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.   

PBT’s NBA 2016 Draft Pospect Preview: Skal Labissiere

DES MOINES, IA - MARCH 17:  Skal Labissiere #1 of the Kentucky Wildcats reacts after making a basket against the Stony Brook Seawolves in the first half during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Wells Fargo Arena on March 17, 2016 in Des Moines, Iowa.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Skal Labissiere had one of the weirdest freshman seasons that I can remember seeing since I’ve been doing this job. He entered the year as arguably the best prospect in college basketball, a projected top two pick and the guy expected to anchor the front line for a national title contender in Kentucky. He played well for about a month … and then totally went in the tank. John Calipari lost confidence in him. He lost confidence in himself. His minutes evaporated.

By the middle of SEC play, he was a total non-factor for the Wildcats.

But then Labissiere started to put the pieces together. There was an 11-point, 8-rebound performance at Florida that seemed to wake him up. He followed that up with 18 points, nine boards and six blocks in a dominating win over LSU and Ben Simmons, the other guy that thought to be the No. 1 recruit in his class. His numbers down the stretch weren’t all that impressive, but anyone watching him play could see the difference.

And that’s where things get interesting for Skal. Because he had a season that would make you believe he had no chance of ever playing in the NBA. Yet there’s a good chance that he’ll end up getting picked in the lottery. How is that possible?

Height: 6′ 11.75″
Weight: 216
Wingspan: 7′ 2.5″
2015-16 Stats: 6.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.6 bpg, 15.8 mpg

STRENGTHS: Have you seen his shooting stroke?

Seriously, have you? Look at this:

This dude measured in a quarter-inch short of seven-feet, and he’s out here shooting like that. I’m not really concerned about what his shooting numbers were this season  — he shot 41.5 percent on jumpers, which isn’t good considering he shot just one three — because I think what happened to Skal at Kentucky had a whole lot more to do with confidence than ability — we’ll get to all that — but anyone with even a minor sense of basketball intellect can watch him shoot and see a guy that can make NBA threes at a very good clip.

Now think about where the NBA is heading these days. They call it small-ball, right? But it’s less about “small-ball” than it is about spacing the floor with shooters, and it just so happens that most of the guys that can shoot are small. Put another way, big dudes that can shoot have real value. Channing Frye has a four-year, $32-million contract with Cleveland right now. Marreese Speights might win his second straight NBA title with the Warriors. What do those guys have in common? They’re big and they can shoot.

And not only that, but Skal is fluid and agile, meaning he doesn’t just project as a pick-and-pop threat. He’s got a post game. He’s got a face-up game. He could, one day, be a really, really good offensive weapon. He’s also a much better shot-blocker than he gets credit for, averaging over four blocks per-40 minutes as a freshman. He’s got issues defensively — again, we’ll get to that — but they don’t include length, athleticism and a sense of timing as a shot-blocker.

There’s a reason that scouts have loved his potential for a long time.

WEAKNESSES: There are many, which is the reason why people are fairly shocked to see where he stands in mock drafts.

Physically, the biggest weakness for Skal right now is, simply, that he’s too weak. He weighs all of 216 pounds, according to the measurements at the NBA Combine. He needs to add a good 20-30 pounds of muscle if he’s going to have a prayer of holding his own in the post in the NBA. And as he gets stronger physically he’s going to get stronger with the ball. Not only did he get beaten up in the paint last season but he had trouble corralling rebounds and holding onto the ball in traffic.

Toughness was also a problem for him. Some bigs love going bow-for-bow in the post. Some don’t. Skal may be the latter. He’s got no ‘dog’ to him. He’s never going to be Draymond Green or Steven Adams. And while that will likely improve as he gets stronger, he may just be a kid that’s too nice for his own good. Given the role he’s projected to play, that may not end up being too much of a problem if he’s at least strong enough to hold position on the block; his long-term value is as a guy that can guard fives while pulling them away from the rim at the other end of the floor.

His mental toughness, or lack thereof, will be, but I’ll get to that in a second.

