Alvin Gentry, Steve Kerr, and the power of expectation

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Since the Shaq flub, Steve Kerr’s work as the GM/President of Basketball Ops of the Phoenix Suns has been understated but effective. He flipped Boris Diaw for Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley. He drafted Robin Lopez, who was quickly disregarded as an NBA talent but has made a legitimate impact this season. He acquired Goran Dragic, who has evolved into one of the top back-up point guards in the league. He unearthed Lou Amundson and signed a contributor on the cheap in Channing Frye. He extended Steve Nash’s contract, who remains the key to keeping the team competitive. He didn’t trade Amar’e Stoudemire, who could very well re-sign with the Suns this summer.

Plus, after a short-lived experiment with Terry Porter at the helm, Kerr wasn’t afraid to cut his losses and move on. Kerr gave the reins to Alvin Gentry last February, and since that time we’ve seen the Suns absolutely take off. It seemed like a given that Phoenix would start to decline along with Nash, but Gentry has made the most of what looked like a limited roster on paper.

Think of all of those players mentioned above that have made a huge difference for Phoenix this season: Frye, Dudley, Amundson, Dragic, Lopez. With a lesser coach running the show, how many of those players get considerable playing time, even if the Suns faced injury problems? Frye couldn’t find a consistent role in Portland, Dudley was unjustly buried in Charlotte, Amundson played for three different teams before landing in Phoenix, and Dragic or Lopez could easily have been painted a draft bust before their careers rightfully started.

Gentry found value in each of them, and though Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire are undoubtedly the keys to the operation, the Suns don’t run as smoothly or effectively without that core of role players. Gentry deserves credit for not only relying on those players to give him consistent minutes, but finding the roles and positions that offer the best fit for each player’s strengths.

He’s not perfect, though. He couldn’t, for instance, coach his team to a victory in Game 1 against the undermanned Portland Trailblazers. From Paola Bolvin of the Arizona Republic:

Alvin Gentry’s promotion to head coach 14 months ago was the right one, a just reward for someone who excels at player management and whose growth during 22 years in the NBA paid off with this season’s 54-28 record. Little is known about Gentry the postseason coach, however, his sole experience a first-round knockout with Detroit coming during the strike-shortened 1998-99 season.

Welcome to the pressure cooker, Coach. All eyes are on you after the Suns were the only home team to lose Game 1. Gentry needs to make sure his players have rebounded emotionally. Mike D’Antoni used to say if you lose a playoff game, you feel like you’ll lose all of them, and if you win, you feel invincible. It’s an oversimplification but there is truth to the remark.

“We haven’t lost confidence,” Gentry said after practice Monday. Good for them. Now let’s see what Gentry can do with a team that lost its way in the opener. Assignment No. 1: Prevent Portland’s guards from a repeat performance.

This Suns-Blazers series should give us an interesting look into two things: Alvin Gentry’s ability to coach on a micro level over the course of a playoff series (timeout play-calling, matchup meta-game, various strategic adjustments) and Steve Kerr’s patience. Should the Suns cede to the resilient Blazers (which is hardly an assumption just one game in), is Gentry suddenly on the hot seat, despite elevating the team well beyond reasonable expectation? Few anticipated Phoenix being as good as they are, and though the credit should absolutely go to the players first, Gentry deserves some credit.

That credit should be enough to help Gentry survive even a Portland upset, but we can’t say for sure. Coming into the playoffs as the no. 3 seed does bring with it some level of expectation, even if those expectations were generated by the team and the coach’s surprising success. Plus, as little as we know about Gentry as a playoff coach, we know a similar amount about Kerr’s style as a GM. He’s just starting to get into a rhythm in terms of talent acquisition, but he’s also had two coaching changes in three seasons. What’s to prevent Gentry being the first to go if the Suns hit a substantial roadblock?

