NBA Playoffs, Suns v. Spurs Game 4: The deed is done.

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Nash_eye.jpgThe Phoenix Suns just swept the San Antonio Spurs. The Phoenix Suns
just swept the San Antonio Spurs. The Phoenix Suns just swept the San
Antonio Spurs.

Maybe if I type that phrase enough times, the
basketball gods will tie my precious typing fingers into knots for my
blasphemy. In what universe could the Suns sweep the Spurs in the
playoffs? In what bizarro dimension is this Phoenix team a
Western Conference finalist, and the most respected franchise in the
league receiving the business end of a broom?

Ours,
apparently. Suspend your disbelief. It’s not easy; it wasn’t easy to
foresee the Suns closing out the series in four games in San
Antonio facing yet another double-digit deficit. Yet they did it,
107-101, because Phoenix has played like the best team in the Western
Conference, even if a little team in Los Angeles would have something
to say about that.

The Suns aren’t just good, they’re damn
good. They’ll be considered underdogs against the Lakers even after
ousting the Spurs in the most impressive of fashions, but any fan,
basketball junkie, or NBA scribe that pencils L.A. in as a Finals
participant needs to take a long, hard look at what Phoenix was able to
accomplish in this series.

Manu Ginobili, who could have made
a legitimate claim as the best Spur over the final stretch of the
regular season, was trapped like mad in the pick and roll and
completely smothered offensively at times. He finished Game 4 with 15
points and nine assists, but shot just 2-of-11 from the field. Tim
Duncan may seem like an imposing match-up for the Suns, but it’s no
secret that Manu and Tony Parker hold the keys to the offense.
Eliminate the threat of Ginobili operating (for either scoring or
playmaking purposes) off of the Spurs’ staple pick-and-roll, and San
Antonio is quite beatable. Quite sweepable, apparently.

Not that
the Suns’ defense ignored Duncan, either. His lack of effectiveness as
the roll man in pick-and-roll situations was shocking, and though
Phoenix committed two defenders and a strong front to the ball-handler
on almost every screen, Duncan never seemed all that open. There were
so many cases where the Suns’ help defenders would beat him to his spot
rolling down the lane in order to contest his attempts or run
interference on the roll lob, and Tim was left in limbo.

That
strategy wasn’t enough to deny him from reaching 17 points (on 50%
shooting) and eight rebounds in Game 4, but the fact that Duncan wasn’t
more of a factor in this series is as much a tribute to the Suns’ post
defense as it was their defensive rotations on the pick-and-roll.

Limit
the effectiveness of those two players on the offensive end, and Tony
Parker’s 22-point, five-assist effort is solid rather than deadly,
George Hill’s night is nice rather than headline-worthy, and hell, Matt
Bonner’s 14 points on just six attempts is nothing special, as opposed
to the Red Rocket that broke the camel’s back.

It’s almost
cliché these days to praise the Suns’ defense, but there’s simply no
way to write a proper recap without giving Phoenix their due. Alvin
Gentry has simply done a phenomenal job — a Popovichian job, dare I
say — of coaching this team into rotating properly on the defensive
end. No matter how much pressure was committed to blitzing Ginobili or
doubling Duncan in the post, the Suns’ defense never seemed to be on
tilt. It was vulnerable at times, but they always recovered.

Phoenix
just came down the court again and again and played consistently solid
defense. It wasn’t so much the effectiveness of the Suns’ D on a
per-point or even per-possession basis (San Antonio still scored 101
points and scored at a rate of 105.2 points per 100 possessions), but
the resiliency of that defense that was the most impressive. It wasn’t
always effective, but the Suns’ rotations were just relentless. They
forced 16 turnovers and limited San Antonio’s three-point attempts
(just 11 to Phoenix’s 24), and they worked, worked, worked.

With
the difficulties that the Suns posed for the Spurs on the other end,
that was obviously enough for them to not only win the series, but do
it without dropping a single game. San Antonio simply lacked the
ability to cover all of the bases of the Suns’ multifaceted offense,
and their peak-too-early performances reeked of a team that was just a
bit outmatched. “They made it hard for us to guard them for 48
minutes,” Gregg Popovich said. “We’d go into the fourth quarter and
someone for them would step up. Those are the kinds of things that
happen with that team.”

At various points in this series, that
nameless “someone” that stepped up has been a strong perimeter
defender, a three-point shooter, a hustle rebounder, and an undersung
reserve. In Game 4, it was Steve Nash, who came back into the game
after receiving six stitches over his right eye in the third quarter to
lead the Suns to a remarkable close-out performance. Nash, with one eye
swollen shut, was responsible for 21 of his team’s 31 points while the
game was still meaningful.

