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.       

Is this the moment DeMarcus Cousins found out he was traded? (video)

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 18:  DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings attends practice for the 2017 NBA All-Star Game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on February 18, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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NEW ORLEANS — DeMarcus Cousins was set to answer questions after the All-Star game, when a Kings public-relations official said, “All-Star questions first, please. All-Star-game questions.”

“What other questions we got?” Cousins asked, seemingly unaware of his trade to the Pelicans.

The PR person whispered in Cousins’ ear.

“Oh, really?” Cousins asked.

More whispering.

“It’s whatever,” Cousins said.

Then, asked about his All-Star experience, Cousins smiled big and said, “It was amazing, man. I enjoyed the city of New Orleans. I love it here in New Orleans.”

West bench goes wild over Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook alley-oop (video)

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NEW ORLEANS — Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook connected on a fantastic alley-oop in tonight’s All-Star game, but the reaction of the Western Conference bench was even better.

Both Durant and Westbrook downplayed the play after the game, but not everyone agreed.

 

“Defining moment in history right there,” All-Star MVP Anthony Davis said.

 

Report: Kings agree to trade DeMarcus Cousins to Pelicans for Buddy Hield, several picks

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 17: Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans talks to DeMarcus Cousins of the Sacramento Kings during the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on February 17, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. 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 Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
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NEW ORLEANS — There has been a faction within the Kings organization that wanted to move DeMarcus Cousins for a while, even though they wouldn’t get equal value back, even though it would mean extending their decade-long playoff drought and rebuilding all over again. Despite Cousins’ unquestioned talent on the court, some in the franchise questioned if they could build a consistent, quality team with him as the cornerstone and pointed to the win total in recent years as their example.

For years, Sacramento owner Vivek Ranadive stood in the way of that — he was Cousins’ biggest supporter in the organization.

However, that changed recently according to a source near the Kings, and once it did things moved quickly for Cousins to be traded to the Pelicans in a blockbuster move that few in the league saw coming this quickly or at this low a price. Adrain Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports broke the trade, while Marc Stein of ESPN followed up with details.

This is a big win for Pelicans’ GM Dell Demps, who has been on the hot seat for his inability to put a good team around his All-NBA star in Davis. It’s a move that comes with risks, but risks the Pelicans needed to take. How well Davis and Cousins can play together remains to be seen, and the team still desperately could use more shooting. The biggest challenge will be re-signing Cousins, who has one year left on his deal after this one (and now cannot be signed to a designated player supermax deal the Kings allegedly were going to offer). Look at what Cousins’ agent said.

Kings GM Vlade Divac was known to be a big Buddy Hield fan heading into the last draft (the Pelicans took him a few spots ahead of the Kings’ pick). Why he still seems to be this high on him is a mystery. If these picks are 2017 ones, as reported, that helps a little as this is considered a deep draft. However, it’s still not anywhere close to equal value and the Kings will take a massive a step back — and they weren’t far forward already. The Kings’ front office reportedly presented Ranadive with the two best choices, and he went with this one. The trade is the first step in a long rebuild for a Sacramento fan base that is understandably hurt. 

The next question for Ranadive is if Divac is the guy to lead that rebuild?

Cousins himself played only two minutes in the All-Star Game Sunday, a sign something was up. Davis, who was the All-Star Game MVP scoring a record 52 points, was asked about Cousins before the trade was announced.

“He’s a great player, dominant in this league, of course, with all the numbers he put up. But I haven’t heard anything,” Davis said.

Cousins also said knew nothing about the deal when he spoke to the media, and added he was just frustrated that once again he was at the All-Star Game and the focus was on trade talk surrounding him.

“Give me a break. I just need one All-Star where it’s just All-Star questions man,” an exasperated Cousins said. “This is my third one and it’s always been something… It’s disappointing I’m spending another All-Star talking about the Kings rather than my All-Star experience.”

As for if he wanted to play in New Orleans (that rumor had been flying around the Smoothie King Center all night), Cousins simply said, “if it happens it happens” and that he was happy in Sacramento.

Cousins said he hadn’t heard from Divac or anyone, and West coach Steve Kerr said that he only played Cousins two minutes in the All-Star Game at Cousins’ request because he is banged up and wanted to rest. Nobody is buying any of this, but that’s what they said.

 

Anthony Davis sets All-Star game record with 52 points, wins MVP, gets DeMarcus Cousins as teammate

Western Conference forward Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans (23 ) slam dunks during the first half of the NBA All-Star basketball game in New Orleans, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, Pool)
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NEW ORLEANS — After an exhausting game to cap an exhausting weekend, Anthony Davis finally sat down and let his guard down.

“Aw, f—,” Davis said.

The the biggest problem appeared to be that Davis was in front of a room jammed with media, but his harmless lapse to begin his post game press conference was collectively forgiven with a laugh.

The bigger, not-yet-know issue issue: It was too early for the Pelicans star to relax.

After handling All-Star hosting duties in New Orleans, setting an All-Star game record with 52 points and winning MVP, Davis saw the Pelicans trade for DeMarcus Cousins.

“He’s a great player, dominant in this league,” Davis said when the deal was still in the rumored stage.

Cousins will finally give Davis a star teammate and push the Pelicans closer to playoff contention. Davis said he didn’t recruit much this weekend, but he clearly delivered for New Orleans by winning All-Star MVP.

“It was amazing,” Davis said. “That’s what I wanted to do. I stressed that, I think more than enough, to the guys in the locker room before the game. I wanted to get MVP for this crowd, for this city. The guys did a great job of finding me.”

Davis played 31 minutes and 50 seconds — the most in the last three All-Star games. His 52 points broke Wilt Chamberlain’s All-Star record of 42 points in 1962 — the season Chamberlain set NBA records with 50.4 points per game and scored 100 in a single game.

“The next one I’m going to try to do is 100 points,” Davis said.