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’s Enes Kanter: ‘I don’t like Golden State, so I want Cleveland to win the championship’

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
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When Kevin Durant left the Thunder for the Warriors, Oklahoma City center Enes Kanter jumped fully on board the pro-Russell Westbrook, anti-Durant bandwagon.

That ride doesn’t stop with his former teammate facing the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals.

Kanter, via Fox Sports Radio:

I don’t like Golden State, so I want Cleveland to win the championship.

Kanter never misses an opportunity to take a shot at the Warriors – except when Zaza Pachulia laid out Westbrook and stood over him.

Dwane Casey: Masai Ujiri assured me I’ll return as Raptors coach

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Galit Rodan
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Raptors president Masai Ujiri didn’t mince words at his season-ending press conference: Toronto’s playing style had become unacceptable.

It sounded as if he might have been planting the seed for firing Dwane Casey.

But the coach says Ujiri assured him he’d return next season.

Casey on TSN (hat tip: Blake Murphy of Raptors Republic):

I think people mistook Masai’s comments for that. We had a good meeting before that meeting, and we’ve had meeting since then – with all the coaches – as far as plans for next year and the culture reset, which I think every corporation and every team should do periodically to get the culture back in focus and that type of thing. It’s not like we’re in total chaos or anything like that. It’s just good to have roles defined, things we can do better in each of our roles.

We’re doing some good things and some things we can do much better with. And that’s what we’ll plan on doing this summer and also this fall, when we go to training camp.

The Raptors’ offensive rating has dropped from regular season to the playoffs by 8.5, 7.2 and 11.7 the last three years. Their isolation-heavy style is just easier to stop when defenses see it in consecutive games.

The big question: What does Toronto do about that?

It’d be difficult to move on from the two players most responsible for the style, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. DeRozan is signed long-term, and if the Raptors don’t re-sign Lowry, who’ll be an unrestricted free agent this summer, they won’t have the cap space to land a comparable replacement.

The best bet is probably changing schemes from the bench and hoping the players can adjust – and maybe Casey can handle that responsibility. Hiring a new coach obviously would been the clearest path to a shake up, but maybe Casey can evolve. I’d want to see a plan from him before committing to keeping him, but maybe Ujiri got that.

Casey has played a key role in Toronto’s improvement, it’s nice to give him an opportunity to coach differently before hiring a different coach.

Kevin Durant: Don’t blame me for Nets, Magic and other teams stinking

AP Photo/Adam Hunger
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For the first time in NBA history, the NBA Finals will feature the same matchup for three straight years.

Among those responsible: Kevin Durant, who sunk the title-contending Thunder and gave the Warriors an even stronger grip on the Western Conference.

But don’t blame him for a lack of parity league-wide.

Durant, via Sam Amick of USA Today:

“Like I’m the reason why (expletive) Orlando couldn’t make the playoffs for five, six years in a row?” he said. “Am I the reason that Brooklyn gave all their picks to Boston? Like, am I the reason that they’re not that good (laughs). I can’t play for every team, so the truth of the matter is I left one team. It’s one more team that you probably would’ve thought would’ve been a contender. One more team. I couldn’t have made the (entire) East better. I couldn’t have made everybody (else) in the West better.”

Some teams will always be better than others. The Magic, Nets and more were mis-managed before Durant left Oklahoma City.

But I’m not even sure this is the right debate.

Does the NBA even have a parity problem to blame on Durant?

Cleveland and Golden State aren’t traditional powers. Before 2015, the Warriors hadn’t won a title since 1975 and the Cavaliers had never won one. Their ascension is proof of parity – that sound management and a little luck can lift teams from the basement.

Report: Clippers take Chris Paul-to-Spurs rumor ‘very seriously’

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Want to laugh off that Chris Paul-to-Spurs rumor?

The Clippers aren’t joining you.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

The Clippers should be concerned. Losing Paul would unravel their entire foundation, dropping them from the fringe of championship contention to out of the title picture completely. It could even help usher out Blake Griffin, who will also be an unrestricted free agent this summer. (To be fair, Paul leaving could also help convince Griffin to stay.)

About a month ago, the Clippers reportedly expected Paul to stay. They even reportedly struck a verbal agreement with him to re-sign before that. But they can’t officially sign him until July, and that leaves the door open for him to leave.

The Clippers should be heartened by their advantages – a prime market and a projected max offer of $205 million over five years.

The most another team projects to be able to offer is $152 million over four years, and San Antonio will have a hard time doing that. Even if they trim their roster to Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Danny Green and Tony Parker, the Spurs would still have to shed two of those players to clear max cap space.

So, never say never, but the Clippers’ concern might be rooted more in the dire consequences of Paul leaving rather than the likelihood of it.