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.       

Reports: Rockets try to confront Clippers, police dispatched to locker room

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The Los Angeles Clippers got the better of the Houston Rockets on Monday night at Staples Center, 113-102, but the battle between Chris Paul and his former team had apparently just begun.

According to multiple reports, members of the Rockets took to the Clippers locker room after the game to confront Austin Rivers and then Blake Griffin.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski says that according to his sources, James Harden, Trevor Ariza, and Gerald Green entered the Clippers locker room looking for Austin Rivers. LAPD were then dispatched to the scene — not just ordinary Staples Center security — and that’s somehow not the end of this story.

In true Scooby Doo fashion, Woj reports that the Rockets then sent Clint Capela to the front door of the Clippers locker room while Chris Paul went to a secret back door to the Clippers’ area as he looked to go after Blake Griffin.

Once again, I cannot stress that I am not making this story up.

Via Twitter:

Some of this may stem from the general tension between the two teams. Paul was traded to Houston in June for Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, and Sam Dekker among others after spending six seasons with Los Angeles.

There’s also the fact that Mike D’Antoni and Griffin got into it during the game, yapping at each other after Griffin made contact with the Houston coach on the sideline.

Griffin appeared to be pointing at D’Antoni for being out of the box on the sideline, making purposeful contact with him and resulting in double technical fouls.

Yet the overarching tension between the two teams was already palpable. Paul reportedly took umbrage to how Rivers was treated by his father, coach, and (at the time) GM Doc Rivers.

Then again, Austin Rivers said that the tension between Paul and Griffin was the thing that led to CP3 looking for a trade to Texas.

No word yet on the details confirming how far anybody got, although it seems reasonable to expect Adam Silver and the league office should come down with some suspensions for folks. Malice in the Palace was perhaps the greatest modern disgrace for the NBA, and the league tries to keep even the whiff of violence away from their games.

It feels like there’s no way anyone here can get off light in an era where guys are getting suspended from both playoff games and preseason games for taking a teensy little step off the bench during disputes.

Meanwhile, the guys on the set of Inside the NBA had an absolute BLAST with the details (as did of Twitter, to be honest).

The Rockets and the Clippers play again next on Wednesday Feb. 28 in LA.

Check out the Chris Paul tribute video from the Clippers

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Chris Paul returned to Staples Center Monday night wearing the red of the Houston Rockets.

There was a mix of cheers and boos when CP3 was introduced against the Clippers, the team he helped make relevant and string together the best run in franchise history (even if it didn’t attain the lofty goals we had expected). He pushed his way out of town last summer, but Paul still goes down as one of the two greatest Clippers ever (he was a better player than Blake Griffin, but Griffin helped turn that franchise culture around before CP3 arrived, and Griffin is still doing work there).

The Clippers put together this tribute video.

Well done Clippers.

LeBron James does it all, still not enough for Cavaliers to beat Warriors

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Last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers got to the Finals thanks to LeBron James leading an elite Cavaliers offense that covered up a defense which was second worst in the NBA after the All-Star break and improved to middle of the pack during the playoffs when they dialed in. That was not near good enough against the Warriors in the Finals.

New season, but we are watching the same movie.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Cleveland LeBron was nothing short of brilliant — 32 points on 18 shots, eight rebounds, six assists and four blocks. Through three quarters the Cavaliers got into the paint, hit their floaters and midrange shots, and knocked down 52.1 percent of their shots total — but they were down two because their defense was a disaster.

Isaiah Thomas tied the game 93-93 early in the fourth, but then Cleveland started a streak of missing eight shots in a row and hitting 1-of-14 (credit the Warriors playing better defense for some of that), and the Warriors just kept on scoring. And scoring.

The result was a 118-108 Warriors win to sweep the season series from the Cavaliers.

Kevin Durant had 32 points, Stephen Curry 23 and hit 4-of-8 from three.

With the trade deadline weeks away, this loss left the Cavaliers with big questions to answer:

Do they make a bold move to try to give themselves a better shot against the Warriors in the Finals? (And give themselves a cushion against Boston and Toronto.)

Is there an available player that can actually close that gap?

If they find the player, do the Cavaliers have the players and picks to get a deal done? Would they throw in the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick?

Cleveland must consider it all because this game made it clear again there is now a gap between the two teams that met in the NBA Finals the past three years.

The Cavaliers again started out hot, hitting eight of their first 10 shots. Cleveland shot 58.3 percent in the first quarter and LeBron was 6-of-8 — but they led just 37-35 because the Cavaliers could not get stops. Cleveland’s transition defense was a mess all night, and in the first quarter one-third of the Warriors points came in transition opportunities, where they were very efficient.

There were positives for Cleveland. Dwyane Wade provided a boost off the bench with eight first-half points on 4-of-7 shooting, making energy plays like the steal and alley-oop to Jeff Green just before the half.

The Cavaliers were up 64-57 at the break as they shot 61.1 percent from the midrange. But it always felt like it was not sustainable.

Cleveland had shooting issues with guys not named LeBron. IT and Wade combined to shoot 12-of-33, and as a team the Cavs shot 6-of-26 from three. You can say those number should improve, and you’d be right, but we’re back to a great offense trying to cover up a weak defense.

That’s not going to cut it in the Finals. It may not be enough to cut it before the Finals, but the Warriors are showing they are in another class right now.

Kevin Durant with angry dunk, LeBron James steps out of way

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There are times when challenging a dunk is the thing to do.

For LeBron James, this was one of those times.

Kevin Durant and Draymond Green were on a 2-1 break with LeBron back, but KD was not looking to pass, he wanted to finish.

He did. With authority.