There’s no certainty that Gentry’s job is in jeopardy if the Suns manage to lose this series; the only thing that we know for sure is that we don’t know. That’s a bummer considering how good Gentry has been this season, but a reality in world where we still don’t know all of that much about Steve Kerr’s managerial style.      

 

Kevin Love shut down at the rim by Bismack Biyombo (VIDEO)

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Once again, Bismack Biyombo was a force in the paint that the Raptors leaned on heavily during their Game 4 win against the Cavaliers.

His biggest play of the night was this clean block of Kevin Love at the rim. Love passed to LeBron James in the post, caught his defender napping and cut the rim, got the pass back from James and… denied.

Biyombo also got LeBron James at the rim but was called for a foul much to the dismay of Biyombo, Raptors fans, and the ESPN broadcast crew (it was the right call — watch Biyombo leap across the lane, he is anything but vertical, he contacts LeBron’s body, that’s a foul).  Either way it’s worth watching.

NBA VP explains decision not to suspend Draymond Green; says very different play than Dahntay Jones

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 22:  Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors drives against Steven Adams #12 of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second quarter in game three of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 22, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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All day long NBA Twitter — and the Warriors, and the Thunder — waited for the shoe to drop on a decision about suspending Draymond Green for a kick to the “groin” of the Cavaliers’ Steven Adams.

Everyone just waited. And waited. And waited.

It took that long because the league wanted to be thorough — watching the film, looking at similar incidents (and the punishments there), talking to the players and the referees, and thinking it through. It was a decision with a huge impact on the series (Golden State was not winning Game 4 without Green).

So why did NBA executive vice president of basketball operations Kiki VanDeWeghe decide not to suspend Green, rather upping the foul to a flagrant 2 and taking on a $25,000 fine?VanDeWeghe talked in some detail to Sam Amick of the USA Today in a piece you should read right now. This is just a highlight.

We have professional investigators that conduct the investigation. They talk to the players, they talk to all the referees, including the replay officials, and they all come back and report to me. I obviously discuss it internally, and especially with referee operations, get their perspective. But at the end of the day … every play is different and that’s the problem. You take into account everything. You take into account t what the referees have said. They obviously went with a Flagrant One last night, and you take into account the comparables. The problem with comparables is they never tell the whole story.

One comparable a lot of people supporting the suspension brought up was the one-game suspension for Cleveland Dahntay Jones just a day before (for a punch to the groin of Bismack Biyombo. Except VanDeWeghe says it was not comparable.

But just to talk about the Dahntay Jones situation, I think that was basically a completely different play. That, you had somebody (who was) tussling for a rebound, and Jones brings back his hand his hand is open. And as he brings his hand back forward and makes contact with Bismack’s (Biyombo) groin area, the fist is closed. And so you have contact with a closed fist, so to me that’s a very different scenario and, to me, a different fact pattern, so it’s very different from what we’re talking about with Draymond, that I viewed as a flail that is becoming, you know, pretty common amongst our players in trying to sell calls. Draymond does it a fair amount, Westbrook does it a fair amount, and a number of other players. Unfortunately, in this particular one, Draymond’s leg connected in the same Adams groin area, the same area, as the Jones one, but everything else about the call, or the play, was really different.

That is what the Warriors tried to sell, and the league came to find — Green was fouled but in trying to sell that call a little he accidentally kicked Adams where men least like to be kicked.

None of this is going to change anyone’s mind — if you’re convinced Green’s kick was intentional, and he should have been suspended, there is no evidence that will get you to think otherwise. This is just context, it helps everyone understand the process and the decision. More information is a good thing.

Raptors race out to lead, hang on to beat Cavaliers 105-99, even series 2-2

TORONTO, ON - MAY 23: Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors handles the ball in the fourth quarter against LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers in game four of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 23, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
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Now this is some adversity.

After winning 10 straight games to open the playoffs, the Cavaliers struggled in Game 3 in Toronto last Saturday, but that felt almost like a setback rather than a change of direction in the series. At least it did until Game 4 tipped off.

