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.       

Sixers’ Joel Embiid officially has knee surgery, expected to be back on court in summer

Associated Press
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“The… follow-up MRI of Joel Embiid‘s left knee appears to reveal… the previously identified meniscus tear appears more pronounced in this most recent scan.”

When Philadelphia’s chief medical director Dr. Jonathan Glashow said that in a statement announcing Joel Embiid was being shut down for the season, the chance of knee surgery to clean up that meniscus was possible. Friday it became a reality, the team announced.

CSNPhilly.com had the details.

The team expects Embiid to resume basketball activities during this summer, according to Sixers director of performance research and development Dr. David T. Martin. Embiid will begin his rehab in Los Angeles with specialists and Sixers medical and training staff members.

“The overall status of Joel’s lateral meniscus and his cartilage is very good,” surgeon Dr. Neal S. ElAttrache, M.D., who performed the surgery, said in a statement. “Today’s procedure focused on removing a small portion of the meniscus that was responsible for his symptoms.

“The recovery program that has been established targets Joel transitioning back to full weight-bearing in approximately two weeks, at which point a conservative approach to his rehabilitation will be introduced.”

After Embiid missed two seasons with foot issues, there is a tendency to lump everything together and call him injury prone. This, however, was a minor surgery with a relatively short recovery period, even as the Sixers bring him along slowly. There is reason for concern, but this shouldn’t be an issue by next training camp.

Embiid averaged 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game despite a minutes restriction all season. He was incredibly efficient in getting his numbers — he had an All-Star level PER of 24.2 — and when he was on the court the Sixers outscored their opponents by 3 points per 100 possessions. He’s still likely a top three finisher in Rookie of the Year balloting despite playing in just 31 games.

Devin Booker demolishes youthful scoring records

AP Photo/Tony Dejak
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When a 20-year-old LeBron James scored 56 points in a game, he called it, “probably the best game of my life.”

Devin Booker just topped him with 70 points in a game at age 20.

LeBron has obviously gone onto bigger and better things since dropping 56 in a loss to the Raptors during his second year, but that game was a harbinger. Booker – whom LeBron singled out before the season as an under-the-radar rising star – could be on a similar track.

Or Booker could be following Brandon Jennings, who scored 55 in his seventh game, also at age 20.

The future is bright – and unknown – for the second-year Suns guard.

What’s clear: His accomplishment last night is unmatched, and nobody else has come close. Here are the highest-scoring games in NBA history by someone under age 21:

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This is the result of Phoenix going so young and Booker playing so well. Not every team would provide such an opportunity, but Booker seized it.

Not only is he the youngest player ever to score 70 points in a game, he’s the youngest to score 60 in a game.

Somebody ought to buy him a drink to celebrate – in October, once it’s legal.

Union: Joakim Noah would not have been suspended under next CBA

Elsa/Getty Images
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Selective Androgen Receptor Modulator LGD-4033 was not banned by the current Collective Bargaining Agreement when it was enacted.

The next CBA will offer a new challenge policy for failed drug tests.

Perhaps Joakim Noah, whom the NBA suspended 20 games, just tested positively at the wrong time.

SARM LGD-4033 (Ligandrol) was added to the banned list after the current CBA was signed in 2011. The drug is also banned by the next CBA, which will take effect July 1.

But the next CBA would also allow Noah an opportunity to contest his suspension – which his union says he would have done successfully..

National Basketball Players Association:

“After a thorough investigation, the National Basketball Players Association believes that Joakim Noah did not intentionally or knowingly violate any policy of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).  Under the recently negotiated CBA effective July 1, a player’s unintentional ingestion of a prohibited substance would be taken into consideration, and we believe the conduct here would not result in discipline.  Unfortunately, the current CBA does not permit such consideration.”

“Joakim was completely forthcoming and cooperative throughout the investigation and we believe that this isolated occurrence was a regrettable mistake.  Joakim has offered his deepest apologies for this infraction, and neither he nor the NBPA will pursue an appeal.”

Unlike the current CBA, the new CBA allows a player to challenge a suspension if he “did not know or suspect, and could not reasonably have known or suspected, even with the exercise of considerable caution and diligence, that he was taking, ingesting, applying, or otherwise using” the drug. He must also establish how the drug entered his system.

That’s obviously a high burden. The CBA even defines it as an “unusual circumstance.”

Could Noah have presented such convincing evidence? Maybe, but it’s far easier to make that claim in a statement than actually convince an arbitrator.

Stephen Curry with touchdown pass to Andre Iguodala, who finishes with reverse lay-up (VIDEO)

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The 49ers may want to give Stephen Curry a call, because I’m not sure Brian Hoyer can throw that pass.

Curry showed a soft touch on a touchdown pass over a defender to the streaking Andre Iguodala, who had to finish with the reverse layup, a little no-look flip. It was vintage Warriors, a little playground in transition.

The Warriors beat the Kings 114-100 behind 27 from Curry. With the win the Warriors are 2.5 games up on the Spurs for the best record in the West, but Golden State has a tough road back-to-back this week in Houston than San Antonio. Get at least a split there and the Warriors will be tough to catch.