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.       

Don’t like the wait for this year’s Finals? Here’s the top 10 plays from the last two (VIDEO)

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Que the Tom Petty

Nobody is enjoying the week-long break between the end of the Eastern Conference Finals and the start of the NBA Finals (except maybe a few of the older Cavaliers players trying to get healthy). For those of us basketball junkies, we just want to get on to the two best teams in the league battling it out.We need a fix.

Here’s the best we can do today: The top 10 plays from the last two NBA Finals, the last two Cavaliers/Warriors showdowns. Courtesy the folks at NBA.com. There’s plenty of LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and a big shot by Kyrie Irving made the list. Enjoy. And just try to be patient.

Warriors’ center Zaza Pachulia cleared to play in Game 1 of NBA Finals

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These playoffs, the Golden State Warriors have been 15.4 points per 100 possessions better when Zaza Pachulia is on the court as opposed to on the bench. That’s a bit misleading, the reason for the gaudy number is he rounds out the dominant starting lineup, which has outscored teams by 32.6 points per 100 this postseason (that is actually better than the legendary “death lineup” in these playoffs). Pachulia is just the first big in the rotation with four All-Star, powerhouse players, but he fills his role well.

Pachulia was slowed by a sore right heel against the Spurs but is 100 percent and ready to go for the Finals when they tip-off Thursday night at Oracle Arena. Here are the details via Anthony Slater of the San Jose Mercury News.

Zaza Pachulia, the only injured Warrior rotation player late in the Spurs series, has participated in all parts of all three practices, without restriction on that sore right heel. He is on track to start Game 1 of The Finals on Thursday.

“We’ve done running, had scrimmages and he’s done everything,” Mike Brown said.

He will have a crucial role on the glass against the Cavaliers. Cleveland brings two dominant rebounders to the party with Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love (plus that LeBron James guy can get some boards), the Warriors will use Pachulia to counter. Before you roll your eyes, he had 13 boards in the second meeting of these teams in the regular season, a blowout Golden State win.

He’s the first big in a rotation of them the Warriors will throw at Cleveland — JaVale McGee may get a little time, but expect a lot of small-ball lineups from the Warriors. If Pachulia can give Golden State a solid 18 minutes a night where he is strong on the glass and helps protect the rim, it will be huge for them.

Pachulia is going to get his shot, he’ll be healthy and ready to go.

Celtics GM Danny Ainge: “Who doesn’t want Isaiah Thomas on their team?”

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Isaiah Thomas is the best and most popular Celtics player, leading his team to the No. 1 seed in the East and the Eastern Conference Finals — both significant steps forward for an up-and-coming team.

Yet, from the moment the Warriors landed the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, the talk about Thomas has been about his future with the Celtics: If/when they draft Markelle Fultz, will the Celtics want to pay Thomas max or near max money next summer? Do they want to be locked into four or five years with an undersized guard who will start that contract at age 29? Do they extend him this summer at a likely better price? Trade him?

Celtics GM Danny Ainge doesn’t understand all the talk. He certainly didn’t sound like someone looking to trade Thomas this summer speaking to Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald.

“All I’m saying is those are things I have to worry about that even I don’t like to think about. And I know that those are going to be difficult decisions at some point. But we want to keep Isaiah.

“All I know is that he’s had an amazing year, and who doesn’t want Isaiah Thomas on their team? Like, you’ve got to be kidding me…

“Why do the fans need to worry about how much money he makes?” he said. “I can understand if Isaiah and his wife and his agent are worried about that, but I don’t understand why that’s a conversation that needs to be had in the media.”

Two things I want to unpack from all that. First, that’s a “get off my lawn” take from Ainge that completely misses the mark with where sports fandom online has shifted. It’s not that he’s wrong at the core of his argument — we all should appreciate the season Thomas just had, Celtics’ fans in particular. Thomas is a joy to watch play and one of the good guys in the league on top of it. Name anyone in the NBA who has gotten more out of his natural abilities than Thomas — the man has put in the work to rise way past expectations. He needs to be appreciated and lauded for that.

