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: Spurs, Clippers, Suns, Timberwolves, Knicks, Heat have proposed Kyrie Irving trades

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Kyrie Irving requested a trade – reportedly ideally to the Knicks, Heat, Spurs or Timberwolves.

All those teams – plus the Clippers and Suns – have made offers to the Cavaliers.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

So far, these are among the teams who’ve made offers to the Cavaliers for Irving, league sources tell ESPN: The San Antonio Spurs, LA Clippers, Phoenix Suns, Minnesota Timberwolves, New York Knicks and Miami Heat. There were approximately 20 teams that inquired with Cleveland upon the news of Irving’s trade request, league sources said, but far fewer have registered legitimate proposals.

The Cavaliers want a package that resembles the 2011 Denver Nuggets-New York Knicks deal for Carmelo Anthony — young players, win-now veterans and draft picks, league sources said. For new general manager Koby Altman, this is a textbook way to open trade discussions. But for now, most Irving suitors are using the Minnesota Timberwolves-Chicago Bulls trade model for Jimmy Butler, a scaled-down model of Melo’s rich return of assets.

The Miami Heat are willing to part with Goran Dragic and Justise Winslow as centerpieces for an Irving trade, league sources said.

Altman and the Cavaliers haven’t been overzealous on the phones. They’ve been deliberate in returning calls and canvassing for offers, trying to create the illusion that there’s no urgency, no desperation.

A few important things to keep in mind: This isn’t necessarily a complete list of teams that have proposed a trade for Irving. These offers aren’t necessarily reasonable. The Cavs can make offers themselves.

But if Cleveland is concerned about not looking desperate and therefore not proposing trades itself, which teams have made proposals takes on greater importance. Going through the known offering teams:

  • The Heat are reportedly pessimistic/uninterested. Goran Dragic and Justise Winslow shouldn’t be enough. I’m not sure what else Miami can offer to make up the difference.
  • As long as Carmelo Anthony remains set on the Rockets and the Knicks won’t trade Kristaps Porzingis, New York will have a near-impossible time forming a suitable offer for Irving – unless the Knicks can re-route players acquired for Anthony. That would get complicated.
  • The Spurs lack assets beyond Kawhi Leonard, and their next-best player – LaMarcus Aldridge – would exacerbate a logjam with Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love and LeBron James in Cleveland.
  • The Timberwolves make a lot of sense on paper, but they’re still negotiating a contract extension with Andrew Wiggins. While that might actually be a precursor to an Irving trade, Wiggins finalizing an extension would signal Minnesota is going another direction. The Timberwolves trading for Irving would almost have to include Wiggins.
  • An Eric Bledsoe-and-Josh Jackson package for Irving seems about fair, but the Suns are reportedly refusing to include Jackson. Phoenix has a wide enough array of other assets that a deal could still be struck, though.
  • The Clippers haven’t been mentioned much, but here’s a theoretical starting point for an Irving trade:

The Nuggets’ Carmelo Anthony trade has long been held up as the gold standard for dealing a star. But what an indictment of the Bulls that their Jimmy Butler trade is now viewed as the reference point for teams low-balling teams with stars. Chicago deserves it.

The Cavaliers just have to sort through these offers – and maybe eventually propose a few of their own – to ensure they emerge looking more like Denver than Chicago.

Report: Kyrie Irving’s has tampered down partying, boosting trade stock

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Chauncey Billups – who thinks like an NBA executive in that the Cavaliers offered him a job running their front office – called Kyrie Irving‘s trade request “alarming.” Billups found it incomprehensible a player would want to leave LeBron James and Cleveland, which has reached three straight NBA Finals and won a title.

Maybe Irving’s trade request reflects poorly on the Cavs. After all, Billups declined their offer.

But Billups also clearly took issue with Irving. What kind of player wants to leaving all that winning?

Any team considering trading for him is investigating that question and many others.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Truth be told, the Cavaliers trade talks have been buoyed with teams getting back better, if not perfect, reports on Irving’s growth, league sources said. Among the consensus: Irving has a history of late nights and partying, but there’s no trail of missed practices, bloodshot eyes or hungover shootarounds. Most intel has come back that he has curbed those tendencies into his mid-20s, picking his spots more wisely. As a teammate, Irving can be moody, but most agree he’s ultimately invested. He hasn’t always loved deferring to James on the Cavaliers, or Kevin Durant in USA Basketball. This is the Kobe Bryant inside of him, and that’s part of the DNA that can be a blessing and a curse. Teams believe he’s smart, savvy and, above all, they believe he’s a winner.

“Go back through every team he’s played on, talked to people involved — or just study the results — and it doesn’t matter whether it was high school, college, USA development and national teams, and in the NBA — and you see a pattern of him impacting winning,” one Eastern Conference executive said. “There are questions about those first couple years before LeBron came back, but I think there were a lot of issues around there that were out of his control. That said, he didn’t always help himself then either.”

Before LeBron returned, the Cavaliers went 21-45, 24-58 and 33-49 with Irving. He’s a winner? Yes, maybe.

There’s a difference between a player “impacting winning” and winning. A single player can control whether he impacts winning – making individual plays that help his team and limiting errors that hurt. He can’t control whether he wins. That requires enough of his teammates to impact winning, and many of Irving’s in Cleveland didn’t. It can be difficult to separate a player’s individual contributions from overall team success, but that’s the job of an NBA executive. Teams are trading for Irving, not the 2013-14 Cavs. It seems the verdict is in: Irving is not being blamed for those losing seasons.

Irving is smart and driven. He parties late into the night? Many players do, especially when they’re younger. There apparently isn’t reason to be particularly concerned about Irving.

He has learned what it takes to succeed on the biggest stages. Though he has clearly disliked deferring to LeBron, Irving did it anyway – at a championship level. That’s a sign of maturity.

Irving clearly isn’t the same player or person he was a few years ago, and though that’s the only timeframe he led a team, his growth demands viewing a bigger picture.

It seems potential trade partners are doing that and mostly liking what they’ve found.

Retired from the NBA or not, Tim Duncan would kick your a** in an MMA fight

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Tim Duncan has retired from the NBA.

But if you think that means he’s not still wearing Punisher T-shirts and is not still working out and staying in shape, you should watch the video above.

San Antonio-based kickboxing trainer Jason Echols posted a Facebook video of him and Duncan sparing, and the 41-year-old five-time NBA champ is still kicking a**. Sure, this sparring is at half speed, but if Duncan were going all out he could do some real damage.

He’s probably even got a move called the bank shot in his repertoire.

(Hat tip Eye on Basketball)

Watch LeBron James walk over to scorer’s table at son’s AAU game to correct score

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I feel LeBron on this one. I have two daughters who play on club soccer teams and I get more frustrated, angrier at referees, and generally am far more emotionally invested their youth games than any NBA game. Over the years I have learned a lot, both from and saw it echoed in Coach David Thorpe’s book, about how to be supportive to them and their experiences, not make it about my feelings and wishes.

But sometimes you need to step in.

LeBron James is in Las Vegas and so far all the stories have been about how he is working out with Derrick Rose, Eric Bledsoe, Chris Paul, and what does that all mean (nothing, NBA guys often work out together all summer, especially teammates and guys who share an agent). But he’s also there for the AAU Adidas Uprising tournament where his son is playing.

And when LeBron saw the score was wrong, he went over to the scorer’s table at a time out to tell them.

I love the way the scorer’s wave him off, like they would any parent who walks up and complains.

Then they corrected the score, because LeBron was right. You knew he would be, the man has an eidetic memory about basketball.