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.   

Report: Kings to interview Patrick Ewing for coaching job

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 11: Assistant coach Patrick Ewing of the Charlotte Hornets looks on in the first half against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden on April 11, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. 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 Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
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The Kings’ coaching search is the definition of wide ranging. So far names that have come up in the search are Mark Jackson, Nate McMillan, Vinny Del Negro, Mike Woodson, Sam Mitchell, and Kevin McHale (although his level of interest is up for debate). Luke Walton and other big names were called but are now off the board.

You can add Patrick Ewing to that list.

The legendary Knicks big man and current Hornets assistant will get a shot, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Sacramento Kings will interview Charlotte Hornets associate head coach Patrick Ewing for their head coaching vacancy this week, league sources told The Vertical….

What makes Ewing an intriguing candidate for Sacramento officials is his potential ability to command the respect of mercurial All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins, league sources said. Ewing, a Hall of Fame center, has the unique blend of his own physical and playing stature to go with a strong coaching pedigree as part of staffs with Clifford, Stan Van Gundy and Jeff Van Gundy.

The big man connection is obvious, but the real question for Ewing — or whoever gets the Kings job — is how well they can help change the culture of the locker room. It’s going to take a strong coach and some other locker room leaders to give this team a new start as it moves into a new building.

It’s going to be a lot of work, look at what Marco Belinelli said in an interview with Sky Sport Italy, via Sportando.

“There wasn’t a group from the start of the season,” said Belinelli. ‘Karl didn’t want Cousins and Cousins didn’t want Karl as coach. It’s pretty hard to play well in a situation like that. At the beginning it looked like Ranadive was the man calling the shots but then Divac came in, trying to be the peacemaker between Cousins and Karl”.

“I saw some very bad stuff in the locker room,” Belinelli added. ‘Coming from a perfect organization like the Spurs, I was pretty surprised to see stuff like that”.

Heat, in first playoff series win without LeBron James in a decade, look complete, beat Hornets

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) dunks against the Charlotte Hornets in the first half of Game 7 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series, Sunday, May 1, 2016, in Miami. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
AP Photo/Alan Diaz
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As the national anthem played, a tear streaked down Dwyane Wade‘s cheek.

“I knew tonight would be a great moment for these guys,” Wade said. “I felt that we was going to win this game. I knew that our energy and our crowd was going to be enough, and we was going to be prepared. And I was just thinking about how these guys was going to feel after playing a Game 7.”

Pretty darn great.

The Heat beat the Hornets, 106-73, Sunday in the fifth-most lopsided Game 7 in NBA history. Miami – which will face winner of tonight’s Raptors-Pacers Game 7 – won its first playoff series win without LeBron James since 2006.

Pairing Wade with another superstar (Shaquille O’Neal for the 2006 championship) or two (LeBron and Chris Bosh for the 2012 and 2013 titles) has worked. But that option went out the window this season when blood clots sidelined Bosh at the All-Star break for the second straight year.

With Wade’s waning athleticism forcing him to pick his spots more often, he has needed more help than ever. His teammates have provided it.

Hassan Whiteside (10 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks) and Goran Dragic (25 points, six rebounds and four assists) led the way in Game 6.

Whiteside defended at an elite level. The Hornets shot just 2-for-11 in the restricted area with him on the court. I don’t know what’s more stunning – that they shot so poorly or attempted so few close-range shots in 28 minutes. Whiteside struck fear in the paint.

Dragic’s 25 points were his most in seven weeks and one shy of his playoff high. His aggressiveness fueled so much more. Miami’s offensive rating was 120.1 with him on the court.

“That’s the Goran Dragic we all love,” said Wade, who scored 12 points and had lost his last three playoff games when scoring so little. “Just putting so much pressure on the defense, and it allows other guys to just chill out – especially me.”

Wade can’t always carry the Heat – though sometimes he still can – but he remains the face of the franchise. Whether or not his teammates provide enough support almost reflects more on him than it does them. Fortunately for him, they look up to the task of making him look good.

It’s far too early to look ahead to a juicy Heat-Cavaliers conference finals, but Miami should be favored against either Indiana or Toronto.

Yes, it took seven games to vanquish Charlotte, but the Heat outscored the Hornets by 62 points – the third-largest combined margin ever in a seven-game series. The last team to win a seven-game series or a Game 7 by such decisive margins was the 2008 Celtics, who beat the Hawks by 34 in Game 7 to cap a +84 first-round series. Boston went on to win a title that year.

Will Miami follow that path? Probably not, but there’s something to be said about so thoroughly outplaying a difficult-to-beat opponent.

The Hornets were no pushovers – at least until today, when the Heat dominated on the glass and got most loose balls. In this series, Charlotte earned its first three playoff wins since reemerging as the Bobcats in 2004. The Hornets’ first best-of-seven series victory remains elusive and a potentially turbulent offseason awaits, but this group came to play.

Miami was just too good on both ends of the floor.

In the second quarter, Whiteside cut off a Kemba Walker drive, forcing the point guard to give up the ball. Whiteside then rotated to cover Al Jefferson (the type of multiple-contest defense many doubted Whiteside could execute) and emphatically blocked Jefferson’s shot.

The ball went to Dragic, who immediately sped up court. Dragic, who entered the game shooting 37% from the field, spun around Courtney Lee before anyone else could catch up to provide help and made a layup.

Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson, the team’s energetic rookies who had big moments earlier in the series but provided less today, jumped up and down and spun around on the bench. The rest of the team wasn’t far behind in its cheering.

All the while, Wade barely took a few steps forward, remaining back on defense and watching it all unfold in front of him – a starless group of teammates he knew were capable of delivering.