Toronto again came out with fantastic energy again on defense, scrambling and contesting everything. The Cavaliers were not attacking (well, except LeBron James) and were kicking out for threes — and missing. As a team, Cleveland was 3-of-22 from three in the first half. Meanwhile, Kyle Lowry was hot on the other end, both hitting long threes and setting up teammates. Lowry was 8-of-11 shooting in the first half, 4-of-6 from beyond the arc, and had three assists as well.

Raptors led 57-41 at the half. They needed every point of that down the stretch.

Cleveland started the second half on an 11-0 run and came back behind Kyrie Irving (15 second half points), LeBron, and a more focused defense. With six minutes to go in the game Cleveland even took the lead. It felt like this was when the Cavaliers would assert themselves as the best team in the East.

Except the Raptors out hustled and out executed the Cavaliers down the stretch. Bismack Biyombo was grabbing key rebounds inside (Patrick Patterson had a huge offensive rebound as well), and Lowry and DeRozan remained hot — the guards combined for 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting in the fourth quarter — not taking threes (0-of-1) but attacking and getting to the basket an the line.

The result was a 105-99 Toronto win that evens the Eastern Conference Finals at 2-2 heading back to Cleveland Wednesday for Game 5.

“I thought we come back, had control of the game, was up three points, then we made some defensive mistakes you can’t do down the stretch, and they cost us — each time we made a mistake they made us pay,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said postgame.

This was another game where Toronto played with great defensive energy and the Cavaliers responded by settling — they took 41 threes in Game 3 (hitting 13), Monday they were 13-of-42. J.R. Smith was 3-of-11, Kevin Love 2-of-7 (and sat out the fourth quarter with a potential injury, he was limping). The guys that kept the Cavaliers in it in the fourth (besides LeBron, who was fantastic again) were Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye, who combined 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting. But it was not enough.

“We’ve got to be more well balanced,” LeBron said on a night he finished with 29 points on 11-of-16 shooting. “We started the game, we had some great looks, but when they’re not going you’ve got to be able to switch it up and get into the paint and do what you can do. I was able to get into the paint a little bit, Kyrie as well, but we just haven’t shot the ball from the three point line.”

Offensively, the Raptors were carried by Lowry and DeRozan, which was the case all season. Lowry had 35 points on 20 shots and looked every bit the All-Star version of himself.

“He’s made shots,” Lue said. “He’s being aggressive. He’s making shots. Tonight he made some early baskets that gave him some confidence, I thought, in the first quarter, and he carried it throughout the game.”

DeRozan had 32 points on 23 shots and was getting to the spots on the floor he liked. Once in Toronto both Biyombo and Patterson have done a good job of switching up their screen angles on the pick-and-roll, and the Cavaliers get flummoxed by this.

“We’ve got to find a way to be more consistent,” Lowry said. “(He and DeRozan) need to find a way to be consistent throughout a whole series.”

Then again there was Biyombo, the free agent to be making the case he should get paid big this summer. He finished with 14 boards — including a number of key ones late — and three blocks. His presence inside has the Cavaliers hesitant to attack the paint.

This sets up a lot of interesting questions heading into Game 5 Wednesday.

Can Toronto play with the same energy on the road? Can Cleveland adjust to the Toronto defense and get back to attacking the paint? Will Lowry stay hot? Will Love regain his stroke?

The bottom line is this is a series now — best of three. And the Cavaliers are no lock to advance.

Watch Kyle Lowry’s red-hot shooting second quarter

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Kyle Lowry found his shot back home in Toronto.

After a rough first couple games (actually a rough couple rounds to start the playoffs), Lowry has gotten hot back home, and that seemed to peak in the second quarter when he shot 6-of-7 overall and 3-of-4 from three. He had 15 points, 20 in the quarter, and the Raptors were up 16 at the half.