NBA Playoffs, Suns v. Spurs: Surprise, surprise, pace still matters

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The Suns aren’t quite the Suns, as they traded in their rocket boots for some decent, reliable New Balance kicks (Matt Bonner approved, coincidentally). That simply means that they run rather than fly, and while their pace isn’t the torrid, unmatchable sprint it used to be, Phoenix still likes to push the pace (97.6 possessions per game, 4th in the league).

The Spurs do not. San Antonio is 20th in the league in pace (94.1 possessions), and while some Spurs (Tony Parker, George Hill, and Manu Ginobili, for example) certainly aren’t allergic to the open court, there’s no question that Pop’s gang would prefer to keep this series a half-court affair. It won’t be, because the Suns will deliberately look to push the tempo whenever possible to keep the Spurs on the ropes.

That could spell trouble for San Antonio. Tom Haberstroh (of HoopData fame), writing for ESPN.com, found while the Spurs didn’t struggle overall against fast-paced teams in the regular season, they did struggle against fast-paced playoff teams. Haberstroh explains why (Insider):

As it has for the past decade, the Spurs’ defense begins and ends with 12-time All-Defensive Team member Tim Duncan.
But he’s an older big man, so Duncan’s defensive impact is lightest in
track meets, games in which guards dictate the pace. He’s forced to lag
behind, which makes him ineffective. Almost all of his defensive
contributions occur in the half-court set, where he controls the paint,
thereby providing a fulcrum for his teammates to stifle the perimeter.
But in the transition game, the Spurs’ biggest defensive weapon is
effectively neutralized as he plods across the half-court line.

Check Haberstroh’s piece in its entirety for the data on exactly how much of an advantage this is for Phoenix, as well as additional explanatory analysis.

San Antonio’s transition defense has always been a strength, but even the most stifling transition D wouldn’t be as potent as the Spurs’ half-court set-up. Duncan isn’t as quick as he used to be, but he’s still a high quality help defender and terrific on the ball as well. He’s not best-defending-big-man-in-the-league good anymore, thanks both to his own slight decline and Dwight Howard’s meteoric rise, but to say he’s a defensive asset would be a terrible understatement.

The Suns may not be looking to push the pace to blistering levels, but the speed of the game (or more specifically, the speed of the Suns’ offense) is going to play a pivotal role in the Spurs’ ability to defend in this series. No duh. What’s surprising is just how much trouble Duncan and the Spurs have had in defending quality uptempo teams. Phoenix certainly qualifies.

Lonzo Ball will never be as good as this fan-made video of him destroying people in 2K17

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Ultimately, nobody has any idea how good Lonzo Ball will be as an NBA player. Franchise cornerstone? All-Star? Above average starter? Rotation player? He will fall somewhere on the scale, but even for NBA teams it’s a guess as to where. (His dad apparently thinks he will end his career compared to Jordan, I seriously doubt that.)

However good he ends up being, he may never be as good as he looks in this 2K17 fan video made by Shady00018. The Lakers should pray he does: Dropping Stephen Curry on a crossover, dunking over Rudy Gobert, throwing no-look passes like beads at Mardi Gras? It’s impressive, if unrealistic.

Then again, reality Lakers fans don’t always intersect.

 

LeBron James on the Finals: “I feel good about our chances. Very good.”

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If there is one team in the NBA that can knock off the Warriors in a seven-game series, it’s the Cavaliers. They are the best team in the NBA at creating mismatches and isolating them, and in Kyrie Irving and LeBron James they have two of the best isolation scorers in the game. Cleveland is strong on the boards and is capable of impressive defense. Also, they have the best player on the planet.

If nobody else is confident in the Cavaliers chances, he is.

Here is what LeBron James said his confidence level facing the Warriors in a Finals trilogy.

What else is he going to say?

And if anyone should be confident, it’s LeBron. He can change a series.

