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.   

LeBron James, Tyronn Lue say LeBron’s minutes no big deal

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LeBron James was on the court a very reasonable 27:16 Monday night, only because the Cavaliers had thrashed the upstart Pistons so badly he didn’t need to play the fourth quarter (116-88 final in that one).

However, on the season LeBron is averaging 37.9 minutes per game, the most in the NBA. He has played 644 total minutes, also tops in the NBA. All this in his 15th year in the league, about to turn 33, with more regular season games played in his career than Michael Jordan. Even Draymond Green has wondered about LeBron’s workload. LeBron himself didn’t disagree, saying the goal is to get the minutes down.

However, as this has become a thing, the Cavaliers are playing it down. Here is Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue after the Detroit win, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“I hear about that all the time,” a somewhat perturbed Lue said. “I played with Michael Jordan when he was 39, he played 37 minutes a night. Karl Malone was 37, played 38 minutes a night, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Kobe [Bryant]. Everybody’s built different. If you’re one of the greats, sometimes you’ve got to play, sometimes you get rest like tonight.”

The way Kobe’s body broke down on him at the end of his career, is he the guy you want as an example here?

LeBron was not that worried about his minutes after the Detroit win, either.

“You make so much a big thing about my minutes,” James said. “It’s not a huge issue. But at the end of the day, when we can get a win like this, everybody benefits from it. Not just me. Everybody.”

The concern isn’t just the heavy minutes, but the workload — with Isaiah Thomas still out, and right now Derrick Rose and Iman Shumpert as well, basically all the playmaking duties on the team fall on LeBron. He has to carry the Cavs.

With most players, you would say this will distinctly wear on them and could be an issue down the line. With LeBron, normal human rules do not apply. He’s playing at MVP consideration level again early — 28.3 points, 8.5 assists, and 7.4 rebounds a game while shooting 58.2 percent from the floor — and nothing seems to slow him. Maybe eventually the Cavaliers will play well enough consistently there will be more light nights for LeBron, and he can have some games off. For now, however, they need him on the court and performing like a superstar.

Three Things to Know: The streaks continue, the Celtics keep winning, Clippers keep losing

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Celtics need overtime, Kyrie Irving to be dominant with 47 points, but win streak reaches 16. It was the team with the best record in the league against the team with the worst record — that meant Boston was either going to blow Dallas out, or Boston was going to look past Dallas and get itself in trouble. This game was the latter. For the third game in a row, Boston had to come from double-digits down to win and keep its streak alive — Brad Stevens called that “resilient” after the game. Either that or living very dangerously.

The Celtics raced out to a 15-point first quarter lead thanks to a hot start from Kyrie Irving, who had 25 points in the first half.

Then Boston took its foot off the gas. Harrison Barnes had 19 points over the second and third quarters, and Dallas chipped away at the lead, eventually retaking it. After a 10-2 run early in the fourth, Dallas led by 13.

The Celtics responded with a 22-9 run and eventually forced overtime. Marcus Smart was making defensive plays and some impressive passes, while Irving and Jayson Tatum (15 points on the night) were getting buckets. With the game close late, then into overtime, Irving took charge — he had 10 points in OT to get to 47 on the night. He has been clutch all season.

The Celtics win streak has been living on borrowed time in recent games (Barnes had a good look at an 18-foot fadeaway to win it in regulation for Dallas, but missed). Boston’s defense — which was fantastic down the stretch against Dallas after some sloppy stretches — and Irving have kept it afloat. But even when the streak — now the fourth longest in Celtics’ history — does end, it will be remembered as the time this Boston team stepped up as a contender. This team has announced its presence ready for the NBA’s biggest stages.

2) On the other side, Clippers losing streak reaches nine after 22-point loss to Knicks. First, let’s give the Knicks their due — this team is playing quality basketball. Better than I (and many) expected out of them season. Kristaps Porzingis has taken a step forward as the face of the franchise, doing whatever it takes to get them wins. Also Enes Kanter has given them buckets and boards they need, Jarrett Jack has been a steadying force at the point, and each night someone else steps up, such as Doug McDermott with 16 on Monday night.

However, beating the Clippers right now is no feat — Los Angeles has lost nine in a row and the wheels have come off.

