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.   

Thunder star Russell Westbrook scores 45, leads 25-point comeback against Jazz

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
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The Thunder lost three straight games, fell behind by 25 in the second half at home and looked as if they had no interest in returning to Utah.

Then, Russell Westbrook reminded everyone why he’s a superstar.

Westbrook is a singular force who can take over a game and rally his teammates – not a liability who makes everyone around him worse. His confidence and determination in the face of calamity were invaluable tonight. He kept attacking, and as shots started to fall, he and his teammates massively increased their defensive intensity.

The result: A 107-99 Game 5 win over the Jazz that looked highly improbable 21 game minutes before it ended. But Westbrook (who finished with 45 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists) singlehandedly outscored Utah in that final stretch.

The Thunder are hardly out of the woods yet. They still trail 3-2 in the series with Game 6 Friday in Utah. Teams with home-court advantage in a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6 win it just 37% of the time. Those teams win the series just 26% of the time.

But thanks to Westbrook, Paul George (34 points) and plain all-around defensive effort, Oklahoma City still has a shot. At minimum, the Thunder won’t send George into unrestricted free agency with four straight losses.

Not that Oklahoma City erased all concerns.

Rudy Gobert devoured the Thunder’s offense in the paint – at least while he could avoid the foul trouble. Utah was +7 in Gobert’s 30 minutes and -8 in the 18 minutes he sat.

The Thunder made most of their comeback with Carmelo Anthony on the bench. They continued to play well once he returned in the fourth quarter, but by then, the Jazz had lost all rhythm.

Utah – led by Jae Crowder‘s 27 points – looks deeper. Anthony was still Oklahoma City’s third-leading scorer with just seven points.

And the Thunder haven’t won in Salt Lake City this series.

But they’ll make another trip there. Considering where this game and series looked midway through the third quarter tonight, that’s a heck of an accomplishment.

Another massive third quarter lifts Rockets past Timberwolves into second round

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We saw this movie just a couple of nights before, but Rockets fans love the ending and would gladly pay to see it 12 more times this postseason.

Much like Game 4, the Rockets were down at the half in Game 5 Wednesday after having played disinterested defense and with cold shooting from their stars (James Harden and Chris Paul combined to go 3-of-16 from the floor). Minnesota was up 59-55 and had hope.

Then the third quarter the Rockets flipped the switch. Again.

Harden had 15 points in the third — matching the Timberwolves as a team. Minnesota started to double Harden and take the ball out of his hands (especially late in the shot clock), but he often moved the rock and it led to open threes — the Rockets were 6-of-10 from three in the quarter. Houston won the third 30-15, not as overwhelming as the 50-point quarter the game before but once again enough to comfortably pull away from Minnesota and cruise in for a 122-104 win.

With that, the Rockets win the series 4-1 and now await the winner of the Utah vs. Oklahoma City series.

In that series, the Rockets will need to play with more consistent focus than they brought against the Timberwolves — they can’t just play a couple of good halves in the next series and expect that to be enough. Unlike Minnesota, those teams in the next round will make Houston pay a steep price for a lack of focus.

Houston got a massive night from Clint Capela, who led the Rockets with 26 points and 15 rebounds, running the rim hard in transition and making plays inside while the rest of the Rockets launched threes over the top.

Harden finished with 24 points and 12 assists, and Eric Gordon had 19 off the bench in the win.

Minnesota had 23 points from Karl-Anthony Towns and 17 from an energized Jeff Teague.

For the Timberwolves, a team with elite young talent, this was a glimpse of what it will take to reach the heights they envision. This was a good step — the franchise’s first trip to the playoffs since 2004 is not to be diminished. It matters. But there are higher levels this team can attain. Defensively they have to be better, offensively they need to feed Towns more and play to their strengths better. It’s a work in progress.

Houston just showed them where they want to be.

Hawks, coach Mike Budenholzer agree to part ways

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This was expected.

It was pretty obvious Mike Budenholzer didn’t want to stick around and lose a lot of games with the Atlanta Hawks as they rebuild the next few years, especially after he had been stripped of his GM powers. Budenholzer went well down the road with the Phoenix Suns about their open coaching position before thinking better of it. Since then he has set up a meeting with the Knicks about their coaching vacancy, a job he reportedly wants badly.

At this point there was no need for the Hawks and Budenholzer to continue their sham marriage, so they have agreed to amicably separate, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and since confirmed by the Hawks.

Budenholzer said this to Wojnarowski of ESPN:

“I am grateful for the five years that I spent as coach of the Atlanta Hawks, and will always cherish the incredible contributions, commitment and accomplishments of the players that I was fortunate enough to work with here,” Budenholzer told ESPN on Wednesday night. “From ownership to management, support staff to the community, I’ll look back with great pride on what we were able to achieve together with the Hawks.”

For Budenholzer, the long-time Spurs assistant and a strong Xs and Os coach, look for him to both push for the Knicks job and be in the running if/when the Milwaukee Bucks job opens up whenever their season ends. In both cases he’s a fit — those are teams that need a culture and system reset, and Budenholzer proved he can bring that to Atlanta (that was a good team before they let Al Horford and Paul Millsap walk for nothing).

With Atlanta, they likely will turn to a top assistant coach who will get a chance to develop young players on that team (and not cost Atlanta as much as an established coach). Stephen Silas of the Hornets is a rumored name, but there are others.

LeBron James overrules controversial finish with game-winning 3-pointer (video)

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LeBron James‘ turnover with the game tied late looked like a bad call. LeBron’s block of Victor Oladipo on the ensuing possession looked like a goaltend.

Did the Cavaliers get robbed of a crucial possession? Did the Pacers get robbed of two go-ahead points?

LeBron nullified those questions with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Cleveland a 98-95 win and a 3-2 series lead. The game-winner capped a great game by LeBron (44 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists) and moves the Cavs to the verge of advancing.

When a team with home-court advantage can close out a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6, it has 52% of the time. It has won the series 92% of the time.

The odds are even better with LeBron. LeBron has won 11 straight closeout games, nine of them on the road. He’ll have another opportunity Friday with Game 6 in Indiana.