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.  

John Stockton working with Bucks point guards at training camp

SACRAMENTO, CA - APRIL 30:  John Stockton #12 of the Utah Jazz dribbles in Game five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Sacramento Kings during the 2003 NBA Playoffs at Arco Arena on April 30, 2003 in Sacramento, California.  The Kings won 111-91.  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: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
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The Bucks are coached by one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, Jason Kidd. But Kidd invited another legend of the position to camp to work with his point guards. John Stockton, the NBA’s all-time leader in assists and steals, was at Bucks practice on Thursday working with Michael Carter-Williams, Matthew Dellavedova and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Not a bad person to learn from, especially since the Bucks have one of the weakest point-guard positions in the league.

Blake Griffin says he’s working on improving his three-point shot

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 21:  Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers shoots a jumper over Serge Ibaka #9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during a 100-99 loss to the Thunder at Staples Center on December 21, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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2016-17 is going to be a big year for Blake Griffin. He missed much of last season with a quad injury and a broken hand stemming from a punching incident, and he has the ability to opt out of his contract next summer. When Griffin was healthy, he was his usual All-Star self for the Clippers, but he played just 35 games. He’s healthy now, at the start of training camp, and he says he wants to improve his three-point shot.

From Dan Woike of the Orange County Register:

“I want to be someone who shoots from there confidently, for sure,” Griffin said after Thursday’s practice at UC Irvine’s Bren Events Center. “A lot of us power forwards, our strength is inside or our versatility. You look at the best power forwards, Anthony Davis, LaMarcus (Aldridge), Draymond (Green) … they can all shoot but they can all put the ball on the floor and they can all score inside. I don’t necessarily think falling in love with the 3-point shot is a good idea, but shooting it confidently from there is great.”

Not only has Griffin not hit his threes in his career (his overall mark from beyond the arc is an awful 27.1 percent) but he doesn’t take very many of them. The most threes he’s ever shot in a season is 44 in 2013-14, and he hit 12 of them. Griffin is only 27, so he’s theoretically not done improving as a player, but it’s hard to imagine a dramatic jump this far along when that hasn’t been a part of his game at all to this point.

 

Steve Kerr endorses shorter preseason to limit back-to-backs

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors speaks to members of the media after being defeated by the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland, California. 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 Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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There are too many preseason games. The NBA has its reasons for playing them — namely, to allow for games in non-NBA markets — and sometimes they can be valuable for teams to experiment with rotations. But most teams play seven or eight preseason games, which is unnecessary. Warriors coach Steve Kerr agrees, according to the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Connor Letourneau:

“I kind of like the idea that’s been tossed around the last couple summers to start the regular season a little earlier, maybe a week early,” Kerr said Thursday afternoon after Warriors practice. “Play five exhibition games instead of eight. I kind of like that, just so you have fewer back-to-backs in the regular season.”

The NBA has floated the idea in the past of cutting the number of preseason games in order to stretch out the regular season, thereby lessening the burden of travel and back-to-backs. The NBA has made an effort this season to cut down on back-to-backs, and this would be a logical way to do that.

Hornets’ Batum won’t let big contract affect how he plays

MIAMI, FL - APRIL 20: Nicolas Batum #5 of the Charlotte Hornets drives on Joe Johnson #2 of the Miami Heat  during game two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena on April 20, 2016 in Miami, Florida. 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 Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Nicolas Batum said he isn’t planning to alter how he plays the game after signing a five-year, $120 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets.

And that’s just fine with coach Steve Clifford.

Clifford said Batum doesn’t need to put additional pressure on himself to score just because he’s now the highest-paid player in Hornets history. He told him to play how he plays.

“You don’t change the nature of how you play. I think guys get messed up with that,” Clifford said. “… I don’t think you try to reinvent yourself because the money changed. We gave him the money because he played so well. In my opinion he was an All-Star-caliber player last season when healthy.”

Batum was acquired in a trade with Portland before last season and turned out to be a gem for Charlotte, which won 48 games and tied for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. Batum averaged a career-high 14.9 points and 5.6 assists while becoming one of the team’s top three go-to options.

Batum said he’s learned from experience that it’s not worth putting pressure on himself just because he signed a big contract.

He did in that 2012 after inking a four-year, $46 million deal to remain with the Portland Trail Blazers. While he still played well, he said it was pointless.

“I was a young guy at the time and I didn’t know what to expect,” Batum said. “Now I know. I know what I have to go through right now. I know what the views of the media and the public will be. I know that, and I’m good with it.”

For Batum, pressure no longer enters the equation because the Hornets trust him and believe in him.

“It’s more relief than pressure,” Batum said.

The Hornets made re-signing him their No. 1 priority, offering the Frenchman a huge deal about an hour into the free-agency signing period. Batum also received several offers from other teams shortly after the deadline, which he called flattering.

The 6-foot-8, 200-pound Batum enters the season as Charlotte’s best all-around player and a favorite among teammates.

“Guys are so much more comfortable when he’s out there on the floor because he makes it so much easier at both ends,” forward Marvin Williams said.

Williams said there’s a naturalness to Batum’s game, and he’s incredibly unselfish – he’s always looking for the better shot option.

“He likes to make the assist, and he likes to get everyone involved,” Williams said. “I think that is why so many people like playing with him. It’s why I love playing with him.”

And why Clifford views him as irreplaceable.

When Batum went down in the second half of last season with an ankle injury, the Hornets struggled to find their rhythm.

“He’s not a numbers guy to me,” Clifford said. “People can say, `Well, he’s making this or he’s making that (much money),’ but if he plays at the level he played at last year when he was healthy, we have a chance to be a really good team.”

The Hornets continue to work on 5-on-5 scrimmages extensively during practice as Clifford gets a feel for his team.

But there were several key players missing on Thursday.

Point guard Kemba Walker (knee) and center Cody Zeller (knee) remained out of practice while rehabbing from injuries. Guard Jeremy Lamb did not practice after stepping on a basketball and twisting his ankle, while Brian Roberts was held out after injuring his hamstring when he slipped on some water on the court. Clifford said he hopes to have Lamb and Roberts back in a few days.