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.       

NBA fines Chicago’s Rajon Rondo $25,000 for attempting to trip Jae Crowder (VIDEO)

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Rajon Rondo‘s end-of-season performance may have helped him earn a little extra coin this offseason. He’s certainly going to need it given that the NBA has fined the Chicago Bulls PG $25,000 after he attempted to trip Boston Celtics wing Jae Crowder.

The league released the decision in a statement on Sunday morning.

The incident occured with 31 seconds left in the first quarter of Game 3, a game the Celtics won, 104-87. Rondo was on the bench, and as possession changed Crowder took a wide sweeping angle along the sideline, right in front of Rondo.

Rondo casually stuck his leg out as Crowder passed by, but didn’t seem to make any contact.

Chicago leads the series, 2-1.

Thunder’s Taj Gibson providing scoring help for Westbrook

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Taj Gibson often describes his role for the Thunder as doing whatever the team needs.

For now, scoring is playing a bigger part than usual. The versatile 6-foot-9 power forward has found his way since being traded from Chicago and has emerged one of Oklahoma City’s few consistent offensive weapons alongside Russell Westbrook in the playoffs. He may need to keep it up to give the Thunder a chance of winning the first-round series with Houston – Oklahoma City trails 2-1 heading into Game 4 Sunday at home.

Gibson built a sterling reputation in Chicago, but the Brooklyn, New York native is more concerned with the respect he’s earned since his arrival.

“They see I’m in here late nights, early mornings, just constantly working with my teammates, constantly putting work in,” he said. “The confidence is going to be there because they understand you do the work, but I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help my team.”

Gibson has done a little bit of everything since coming to the Thunder. He has provided experience and versatility to an already stacked frontline that includes emerging young players Steven Adams and Enes Kanter. He also has added toughness, and at times, scoring punch. His athleticism and ability to guard on the perimeter against outside-shooting big men and on switches fills some of the void created when the Thunder traded Serge Ibaka on draft night this past offseason.

“Great vet,” guard Victor Oladipo said. “Great man, first and foremost. Very positive and does what it takes to win. It was a great pickup for us.”

Domantas Sabonis was the starting power forward when Gibson arrived in Oklahoma City, but once he got settled and began to understand coach Billy Donovan’s system, the Thunder improved. Gibson replaced Sabonis for the first time March 9 against San Antonio, and the Thunder went 11-5 with him in the starting lineup. He averaged 9.0 points and 4.5 rebounds in 21 regular-season games for the Thunder.

He is averaging 11 points on 65 percent shooting in the playoffs. He was effective on offense in Game 2, establishing himself early and helping put the Thunder in position to win. Oklahoma City went away from him late, and Houston rallied for the victory.

In Game 3, the Thunder went back to him consistently. a href(equals)’https://apnews.com/dab4b99c496a4450906c11a9c72132d1/Westbrook’s-triple-double-leads-Thunder-past-Rockets-115-113?utm-campaign=SocialFlow&utm-source=Twitter&utm-medium=AP-Sports’He finished with 20 points on 10-for-13 shooting in Oklahoma City’s 115-113 win/a on Friday night.

“Taj is a great post player,” Westbrook said. “He does a great job of getting in great position down low. When we see a matchup that we like we are going to keep going to him. Whether it is a miss or a make, it gives us the opportunity to score the basketball in the paint.”

Gibson did damage inside and out and punished the Rockets with his mid-range jumper.

“It’s no shock to me, just because that mid-range is automatic for him,” Thunder forward Doug McDermott, who also joined the Thunder in the trade with Chicago, said. “He’s tough to guard on that block too.”

Gibson also had a fast start in Game 2, but once the Thunder began to struggle, they went away from him. Gibson knew he didn’t need to change much going into Game 3.

“Just continue to be aggressive,” he said. “I felt like I had good shots in Game 2. Just got to stay with it and play the game as it flows to me.”

On defense, Gibson has been a better option than Kanter and Adams, who have struggled to keep up with the more athletic Rockets. Gibson performed well in all facets in Game 3, and Donovan needs more of that in Game 4.

“I was happy for him last night,” Donovan said Saturday. “I thought he gave us a great lift in both the first and second half. He’s professional, he’s a man, and he’s a reliable guy.”

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP .

Watch Kawhi Leonard, Mike Conley in epic playoff duel Saturday (VIDEO)

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Kawhi Leonard scored 16 straight points for the Spurs at the end of regulation to give San Antonio the lead and a chance. Then Mike Conley hit a floater in the lane forced overtime.

There Mike Conley hit a floating bank shot that had the Grizzlies up three with :47 seconds left, only to have Leonard answer with a three to tie the game. Marc Gasol would break that tie and get Memphis the series-evening win.

Conley and Leonard traded blows through the clutch parts of Saturday’s epic Game 4 between Memphis and San Antonio. It’s worth checking out the highlights again.

John Wall goes coast-to-coast, behind-the-back for lefty dunk (VIDEO)

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There’s not going to be many plays better than this in the entire playoffs.

There wasn’t a lot for Wizards’ fans to cheer in Game 3, the Hawks took control early and routed Washington, making it a 2-1 series. But there was this, John Wall going coast-to-coast with the ball, going around-the-back and throwing it down left handed.

Wall is just so fast end to end.