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.   

51Q: Will we see what the Trail Blazers saw in Evan Turner?

CAMBRIDGE, MA - JULY 27:  NBA player Evan Turner of the Portland Trail Blazers speaks to members of AS Roma during a friendly match against the Boston Bolts at Ohiri Field on July 27, 2016 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past few weeks, and through the start of the NBA season, we tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season.

Last season, Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey received the most Executive of the Year first-place votes.

This offseason, he signed Evan Turner to a four-year, $70 million contract.

How could someone who engineered such a smart 2015 offseason – nailing move after move – give Turner so much money? He earned the benefit of the doubt by rebuilding on the fly without LaMarcus Aldridge, but Olshey spent a lot of his capital (and Paul Allen’s money) on a mid-level, seemingly ill-fitting small forward.

Is this another example of Olshey outfoxing us, or did he finally get tripped up?

I expected brilliance from Portland this summer given Olshey’s successful retool around Damian Lillard last year, when Aldridge bolted. Olshey traded Nicolas Batum for Noah Vonleh and Gerald Henderson, signed Al-Farouq Aminu (four years, $30 million) and Ed Davis (three years, $20 million) to team-friendly contracts, traded a late first-rounder for Mason Plumlee, practically got Maurice Harkless for free and carved out bigger roles for C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe and Meyers Leonard by letting Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo walk. The Batum trade is the only move that’s not a clear victory, but Batum was headed into unrestricted free agency and might have left Portland empty-handed, and the 21-year-old Vonleh could still develop.

Not only did the younger Trail Blazers come together far more quickly than expected, winning 44 games and a playoff series, they did so under budget. Portland had enough cap space at the trade deadline to extract a first-rounder for eating Anderson Varejao‘s contract – the type of move usually reserved for tankers like the 76ers.

The 2016 offseason brought even more possibilities. Thanks to low cap holds for Crabbe, Leonard and Harkless, the Blazers were flush with cap space.

And they spent a big chunk of it on… Evan Turner.

Turner is an alright player, but I don’t think he’s worth $17.5 million per year in a vacuum – and Portland presents a tough fit.

His strengths – passing for his position, mid-range shot creation – matter less on team where the ball is frequently in Lillard’s or McCollum’s hands. Portland shouldn’t take the ball from Lillard and McCollum to give Turner more touches, either.

When off the ball, Turner’s poor outside shooting is a liability to efficient scoring and floor spacing. He made 24% of his 3-pointers last season and 30% for his career. Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts believes Turner will shoot better in Portland, but that optimism is usually wishful thinking. For his part, Turner sounds more focused on the mid-range, where he’s not efficient enough to take shots from the typical looks generated by Stotts’ space-strong scheme.

Portland could use defensive help, and Turner is fine at that end. But he’s not the stopper his 6-foot-7 frame would suggest. He’s just not quick or bouncy enough to stay with many opponents.

It just doesn’t add up – unless Olshey knows what he’s doing, which he might. After impressing so much in his other dealings, Olshey has put the spotlight on Turner this season – with the rest of us watching to see just how Turner will add $70 million of value to the Trail Blazers.

Giannis Antetokounmpo tells terrible joke at Bucks media day (video)

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 16:  Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks reacts to his foul during a 103-90 Los Angeles Clippers win at Staples Center on December 16, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Thankfully, Giannis Antetokounmpo has a lucrative career and doesn’t need  to make ends meet through stand-up comedy:

Mitch McGary: ‘I messed up in my career in college, and now I’m kind of messing up my career here’

2014 Oklahoma City Thunder Media Day
Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images
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Mitch McGary declared for the NBA draft rather than serve a year-long suspension for marijuana in college. The Thunder big man was suspended twice – for a total of 15 games – this offseason for violating the NBA’s marijuana policy.

Oklahoma City has 16 players, one more than the regular-season roster limit, and McGary appears to be the odd man out. He has one guaranteed season remaining on his contract, but his overall behavior hurts his chances of getting a second shot with another NBA team.

In this backdrop, McGary tries to make a case for himself.

McGary, via Erik Horne of The Oklahoman:

“I would love to stay here and play here with new guys coming in; it would be very tough for me to get minutes here,” McGary said. “I’d love to stay with this organization. This is hands down like the best organization that had treats for you, cares for you, does everything for you, pretty much hand-feeds you. I’ve known that from guys around the league have said this is the organization to be with, so obviously I don’t want to leave.”

“If someone is willing to give me an opportunity to play, I just want to play ball, that’s it. Enough with the shenanigans. Hey, I messed up in my career in college, and now I’m kind of messing up my career here. But I’ve always gotten over that adversity and that’s what makes me a stronger person, and I think I’ve grown from this, even though it’s only been a few weeks since I’ve gotten handed the other suspension.

Said McGary: “Everybody is going to make mistakes. But I just don’t want to let this define me as a player.

McGary has been suspended for at least 720 minutes (15 games). He has played 557 minutes in the NBA.

Brett Brown assures Nerlens Noel he’ll get paid if he plays inside

Boston Celtics Vs. Philadelphia 76ers Exhibition Game
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As Nerlens Noel pointed out, the 76ers have too many young, talented big men – which is the biggest reason Philadelphia probably won’t extend Noel’s contract by the Oct. 31 deadline.

That has to be a little disappointing for Noel, who didn’t ask to be drafted by a franchise more preoccupied with asset accumulation than producing a winning fit and has an injury that lends itself to taking guaranteed money now.

But this isn’t Noel’s last chance to get paid, and his coach doesn’t want him sulking while battling Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid for minutes and space.

Brett Brown, via Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

Brown wants him to focus on running rim to rim, scoring around the basket and being a defensive stopper.

“Personally, I don’t care if he ever makes a jump shot for the rest of his life,” the coach said. “I mean that. That’s not how his bread is buttered.”

“Nerlens has got elite gifts,” Brown said. “He’s as athletic and quick off the floor and quick rim to rim as anyone that I’ve coached, as any big man in the league.”

“Do your job and we will help you,” he added. “The league will reward that. The 76ers will reward that. He will be rewarded for playing like that.”

Brown is right. There’s no better way for Noel to earn money than by playing well. That means playing energetic defense, protecting the rim and hounding guards on hedges, and actively seeking easy looks near the basket on the other end.

If the 76ers trade him or Okafor before the season, Noel might even still get an extension. Absent that, he’ll head into restricted free agency.

If he’s coming off a year of playing to his strengths, it will be much more lucrative.