“I just feel fortunate that I had the
chance to get back out there,” Steve Nash said. “I don’t know how it
didn’t keep me on the sidelines.” It’s something of a wonder that it
didn’t. Nash’s eye was not only bruised, but swollen almost completely
shut. So naturally, he not only hit a pull-up three in transition just
moments after returning the floor, but got excellent looks for both
himself and Amar’e Stoudemire in the game’s deciding minutes.

Amar’e
was a force on his own for most of the game (he had 29 points of his
own), but with Nash spoon-feeding him wide open mid-range jumpers to
complement his prior assault of layups, dunks, and runners, he was
finally able to exact his revenge against San Antonio. “It’s
beautiful,” Stoudemire said of finally defeating the Spurs in the
postseason after falling short in four straight attempts. “It feels
great.”

It must. Phoenix has a long road to head, but the sight
of San Antonio’s corpse at their feet has to offer some relief. If not
as evidence that the Suns have exorcised their demons, then at least as
validation of their success this season. This is no longer the team
that struggled to match up with the Blazers at times, but a deep,
talented squad capable of giving any playoff opponent a run for their money. Even the Lakers. Even an opponent waiting beyond that’s even more challenging.

That’s
just how good these Suns are, and though Phoenix still continues to
surprise — as they did tonight, even when their series victory seemed
imminent — nothing about this team should be startling from this point
forward. Based on their performance from this series, we should expect
the best from the Suns. They’ve played well enough to earn that.   

Kenyon Martin: I once played high

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Former NBA commissioner David Stern said the league began testing for marijuana because players complained of other players playing high. Chauncey Billups said he knew teammates who played better high.

But Stephen Jackson is the rare former NBA player who admitted to playing high.

Now, he has company.

Kenyon Martin – who played for the Nets, Nuggets, Clippers, Knicks and Bucks in a 15-year career – via Bleacher Report:

We were playing in Indiana one day. I wasn’t feeling well. I had a hamstring, a hip or something. So, I smoked. I wasn’t going to play originally. So, we got to the arena, and I’m like, “I feel good.” I went and told the trainer, “I’m going to go today.” I went out there and had a great game.

If you want to guess which game this was, here are the possibilities.

This was part of a great feature on marijuana in the NBA and NFL. Matt Barnes, Al Harrington and Gary Paton also participate. I highly recommend (pun intended) watching it in full.

Nuggets president Tim Connelly: Next season playoffs or bust

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The Nuggets have steadily improved over the last four years – 30-52 to 33-49 to 40-42 to 46-36.

But even 46 wins weren’t enough to get Denver into the playoff this season, extending the postseason drought to five years.

Nuggets president Connelly, via Gina Mizell of The Denver Post:

On if next season is “playoffs or bust”:

“I think we’re there. How many times can you be the bridesmaid? Our young core, three of our best players are 23 (Gary Harris), 22 (Jokic) and 21 (Jamal Murray), and they’ve proven they’re capable of doing it at the highest level. I think all of us are, quite frankly, sick of this time of the year having a press conference.”

There’s certainly something to be said for injecting urgency. The Nuggets are already good enough to make the playoffs. They just happened to play in a historically deep Western Conference. But that doesn’t mean they can’t take more responsibility.

Denver lost to the Hawks (twice), Grizzlies (twice without Mikey Conley), Mavericks, Kings and Nets this season. Flip any of those games, and the Nuggets would have made the playoffs.

But I’m not sure what “or bust” means.

Connelly said Michael Malone would return as coach next season. If Denver misses the playoffs, would he get fired? Would Connelly come on the hot seat? What if the Nuggets again produce a record that typically qualifies for the postseason?

Even if Denver misses the playoffs next year, the 2019-20 team would have a 22-year-old Jamal Murray, 25-year-old Gary Harris and probably a 24-year-old Nikola Jokic under contract. That’s still a pretty good place to be.

Because of Jokic’s rapid ascent, the Nuggets are trying to accelerate the timeline. They most notably signed Paul Millsap last summer. (Injury cost him most of the season and contributed to Denver falling short.) They could also emphasize the present by re-signing Will Barton this offseason.

But playoffs or not next year, the Nuggets have a bright future. Connelly just doesn’t want them leaning on that excuse, though following through on his edict could create complications if Denver again narrowly misses the postseason with a good record.