From the outside, we saw a series last year where everything needed to go right for Cleveland to win — LeBron playing the best ball of his career for the final three games, Kyrie Irving hitting big shots, Draymond Green getting suspended, Andrew Bogut getting injured, Stephen Curry being off (due to injury or fatigue or just a slump). And even then took the Cavaliers seven games and heroics at the last minute. Now the Warriors add Kevin Durant, and it’s hard not to see this ending differently.

However, LeBron James is the one guy who can alter that vision. And he’s confident he can do it, he’s done it before.

Steve Alford: LaVar Ball never meddled with UCLA Basketball

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
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Is LaVar Ball just a harmless loudmouth, or will he actually undermine the team that drafts his son, highly touted guard Lonzo Ball?

The Lakers, who hold the No. 2 pick, are the most likely team to find out.

President Magic Johnson said LaVar won’t affect whether they draft Lonzo, but coach Luke Walton wants the team to ask UCLA coach Steve Alford about LaVar’s involvement.

Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times did just that:

Was LaVar Ball around the team much?

“Zero,” Alford said.

Was he ever at practice?

“Never at practice,” Alford said. “Never at practice; never called me.”

Did he ever try to meddle in your coaching?

“Never,” Alford said.

LaVar has said his other sons, LiAngelo and LaMelo, will play for UCLA. So, Alford has incentive to maintain a productive working relationship with LaVar. The players’ high school coach had a much worse experience dealing with LaVar.

Alford vouching for LaVar means something, but the total picture is more complex.

Still, LaVar would hardly be the first difficult parent of an NBA player. He’s just the most public. Even if he’d try to meddle into the Lakers, they might be willing to handle that to get his talented son.

John Wall: Bench was Wizards’ ‘downfall’

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John Wall left the Wizards’ season-ending loss to the Celtics talking about how badly Washington’s bench got outscored.

Now that he has time to reflect and isn’t just speaking with raw emotion shortly after a devastating loss, how does he feel?

Wall, via CSN Mid-Atlantic

“We need to help our bench,” Wall told CSN’s Chris Miller. “Just to be honest, that was our downfall in each series that we had in the [Eastern Conference] semifinals, our bench got out played.”

It starts from upstairs – just building the right bench guys and building the chemistry. That’s all it is.

I think that’s where they won the game at. I heard Marcus Smart say after the game that I had no legs. He’s basically right. I don’t make excuses. I’m going to play. If I miss shots or make shots, I’ll live with it. I know people will say he finished oh for 11, but I play – I took everything I had in me to keep fighting.

It’s just that their bench guys came in and played well. I think Kelly Oubre could’ve played a little bit more. I wish he would’ve played a little more and Jason. But coach makes the decision, and we stick behind him 100 percent. I feel like those two guys could have really helped us.

Wall – eligible for a designated-veteran-player extension but reportedly unsure about signing one – is clearly telling the Wizards what he wants. Marcin Gortat similarly criticized Washington’s bench earlier in the season, and he apologized. Wall has the leverage not to stand by his assessment.

Both Wall and Gortat were right. The Wizards’ bench was the source of much of their problems.

Washington’s starting lineup outscored opponents by 4.7 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs. Its bench (all other lineups) got outscored 15.5 points per 100 possessions.

Only the Thunder had a similar split in net rating:

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The Wizards knew their flaw and tried to hide it. Washington’s starters played 34.2 minutes per game together in the postseason – second only to the Pacers (34.5). Wall’s heavy workload contributed to him running out of gas late in Game 7 against Boston, which Marcus Smart noted.

What can the Wizards do to upgrade their bench? Spend.

They sound committed to keeping Otto Porter, a restricted free agent this summer. But that would push them near the luxury tax – so they could scrimp on the bench in a variety of ways:

  • Don’t re-sign Bojan Bogdanovic, another restricted free agent. He’s in line for a raise.
  • Trade Marcin Gortat, elevating Ian Mahinmi into the starting lineup and therefore weakening the bench.
  • Trade Jason Smith, who might be expendable at his salary but at least still provides depth.
  • Don’t use the mid-level exception. That’s Washington’s best mechanism for adding outside help, but it’d be costly.

Will the Wizards take any of those cost-saving measures? Wall is certainly watching.