NBA Playoffs, Suns v. Spurs Game 2: Somehow, Phoenix finds a way to negate Duncan's advantage in the paint

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Although the Suns aren’t exactly stacked with defenders that can handle Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, no single Spurs player stands as a bigger threat to what Phoenix hopes to accomplish than Tim Duncan.

If TD is playing his best basketball, the Spurs would likely win this series even, regardless of a George Hill disappearance. San Antonio could definitely use an extra scoring threat to put alongside the big three, but if Duncan is doing his thing offensively and defensively, it runs so directly opposed to the Suns’ game plan that his influence could almost win the series on its own.

There’s no question that picking up the pace of the game will be crucial for Phoenix, if only because the Spurs’ transition defense isn’t as strong as their half-court model. That’s when Duncan can make the biggest defensive impact, and having a big man like Tim on the floor can alter an opponent’s approach entirely. He alters too many shots and provides too big of a road block for teams not to pay attention to him.

He can also pose quite a problem for the Suns on the other end, as Duncan’s face-up and back-down possessions take up more clock (which makes the Phoenix defense work for longer periods and increases the likelihood that they break down), usually end with open shots for either Duncan or his teammates, and even misses result in shorter rebounds that are more difficult to transition into fast breaks. This isn’t even acknowledging the fact that no Suns big is considered a strong post defender (no, definitely not you, Jarron) on paper, which would — in theory — allow Duncan to run roughshod over Phoenix’s interior D.

Only in Game 1, that wasn’t the case at all. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Duncan had seven true post-ups on Monday, and only scored on two of those possessions. Tim averaged just 0.29 points per possession on post-up plays in that game, thanks to the efforts of Channing Frye and some terrific help defense.

[6:31, 1st] Duncan catches the ball at the left block extended, and faces up against Frye. After using a jab step to get Frye to overcommit, Tim drove baseline toward the suddenly open rim. The ocean of open space in the paint becomes a bit smaller as Grant Hill rotates quickly to contest Duncan’s shot, and either partially blocks it or simply alters it enough to cause a miss.

[4:10, 1st] Frye fronts Duncan in the middle of the paint, and Manu throws a lob over the top after faking a pass along the perimeter. Jared Dudley rotates in time to prevent an easy bucket, but the defense is aggressive enough to warrant a whistle and a trip to the line for TD. Duncan makes one of two free throws.

[2:47, 1st] The Spurs again feed Duncan on the left block against Frye. Tim begins to back his way into the paint, but he’s not without resistance: Frye bodies up Duncan as he tries to power his way into the lane, and Tim settles for a fadeaway jumper.

[5:25, 2nd] The Spurs push the ball in transition off of a missed Steve Nash three-pointer, but Tony Parker doesn’t force the issue as the Suns scramble back into position. Nash is actually matched up on Duncan for a moment, but Lou Amundson quickly relieves Nash of that responsibility after recognizing the mismatch. It’s a tad late however, as the switch affords Tim some prime low-post real estate, and Amundson fouls him in an attempt to push him out of the paint. Duncan again makes one of two free throws.

[4:28, 2nd] Duncan receives the ball on the right block, and begins to force his way into the paint against Frye. TD tries to spin baseline, but Grant Hill has already rotated to that position to help out Frye. Hill swipes at the ball, and Duncan reverses his pivot, spinning back away from the basket to shield the ball and find his open teammate. He waits too long, and when Duncan tries to throw a cross-court feed to Hill’s man on the opposite baseline, Grant deflects the pass and the Suns’ fast break is go for launch.

[4:55, 3rd] Frye battles before the catch to deny Duncan deep post position. When Tim receives the entry pass outside the paint, he faces up on Frye, and puts up a jumper that catches plenty of rim but no net.

[7:55, 4th] Duncan receives a pass on the left block extended, and tries to face up and drive against Frye. TD again goes baseline, this time with an attempt to come up on the opposite side of the basket. Channing is physical with Tim as he moves along the baseline, and the reverse layup attempt comes up a bit short. Duncan clearly wants a call, and he may not be wrong; Frye was definitely physical on the drive, but in this case the advantage goes to the defense.

