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.       

Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. throws down 360 dunk against Wizards (video)

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The Wizards are in a rough place.

They’ve lost three of four, including a 23-point setback to the Mavericks last night, and Dennis Smith Jr. is out here practicing for a dunk contest on them.

Report: Damian Lillard meets with Trail Blazers owner, but doesn’t request trade as Paul Allen feared

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Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen was reportedly investigating whether his team’s problem was roster or coaching. In other words, it sounded as if he were determining whether he should fire general manager Neil Olshey or coach Terry Stotts amid a disappointing season. Portland has the NBA’s fifth-largest payroll and is on track to pay the luxury tax, but the team is just 25-22 and seventh in the Western Conference.

In these turbulent times, Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard – who has strongly supported Stotts publicly – wanted to address Allen directly.

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

Portland Trail Blazers star point guard Damian Lillard met with team owner Paul Allen to gather an understanding of the organization’s direction, league sources told ESPN.

Lillard, who turns 28 on July 15, requested the meeting in part to reaffirm his commitment to the only professional franchise he has ever suited up for, but also to gain assurances that the organization was just as devoted to expeditiously crafting a title-contending team, sources said.

In the weeks leading up to the meeting, Allen feared Lillard would request a trade, sources said, but a trade request was not made.

The meeting, which sources described as a productive, open forum to share opinions and express concerns, could also lead to more sit-downs in the future.

Lillard issued a heartfelt vote of confidence for head coach Terry Stotts, sources said.

They also discussed players to target.

In addition, Lillard sought an explanation from Allen as to why Will Barton was traded to Denver in February of 2015, sources said. Lillard made it known he didn’t agree with the move.

The Trail Blazers traded Barton, because he wasn’t ready to lock down a rotation spot. They got Arron Afflalo, who was more ready to help a team still trying to win with LaMarcus Aldridge. The move was completely logical at the time, and it’s the type of gripe brought up now because Barton has developed with the Nuggets, and Portland is frustrated and in a funk.

Lillard surely suggested win-now moves leading up to the trade deadline, because that’s what players prioritize. I wouldn’t be surprised if Allen would rather shed a few million in salary to avoid the luxury tax in an underwhelming season.

How would Lillard feel about that? Did this meeting open a productive line of communication? Or would he just feel ignored?

Lillard has repeatedly pledged his loyalty to the Trail Blazers. A trade request would have been a huge reversal from his public statements. But did Allen have any reason to suspect Lillard would ask out other than the meeting request and Portland’s middling record?

That Lillard would seek this meeting shows his growth as a player. He’s taking an active role in his team’s fortunes, spreading his reach beyond the court – or at least trying to.

The big question now: Where will that lead him and the Trail Blazers?

Three Things to Know: Jason Kidd out in Milwaukee, now what for Bucks?

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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) Milwaukee fires Jason Kidd as coach. It’s the right move, but now what? It’s a move that caught the players in Milwaukee off guard, a move that will be trashed by some of the NBA’s old boy network, but something expected by many officials from other teams and league observers (although most thought it would be an offseason move).

Jason Kidd was fired as coach of the Milwaukee Bucks Monday.

It was the right move. Individual players grew under Kidd — Giannis Antetokounmpo blossomed into a superstar with the ball in his hands, and he was so unhappy with the move he offered to intervene and try to save Kidd’s job — but the team did not. Last season the Bucks went 42-40 in the regular season and were up 2-1 in their first-round playoff series against Toronto before ultimately losing in six, but as had happened too much with this team it was two steps up and one step back. The Bucks didn’t grow from there. The team entered this season with players talking of 50-win season and a top four seed (Las Vegas oddsmakers set the wins under/over at 47.5), and the expectation was the defense would finally come around. It didn’t. Kidd blamed the team’s youth to everyone — the media publicly and team management privately, asking for more veterans — yet he made some, shall we say, “interesting” end of game coaching decisions that left everyone bewildered. Kidd eventually backed off some on the ultra aggressive, trapping defensive style this team played — a style teams figured out how to beat with ball movement — but it wasn’t enough. The Bucks are 25th in the NBA in defense. With that they are 24-22, but with a negative point differential that suggests a 20-26 team, not one clinging to a playoff slot (currently seventh in the East, 1.5 games up on ninth-seed Detroit and missing the playoffs all together, fivethirtyeight.com gives them a 68 percent chance of making the postseason).

Now what?

