points. But his teammates were relatively quiet. The Warriors weathered Nash's barrage, and by the third quarter were only down 3. And Nellie had the end game he wanted.
Rony Turiaf came in for Randolph at the start of the fourth quarter. Nellie had mysteriously only played him 4 minutes in the first half. But now the huge-hearted big man was ready to play. With the game in crunch time, the Suns were determined to go inside to their finisher, Stoudemire. Turiaf took up the challenge, and denied Stoudemire again and again in the paint. And he battled the Suns big man ferociously on the boards, forcing him into his fifth foul on a loose ball.
At 4:45 of the fourth quarter, Turiaf was beat. Hands on knees, he couldn't cross half-court. Did Don Nelson take him out? Was it time to go back to the 20 year old Anthony Randolph? Heck no. Nellie called timeout, gave Turiaf a breather, and sent him right back out for the final minutes. And Turiaf delivered, playing inspired defense down the stretch. Frequently forced to pick up Steve Nash on switches at the top of the key, Turiaf turned him away from the drive time and again. The now clearly tired Nash was unable to force the issue, frequently forced to give up the ball with no time left on the clock, or settle for his own outside shot. He hadn't missed a single shot in the third quarter. How did he do in the fourth quarter, after being forced by Don Nelson to carry the scoring load throughout the game?
Nash open 3 point attempt at 1:20. OFF. Nash elbow jumper at 0:40. OFF. Nash open look at a game-tying 3 pointer with 9 seconds left, as the Oracle moaned...
OFF. Game, set, match -- and checkmate -- to Don Nelson and the Golden State Warriors.
The Rest of the Story:
Monta Ellis: We're getting used to this kind of scoring from Monta. But he also saw the floor beautifully in this game, setting up his teammates again and again off the drive. He seems more and more comfortable leading this team the way it should be lead, and his assist numbers keep going up. His turnovers have been a problem, particularly in fourth quarters. But tonight they were more a result of simply losing the handle, than of forcing the issue.
I had my doubts about whether Monta was all the way back this season. I had my doubts about whether he wanted to be a team leader, and whether he was capable of being a team leader. Those doubts are answered, in spades. Monta Ellis is a star. And he's verging on becoming something more: an all-star, and a super-star.
Stephen Curry: Curry played a beautiful half of basketball, going head-to-head in his 29th NBA game against one of the all-time greats at his position. At half-time, Nash had 13 points and 5 assists, Curry had 11 points and 3 assists (with 0 turnovers). His 3 point shot is money right now. It's barely rippling the net. He was 3 for 4 from three in this game, raising his 3 point percentage to close to 40%. Curry also had 3 steals in this game, at least 2 coming off of Nash, which Nash seemed to take personally, judging by how he came right back at the rookie.
In the third quarter, Steve Nash went off like a rocket. Some of this might be attributed to Curry's defense, but I don't really think so. Curry did a masterful job keeping Nash out of the paint, and preventing the pick and roll. Most of Nash's points came off of open jumpers, which were directly attributable to Nelson's game plan. And then there's Jim Barnett's take: Barnett said, "The worst thing Curry did in this game was to play a good first half, because it ignited Steve Nash in the third quarter." Except maybe that was the best thing Curry did, judging by what happened in the fourth quarter.
Curry turned the ball over with a lazy pass in the third quarter, and picked up two quick fouls, which led to him hitting the pine. And Don Nelson never returned to him until the closing seconds, going with CJ Watson in his place down the stretch. I thought perhaps Nellie was sending the rookie a message, but Nellie stated post-game that Watson and the team were just playing too well to bring Curry back.
That turnover was Curry's only one of the game, against 4 assists. His assist to turnover ration recently climbed above 2, and is still climbing. The Warriors have an elite point guard in the making. Or two.
The Blackhole: Corey Maggette's terrific performance in this game caps a several week stretch of great basketball from him. He was 13-17 in this game, and is shooting close to 70% over his last 7 games. That is incredible efficiency for a 6-6" player. His work on the boards has also been strong over this stretch. In the fourth quarter he got a couple of offensive rebounds and putbacks, as well as some clutch freethrows, that sealed the victory. He dominated his matchup with Grant Hill.
Feel like booing?
Anthony Randolph: Anthony Randolph was quietly effective in this game. How many times can you say that about this electrifying, and erratic, 20 year old player? Randolph did a good job guarding Stoudemire, although it helped that the Suns almost never looked at this matchup. On offense, he let the game come to him, making nice drives when they were open, and nailing his catch and shoot jumpers. 17 points on 7 shots? Them's Maggette numbers! The kid just might be growing.
The Little Three: If Ellis, Maggette, and Curry are the Warriors Big Three, then Watson, Morrow and Vlad Rad are my little three. The Warriors need something from at least one of these guys every night if they hope to win. Nellie has been playing them interchangeably in the last several games, desperately looking for someone to contribute enough to get the Warriors over the hump. All three of them have been mysteriously invisible lately. But tonight, all three delivered.
Starting with CJ Watson. I believe he's one of the best backup point guards in the game, and he showed why tonight. His missing jumper reappeared, of course. But equally important were his intangibles. He guarded Nash physically and well down the stretch. And he handled the point with complete poise in the fourth quarter. Watson's handle is rock solid. He simply doesn't turn the ball over.
Vlad Rad had a great floor game, doing a little bit of everything. Nellie singled his defense out for praise in his post game comments.
And Anthony Morrow came halfway out of his slump in this game. He went 0-5 on threes, but made several nice plays off the dribble, and was tough on the boards. Let's call it Chocolate Mist.
My Warrior Wonder for this game is a tough one. I think I'll let you decide.