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.

Kevin Durant: ‘They’re not going to suspend Draymond Green. He’s one of the premier players in the league’

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 22:  Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors drives against Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first quater in game three of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 22, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 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 J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
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Kiki VanDeWeghe, the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball operations, insisted his decision to give Draymond Green a flagrant 2 rather than suspending him had nothing to do with Green’s star status or the Warriors’ place in league history.

But Kevin Durant doesn’t believe that.

Royce Young of ESPN:

Durant:

They’re not going to suspend Draymond Green. He’s one of the premier players in the league on arguably one of the best teams in the history of the game. They’re not going to suspend him. I didn’t even really think about it. I knew the league was going to let him play or fine him or upgrade him to a flagrant 2. We all knew that was going to happen. The league is about business.

Durant will probably get fined for this. Team employees questioning the league’s integrity is at the heart of why the NBA fines people. The league is trying to protect its image, and Durant completely blew that up.

I have no idea whether Durant is right. I can read VanDeWeghe’s mind as much as I can Green’s while he’s extending his foot toward Steven Adams‘ groin. I.e., I can’t. There’s definitely financial interest in extending the Western Conference finals (which the Thunder lead 2-1) keeping the best players on the floor and having bigger markets advance deeper into the playoffs. But there’s also financial interest in people believing the NBA is fair. It’s not always clear how the league balances those sometimes-competing forces.

Here’s what I know: This is getting fun. It was fun when Russell Westbrook was involved in the Green controversy. It’s even better with Durant looping himself in.

7-foot-6 Mamadou Ndiaye staying in NBA draft

SEATTLE, WA - MARCH 20:  Mamadou Ndiaye #34 of the UC Irvine Anteaters in action against Mangok Mathiang #12 and Quentin Snider #2 of the Louisville Cardinals during the second round of the 2015 Men's NCAA Basketball Tournament at Key Arena on March 20, 2015 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
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The 7-foot-6 Mamadou Ndiaye declared for the NBA draft without an agent.

And he’s staying in it.

Jeff Goodman of ESPN:

If Ndiaye makes it to the NBA, he’d be the league’s tallest player since Yao Ming – becoming just the fifth player taller than 7-foot-5 to play in the league. Gheorghe Muresan and Manute Bol were 7-foot-7, and Shawn Bradley and Yao were also 7-foot-6.

But Ndiaye is not a lock even to be drafted, let alone make a roster. He has developed tremendously, but he’s still unrefined offensively – though good luck stopping him when he gets the ball near the basket. Defensively, he protects the rim and is predictably awful in space. Teams have too much shooting to allow him just to camp out in the paint.

Someone could take a flier on him in the second round – especially if he’s willing to delay signing to spend a year in the D-League or overseas.

Going pro is probably a good move for Ndiaye, though. He needs to face taller and more athletic foes than he sees in the Big West.

Cavaliers getting open 3s again, just not making them

TORONTO, ON - MAY 23: Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots a three point basket in front of the Toronto Raptors bench in the third quarter in game four of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 23, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 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 Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
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LeBron James backed down Kyle Lowry on the left block and swung a bullet pass to Matthew Dellavedova in the right corner. As Dellavedova caught the pass, Richard Jefferson screened a closing DeMar DeRozan, ensuring Dellavedova remained open for his 3-point attempt.

Airball.

LeBron tapped the rebound to Channing Frye for a 3-pointer from the top of the key, his spot.

Miss.

After that sequence with about two and a half minutes left, the Cavaliers scored just three more points in their Game 4 loss to the Raptors. The Cavs are again getting the outside looks they desire. They’re just not making them.

Toronto (relatively) shut down Cleveland’s potent long-range attack in Games 1 and 2, holding the Cavaliers to 7-of-20 and 7-of-21 3-point shooting as Cleveland took advantage inside. The Cavs averaged 36 3-point attempts per game in the first two rounds.

But the Cavaliers have adjusted in Games 3 and 4, taking 41 treys in each game. Their 27 and 29 open 3-pointers (defined as the defender being at least four feet away) are right in line with their averages against the Pistons and Hawks and far above the 13 and 15 they produced in Games 1 and 2:

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Cleveland just isn’t making those open 3s.

The Cavaliers shot 34.5% on open 3-pointers in Game 4, a far cry from the 43.6% these made against Detroit and 51.5% they made against Atlanta. It’s even below their regular season mark of 37.8% – which is misleadingly low, considering Channing Frye – a key playoff 3-point shooter – didn’t arrive until a midseason trade.

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There’s a school of thought that 3-point defense is more about limiting attempts than lowering percentage. The Cavs are generating plenty of good attempts. They space the floor and share the ball, getting it to open shooters. LeBron attracts so much attention.

They were probably bound to regress from their hot shooting in the first two rounds. But likewise, they’re better than they appeared in Game 4.

If the Cleveland keeps getting these shots, I’m not convinced Toronto has much control over whether they go in.

The Cavaliers just have to make them.

Report: Goran Dragic pledged to re-sign with Suns before they traded him

PHOENIX, AZ - FEBRUARY 10:  Goran Dragic #1 of the Phoenix Suns moves the ball upcourt during the second half of the NBA game against the Houston Rockets at US Airways Center on February 10, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Rockets defeated the Suns 127-118.  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 Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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With trade rumors swirling, Goran Dragic told the Suns in February 2015 that he wouldn’t re-sign the following summer. Dragic said he no longer trusted Phoenix’s front office.

So, the Suns traded him to Miami.

But did they have to?

Then-Phoenix coach Jeff Hornacek apparently got Dragic to change his stance.

Ken Berger of CBSSports.com:

Within days of Hornacek having a heart-to-heart with Dragic and securing a commitment from the Slovenian point guard to re-sign with the Suns as a free agent the following summer, the Suns shipped him to Miami in a three-team trade, a person familiar with the situation told CBS Sports.

This substantially changes how we view that trade. At the time, it seemed the Suns got a tremendous haul for a player they were going to lose anyway. But if they could’ve re-signed him, it changes the equation.

Maybe not enough to say Phoenix erred, though.

Dragic was clearly wavering in his thinking. He later said he regretted his harsh comments about the front office. Just because he told Hornacek he’d re-sign doesn’t mean he was bound to re-sign

And Phoenix got solid return – a top-seven protected 2017 first-rounder that becomes unprotected in 2018 and an unprotected 2021 first-rounder. Picks with so few protections rarely move anymore. The Heat look solid right now, but they’re fairly old. That far into the future, anything can happen – giving those picks great upside.

So, maybe the Suns still made the right move. But maybe just keeping Dragic was more on the table than we previously realized.