NBA Playoffs, Suns v. Spurs Game 2: Ignore the shiny superstars, this one's about the reserves

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dudley.pngTim Duncan had 29 points and 10 boards, the Spurs had an effective field goal percentage of 55.1%, and George Hill and Richard Jefferson combined for 32 points (including a 18-10 double-double). It just wasn’t enough. San Antonio made runs and they pressed Phoenix repeatedly, but every lineup the Suns put on the floor had an answer.

Regardless of which five of the Suns — I’m sorry, Los Suns — were on the floor, they were able to compete. Things were looking bright for the Spurs after they racked up a 10-point lead in the game’s first 12 minutes, but from that point on, the Suns simply outworked and outperformed them. Duncan was brilliant, Parker’s game was lethal at times, and the help from RJ and Hill was much-needed, but the Suns really looked the part of the better team on Wednesday night in beating the Spurs 110-102.

Probably because they were the better team. It was Phoenix that was able to persevere despite poor shooting (the Suns’ eFG% was a full seven percentage points below their regular season average) thanks to effort plays (18 offensive rebounds will do wonders), huge three-pointers (Channing Frye and Jason Richardson were especially prolific), and their frequent trips to the free throw line (37 FTAs to the Spurs’ 22). San Antonio may still be something of a powerhouse, but Phoenix clearly wasn’t ready to play the role of the underdog in this series. They’re playing like the 3-seed that they are, and right now it’s a bit too much for the Spurs.

The Suns remain the most deceptively deep team in the playoffs, and Alvin Gentry’s decision to run with a bench unit at times is not at all misguided. Every player off the Phoenix bench plays with an incredible energy, and the unique combination of shooting, defense, hustle, talent, and rebounding among the Suns’ reserves has a tremendous impact on a frequent basis. Frye and Jared Dudley were the heroes this time around, but on Friday it could just as easily be Lou Amundson and Goran Dragic.

The Suns had two essential 17-8 runs, one to start the second quarter and another to start the fourth. Any guess as to which lineup was on the floor for Phoenix? The reserve unit did serious damage in the second, and reprised their roles as gangbusters to start the fourth quarter with the help of Grant Hill. The first run brought a solid San Antonio lead to a measly two points, and the second run gave Phoenix a seven-point edge that the starters would essentially hold for the rest of the game.

Contrast that success with the limited production from the Spurs bench — Tony Parker aside, San Antonio’s reserves scored four points on 28.5% shooting in almost 29 combined minutes — and it’s no wonder why Duncan, Parker, Jefferson, and Hill weren’t enough. The four productive Suns starters (woe is Jarron Collins) just about went point-for-point with the four highest-scoring Spurs, meaning this game really was won in the trenches.

When both teams were looking for a spark, Jared Dudley came up with offensive rebounds and loose balls while Tim Duncan ran on tired legs. Channing Frye shot the lights out while Matt Bonner clanged away open looks. Having a reliable bench is a luxury that few head coaches have in the NBA, but Alvin Gentry is a lucky man. Or really, a man that has done his job over the course of the season in not only recognizing the talent that he had but also in grooming them for situations just like this one both as individual players and as a unit. This did not happen by accident.

If the Suns end up winning two more games, one could look at two of Phoenix’s offensive sequences in the mid-fourth quarter as the series’ defining moments. With Channing Frye as the lone big man on the floor for Phoenix, Tim Duncan was out of his element. He had no one to guard and no way to help. The Suns moved the ball, set screens to force switches, and isolated Grant Hill against Duncan. That was Phoenix’s game plan: they used two straight possessions with the specific purpose of going at one of the greatest defenders of all time.

And it worked. Hill hit two huge jumpers over Duncan, each helping to preserve the Suns’ then-vulnerable lead. The point is not Tim’s decline from his glory days, but just the fact that whereas he was once the matchup nightmare for the Suns, it now seems that the Suns are the problematic matchup for him. All of a sudden it’s the Spurs trying to find a place to put Duncan on defense rather than the Suns desperately searching for someone who can defend him.

He may still get his 29, but apparently Phoenix can live with that. There’s enough scoring and enough depth that it just doesn’t matter. We could be in for a very different series when things shift to San Antonio, but two games into the series, it’s abundantly clear that the Suns are not messing around. This is a dangerous team playing with a lot of confidence, and unless the Spurs pull off the four-wins-in-five-games mini-miracle, they’ll soon be rolling into the Western Conference Finals.       

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue: Kyrie Irving feeling ‘good’ after ankle injury

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BOSTON (AP) — Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue says that Kyrie Irving‘s left ankle is feeling “good” in advance of Cleveland’s Game 5 matchup Thursday night with the Celtics.

Irving was moving around and putting up shots during the Cavs’ morning shootaround.

