CAN'T ANYBODY HERE PLAY DEFENSE?
Chuck Daly, who won two NBA titles with the Detroit Pistons, once said he always felt he had a three-day contract written in ice.
On the other hand, his players were wealthy young men with long-term contracts worth millions of dollars.
"But sometimes you've got to scream at them," Daly said, "because they're really no different than the children I coached back in high school in Pennsylvania 30 years ago. They all want to hear the crowd cheer."
The talented and wealthy Suns are no different. They may be on their way to a championship. They certainly need someone to scream at them. After a defeat as frustrating and unnecessary as the one to Seattle last Saturday, Paul Westphal should seriously consider a sterner tutorial approach. Westphal, who played on two title teams, knows better than most how swiftly things in the NBA can head south.
There is a dreadful air of finality about a game snatched away in the last five seconds. Especially if you are still celebrating the fact that it had just been apparently saved by Charles Barkley with a long, improbable jump shot from the side.
Perhaps Richard Dumas, the lavishly praised Suns rookie, understands that now. In the midst of a spectacular debut year, Dumas' natural offensive skills have been a revelation. His balletlike skills have been compared to those of both Julius Erving and Connie Hawkins in their primes.
The philosopher Nietzsche speaks of eternal return and the possibility that everything recurs as we once experienced it. For us Dumas is the famous man we all knew before he became famous. But now a serious flaw in his armor has been revealed. His lack of determination on defense was shown up by Derrick McKey of the Sonics in Seattle last Saturday.
McKey is not known for his aggressiveness on offense. Yet Dumas allowed him to dribble to the basket unimpeded to score the winning basket with five seconds left to play. It was shocking. It was made even more disheartening because Dumas made no apparent effort to outmuscle McKey and prevent the game's winning basket. When you watch it on replay, McKey simply takes an inbounds pass and dribbles, almost matter-of-factly, to the basket to sink the uncontested lay-up. What must Dumas have been thinking? Had he been ordered not to foul McKey and thus allow McKey to win the game with two free throws? But what sense does it make to allow him to make a simple lay-up?
In this situation, common sense dictates that, despite any edicts from Commissioner David Stern, you must level McKey and force him to win the game at the free-throw line.
McKey, a skinny, six-foot-ten forward, is now in his sixth year in the league. The book on him says he has good speed, can dribble with either hand and drive to the basket.
That's exactly what Dumas allowed him to do as the scoreboard lights changed to 95-94 in favor of the Sonics, with only four-tenths of a second to play. Also guilty of standing by without making an effort to stop McKey was Barkley, who was a mere step away, guarding Shawn Kemp. Why? With the game was on the line like this, there was no question as to whose man McKey was. He was everybody's man.
The Suns' nonchalant defense has been a matter of concern throughout the first half of the season. They seem to turn it on only in the fourth quarter of play. This time they didn't. The Sonics' victory lends new emphasis to these concerns.
Is this a Suns team that will win more than 60 games in convincing fashion and yet be driven to an early departure from the playoffs?
Dumas' shortcomings on defense have been covered up, because his speed and long arms have made it possible for him to collect an impressive number of steals every game.
His lapses have been camouflaged by Barkley, Dan Majerle, Danny Ainge and Kevin Johnson.
Let's hope this was simply a rookie mistake. If not, there is a real problem. If Dumas isn't anxious to play tough defense even on the single play in which the game is on the line, how can Westphal risk keeping him on the floor in the final moments of close games?
There are ample reasons to excuse Dumas. He is still learning the game. This is his first year in the league, and he only played two years at Oklahoma State. But this is the kind of mistake you shouldn't make even in high school. Certainly, Dumas had been given an object lesson in controlled mayhem earlier in that very game by Seattle's Shawn Kemp.
Dumas was about to put back a rebound in the final minute of the first half when Kemp grabbed him from behind and slammed him to the floor like a rag doll. Kemp collected a deliberate foul in the process, but Dumas was forced to get his points by sinking two free throws.
Ironically, one of the reasons Dumas got his chance in the lineup was the defensive shortcomings of Cedric Ceballos.
Ceballos, who is also a talented scorer, proved a defensive disaster last November, when he was assigned to cover Michael Jordan.
Ceballos set himself up a respectable two-step distance from "His Airness" and never deigned to challenge. The bemused Jordan nonchalantly sank shot after shot from medium range.
@body:Although the Suns might appear at this point to be running away from the field, there have been some disturbing signs to those inclined toward pessimism.
Majerle seems to enjoy shooting from three-point range rather than driving for the basket. Perhaps he is merely resting on offense because he has been obliged to work extremely hard on defense. He always guards the opposition's most dangerous scorer.
Kevin Johnson came up lame once again in the Seattle game. This is KJ's third leg injury this season. Every time he goes into or out of the lineup, he disrupts the chemistry of the whole team badly.
It wasn't until the San Antonio game on January 29 that KJ finally became a contributing force for the ball club. Now, after playing eight more games, he removed himself because of still another leg injury. Once KJ went out, all fluidity left the Suns' attack. The only thing that kept them in the contest was another remarkable night by Barkley, who seemed determined to carry the team by himself.
This is really disturbing. It makes you wonder. What happened to Westphal's public pronunciamento that KJ would play reduced minutes this season so the danger of his being reinjured would be reduced?
KJ, Barkley and Majerle have all been averaging more than 40 minutes per game. That's asking for trouble. What makes it even stickier at the point-guard position is that Negele Knight continues to be sidelined by an amazing variety of ailments.
Frank Johnson has been a great addition. But how will the Suns fare if forced to enter the playoffs with only Frank at the point-guard position?
And what about Oliver Miller? "The Big O" has loomed larger and larger as the season progresses. At last report, he tipped the scales at 323 pounds. Has he actually been placed on injured reserve because there is simply not the proper amount of space remaining for his enormous girth on the bench?
The Suns badly need a defensive stopper to help Majerle. They need Miller underneath the basket to help Barkley. And what about Mark West? Perhaps there should be an investigation to determine why referees blow their whistles every time they spot him on the floor.
Part of West's problem may be caused by Westphal. Why has Coach Whataburger written in stone that West must come to the bench every time he collects his second foul? Let him stay in the game. Get West involved in the offense right from the opening minutes. In order to do that, the other players must pass him the ball. And he must catch it. Suppose West does foul out if left in the game? He'll still be playing double the amount of minutes he has been playing thus far. He's being paid $1 million a year. Let's get our money's worth.
It was reported in the Arizona Republic that Westphal emerged from the Seattle debacle with a smile on his face.
"I thought it was a great game to watch," Westphal said. If he really thinks that, then everyone has a reason to be disturbed.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.