Adam Silver: NBA could eventually reseed in conference finals

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NBA commissioner Adam Silver has three major talking points on 1-16 playoff seeding (rather than the current system of 1-8 seeding by conference):

1. He likes the idea of it.

2. He doesn’t feel bound by the tradition of an East vs. West format.

3. Travel is a big impediment. Not only would there be more playoff series between teams farther away, the regular-season schedule would have to be balanced and therefore include more games between teams currently in opposite conferences.

(An important point I think Silver doesn’t raise nearly enough publicly in regard to a balanced schedule: That’d mean more away games that start at 10 p.m. for Eastern Conference fans and more away games that start at 4 p.m. for Western Conference fans. That can’t be good for TV ratings.)

The NBA commissioner added another consideration in the debate.

Silver on ESPN:

The other thing you could potentially do is reseed at the conference finals. And that deals with if your two best teams are in the same conference. So, there are some other approaches to deal with. You want the two best teams to meet in the Finals.

A balanced schedule wouldn’t be necessary with this setup. The semifinals would either be fairer and produce a better NBA Finals or have the same matchup we’d get in the current system.

Even more importantly, this could pass.

As fun as it is to debate the optimal postseason format, there’s no way enough Eastern Conference owners (at least five, necessary to create a two-thirds majority) approve. They want to protect their eight playoff spots and guaranteed Finals spot.

But what if Eastern Conference teams were still guaranteed eight playoff spots and two semifinals spots? That be enough. The Rockets and Warriors – two Western Conference teams – are the NBA’s best this season. In coming years, it could be the 76ers and Celtics – two Eastern Conference teams. That’s far more variable than which conference is stronger throughout.

If teams in championship contention feel the very top of their conference will be weaker than the other conference, they could resist. But that still leaves contenders that don’t feel that way and non-contenders that want the additional shared revenue a better NBA Finals would generate.

That’s a plausible path to 20 yes votes and something we should take seriously.

Knicks owner James Dolan: Jeff Hornacek ‘way behind’ in dealing with modern players

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The Knicks fired Jeff Hornacek as soon as they returned to New York following their season-ending win in Cleveland.

Then, they really unloaded on the coach.

Knicks owner James Dolan, via Larry Brooks of the New York Post:

“I think Hornacek had the same kind of issue that Phil did in that he didn’t grasp how different the players are now in the way they think and deal with management and the coaches,” Dolan said. “I think he was way behind on that.

“But I think Jeff is a good coach and he’ll do well when he’s hired by another team.”

“The old-style coaching doesn’t work,” Dolan said. “A coach who tries to do everything himself isn’t going to be successful.

Knicks president Steve Mills, via Marc Berman of the New York Post:

“I think just as we observed the team, there were a lot of things that we just thought would be better at, from attention to detail to player accountability, and Jeff did a good job in some areas. In some areas he could have done a bit of a better job.

Knicks general manager Scott Perry, via Berman:

“The evaluation of Jeff for 82 games, we evaluated everything — practices to games to ability to connect with guys. I think we need to be better in that area and with adjustments. It’s something we could be better at with the expectations we have for our next coach.”

“We could have been a little bit better in situational basketball,” Perry said. “We understand the roster as much as anybody. In terms of consistency, we fell a little bit short in that area.”

This is atypical candor about a fired coach. Most teams just thank him and move on.

But I appreciate it. Don’t we all want to know more of what NBA teams are thinking internally? This is revelatory.

That said, I don’t blindly trust the Dolan/Mills/Perry triumvirate. The Knicks have misevaluated too many people for too long. This more about knowing how they viewed things than knowing this is how things are.

Frank Isola of the New York Daily News:

According to a source, Dolan last season sent an email to Hornacek saying he was disappointed in him for not buying fully into the triangle offense. This took place sometime around the All Star break. So we know that as recently as last season Dolan, who loves to tell you he’s not involved, was actually pushing Phil Jackson’s offense down Hornacek’s throat in a not-so-subtle way.

Dolan had Phil’s back. And then on Wednesday, Dolan trashed Jackson for being out of touch. Man, life comes at you fast.

To be fair, Suns general manager Ryan McDonough also cited Hornacek’s lack of connection with his players when firing him. This will be something Hornacek must answer for if he pursues future head-coaching jobs. Hornacek feuded with Marcus Morris in Phoenix and Joakim Noah, Kyle O'Quinn and reportedly Kristaps Porzingis in New York.

Not that the Knicks set up Hornacek to succeed. They didn’t.

Now, they must find a coach who will perform better in all the areas they just criticized Hornacek for. That’ll be more difficult than criticizing him on the way out the door.