The Clipper offense isn’t bad when the ball moves and players move off it, but they don’t do that consistently, falling back into habits of isolation and “you take a turn, then I take a turn” that they don’t have the talent to pull off. However, that’s not the real problem — their defense is a disaster. The effort is not there, and through the last nine games Los Angeles has the worst defense in the NBA, allowing 110 points per 100 possessions. Injuries play a part in this, no Danilo Gallinari or Milos Teodosic in this game forces Wesley Johnson and Austin Rivers into starting roles, and that thins the bench. But the best teams overcome injuries and still have effort and a system that works, the Clippers do not.

Doc Rivers’ seat has to be getting warm. How long he would be around after he was stripped of his GM powers over the summer was a fair question, but Rivers is making more than $10 million a year and his contract runs through the summer of 2019 — that’s a lot of money for even Steve Ballmer to eat. However, there will come a time he may be willing to do that, and if the Clippers keep playing like this the question is not “if” but “when.”

3) Boogie Cousins ejected. Russell Westbrook with triple-double. Pelicans still win. If I told you that first DeMarcus Cousins would get ejected for elbowing Russell Westbrook in the head (not the most flagrant 2 I’ve seen, but the league has cracked down on blows to the head).

Then I told you Westbrook stayed in the game and got a triple-double (22 points, 16 rebounds, 12 assists), you would think that the Thunder picked up a road win in New Orleans.

You’d be wrong. The late-game woes that have plagued the Thunder all season — an offense that becomes isolation heavy, and a defense that is 10.6 points per 100 possessions worse in the fourth quarter than the rest of the game — came back to bite them. Again. The Thunder raced out to a 25-6 lead but had given all that back by the middle of the second quarter. Then down the stretch, OKC again could not execute.

Meanwhile, Anthony Davis put up 36 points and 15 boards, 14 of his points came in the fourth as OKC had no answers for him, and without Cousins, Davis carried the Pelicans to the 114-107 win.

Irving’s 47 lead Celtics past Mavericks to maintain streak

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DALLAS (AP) — Kyrie Irving scored 10 of his season-high 47 points in overtime as the Boston Celtics rallied once again from a double-digit deficit to beat the Dallas Mavericks 110-102 on Monday night and extend their winning streak to 16 games.

The Mavericks led by as many as 13 points in the fourth quarter, but as they have several times during their winning streak, the Celtics stormed back.

The winning streak ties the fourth-longest in Celtics history.

Boston tied the game at 96 when Irving stole the ball from Dirk Nowitzki and fed Jayson Tatum for an alley-oop lay-up that hung on the rim for a full second before dropping through.

Irving scored his team’s first six points of overtime. Then after Jaylen Brown gave Boston a 104-102 lead with a jumper with 1:39 to play, Irving went to work on Yogi Ferrell, backing him down and drawing contact on a lay-up with 48.5 seconds to play. Though Irving missed the free throw to keep the score 106-102, Dallas never got closer.

Harrison Barnes scored 31 points and Wesley Matthews had 18 for Dallas, which came back from an early double-digit deficit as the Celtics went cold for much of the second and third quarters.

Irving and Barnes had chances in the final 30 seconds but both missed shots that would have given their teams the lead.

The Mavericks fell behind by as many as 15 points in the first half, outscoring the Celtics 55-35 over the second and third quarters.

Dallas took its biggest lead of the game when Yogi Ferrell fed a cutting Dwight Powell for a lay-up to make it 87-74 with 7:47 to play before the Celtics rallied.

Boston shot just 10-for-34 over the two middle quarters after building the early lead.

 

DeMarcus Cousins ejected after elbowing Russell Westbrook in head

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DeMarcus Cousins‘ history of flagrant fouls certainly didn’t help him here, but if anyone elbows a guy in the head, he’s going to get tossed.

And that’s what Cousins did here.

Midway through the third quarter in New Orleans, Cousins blocked a putback attempt by Russell Westbrook, then grabbed the rebound. Westbrook tried to reach in across Cousins’ body for the steal, and Cousins cleared out space with his elbow — right to Westbrook’s head. Cousins walked around saying “no, no, no” afterward, and he likely thinks the officials had it out for him here because he was just getting a guy off him, but we go back to the original point — elbow a guy in the head, get tossed. The league is cracking down on blows above the neck. Westbrook did not leave the game.

The Pelicans went on to come from 19 down to win the game 114-107, behind 36 points and 15 boards from Anthony Davis.