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.

Report: Luke Walton’s Lakers contract is for 5 years, $25 million

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 13:  Interim head coach Luke Walton of the Golden State Warriors leads the team against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center on January 13, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. The Nuggets defeated the Warriors 112-110. 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 Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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In the last few years, NBA head coaching salaries have skyrocketed, and new Lakers coach Luke Walton is no exception. According to the Los Angeles Times‘ Mike Bresnahan, Walton is getting $25 million over five years, which is the same as Steve Kerr’s deal with the Warriors, now-former Knicks coach Derek Fisher’s deal in New York, and Fred Hoiberg’s deal with the Bulls.

This kind of money has become standard for head coaches who don’t also have front-office power. Tom Thibodeau and Stan Van Gundy both get between $7 and $8 million annually to do both jobs. Given how good Walton’s current situation with the Warriors is, the Lakers probably had to be on the high end of the coaching spectrum to get him to leave.

Luke Walton says he won’t run the triangle as Lakers coach

at American Airlines Center on December 30, 2015 in Dallas, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using 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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On Friday night, the Lakers announced that they’re hiring Luke Walton as their next head coach, effective as soon as the Warriors’ playoff run is over. It’s a good hire, but it’s especially interesting given Walton’s close relationship with Phil Jackson and the rumors that never seem to go away, that Jackson might be set up to return to the Lakers to run the team alongside fiancée Jeanie Buss after next season, when he has an opt-out in his contract with the Knicks.

But that doesn’t mean Walton will be running the triangle, as he said in his first comments to reporters since the news broke.

Via the Orange County Register‘s Bill Oram:

Regardless of whether Jackson eventually gets back in the picture in Los Angeles, Walton has been a successful assistant in Golden State and has the right temperament to lead the Lakers into the post-Kobe era.

Steve Kerr: “Not going to rule out” Stephen Curry for Game 2 vs. Blazers

OAKLAND, CA - APRIL 27:  Injured Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors reacts on the bench with Shaun Livingston #34 and Anderson Varejao #18 during their game against the Houston Rockets in Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on April 27, 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 Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Stephen Curry might be back sooner than expected. It’s been one week since he suffered the sprained MCL in his right knee that led the Warriors to rule him out for at least two weeks, but head coach Steve Kerr said Saturday that there’s at least an outside chance he could play Tuesday in Game 2 of Golden State’s second-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers.

Via ESPN.com’s Marc Stein:

https://twitter.com/ESPNSteinLine/status/726489715398991872

Obviously, the smart money is on Curry not playing this early in his timetable. But the fact that it’s even on the table would seem to indicate that, barring a setback, he’ll be back for at least some of the series, which tips off Sunday.

Carmelo Anthony undecided about playing in Rio Olympics

LAS VEGAS, NV - AUGUST 11:  Carmelo Anthony #20 of the 2015 USA Basketball Men's National Team shoots during a practice session at the Mendenhall Center on August 11, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Since Chris Paul withdrew from this summer’s Olympic team, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James are the only players left from the 2008 team. If they played this summer in Rio de Janeiro, they would have the chance to be the only men’s basketball players ever to win three gold medals. But James is still undecided, and Anthony tells The Vertical‘s Michael Lee that he is also still weighing it:

USA Basketball has provided Anthony his only opportunity to win at a high level since he became a professional. Anthony sounded optimistic in March that his surgically repaired left knee wouldn’t prevent him from going after an unprecedented third gold medal. But since then, Chris Paul withdrew, citing the need for rest, and left Anthony and LeBron James as the only players from the 2008 team remaining in the Team USA selection pool. “It definitely would help,” Anthony said, if James decides to make one more run, but Anthony isn’t close to making a final decision.

“That’s at the top of the sport, of any sport. I think if you have the opportunity to do it, and enjoy it, and take advantage of it, I think you should do it. [The Olympics are] the throne for sports as a whole,” Anthony told The Vertical. “I’m going to take a little more time to think about it. I’m not in a rush. NBA season is still going on, so I’m going to see how I feel physically. Am I ready to take on – I don’t want to say burden, but – that load? If I’m ready, I’ll do it. If not, my body won’t lie to me.”

Anthony turns 32 next month—if he does play, it will undoubtedly be his final run with the national team. But his concerns about rest are valid, even though he was healthier this year than he was last season, when he had season-ending knee surgery. James’ decision will be even more interesting: he cares deeply about his place in history, but he’s had absolutely no time off since 2011, between five straight Finals runs (and likely a sixth) and the 2012 gold-medal run with the Olympic team.

If Anthony ultimately decides not to play, it would open up another spot for a forward, which could go to the likes of Draymond Green, Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler. All of this is worth keeping an eye on as July’s training camp gets closer.