For me, the single biggest issue Skal is facing is that he lacks feel and basketball IQ because he just hasn’t played all that much basketball in his life. He didn’t play his junior season in high school because of a stress fracture in his back. His senior season he spent at something called Reach Your Dream Prep, which was a prep school team created out of thin air after his guardian totally mishandled a transfer of high schools. In other words, prior to Kentucky, he had never really been coached before.

And you can see that in the way that he played. I think the best way to describe it is that he was robotic. He didn’t react to plays. He didn’t read what was happening around him. He had to think it through, and as the adage goes, ‘when you think, you stink’. He strikes me as a kid that was spent far too much of his basketball life working through drills and has no idea has to translate what he’s been working on into an actual game.

He was slow to react offensively. He was even slower to react defensively, where his quick feet and knack for shot-blocking helped hide the fact that he was more or less clueless on positional defending for the majority of the season. That’s part of the reason he was seemingly always in foul trouble. Being too weak was a major cause as well, and after every mistake he made he got an earful from head coach John Calipari back on the bench.

And when you put all of that together, what you got was a player whose confidence was totally shattered by the middle of the season.

That’s where the issue of mental toughness comes into play. Coach Cal has a philosophy with these perimeter-oriented bigs: he’s going to play them in the post. It worked for Karl-Anthony Towns. It didn’t work quite as well with Skal, but you could see him start to put the pieces together by the end of the season.

Put another way, Skal’s flaws were exacerbated and magnified because he was broken mentally. He didn’t believe in himself, partly because he wasn’t ready to handle what he had to handle at Kentucky. The question NBA teams have to answer: Will that change once he learns how to play the game?

NBA COMPARISON: Channing Frye.

I really like Skal’s potential, but I’m not sure he quite reaches his ceiling. The role I see him playing in the NBA for the next 10-12 years is as a center that thrives in a pace-and-space offense. That’s Channing Frye. He’s never averaged more than 12.7 points or 6.7 boards in a season, but he’s now been in the league for 11 years and just signed a contract with $32 million over four years because he’s 6-foot-11 and shoots 38.6 percent from three.

And this isn’t a perfect comparison, either, because Frye has never been a shot-blocker. There have only been 14 players in NBA history that have shot better than 35 percent from three (attempting at least one three per game) and averaged 1.5 blocks in a season. Donyell Marshall in 2003-04 is the only player that did so and shot better than 40 percent from three.

OUTLOOK: Skal is something of a lottery ticket. His size, his fluidity and his shooting ability gives him a ceiling close to LaMarcus Aldridge, but it’s inarguable that he has a long, long way to go to get there. The issues surrounding his in-game experience is something that people seem to gloss over when discussing him.

The fact that he’s still quite raw is good and bad. Whatever organization picks him is going to have to come to terms with the fact that he won’t be an impact NBA player for a year or two. But they’re also not going to have to erase any bad habits. He’s more or less a blank canvas that can be molded into whatever that coach wants him to be. He’s also a hard-worker — a jump-shot like that doesn’t just come naturally — and I think that, eventually, he’ll add the strength that will allow him to handle the rigors of playing this level of basketball.

The question is whether or not he’ll ever develop that feel or those basketball instincts that he lacks. I don’t have an answer for that, but in a draft that is this week, a guy with his potential in a role that has extreme value in this iteration of the NBA, I think he’s absolutely worth a first round pick, maybe even a late lottery pick. Just hope that he ends up in a good situation.

Tyronn Lue says Cavaliers have “seen what we need to do;” expect more Channing Frye

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 19:  Head coach Tyronn Lue of the Cleveland Cavaliers reacts during the second half against the Toronto Raptors in game two of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 19, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Coming into the Eastern Conference Finals, when Kevin Love and Channing Frye shared the court and the Cavaliers played small it was a devastating lineup for opponents. Other teams struggled to match up with the shooting and spacing.

