NBA Playoffs, Suns v. Spurs: And now was acknowledged the presence of the Black and Silver Death

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Nash and Suns.pngThe
Phoenix Suns and the San Antonio Spurs will meet for the fourth time in
six years, and Steve Nash and friends will try their damnedest to avoid
their fourth elimination in as many tries by the Black and Silver
Death.

You see, some will tell you that the Suns are stylistically doomed to
falter in the playoffs. I disagree. What plagues Phoenix is the very
existence of the San Antonio Spurs, who not only present another foil
for the Suns in these playoffs, but have historically been a bit of a
match-up nightmare.

Phoenix didn’t come up short in the playoffs during the D’Antoni era
because their style wasn’t good enough to win or because their offense
wasn’t superior enough to make up for their defense. Phoenix came up
short because they lost to the Spurs three times in four years, and
their one other opponent? The Avery Johnson-led Mavs, who were
constructed with the Spurs model and who scraped by an Amar’e-less Suns
team thanks to a superhuman performance by Dirk Nowitzki.

That’s all. ‘Seven Seconds or Less’ was deemed a failure by so many
because it failed to capture hardware, but all it really did is fail to
beat the Spurs. Other than that, you’re looking at a wildly successful
team that hit just the wrong opponent.

These Suns may not be those Suns, but Steve Nash is still Steve Nash,
and Amar’e Stoudemire is still Amar’e Stoudemire. I guess he used to be
Amare. Whatever. Those two — along with Leandro Barbosa — who are the
few remnants of the SSoL Suns along with head coach Alvin Gentry (who
was a D’Antoni assistant) will get a shot at revenge. Taking a series
over the Spurs now won’t take back those playoff losses, won’t un-bloody Steve Nash’s nose,
and won’t un-implode the roster that was, but it could go a long way in
restoring some prestige to the careers of Nash and Stoudemire.

Both are considered great players, but ultimately flawed ones; Nash’s
two MVP awards are seen by many as tainted, and Stoudemire as a
phenomenal offensive talent that’s perhaps too preoccupied with himself
(the man once nicknamed himself “Isreal” because his game, well, is
real, and subsequently STAT, for “Standing Tall and Talented,”) to
worry about defense.

There may be a bit of truth to each, but neither flaw compares to the
painfully unfair stigma that goes with being a great player that hasn’t
(note that hasn’t is not the same as can’t) won a
championship. Beating the Spurs won’t bring the Suns a title, but it
could — if only for a moment — cure the franchise of the plague that
marred some of the most terrific teams of this era.

That’s why this series isn’t about the title, and all about titles
past. There are no guarantees the Steve Nash would have led the Suns
all the way to the promised land, but wouldn’t it have been fun to see
him try? The Spurs denied the Suns — and NBA fans everywhere — that
opportunity thanks to their smothering defense, their incredible
talent, and their relentless execution. The hot streak Phoenix rode
with into the playoffs has cooled a bit, but they still enter this
series as the higher seed and rolling defensively.

Whether or not they have the bodies to throw at Tim Duncan or the
perimeter defense to stop Manu Ginobili (paging Grant Hill) remains to
be seen, but perhaps this is the way it was supposed to be. D’Antoni’s
gone, and so are Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion, Shaquille O’Neal, and the
weight of expectation.

No one expected this level of success from the Suns this year, and
despite their performance, something about Phoenix’s playoff run still
strikes many as improbable. After all, beyond Nash and Amar’e, this
team depends on Jared Dudley, Channing Frye, and Louis Amundson. Goran
Dragic completely turned his career around after a woeful rookie
season. Grant Hill, at 37, is not only a vital offensive cog in the
machine, but their defensive stopper. These Suns carry with them not
only an air of unpredictability, but improbability.

At this point, a series win over the Spurs seems just as improbable.
The match-up problems are still there, and San Antonio looked awfully
good in eliminating Dallas in the first round. However, this series
should be accompanied by one, enduring question: why not? Given
everything Phoenix has been able to accomplish this season, would
toppling the Spurs even qualify as the most surprising? We’re in for a
riveting series, a million storylines, and just as many questions. But
that one question should stand out among many, if only as a reminder of the importance of this season in the Suns-Spurs lore.  

Warriors’ Matt Barnes on facing Kings: ‘I’m trying to kill ’em’

AP Photo/Darren Abate
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The Kings were very good to Matt Barnes.

They signed him to a two-year contract worth more than $12.5 million when it seemed he wouldn’t come close to that on the market. Then they waived him, allowing him to receive all his salary and escape basketball hell for the Warriors, who make him much happier.

Yet, he’s going into tonight’s Golden State-Sacramento game with an edge.

Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle (hat tip: CSN Bay Area):

Matt Barnes holding a grudge? Why, I never.

Surging Heat have playoffs in sight after dreadful start

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MIAMI (AP) — They have won 24 times in their last 31 games. They put together the NBA’s longest winning streak this season, a 13-game run that was beyond surprising. They are on the cusp of doing something never accomplished in NBA history.

This Miami Heat comeback tale has been an epic one.

And now comes the toughest part – finishing the job.

