ATLANTA - In defending the Suns’ two-man game, opponents play the percentages. Trouble is: The percentages are stacked against them no matter what they do.
When Amaré Stoudemire sets a screen for Steve Nash then rolls toward the basket, defenders have three tasks:
• They need to prevent Stoudemire from driving to the hoop.
"My dunking percentage is almost 100 percent," Stoudemire said in a matter-of-fact tone.
• They need to contain Nash, stopping him from penetrating to the hoop — where he can lay it up or kick it out to a shooter — or stopping and shooting himself.
• They need to stay with shooters such as Joe Johnson or Quentin Richardson. Opponents often can stop one option. With great effort and efficiency, maybe two. But not all three. "Something has to be open," Suns coach Mike D’Antoni said. The Nash-Stoudemire pickand-roll attack will be the Suns’ half-court bread-andbutter in the playoffs when their fast break is contained. On Sunday in Memphis, the Grizzlies — a potential playoff opponent — swarmed Stoudemire, even triple-covering him at times.
"That’s how Joe (Johnson) gets 28 points," D’Antoni said, pointing to how the Suns eked out the win.
Other times, "They stay on the shooters," the Phoenix coach said. "That’s how Amaré gets 32 to 40 points."
The key is Nash reading and reacting to the opponents’ choices. And the key within the key, D’Antoni said, is that, "Steve has to have his legs."
Nash thought he might have had a breakthrough last week in a win at Denver in that his sore left hamstring, a problem for weeks, felt much better.
But the problem hasn’t disappeared, as Nash reports "up and down" tendencies in how his hamstring has responded in the past two games. So the Suns figure to continue to use backup Leandro Barbosa extensively, as they try to keep Nash to less than 35 minutes per game.
If the Stoudemire-Nash combination continues to thrive, comparisons no doubt will be made more frequently to the greatest twoman combo of all, John Stockton and Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz in the 1980s and ’90s.
The players aren’t identical. Stockton was considered a better defender than Nash while Malone wasn’t the great leaper that Stoudemire is today.
Even so, D’Antoni said, "There’s a similarity in how they do a pick-and-roll, how Nash delivers the ball and how Stoudemire finishes."
The Suns themselves had a great two-man game in the late 1980s and early ’90s, with Kevin Johnson and Tom Chambers working it, and shooters Eddie Johnson, Jeff Hornacek and Dan Majerle waiting on the wings.
The Suns didn’t use this weapon as much after the arrival of Charles Barkley in 1992, as Barkley demanded the ball down low.
But now, it’s back.
To counter it, "I think you have to bring a third player (on defense) over to stop it," Nash said. "But we have terrific shooters who can make them pay if they try to bring a third player."
There seems no trend in how to defend the Suns’ half-court weapon.
Besides, Nash said, "I’ve seen it all before."
Suns at Hawks
Series history: The Suns have won 18 of the past 24. This is the 100th meeting between the teams, with the Suns leading 55-44, but they are only 19-30 in Atlanta.
Scouting report: Suns — They’re trying to tie a franchise record with their 27th road win of the season. They’re one of three teams (Seattle and Dallas are the others) who have better records on the road than at home.
Hawks — Looks like they will probably end up as the NBA’s worst team. They’re building around forwards Al Harrington (17.9 points) and Josh Smith (8.0 points). Smith, the rookie who won the recent slam-dunk contest, ranks 10th in the NBA in blocks at 1.89. Ex-Sun Tony Delk averages 11.1 points off the bench. Another ex-Sun, Tom Gugliotta, recently started a game in place of the injured Harrington and had eight points, eight rebounds, four assists and a game-high four steals.