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.       

No motivational material: LeBron James, Cavaliers respectful when asked about Warriors

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The rubber match. The trilogy. Whatever you want to call the historic third meeting between the Cavaliers and Warriors in the Finals — never in NBA history have two teams met three years in a row in the Finals — it’s what fans have been waiting for. The inevitability of this Finals matchup sucked some of the drama and fun out of the postseason so far, but now these two teams are ready to go.

It’s the best rivalry in the NBA, two teams not afraid to mix it up with each other, but when Cavaliers players were asked about the Warriors after eliminating the Celtics Thursday night, there was nothing but respect.

“We just got to play defense,” LeBron James said in a televised postgame interview. “We’re going to face adversity. 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. So they’re gonna challenge us a lot: offensively, defensively, mentally, physically, but we’re going to have to be ready for that challenge.”

LeBron stuck to that theme in his postgame press conference.

“I’ll be honest, I’m not really in the right mind to even talk about Golden State right now. It’s too stressful, and I’m not stressed right now,” LeBron said cracking a smile. “Golden State, they’ve been the best team in our league the last three years, then they added an MVP. That’s all I can give you right now, because I’m happy and I don’t want a lot of stress, and they cause a lot of stress.”

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said he had yet to start any prep for the Warriors.

“Of course I watch every game, because I’m a basketball junkie, and they’ve been playing great,” Lue siad. “But you can’t get too far ahead of yourself.”

“The Celtics and Brad Stevens, the team they have, they throw a lot of different lineups at you and a lot of different stuff on the offensive end, so as far as how they play I think it definitely prepared us for what’s ahead,” Kevin Love said, discussing how the Celtics prepped the Cavaliers for the next round.

The Cavaliers are veterans on this stage, and they both respect the Warriors and don’t need the distraction of a war of words, so they stayed on message all night.

But with a week to go before Game 1, you can bet someone will say something inflammatory. We’re looking at you, Draymond Green.

Watch 36-year-old James Jones throw down a putback dunk vs. the Celtics (VIDEO)

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LeBron James is on his way to his 7th-straight Finals after the Cavaliers beat the Boston Celtics, 135-102, in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Thursday night.

The game was out of hand from the beginning, with the Cavaliers scoring a franchise playoff high 75 points in the first half.

At one point in the fourth quarter, Tyronn Lue emptied out his bench and we got to see some of the Cavaliers garbage time guys get run. One of those guys was James Jones, 36, who has been around so long he was a rookie with Reggie Miller in Indiana.

He also dunked!

Via Twitter:

Let’s all just bask in the glory that is that putback dunk and in our little vacation until the Finals start on June 1.

LeBron James, Cavaliers advance past Celtics to meet Warriors in 2017 NBA Finals

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Let’s line it up and run it again. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors are going to meet in the 2017 NBA Finals after LeBron James and the Cavaliers beat the Boston Celtics in Game 5 on Thursday, 135-102.

It wasn’t much of a contest from the outset as Cleveland looked determined to put away their opponent. The Cavaliers played strong, shot well from 3-point range, and forced the Celtics into 18 turnovers over the course of the game.

The Cavaliers set a franchise playoff record in the first half, scoring 75 points in the first two periods. LeBron had 20 before the third quarter started, putting him just inches away from passing Michael Jordan to top the list for most points scored in NBA playoff history.

That moment came in the third quarter, with James dropping in a sweet 3-pointer from the left side of the arc to push him past Jordan. LeBron finished the game with 35 points, going 4-of-7 from 3-point range will adding eight assists, eight rebounds, and three steals.

Kyrie Irving was another bright spot for the Cavaliers, scoring 24 points to go along with seven assists. Kevin Love added 15 points, and Deron Williams had a rejuvenation off the bench with 14.

For Boston, yet another game without Isaiah Thomas forced their offense into stagnation. Avery Bradley — who had a considerable series in an effort that should not be overlooked — scored 20 points on 10-of-20 shooting. Gerald Green was Boston’s second-leading scorer in a bench role, adding 14 points.

Now we get to wait until June 1, when what seemed an inevitability way back in training camp has indeed come to pass. The Warriors get their shot at redemption after the worst breakdown in NBA playoff history, and the Cavaliers get a chance to solidify themselves over their peers and galvanize LeBron’s position as the best player of a generation.

The Finals don’t start for anther week. We’ll all be champing at the bit to see if Cleveland really does have what it takes to guard the Warriors offense. Likewise, a top defensive team in Golden State will need to prepare themselves for the LeBron that showed up against the Celtics in Game 1 and 2.

LeBron James on passing Michael Jordan: “I fell in love with the game because of Mike” (VIDEO)

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LeBron James passed Michael Jordan for most points scored in NBA playoff history on Thursday night during the Cleveland Cavaliers’ win over the Boston Celtics, 135-102.

After the game, LeBron and his teammates took to the podium to speak on their accomplishment of making it to yet another Finals as they settle in for a rematch with the Golden State Warriors.

LeBron was humble about his accomplishment, crediting Jordan for driving him to play the game of basketball as well as shaping his own game.

“I wear the number [23] because of Mike. I think I fell in love with the game because of Mike,” said James. “When you’re growing up and you’re seeing Michael Jordan, it’s almost like a god.”

James and the Cavaliers will take on the Warriors in Game 1 of the 2017 NBA Finals on June 1.