These aren’t exactly examples of perfect post defense, probably because Frye isn’t exactly a perfect post defender. But Channing worked to push Duncan out of his more comfortable areas on the floor, positioned himself so that he could contest as many shots as possible, and relied on his teammates to provide help.

It’s somewhat amazing that the Suns were able to both provide help against Duncan and throw such aggressive double teams at Manu Ginobili, but that embodies Phoenix’s new defensive mentality. They may not always be effective, but they work hard, they scramble, and they help each other out. So far that hasn’t produced anything close to an answer for Tony Parker, but it was enough to force Duncan into a rough scoring night in the post and lock up a Game 1 victory.

San Antonio’s Game 2 response relies on a few things: more patience from Duncan (who could have forced his way into better looks), a maintained commitment to the pick-and-roll (which the Spurs’ guards were able to generate a ton of points from) in order to get Duncan more points on the move, and some better spacing and more reliable shooting from the supporting cast (who were a no-show in Game 1).

None of those are outside the realm of possibility, so while Phoenix’s defensive performance on Duncan seems very replicable, Game 2 could be a demonstration of the Spurs exercising their own will. As the back-and-forth nature of Game 1 demonstrated, this series has the potential to be quite volatile, and neither team can be fully expected to execute their own strategy given the resilience of their opponent and the stylistic differences between the two. That’s what makes Suns-Spurs such an intriguing watch, even though it doesn’t exactly bode well for anyone ability to predict the outcome of a given game.   

Report: Masai Ujiri’s salary about half what Phil Jackson’s was

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP
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James Dolan isn’t fixing the Knicks’ biggest problem – James Dolan.

But the owner took a step in the right direction a few years ago by pouring a ton of money into the front office. Of course, Dolan did it in the worst way. Offering a five-year, $60 million contract, he didn’t target general managers with proven track records of success. He hired front-office novice Phil Jackson, whose tenure was a wreck.

With Jackson out, will Dolan get it right this time?

The Knicks are reportedly interested in Raptors president Masai Ujiri, but it will be more complicated now, because Ujiri just signed a contract extension and the Knicks are still paying Jackson.

But can New York lure Ujiri from Toronto?

Michael Grange of Sportsnet:

As a source close to MLSE ownership told me Wednesday morning: “Don’t even waste your time on this.”

But as one NBA source put it: “This is not fake news, the Knicks will be coming hard.”

Sam Amick of USA Today:

Ujiri signed a five-year extension worth $32 million last September

Bruce Arthur of the Star:

All that just makes the Knicks more desperate for a new saviour, and league sources indicate the Knicks are already confident Ujiri is coming to New York.

Despite the contract, sources indicate Ujiri can leave if he wants to leave. It’s really up to him.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

As for reports that the Knicks were interested in Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri, sources told ESPN that the Knicks have a deep respect for him, but he’s under contract and thus would require permission to speak to and compensation — likely draft picks — which the Knicks would be very reluctant to consider.

Dolan has the fortune to offer Ujiri a significant raise and buy him out of his Raptors contract. Money goes a long way in these negotiations, though it’s unclear how much Dolan would spend on a less-flashy name – and whether the Raptors want more than just cash.

Sending Toronto first-round picks as compensation would hurt the Knicks, but not as much as hiring another incompetent front-office head.

Will Ujiri land in New York? There are so many mixed signals, but it appears the Knicks at least have a chance.

Report: James Harden recruited Chris Paul to Rockets throughout season

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Chris Paul to the Rockets seemed to come out of nowhere.

It didn’t.

Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times:

According to one NBA executive, James Harden, the Rockets’ all-star guard, had been recruiting Paul throughout the season. An executive from another team said Harden had already told a fellow NBA player that Paul’s going to Houston was a done deal.

This is how the league works now. James Harden continues to be a enthusiastic recruiter, and that’s a huge asset to the Rockets. It goes toward explaining why Houston general manager Daryl Morey has bestowed so much faith in Harden.

