NBA Playoffs, Suns v. Spurs Game 1: Stars for Phoenix are hidden in plain view

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Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire are All-NBA caliber players, and in this series they will perform and be praised. They’re just too talented not to, and their combined 56 points — as well as their respective double-doubles — speaks to their tremendous impact on the Suns’ huge Game 1 victory over the Spurs.

On the other end of the rotation are the Suns reserves, who have rightfully been praised for their superior play over the course of this season. Their ability to relieve Nash and co. is a crucial reason why this Phoenix team is still alive in the playoffs, or playing in the postseason at all. Jared Dudley, Leandro Barbosa, Channing Frye, Goran Dragic, Louis Amundson…these guys have been quality players for a team that desperately needed depth, and all the talk over how the bench will be the key to this series is not misguided. They matter that much.

Then, somewhere in between, are the other Suns. Oh, you know, the ones who probably won the game for Phoenix last night with their ability to get out in transition, defend, and hit big shots. Jason Richardson and Grant Hill are overshadowed in the starting lineup by their more impressive counterparts, but each was absolutely stellar last night. Jason Richardson’s contributions seem easy to quantify, as he finished with 27 points on 10-of-16 shooting, but even those numbers don’t properly capture what J-Rich was able to add to the mix.

Richardson is something of a Shawn Marion/Joe Johnson (Phoenix era) hybrid, in that his designated role in the offense is to leak out intro transition as quickly as possible. His ability to finish lies somewhere between the two, as he’s athletic enough to finish in the paint over and around defenders, but hardly as explosive as Marion was in his prime. He also shows off Johnson’s three-point range and leans more to his defensive style than he does Marion’s. Richardson is hardly a part-for-part Frankenstein’s monster-ish amalgam of the two former Suns, but the elements of each are there, and the playoff results have been fantastic.

Jason is a central reason why Phoenix was able to push the pace up to 98 possessions, which is about in line with the Suns’ season average. He runs the court so well and gets out into transition so early that many possessions are just a Steve Nash outlet away from completion. On most nights, you’d expect the Spurs’ transition defense to perform better than they did in Game 1. Then again, maybe that’s a testament to how quickly Phoenix was able to trigger the break, and Richardson’s consistently aggressive style in the open court offered an invaluable weapon.

Grant Hill, on the other hand, did most of his damage on defense. Hill guarded Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker for a majority of the night, and while the Suns double-teamed Manu to get the ball out of his hands later in the game, Hill did a good job of denying the ball and playing solid one-on-one defense earlier in the game. Grant scored just seven points, but also grabbed six rebounds and notched four assists; it wasn’t exactly Hill’s most impressive statistical performance, but his ability to contain the Spurs’ deadlier threats on the perimeter was particularly notable.

When the Spurs struggled offensively in Game 1, ironically it was because they couldn’t get past the Suns’ defense. Phoenix limited San Antonio’s penetration as much as possible given the personnel on the floor, and the quick rotations of players like Hill and Richardson (and Amar’e Stoudemire, who was quite impressive defensively in the fourth quarter) denied the Spurs the usual advantages of playing against heavy double-teams.

When San Antonio went small in the fourth, they couldn’t manage to find a fifth player for the lineup that could actually contribute offensively. Roger Mason can’t shoot anymore for some reason, Keith Bogans has always been iffy at best on that end, and Richard Jefferson seems to make things so much more difficult than they have to be. The Suns scrambled to cover the Spurs’ four more threatening players while still managing to rotate onto the fifth, weaker offensive player, and their defense supplied just enough of an edge for Jason Richardson and Grant Hill to hit dual daggers in the final minutes.

Hill filled the gaps, and while the stat sheet may not reflect too kindly on his 32 minutes, he still played rather well. I don’t think Alvin Gentry would mind seeing Grant hit more than two of his seven shots, but this is a case where you take the defense (both on and off the ball), you take his passing and his help in establishing an offensive flow, and you take the win that he helped earn. 

Report: Pelicans have discussed offering DeMarcus Cousins less than max over 2-3 years

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Last month, Anthony Davis said he heard DeMarcus Cousins planned to re-sign with the Pelicans. Cousins was out a torn Achilles, and New Orleans was rolling with Davis playing more center. But New Orleans’ ceiling looked higher with Cousins, and Davis made clear he wanted to keep Cousins – in itself a big deal. More important than keeping Cousins is keeping Davis, which requires keeping Davis happy.

Then, the Pelicans swept the Trail Blazers, becoming the lowest seed to sweep a first-round series.

Is everyone still sure Cousins warrants a max contract, which projects to be worth about $176 million over five years?

