My love for Steve Nash grows with every no-look pass, clutch jump shot and fast break assist the man delivers. I admit I was a bit skeptical last year when Nash had his breakout season and carried the Suns to a 60-win season, but with the results he has orchestrated this year, with what has to be considered a diminished squad, he has grown into easily my favorite player in the league (replacing Tim Duncan).
The man hit just three shots Friday night in the Suns' win over the Clippers, but one of them was a tough jump shot with three seconds to go to put Phoenix up three (he also hit a tough layup earlier in the half while parallel to the floor). The Suns now lead, two games to one, and thanks to Nash (and Shawn Marion), have control in the series and a track to the conference finals. Once there, either Phoenix or LA I'd say have a very realistic chance to knock off the Dallas/San Antonio survivor after those two battle in what could be a tough, intense seven-game series.
More important than that, however, is that guys like Nash, Dwayne Wade, Jason Kidd, Tony Parker, etc., have me enjoying watching the NBA for the first time since Jordan's second retirement. Games are fast and exciting again, with great players having great games against other great players. For the past several years, the league has been all about "dribble...dribble...dribble...heave up a jump shot," but now the emphasis is shifting back to team play and strategy. Fast breaks and creative passing are "in," and the 10-of-45-shooting-for-a-30-point-game style of guys like Allen Iverson finally seem to be on its way out.
To be fair to AI, that attitude didn't develop overnight. When the Pistons became the league's premier team in the late 1980's, defense found a new place in the heart of NBA coaches and, consequently, uncontested shots and fast-break transition points grew hard to come by. Defense obviously still is a lot more important to the league than it was when teams like Magic Johnson's Lakers were on top, but I guess teams are finally adapting.
According to basketball-reference.com (basketball-reference.com), NBA shooting percentage peaked in 1984 at .492, was at .480 in 1988, and by 1994 had plummeted to .466. After bottoming out in 1999 with a pathetic .437 (which was probably due in large part to the shortened season), the league average hovered around .440 for a couple years before increasing relatively significantly each of the past two years (.439 in 2004 to .447 in 2005, then .454 this season). If that trend continues, next year may be the first season in which the league shoots better than 46 percent in a decade.
While I'm surprised assist totals have actually decreased the last couple of years, it's no surprise to see a huge jump in scoring the last two years (since 2001, the league scoring average has been 94.8, 95.5, 95.1, 93.4 97.2 and 97.0).
Of course, the Sonics went to the finals two years later, but I suppose ol' Mr. Basketball Bob Ryan doesn't count that. I'd say this has to hurt worse than '94, though. I don't think the Big og (No D) is long for Milwaukee.