It’s hard not to get deja vu as the Suns kick off the 2010-11 season.
They’re in the same place as they were at the start of last season: picked by many to miss the playoffs, fresh off a rough preseason and characterized by seemingly endless questions marks.
There is, however, one big (we’re talking 6-foot-10-inch big … you know what’s coming) difference: Amare Stoudemire will not be suiting up in the purple and orange.
It may seem counterproductive and repetitive to continually bring up the now-departed Suns icon, but the Suns’ early success will be characterized by their ability to remain competitive in the post-Stoudemire era.
As the Suns tip off against the Trail Blazers tonight in Portland, the script will be much different than April’s first-round playoff series. The Suns have added forwards Hedo Turkoglu and Hakim Warrick and swingman Josh Childress. The Trail Blazers added guard Wesley Matthews and recently dealt backup point guard Jerryd Bayless.
Much remains the same though, as both teams are energized by their superstars: the Suns by Steve Nash and the Trail Blazers by Brandon Roy.
Key to the Suns’ success against Portland before advancing to take on the Spurs last season was their ability to control the tempo. The Trail Blazers stole Game 1 in Phoenix behind the efforts of point guard Andre Miller and his 31 points.
Miller’s terrorizing of the Suns stemmed from a defensive lapse on the part of Jason Richardson, who proved more effective in a primarily offensive role, but was corrected with a defensive switch to Grant Hill.
Richardson will be even more of a focal point on offense this season and would be well served to get off to a strong start tonight. His 11.0 points per game in an average of about 20 minutes per game are a good sign, but not a solid indicator as it was only the preseason.
Questions have lingered about this team’s chemistry after an awful preseason characterized by blowout losses and sloppy play, and tonight will be a first indicator of how this squad will work together on the hardwood. Look for Nash to flip the switch out of preseason mode and start directing the offense like the precise offensive artist he has been for years.
The greatest concern against Portland (and most teams, really) is the Suns’ ability to match up in the paint. With Stoudemire gone, more responsibility falls on third-year center Robin Lopez to bang on the boards at both ends, giving the Suns the opportunities their offensive system requires and providing second-chance scoring like a solid big man should.
The Trail Blazers remain one of the NBA’s biggest teams entering this season, but also one of the most fragile. After 7-foot big man Oden and 6-foot-11-inch backup Joel Pryzbilla went down last season, the Trail Blazers eventually acquired 6-foot-11-inch former All-Star Marcus Camby, who they subsequently locked up in the offseason.
To notch a win and start the season off right, Lopez, Warrick and Channing Frye will have to work very hard in the paint and play physical while Nash and the guards control the tempo. Additionally, the Suns absolutely must improve on their uncharacteristically bad preseason shooting.
Tonight’s game at the Rose Garden won’t provide all the answers to the questions surrounding the new season, but it will start to paint a better picture of the Suns’ identity.
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