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

The Pelicans have broached internally the idea of offering Cousins a two- or three-year deal at less than the max, per sources familiar with the discussions. I would not expect that to go over well with Cousins’ camp. But the Pelicans have the dual leverage of winning without Cousins and a tepid market for him.

Only a half-dozen or so teams have max-level space this season, and most won’t pursue Cousins at that level, sources say.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Pelicans leaked this to test the waters. Word will get back to Cousins, and they can gauge how strenuously he objects. If they want, they can deny ever considering this and try to avoid offending Cousins.

But New Orleans has leverage.

It will be a tight market. Many of the teams with significant cap space are young and rebuilding, and they won’t want Cousins’ attitude. Even teams ready to win might not bring him into the locker room. Returning from a torn Achilles – hard for any player – will be especially difficult for the 6-foot-11, 270-pound Cousins.

That said, Cousins has leverage on the Pelicans, too. He’s extremely talented, and players that talented are hard to come by. New Orleans would still essentially be capped out if he walked, left with only the mid-level exception to replace him. Cousins and Davis play well together, and Davis – who can become an unrestricted free agent in 2020 – wants Cousins around.

Confronted with a similar situation with Jrue Holiday last summer – capped out and no mechanism to adequately replace him – the Pelicans spent big. But Holiday wasn’t hurt and didn’t have any fit concerns with Davis.

For New Orleans, it’s clearly worth securing the 27-year-old Cousins for the next couple years. The upside is too high. But, especially given the injury, guaranteeing him money into his 30s is undesirable.

On the flip side, Cousins should want long-term security. This might be his last chance to get it.

So, maybe both the Pelicans and Cousins can meet in the middle. But finding that point is never simple.

Judge grills Suge Knight – facing murder charge – on NBA-champion pick (Rockets)

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Suge Knight is facing a murder, threat and robbery charges in three separate cases.

The former rap mogul was in court yesterday to set a trial date for the murder charge.

Marisa Gerber of the Los Angeles Times:

A few minutes later, during a separate hearing in the criminal threats proceeding, another judge asked Knight to return to his courtroom in May. The judge then turned to Knight, asking who he thought would win the NBA playoffs.

“At this time…” Knight said, before the judge cut him off, saying he wanted a once-and-for-all answer.

“Houston,” Knight responded.

“Alright, Houston. Good pick,” the judge said.

Knight smiled.

What?

Milwaukee taco restaurant releases security footage showing manager greeting Giannis Antetokounmpo

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Shortly after Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Bucks to a Game 4 win over the Celtics on Sunday, someone eating at a Milwaukee taco restaurant tweeted a photo of the Greek Freak waiting for a table. According to the tweeter, nobody helped Antetokounmpo at all.

The picture went viral.

But!

The restaurant claims a manager greeted Antetokounmpo and released surveillance footage to prove it:

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“We appreciate everyone’s passion for treating Giannis and all customers with great customer service,” Monday’s follow-up read. “It is something we strive to do every day. We reviewed the entryway footage from last night, and we are proud to reaffirm that Giannis was promptly greeted by our manager and told the wait time. Giannis has been a customer many times and he has graciously accepted our apology for not being able to seat him and other customers more quickly last night.  Our focus is now on supporting our team on this playoff run. Go Bucks.”

The release concluded with the hashtag #TacoBoutAMisunderstanding.

TacoBoutAMisunderstanding, indeed.

For his part, Antetokounmpo never griped publicly about the taco restaurant. The wait was longer then he wanted so he went elsewhere.

He has more important issues to focus on – like Game 5 in Boston tonight.

Kevin Durant: Liking anti-Russell Westbrook Instagram comment was ‘total accident’

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Kevin Durant liked an Instagram comment critical of Russell Westbrook.

Here we go again?

Royce Young of ESPN:

I’m not inside Durant’s mind. He could be lying to cover another burner Instagram snafu.

But I tend to believe him. It’s easy enough to accidentally click like, and the greater context is on his side.

Durant has always tried to downplay a feud with Westbrook. Even at the personal rivalry’s peak, Durant just seemed as if he wanted Westbrook to like him. So, it’s nearly impossible to believe Durant – even for a button-pushing moment – wanted to publicly slight Westbrook.

But maybe Durant wanted quiresultan or some other alter-ego to do so? Maybe, as beaten down as he looked by the controversy over those deleted tweets last summer, Durant didn’t learn his lesson and still uses burner accounts. I certainly wouldn’t rule that out.

Again, though, this would be a weird message. Last summer’s deleted tweets praised Westbrook while slamming the rest of the Thunder. Durant was going to have a burner account take the opposite stance now? That doesn’t really add up.