The All-Star rolled his ankle in the third quarter of Game 4 when he stepped on Terry Rozier‘s foot. Irving was able to stay on the floor and finish the game, scoring a career playoff-high 42 points.

Cleveland leads Boston 3-1 and can wrap up its third straight Eastern Conference title Thursday night.

Several Celtics are also fighting injuries as they try to stave off elimination.

Jaylen Brown is listed as questionable with a right hip pointer. Jae Crowder is probable with a left groin strain, and Amir Johnson is probable with a right shoulder sprain.

Danny Ainge: Lonzo Ball declined to work out for Celtics, who hold No. 1 pick

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LaVar Ball said his son, highly touted draft prospect Lonzo Ball, would work out for only the Lakers.

You thought he was bluffing?

Celtics president Danny Ainge, whose team holds the No. 1 pick, on 98.5 the Sports Hub:

We just tried to get him in for a workout, and they politely said no.

It’s not ideal.

Listen, we’ve drafted guys that wouldn’t come in for workouts before. I mean, it’s not the end of the world. We’ve watched them play a ton. We have a lot of information on them.

Good for Ball. Professional sports teams already hold inordinate power over players entering the workforce. In no other industry are top young employees assigned to a particular company, the worst-performing companies typically getting priority, with no ability to bargain with competitors.

Ball wants to play for the Lakers, who offer proximity to his family and hold the No. 2 pick. He can’t force Boston to pass on him or Los Angeles to pick him. But he can influence decision-making.

It seemed likely the Celtics would draft Markelle Fultz, and though they could still pick Ball, him declining a workout with Boston makes that only less likely. The Lakers will probably draft Ball, but this plan carries risk. If they pass, he could fall once he gets to teams less familiar with him.

Still, Ball deserves to decide for himself how to manage his career – especially in such a closed job market. Not working out for the Celtics is probably his best path to getting where he wans to go.

Donald Sterling’s wife petitioning NBA to overturn his lifetime ban

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Former Clippers owner Donald Sterling settled his lawsuit against the NBA and his wife. Reconciled with Shelley Sterling, Donald sounds – in a recent interview with James Rainey of NBC News – ready to move on.

Rainey:

But his wife, Shelly Sterling, also 83, said in a separate interview that she has not let go of at least one formal blot that remains on Sterling’s record: the lifetime ban from the NBA that was imposed on the long-time Clippers owner after his racist remarks against African-Americans attending games.

Shelly Sterling said she personally approached Silver and also had her attorney, Pierce O’Donnell, talk to the league office about lifting the lifetime ban, which prevents Donald Sterling from attending NBA games. Her intention is not to allow her husband to do business with the league, but to clear his record, in consideration of the 33 years he spent as an owner.

“”I couldn’t understand the severity of the ban. It just seemed a little bit out of line,” Shelly Sterling said. “I have talked to [the NBA] several times and I don’t know what they will do. Maybe they will and maybe they won’t [lift the ban]. Maybe it takes a little bit more time.”

The NBA won’t lift the ban for the same reason it implemented the ban: Associating with Sterling was costing the league money.

Time has cooled the resentment toward Sterling, but overturning the ban would return the venom – and much of it would be directed toward the league. There’s no good reason to open that box.

Besides, Sterling – with his lengthy record of racism and sexism – doesn’t deserve clemency. People like him deserve far more comeuppance than they’ve gotten.

Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan staying in 2017 NBA draft

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Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan declared for the 2016 NBA draft, struggled at the combine, withdrew, got into great shape, had an All-American sophomore season, declared for the 2017 draft.

This time, he’s not turning back.

Swanigan:

Swanigan is a borderline first-round pick. He has a couple NBA-ready skills the good teams that typically pick late in the first round might covet, but thanks to trades, teams that didn’t win a playoff game this year hold most late first-round picks. They might pick someone with more upside than Swanigan.

Swanigan is a tenacious rebounder, particularly defensively. He has excellent fundamentals, size (6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan) and ability to read the ball, and he crashes through contact to hunt boards.

He’s also a quality post-up player who can finish with either hand and has the passing ability to make that play work.

But Swanigan is slow. NBA teams have become increasingly adept at running plodders like him off the court by dragging them into pick-and-rolls. Even when on the court, he hasn’t protected the rim at satisfactory levels.

Swanigan has overcome his athletic limitations as a rebounder. He hasn’t done so in other facets of defense.

He’s hardly a dinosaur offensively. He made 45% of his 3-pointers last season, and though I’m not confident that will translate to NBA 3-point range (give the small sample and his form), he should be at least a midrange threat.

Swanigan is also just 20, young for a sophomore. He can improve.

But it’s just hard to look past his defensive limitations.