NBA Playoffs, Suns v. Spurs: Pace may have been the red herring

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If both the Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs are reduced to the most basic tenets of their respective basketball philosophies, it’s easy to paint them as foils. Steve Nash stands as something of an iconoclast in the Church of Popovich; even if Steve’s professionalism, leadership, and continued excellence don’t stray too far at all from the pillars of San Antonio’s success, what Nash represents (outlandish commitment to offense, disregard for defensive execution, team success predicated on the fast break) is antithetical to a Spurs system predicated on balanced half-court offense and a holistic defensive scheme.

The truth is that the gulf that once divided the two teams — in terms of style, not substance — is now more of a stream. Obviously Phoenix would like to push the pace when possible, but the thought that fast break points would be a key to this series has quickly subsided. The first three games, all Suns wins, have been about execution regardless of context. Phoenix has been able to produce points in almost any situation with just about any combination of rotation players on the court.

Plus, while the break no longer gives the Suns a tremendous boost, it also doesn’t act as their crutch. Phoenix came back from 18 points down in Game 3, which could easily (and falsely) be attributed to the old Suns’ tendency to go on (and, in turn, allow their opponents to go on) big runs thanks to the nature of their offense. That just wasn’t the case. According to Synergy Sports Technology, the Suns had nine transition possessions on Friday night, which accounted for just 9.6% of their total offensive possessions.

What’s even more surprising was just how inefficient Phoenix was on those transition possessions. San Antonio’s transition defense should get plenty of credit. Even though the Spurs were unable to protect their substantial first-half lead and struggled overall on the defensive end, gone were the wide open Jason Richardson leak-outs, the wide open Channing Frye threes after he lost his defender in transition, and the dribble hand-offs to a streaking Amar’e Stoudemire.

Instead, Phoenix was able to score just 0.78 points per transition possession, a poor level of efficiency for any offensive possession, much less one where the defense is theoretically vulnerable and out of position.

Offensive rebounding, defensive rotations, and depth have all played a substantial role in this series, but the impact of the Suns’ execution in their half-court offense cannot be overstated. Phoenix has outperformed a formidable opponent, and the San Antonio defense that looked so strong against Dallas in the first round now appears to be a step to slow to answer all of the Suns’ offensive threats.

Lakers’ Julius Randle out 14 days after receiving stitches on right hand

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 06:  Julius Randle #30 of the the Los Angeles Lakers dribbles upcourt during a basketball game against the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center on April 6, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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Lakers forward Julius Randle has suffered a minor setback in his summer workouts. The team announced he received stitches on his right hand and will be sidelined for two weeks.

Lakers forward Julius Randle suffered a laceration to his right hand (webbing between middle and ring fingers) yesterday while practicing. He received seven stitches and will be re-evaluated in approximately 14 days.

That sounds painful, but the timing works out such that the two weeks will be up and he’ll have plenty of time to get back into things before training camp kicks off the last week of September.

Evan Fournier “hated” being left off the French national team

ORLANDO, FL - NOVEMBER 11:  Evan Fournier #10 of the Orlando Magic sets up the offense during the game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Amway Center on November 11, 2015 in Orlando, Florida.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
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One of the most surprising developments of the summer came when Evan Fournier, coming off an excellent year with the Magic, was left off the French national team that went to Rio to compete in the Olympics. Fournier himself doesn’t have a good answer for why he wasn’t included, according to an interview with the French magazine L’Equipe (translation via EuroHoops.net).

“I hated not being in the Olympic Games,” he said. “I had suspected that I won’t make the cut a week before I was informed about it. I was reading interviews where only Rudy (Gobert) was mentioned among the players who didn’t play in the OQT but would go to Rio. In the end, I received a voicemail by Vincent Collet that briefly explained the reasons I was left out.”

Fournier said he didn’t have much communication with the national team, except for when head coach Vincent Collet asked him for tickets to a Magic game.