Against the Raptors, it hasn’t worked that way. Love and Fry have played only 12 minutes together and are +4.8 points per 100 possessions in that very small sample size (below the team average of +6.8 for the series). The last couple games Love has sat the fourth and Frye has played — because Frye is making his shots, which starts to pull Bismack Biyombo out of the post. Tyronn Lue ran plays for Love early on in Game 4, he was aggressive and he got good looks, he just missed them.

After watching the tape from Game 4, Lue said he has a plan — expect more Frye and more small ball from Cleveland. Via Chris Fedor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

“We had a great film session today and we’ve seen what we need to do,” Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue said. “We’re ready and prepared for it…

They have used a “take what the defense gives” approach, which will continue to be the plan, even after it led to 82 3-pointers in the last two games despite dominating the paint in the first two games.

“I think when you penetrate and they collapse the floor, you’ve got to make the right play, and if the play’s a kick out, the guy’s got an open shot, he has to take it and he has to knock it down,” Lue said. “We’re not really coming down, looking and saying we want to force 3-point shots. That’s not what we’re trying to do. You could see that in the first two games. We just took what the defense gave us and now the defense gives us a three-point shot, so we got to step up and make them….

“I liked it a lot,” Lue said of the (small ball) lineup before admitting it would be used more moving forward.

That’s part of the equation. But as our own Dan Feldman pointed out today, the Cavaliers are generating open looks, they just aren’t knocking them down. The offense works, and going small could create even more opportunities.

However, if you can generate looks, well, it’s still a make or miss league (to use the coaching cliché). Cleveland just needs those looks to fall.

On the other side, will Lowry and Biyombo continue their hot play once they leave Toronto? They have a lot to prove as well, and likely against a Cavs team playing much better ball.

Drake trolls Kyrie Irving on Instagram after Raptors’ latest win

TORONTO, ON - MAY 23:  Rapper Drake reacts as Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers walks by in the fourth quarter against the Toronto Raptors in game four of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 23, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 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 Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
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After the first Toronto win, Raptors’ “Global Ambassador” (whatever that means) and highest profile fan Drake took to Instagram to troll LeBron James.

Drake flew back to his native Toronto for Game 4 and he got to see his Raptors even the series behind big nights from Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. How did he celebrate? Trolling Kyrie Irving on Instagram.

2 gave us 2…we'll take it 😂

A photo posted by champagnepapi (@champagnepapi) on

If the Raptors win a third game this series, will Drake troll Kevin Love? Actually, Love did a pretty good job of trolling himself the last couple games.

Dwane Casey says he hopes Jonas Valanciunas plays, but Channing Frye makes it hard

TORONTO, ON - MAY 01:  Jonas Valanciunas #17 of the Toronto Raptors smiles in the first half of Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Indiana Pacers during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 01, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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Jonas Valanciunas was active in Game 4, but he didn’t play.

Raptors coach Dwane Casey, via Blake Murphy of Raptors Republic

“Hopefully we can get him involved,” Casey said. “Again, it depends on the lineup they have on the court. I know he’s our starting centre but it’s tough to put him out there if they’re playing Channing Frye big minutes at the five.”

“The thing about it is with our five-man, it helps us when we have to switch, especially when they’re playing Love at the five or Frye at the five,” Casey said. “It gives us the flexibility to switch Bismack. It’s a luxury that we have that.”

Toronto won, anyway. So, there’s no griping about Valanciunas remaining stuck on the bench last night.

But Valanciunas could still help the Raptors, who were outscored by three in Game 4 when Bismack Biyombo sat.

Valanciunas’ injury will probably still limit his minutes, which is fine. There’s limited opportunity for him to be effective. As Casey said, Kevin Love and Channing Frye – who already help the Cavs get so many open 3-pointers – are tough matchups for Valanciunas.

But Valanciunas can battle Tristan Thompson inside and on the glass without getting put through the ringer on the perimeter. If Casey picks his spots when Thompson plays, Valanciunas should have a role the rest of this series – at least if he’s healthy enough to play near his standards.