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.       

Boston’s Marcus Smart gets flopping warning from NBA

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 17:  Marcus Smart #36 of the Boston Celtics looks on during the second quarter of the preseason game against the Brooklyn Nets at TD Garden on October 17, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. 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 Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Boston’s Marcus Smart is one of the league’s more notorious floppers.

He was at it again Monday night against the Houston Rockets — and the league called him on it and gave him a warning.

It happened on the game’s final play — you were probably focused elsewhere, wondering how Al Horford could miss the game-winning layup. But watch Smart as he gets in position for the rebound on that shot.

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The referees didn’t buy it then.

This warning is barely a slap on the wrist. If — in his case, when — Smart gets caught a second time this season he will get a $5,000 fine from the league. Smart is making $3.6 million this season.

Happy birthday Larry Bird. We celebrate with some highlights.

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Larry Bird — the Celtics legend, three-time NBA champion, three-time MVP, 10-time All-NBA — turns 60 on Wednesday.

We celebrate by looking back at his 60-point game March 12, 1985, against the Hawks (video above, and yes that game was played in New Orleans).

Want more Larry the Legend highlights? We got you covered.

Hawks’ Mike Scott sent to D-League on rehab assignment

ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 26:  Mike Scott #32 of the Atlanta Hawks poses during media day on September 26, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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ATLANTA (AP) — Atlanta Hawks forward Mike Scott is expected to play at least two games in the NBA Development League as he comes back from a knee injury that kept him out of training camp and the first 18 games of the season.

Scott played 15 minutes for the Delaware 87ers in Tuesday night’s loss to the Santa Cruz Warriors. He scored four points on 2-of-7 shooting, missing all four of his attempts from 3-point range.

Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer says the D-League is the best way for Scott to get “meaningful, competitive minutes” after undergoing a non-surgical procedure on his left knee.

Scott has played three games for Atlanta since his return. In 28 minutes, he has two points on 1-of-9 attempts, to go along with eight rebounds and six assists.

Watch Kyle O’Quinn throw alley-oop to Carmelo Anthony

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Carmelo Anthony isn’t young anymore, but he had the bounce to go get this one.

These were your two best players for the Knicks in their win over Miami Tuesday. Kyle O'Quinn was forced into action earlier than expected when Joakim Noah went on a fouling spree in the third quarter, but O’Quinn played well in the role. ‘Melo dropped 35 on 27 shots — he’s not as efficient as he once was, but he can still get some buckets.

The Knicks picked up a needed win, because they play a back-to-back Wednesday against the Cleveland Cavaliers and a ticked-off LeBron James (New York will pay the price for Phil Jackson’s “posse” comments with a motivated LeBron Wednesday).