“The only time I’ve heard from the Federation this year was during a visit from Patrick Beesley (French NT technical director) in Orlando where he told me the dates of the qualifying tournament and Olympics. He didn’t tell me ‘If you do not come in Manila, then you do not come in Rio’. The second time was from an sms by Vincent Collet. It was our only contact outside competitions in the last three years. He was asking me for tickets to a game for his friends. I never closed the door to the French national team but these events sent me a clear message. That i’m not in the project. It’s that simple and it hurts.”

It’s a little bizarre that Fournier, at 23 years old and one of the better basketball players from France, isn’t on the team and a clear reason hasn’t been given. But it sounds like that isn’t going to change anytime soon.

Jamal Crawford rocks Seattle pro-am defender with fake behind-the-back dribble (video)

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 27:  Jamal Crawford #11 of the Los Angeles Clippers reacts to a foul called on his team in a 108-98 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers during Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs on April 27, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.   NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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The Seattle pro-am always produces great highlights.

Here’s another.

Jamal Crawford pretends to go behind his back with his dribble, leaving his defender off balance and whining about a carry. In a pro-am. However you can try to preserve your dignity, I guess.

51 Q: Tom Thibodeau can coach, is he ready to run a franchise?

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 12: Head coach Tom Thibodeau of the Chicago Bulls yells to his players in the second half against the Cleveland Cavaliers during Game Five in the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs 2015 at Quicken Loans Arena on May 12, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Bulls 106-101. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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The Minnesota Timberwolves were probably not going to get Tom Thibodeau without the promise of organizational control. After his contentious relationship with the Bulls’ front office led to his exit after five seasons in Chicago, he took a year-long sabbatical from coaching and observed how other organizations run their operations from both a coaching and a front-office standpoint. He was in high demand as a coaching free agent and could essentially name his price, and if he wanted personnel control too, he could have it. That’s what ended up happening in Minnesota, and Thibodeau will be the latest test case in whether the two-in-one model works. Thibodeau’s coaching ability is indisputable. How he’ll fare as an executive is a different question entirely.

The Timberwolves had a solid offseason after a rumored draft-night trade for Jimmy Butler fell apart. Given Thibodeau’s history of stubbornness and intractability, it was a valid fear that he’d take the same approach to roster-building as his former mentor Doc Rivers has in Los Angeles, simply bringing back all of his old mainstays from the Bulls days. With Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Pau Gasol and Kirk Hinrich on the market, the opportunity was there to get the band back together, spending too much money in the process and hindering the development of maybe the most promising young core in the NBA in the name of more wins in the short term.

But Thibodeau didn’t do that. Instead, he and GM Scott Layden plugged some holes with value deals. Getting Cold Aldrich for three years at $22 million gives them a more than serviceable backup center, and they landed Brandon Rush on a one-year deal for $3.5 million to provide some outside shooting. They didn’t do anything to sacrifice long-term flexibility and didn’t sign anyone that will get in the way of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins or Zach LaVine getting plenty of playing time.

The idea of a coach making personnel decisions is a dicey one for several reasons, not least of which being that it’s harder to have the emotional detachment to trade a player if you see them every day in practice. But the Chicago team Thibodeau inherited in 2010 was a readymade contender that needed a coaching upgrade. This Minnesota team isn’t there yet, and even his ability to get more wins than expected out of any roster he’s given won’t make them truly competitive in the upper echelon of the Western Conference playoff picture, at least not yet. So far, his moves reflect an understanding of that reality.

The first big roster decision Thibodeau will have to make during the season will be the point guard situation. Thibodeau loves Kris Dunn, whom he drafted at No. 5 overall in June, and Dunn provides shooting that Ricky Rubio does not. If Dunn takes the starting spot in training camp, Thibodeau will have to look long and hard at moving Rubio. Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad could also wind up on the block, depending on how the rotation shakes out, and how Thibodeau fares at getting a return on his trades will be worth monitoring.

With that said, it’s pretty hard to screw up a core that includes Wiggins and Towns, and Thibodeau seems to know what he has in those two. As long as he can put complementary pieces around them and keep their development up to pace on the court, this experiment should prove to be a success.