For the rest of this season, long-time assistant Joe Prunty will run the show, and he will get the chance to Frank Vogel his way into the job if the team excels under him (and the moved was timed as the Bucks enter a soft part of the schedule, they can rack up some wins right now). However, more likely is a big off-season search where the biggest names in coaching without a job will come calling. Already two names bandied about are Jeff Van Gundy and former Pelicans coach Monty Williams. David Fizdale has to be considered. Every coach without a job will want this one — with Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, and a host of long, athletic, quality role players (such as Thon Maker, Jon Henson and others) this team has a world of potential. It should be talked about with Minnesota and Philadelphia as the teams who have next in the NBA.

The Bucks have been rumored to be interested in DeAndre Jordan, is that still the case or will they try to make their moves in the off-season (when they can’t afford to sign Jordan or much of anyone else of consequence without shedding salary)? My guess is now the team now waits, it will want to consult with whoever is hired as coach.

Also, how will the Bucks at times feuding ownership play into all of this? New Yorkers Mark Lasry and Wes Edens have had their differences — Jon Horst is the GM now because the two sides could not agree on a candidate so they compromised on him, someone farther down on both lists. On the court this team is seen as one of the league’s best jobs with the most potential, but the coach may need to navigate ownership landmines along the way.

The Bucks move into their new arena next fall and there will be pressure on the new coach to bring the team up to the level of the building — the Bucks have the pieces to be one of the top teams in the East (a conference that could open up depending on what LeBron James chooses to do next summer). It’s a coveted job, but not an easy one.

2) DeMarcus Cousins has the kind of night nobody has had in 46 years. All-Star starter DeMarcus Cousins went off on the Bulls Monday night — 44 points, 24 rebounds, and 10 assists in the Pelicans’ double OT win against Chicago. These were not meaningless points, Cousins picked up seven of them in the second overtime.

The last time somebody had a 40/20/10 night in the NBA Elton John had just released “Rocket Man” — Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it in 1972 when he was still playing in Milwaukee.

3) Locker room issues bubble up in San Antonio and Cleveland, but will it matter? Two things that can lead to locker room dissent in the NBA? Struggling teams on losing streaks pointing fingers, and guys with lingering injuries that were expected back.

We saw both of those creep up Monday, in San Antonio and Cleveland. The question is, will it matter to either organization come the playoffs? Probably not.

In Cleveland, losers of 8-of-11 and heading into a tough stretch of games, they held an emotional team meeting Monday’s practice, and Kevin Love became the whipping boy. Because the more things change, the more it’s still always Kevin Love’s fault. Other players questioned the illness that Love said he suffered that forced him to sit out much of Saturday’s blowout loss to the Thunder (he left the building before the game was over) and then miss practice Sunday. The meeting got heated, but Love spoke to the team to explain himself and that seemed to calm things down, mostly. For now. These team meetings make headlines, but most of the time prove to be meaningless on the court. Are the Cavaliers going to start to care and at least give some effort on defense after this? We’ll see. I wouldn’t bet on it lasting, it almost never does, but we’ll see.

In San Antonio, reports came up that the always quiet Kawhi Leonard has become “disconnected” from the team while dealing with the thigh injury that has let him play just nine games this season. Leonard and Popovich have always been on the same page, is this just frustration with a rehab on a quad injury that is just not healing as fast as anyone hoped and expected? Is it more than that? Both GM R.C. Buford and Leonard’s uncle denied any rift.

What happened with LaMarcus Aldridge shows us how this likely plays out. Aldridge demanded a trade last summer, but rather than panic and ship him out (for less than fair market value) Popovich sat down with Aldridge, figured out why he was frustrated, adjusted how he used him, and now Aldridge is happy — he signed an extension — and is having an All-Star season. Expect Popovich to figure out how to work with Leonard, too.

Are these leaked black and white uniforms the All-Star Game jerseys?

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Nike faced a challenge with this year’s All-Star Game in designing the uniforms — there is no East vs. West. How do you design a uniform for the teams captained — and selected — by Stephen Curry and LeBron James? Maybe go back to 1997 (and a few years after) where players just wore their team’s uniform, either home whites or road colors.

It looks like Nike has solved the problem by going black-and-white.

Conrad Burry of Sportslogos.net — who in the past has nailed early leaks of NBA uniforms — confirmed ongoing Web rumors that the league is going black and white (hat tip ESPN).

What do you think? I’m with Conrad here — if these are the really the uniforms they don’t work for me. Maybe it will work better in person and on the broadcast, but I don’t know. We’ll see.