The NBA has simply decided nothing players do constitutes tampering. So, Harden was free to convey Houston’s message to Paul – and this went beyond the typical bonding of two stars. The Rockets had to orchestrate a complex series of transactions, including getting Paul to waive most of his trade bonus, to make the deal work. Harden was part lead recruiter, part middleman communicating with the front office.

Getting Paul was truly the Harden-Morey partnership at its finest.

Report: Thunder have planned Blake Griffin pursuit for months

russell westbrook blake griffin
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The Clippers sound confident about re-signing Blake Griffin in the wake Chris Paul going to the Rockets.

But L.A. will have competition for the star forward – from the Nuggets, Celtics (depending how their primary plan goes), Heat and Griffin’s home-state Thunder.

Royce Young of ESPN:

It’s a shame for the Thunder they backed off their plan to sign Griffin last summer, signing Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo to contract extensions, only to resume it a few months later.

Letting Adams and Oladipo hit unrestricted free agency would have given Oklahoma City an additional $22,514,699 in cap flexibility while maintaining Adams’ and Oladipo’s Bird Rights. That alone wouldn’t have been enough to offer Griffin a max salary, but dumping Enes Kanter, Kyle Singler and either Doug McDermott or Domantas Sabonis would’ve projected to get the Thunder there. In that scenario, Oklahoma City could have also exceeded the cap to re-sign Adams and Oladipo after inking Griffin.

Alas, the Thunder are now limited to dumping contributors that make the team appealing to someone like Griffin in the first place or executing a sign-and-trade. But a sign-and-trade gets complicated. Adams’ salary alone isn’t enough to return Griffin on a max, and it’s not even clear the Clippers – with DeAndre Jordan – would want Adams (though losing Griffin could initiate an even greater rebuild that includes trading Jordan). And again, the Clippers reportedly want to keep Griffin rather than go this route.

This was all foreseeable, though some surprising factors worsened the consequences of the extensions for Oklahoma City.

Griffin seemed more certain last summer to stay in L.A. The 2017-18 salary cap appeared on track to be higher. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement won’t raise cap holds for first-round picks until next year. So, Adams’ deal projects to save the Thunder just $6,425,000 over the next four years relative to a max offer sheet – a paltry sum in the face of the potential cap flexibility lost this year by extending him instead of waiting to re-sign him.

The Thunder making moves earlier than necessary and salary-cap developments turning those plans especially imprudent – where have I heard this one before?

Report: Gordon Hayward will meet first with Heat in free agency, then Jazz, then Celtics

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Gordon Hayward is arguably the biggest available prize in free agency, and his dance card for the first couple of days in July is filling up.

Miami and Pat Riley will bat lead off in a series of meetings, reports ESPN.

Gordon Hayward will take his first free-agent meeting with the Miami Heat on Saturday, a source told ESPN’s Jorge Sedano. Hayward will then be traveling Sunday to meet Utah on Monday, with Boston coming after that…

Sources previously told ESPN the Jazz regard the Heat as no less a threat to lure Hayward away than the Celtics, whose interest in the former Butler star has been anticipated for some time, largely thanks to the presence of Hayward’s college coach, Brad Stevens, on Boston’s bench.

For the record, there are rumors it’s Miami Saturday, Boston Sunday, Utah Monday, then he will take some time to make a decision. I’m not sure the order matters that much.

Hayward is an All-Star level player at a position of need for a lot of teams out on the wing. He averaged 21.9 points per game last season, shot 39.8 percent from three, can put the ball on the floor and be a playmaker for himself and others, plus can defend everything from stretch fours to point guards (he’s not a lock-down defender, but he is good). Hayward is the kind of versatile player teams need to compete in a modern NBA. He’s an elite wing player who is about to get paid like one.

The question is by whom? Around the league teams are convinced it will be one of those three, but which one depends on who you talk to. The Jazz seem confident they can retain him, where others seem confident he’s got one foot out the door. Only Hayward truly knows, and he’s wise to not speak on it and take the meetings. (If he takes his time deciding that could impact the chase for Blake Griffin, Miami and Boston reportedly have interest if they don’t land Gordon, but that can’t be Gordon’s concern. He has to do what’s right for him in his own time.)