5.16.2005

Where it hurts

To follow up on what I wrote last night, I'm going to say something even crazier (and Suns-centric) about the playoffs: Joey Johnson's injury might alter the postseason landscape more than Shaq's.

Johnson is at best the fourth option on a team stuffed with scorers. He's tough, a good defender, and the Suns' second-best point guard. But Phoenix supposedly doesn't care about defense, and an indefatigable point guard who just won the MVP should probably be more than enough in that department.

Shaq is the most dominant player of the last decade, the man who can single-handedly make a team into a contendor, a lightning rod for defensive attention who is nevertheless impossible to contain. In an era where the center position has all but ceased to exist, Shaq is an all-timer who compares favorably with Wilt, Russell, Moses, and Kareem. In fact, you could argue that it's only Shaq that warrants paying seven-footers big money based on size alone.

But while Shaq's singularity makes him irreplacable, it also makes him less than indispensable. The bottom line is that no other team fields a player that demands Shaq's attention. The Heat may lost an immeasurable advantage without him on the floor, but it doesn't put them at a disadvantage. Without Shaq, they fill in the center position like anyone else: through patchwork and coaching smarts. In Wade, they've got a white-hot superstar who usually ends up with two or three guys guarding him on every possession (like Iverson before him), so those open shots are still there for Jones and Dooling. And Haslam is a grossly underrated rebounding beast, who along with Mourning and Doleac gives them enough competent size to get through the East. Shaq may have brought the biggest body in the world to the Eastern Conference, but the East has yet to adjust to match him.

Granted, they had some problems toward the end of the year when Shaq was hurting. But they've been flat out excellent in the playoffs, when Shaq has been either missing-in-action or merely present, and you know that this team knows the difference between the regular and second seasons.

The Heat are a well-coached, disciplined team with a decent bench and arguably the best guard in the Association. The Pistons have had problems with the Pacers, who no one thinks are better than a Shaq-less Heat. And the Spurs, despite their hallowed reputation, haven't exactly made short shrift of a Sonics team missing two of their three best players——again, a lesser creation than a Wade-driven Heat. It's only a fully-assembled Suns that would probably run right over them, but even that might be selling this East Coast-team for the new millenium a little short. The Heat are more than capable of playing Van Gundy ball, with or without Shaq; Wade gives them an offensive wild card that can compensate for the inevitable slippage that occurs if you try and slow the Suns for an entire game.

Johnson, though, is more important than we'd ever dreamed. With him out, the Sun can't move the ball, set up Amare and Marion for easy dunks, swing the ball around to find him or Q for the near-open three. The Suns are a system team, one that everyone knows inside and out by this point but still can't stop. That's because of the personnel, who are just too talented to match up with effectively. Take out Johnson, though, and there's a weak link, causing the whole thing to crumble. We all know what they're going to do on any given play, but no one's been able to do anything about it. Now, all of a sudden, they're forced to become a thinking team—which, at this point in the season, seems a little unlikely.

I'm not entirely convinced of this, but it's worth considering. At very least, it's easier to imagine the Heat winning it all at this point than it is the Suns, for the simple fact that the Heat have yet to miss a beat despite Shaq's injury woes.