But here’s the thing: Fans more than ever like to play GM, and they now have the tools to understand the tough financial decisions that fall on Ainge and others in his shoes. Let me explain it this way: The NBA Finals start June 1, but as a website, the NBC NBA page will draw way more traffic around the NBA Draft at the end of the month, then free agency in July will blow that away. Always does. Player movement — including both rumors of trades and talk of free agents and moves teams should make — is a much bigger draw than the games themselves. That’s not just the NBA, it’s true of the NFL and MLB and NHL and the Barclays’ English Premiere League and on down the line.

Second, Ainge may not like the speculation, but the questions are valid — he and the Celtics have some hard decisions coming up. At the core of them is the question of patience: Push their assets into the middle of the table now, get a couple of players ready to win next season, and make a run at LeBron James and the Cavaliers, or be patient and build to be better than Cleveland in three years (then sustain that for five or more years beyond that)? Ainge has been on the patient side of that equation from the start, and likely will be again — don’t expect him to trade that No. 1 pick or do anything but bring Thomas back. He can be a decision for the summer of 2018.

Then again, he has shopped Thomas before. Ainge is as good or better than any GM in the league of keeping his cards close to his vest, he’s impossible to read.

That said, the smart money is on him being patient. There’s no need to trade Thomas now, that’s the kind of rash overreaction that got the Knicks where they are over the last decade plus. Ainge can wait things out.

 

Adding Durant and thinking dynasty, it’s championship or bust for Warriors’ legacy

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The Golden State Warriors have been the best team in the NBA for three seasons now. That’s not my opinion, that’s LeBron James‘ — here is what he said after advancing to his seventh straight NBA Finals.

“That’s been the best team in our league the last three years, and they added an unbelievable player in Kevin Durant this year, so that makes it even more difficult.”

Adding Durant did make them more difficult to beat, but it also added to the Warriors’ burden — after a 67-win season and a historic 12-0 sweep into the Finals, the series that their season will be judged on is the one still to be played. They may as well be 0-0 because the second they added Durant it was championship or bust in terms of how they want to be seen.

Win and a pattern of dominance over years starts to come into focus, they will have a couple rings and beaten LeBron — who will go down as one of the all-time greats in his own right — to get them. Lose and this season will be viewed as another failure.

The Warriors want us to look back on them in 10-15 years and see a dynasty. They talked quietly about it last season during their chase for 73 wins — they saw that as a part of their resume as one of the greatest teams of all time. That’s part of the reason for the push last year. They, like LeBron, are chasing the ghosts of greatness at this point, and the Warriors had a Jordan record in their sights.

Regular season marks are nice, but in the NBA the great teams’ legacies are built around championships. Plural. If you’re going to go down as one of the dominant teams of an era — like the Shaq/Kobe Lakers, or Jordan’s Bulls, or the Celtics and Lakers of the ’80s, etc. — there needs to multiple rings on fingers. The Warriors have one, but their historic season unraveled last year when a combination of LeBron’s utter dominance, Draymond Green‘s suspension, Andrew Bogut’s injury (that one was underrated as an issue) all came together to snatch victory from their hands (and help cement LeBron’sa legacy).

The Warriors need the 2017 title for their legacy.

Not just the team, but the legacies of Warriors players will be impacted by this series. Injured or worn down or just in a shooting slump (or, most likely, a combination of the three), Stephen Curry struggled defensively and was outplayed by LeBron last Finals when the Warriors needed him. Curry has been fantastic through these playoffs, but like the team he will be judged as much or more for the games to come than the ones already played. Fair or not.  Can Green keep his head about him when LeBron pushes his buttons? Durant is back on the Finals stage, will he rise to that moment?

The championship or bust mentality is too often the prism through which fans — and media — view sports. It’s unfortunate because it clouds the joy of the game itself, the growth of players, of guys doing the unexpected and rising to heights we did not expect from them. Isaiah Thomas‘ brilliant season in Boston is not diminished because it didn’t end in a ring, to use one easy example. But there are hundreds more like that around the league. Championship or bust blinds people to the little things that can make the game joyous.

However, the Warriors have put themselves in a different place. They are chasing legends. They have the wins and the statistics to make a case, more importantly, they also have a style of play being copied (even by college teams) and is changing how the game is played. That is a hallmark greatness.

Now they need the rings to go with it. They need more than one, but it starts with this year’s title — it is championship or bust for them. Fair or not. If the Warriors want to be mentioned in the pantheon of all-time greats, it will take the 2017 title to be part of it.