None of the other 125 teams in NBA history who started 11-30 or worse made the NBA playoffs. The Heat, with 10 games left on their regular-season schedule, are in position to change that. They held the second-worst record in the league in mid-January, are tied with San Antonio for the best record since, and hold a one-game lead over Chicago and Detroit for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot entering Friday’s games.

“These guys want this so bad,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra – a reluctant coach of the year candidate who cringes when players lobby on his behalf – said Thursday after a loss to the Toronto Raptors. “They want this opportunity to be in the playoffs. We’ve fought, scratched, done everything we possibly can to put ourselves into a position to fight for it.”

More fighting and scratching awaits.

Of Miami’s final 10 games, a stretch that starts Sunday in Boston, eight are against teams still battling for either a playoff spot or playoff positioning. The only two exceptions are a home-and-home next week with New York, which earlier this season was seven games ahead of the Heat in the standings and now are eight games behind Miami (35-37).

“We’ve dug ourselves out of a deep ditch,” Heat center and NBA rebounding leader Hassan Whiteside said.

True, but they’re not on firm playoff footing yet.

Under normal circumstances, Whiteside almost certainly would not have played Thursday. He needed 13 stitches to repair a cut in his right (shooting) hand on Tuesday, and a similar injury two years ago left him sidelined for three games.

Not only did he start Thursday, he led the Heat with 16 points and 14 rebounds. Afterward, he had icepacks strapped to both of his knees, covered his right hand in a clear plastic bag so the stitches wouldn’t get wet in the shower, and had his newly sprained left ankle wrapped.

“He’s a tough dude,” Heat point guard Goran Dragic said.

He hasn’t been the only one.

Factoring in that Chris Bosh‘s on-court tenure with the Heat was declared over when he failed a physical in September, Miami has had at least two players unavailable to play in every game this season because of health reasons. Since Jan. 1, it’s been at least three every game – and often more.

A huge blow came last week when shooting guard Dion Waiters sprained his left ankle. He’s at three missed games and counting, and the Heat offense has struggled since.

“This is that time of the year,” Spoelstra said. “Everybody is feeling it, so this is the mental toughness we have to get to.”

The Heat have no practice Friday, though most players will be in the training room for treatments. Practice resumes Saturday, preceding the flight to Boston. And then Sunday, the 10-game sprint to the finish begins.

“I want our guys to enjoy this,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t feel that we’re putting any undue pressure, but everybody will feel like when they lose that the world is collapsing. This playoff race is still going on. And I think we need a day to get away from it, to decompress and to get back to work on Saturday.”

Remember when Shaq started practice naked? His former Lakers teammates do

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The Lakers are unveiling a statue for Shaquille O’Neal tonight, a perfect opportunity for his former teammates to share their favorite Shaq stories.

Mark Medina of The Orange County Register:

“We had a rule you can’t be late to the center huddle,” said Lakers coach Luke Walton, who played with O’Neal as a rookie in 2003-04. “He got here where he didn’t have time to get his clothes on. So he made sure he was on time in the center circle.”

“I’m just scarred by the one where he ran out into the middle of the court naked before practice,” said former Lakers forward Rick Fox, who played with O’Neal from 1997 to 2004. “I can’t get that image out of my mind.”

“Shaq walked onto the court, put his hands up and said ‘I’m ready to practice,’ said Lakers assistant coach Mark Madsen, who was O’Neal’s teammate from 2000 to 2003. “He had not one inch of clothing on. So he was there in all of his glory.”

“He would start running around looking for guys to hug. Everybody was trying to get out of the way,” mused former Lakers guard Derek Fisher, who played with O’Neal from 1996 to 2004. “That’s’ why when I hit that shot in San Antonio in 2004, that’s why we were so good at sprinting off of the court.”

As much as he toed the line with his wardrobe choices before practice started, O’Neal always practiced with his actual uniform. Fox expressed the views of many saying he’s “not guarding him, not doubling down in the post and digging for the ball” sans uniform. As Madsen mused, “that would’ve been the day I would’ve submitted my resignation papers.”

Want to criticize Shaq for not setting a better tone of punctuality? It’s a fair argument, and you might have had Kobe Bryant on your side.

But Shaq keeping the Lakers loose was instrumental in their high-pressure pursuit of championships. Don’t discount that contribution to their three titles with him.

Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac, probable top-10 pick, declares for NBA draft

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Jonathan Isaac explored bursting through a loophole to declare for the 2016 NBA draft straight out of high school.

Instead, he went to Florida State. Now, he’ll enter the 2017 draft.

Isaac:

If he doesn’t hire an agent, Isaac can maintain college eligibility, but this message seems pretty final. Expect Isaac to remain in the draft, and expect him to go in the top 10.

What I like most about the 6-foot-11 forward: Despite being so lanky, he was an elite defensive rebounder. That shows an underlying technical proficiency and physicality that should serve him well.

And then there are the drool-inducing flashes – his ability to go up and get alley-oops above the rim and a sweet-looking jumper.

He’s still a work in progress, and he deferred a lot at Florida State. But he’s just 19, and he has the tools to do more. I’d love to get him on my team as he learns to assert himself.