Even without Stephen Curry, adjusting for playoff rotations still favors Warriors over Trail Blazers

Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard, right, drives the ball against Golden State Warriors' Draymond Green (23) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, April 3, 2016, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
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When the Warriors put five players expected to be in the playoff rotation on the floor during the regular season, they outscored opponents by 20.9 points per 100 possessions.

No other team even neared that level with five of its own playoff-rotation players.

The second-place Spurs (+13.1 adjusted net rating) were closer to 10th place than first place.

But Golden State’s supremacy obviously took a hit when Stephen Curry got hurt. How do the Warriors rate without him in the rotation?

As I did before the first round, I’ve used nba wowy! to rank Western Conference playoff teams by net rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating), counting only lineups that include five players in the team’s postseason rotation. Both the regular season and first round factored.

I wrote more about the Thunder’s and Spurs’ adjusted ratings yesterday. The East will come after its second-round series are set.

For now, here’s each Western Conference team’s rating, from the regular season adjusted to only lineups that include five players projected to be in the second-round rotation:

Western Conference

2. San Antonio Spurs

  • Offensive rating: 110.5 to 110.0
  • Defensive rating: 99.4 to 96.1
  • Net rating: +11.1 to +13.9

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

  • Offensive rating: 113.6 to 117.3
  • Defensive rating: 106.0 to 104.6
  • Net rating: +7.6 to +12.7

1. Golden State Warriors

  • Offensive rating: 114.9 to 119.7 to 109.1
  • Defensive rating: 104.1 to 98.8 to 103.8
  • Net rating: +10.8 to +20.9 to +5.3

5. Portland Trail Blazers

  • Offensive rating: 108.9 to 111.0 to 110.3
  • Defensive rating: 108.2 to 107.9 to 107.5
  • Net rating: +0.7 to +3.1 to +2.8

Observations:

  • By this metric, there’s a clear main event and undercard here – at least if the Spurs and Thunder don’t keep playing like they did last night.
  • Golden State obviously takes a big tumble without Curry, but this measure shows the limit of saying the Warriors got outscored by 3.7 points per 100 possessions without Curry during the regular season. Golden State’s other top players – Draymond Green (88%), Klay Thompson (85%), Andrew Bogut (85%), Harrison Barnes (66%) and Andre Iguodala (60%) – played a majority of their minutes with Curry. Put them on the court more in these Curry-less games, and it’ll help.
  • With Curry in the rotation (and Ian Clark and Brandon Rush out), the Warriors’ adjusted offensive/defensing/net ratings shoot right back up into the stratosphere: 119.8/98.7/+21.1. Golden State must just holds its ground until Curry returns. This measure suggests the Warriors can against Portland, especially with home-court advantage also in their favor.

Playoff Preview: Four things to watch in Portland vs. Golden State series

at ORACLE Arena on April 3, 2016 in Oakland, California. 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.
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Portland has wildly exceeded expectations this season, making the playoffs as the five seed and getting past a banged-up Clippers team to the second round. But the NBA does not do Cinderellas well, this will be the end of the road. Here are the four questions we’re asking heading into this series.

1) When will Stephen Curry return? If Portland has a chance in this series, they need to do a lot of damage before the past-and-future MVP returns from his sprained knee. The question is when will that be? Curry is out for Game 1 and has yet to do any on court work, but Steve Kerr would not rule him out for Game 2 on Tuesday, although that may be gamesmanship as much as anything. But after Game 2 the teams are off for four days until the Saturday, May 7, and that may be enough time for him to return. Whenever he does come back, the dynamics change and the Warriors become a much more dangerous, much better team — one Portland can’t handle. The Blazers need to get all the wins early in this series they can.

Which isn’t very easy, Curry or no.

2) How will the Warriors defend Damian Lillard? When Lillard has gone up against his hometown team — he’s from Oakland — he averaged 36.5 points per game this season. Expect Klay Thompson to draw the assignment to cover him at the start of games, but also expect the Warriors to steal a page from the Clippers’ strategy and trap Lillard and C.J. McCollum each time they come off a pick. The idea is to force the ball out of the hands of the two best playmakers and make Al-Farouq Aminu or Maurice Harkless or anyone else beat you. Aminu and Harkless will find the Warriors defense works on a string better than the Clippers and their shots will get contested.

However, most of the time, the Warriors will switch the pick-and-roll, which they usually do (especially when they go small) and Lillard will find Draymond Green in his face. Blazers coach Terry Stotts has to find ways to get Lillard playing downhill off those picks to have a chance.

3) Can the Trail Blazers hit their threes? In Portland’s win over Golden State in the regular season (just after the All-Star break), they put up 137 points and made it rain threes — the Trail Blazers need to do that again. However, the Warriors were one of the better teams in the league at defending the arc this season, holding opponents to 33.2 percent from deep (second best in the league) and allowing the second fewest corner threes (although they are more willing to allow threes above the arc). Portland does not have a good enough defense to stop Golden State consistently even without Curry, they will just have to outscore the Warriors, and to do that it has to rain threes again.

4) How will Portland defend Klay Thompson and Draymond Green? Both of these key Warriors cogs had strong regular seasons against Portland — Green averaged 16 points, 12 rebounds, and 8.8 assists, while Thompson averaged 29.3 points shooting 59.4 percent from three. Obviously, that was with Curry on the floor drawing defenders, but Portland is not exactly known for their lock-down defense. Without Curry, expect Aminu to get a lot of time on Thompson, but that alone is not going to slow him. Also, expect the Warriors to post up Thompson, Shaun Livingston, or anyone else that Lillard and McCollum guard — the hardest part about defending Golden State is there is no place to hide weak defenders. The Warriors will expose the Portland defense.

Prediction: Warriors in 6. And that assumes Curry is out until Game 5, if he is back earlier than that the series likely ends in 5.