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.   

Hornets future unclear with 4 starters becoming free agents

MIAMI, FL - MAY 01: Kemba Walker #15 of the Charlotte Hornets takes the floor during Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on May 1, 2016 in Miami, Florida. 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 Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – The Charlotte Hornets have a major decision ahead of them this offseason – keep the core group from a team that tied for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference or revamp the roster by adding new pieces.

With four starters set to become free agents and only seven players under contract next season, the Hornets have the flexibility to make major changes if they so choose.

Coach Steve Clifford said Monday he’d prefer to coach the same group again, but acknowledged it might be difficult to re-sign everyone given the NBA salary cap.

Much of the Hornets future could be predicated on what happens with unrestricted free agent Nicolas Batum, whom Clifford acknowledged will be the team’s No. 1 priority in free agency. Batum averaged a career-high 14.9 points along with 6.1 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game for the Hornets during the regular season, although his production was limited in the postseason due to a foot injury. The Hornets lost in seven games to the Miami Heat on Sunday.

Batum could command a max contract this offseason due to the increase in the NBA salary cap. And while it is debatable if he’s worth that much, Clifford knows he’s a valuable cog in the starting lineup.

When asked if he wants to return next year, Batum said, “Why not?,” saying this past season was one of the most enjoyable of his eight-year NBA career. He liked the freedom Clifford gave him and the idea of being one of first two options on offense.

“I want to talk to (the Hornets) first, for sure,” Batum said of free agency. “July 1 will be a crazy day, but will Charlotte be my first call? Yes.”

However, Batum indicated he only wants to return if the Hornets make an effort to bring back the nucleus of this year’s team.

He said the chemistry of this year’s Hornets team was outstanding, on and off the court.

Along with Batum, three others starters – Courtney Lee, Marvin Williams and Al Jefferson – are also unrestricted free agents. Backup Jeremy Lin is almost certainly going to opt out of the final year of his contract given he has outperformed the $2 million salary he’s set to make in 2016-17.

“If you asked me would I be interested in coming back, there’s no question in my mind – it’s a resounding yes,” Lin said. “I would be very interested in coming back.”

Lee, Williams and Jefferson also indicated their desire to return to the Hornets as well, but it remains unclear if general manager Rich Cho can – or even wants to – bring everyone back for another run at the playoffs or if he’ll look in a different direction to upgrade.

Cho is expected to meet with the media later this week.

“I feel like any time, especially in pro sports, when you keep a group of guys together for three or four years, whatever the case may be, you can do some really good things,” Williams said.

A look at what the Hornets face this offseason:

BIGGEST NEED: Rebounding. The Hornets rebounded well in the regular season, but Clifford said the team’s struggles on the glass in Games 6 and 7 against the Heat was a big reason it was ousted from the playoffs.

GOOD NEWS: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who missed all but seven games due to shoulder injuries, is expected back next season. The former No. 2 overall pick in the NBA draft is considered the team’s top defensive player.

BAD NEWS: By virtue of making the playoffs, the Hornets don’t have a lottery pick and may not have a chance to find the dominant offensive player that Clifford so desperately covets in the draft.

TOUGH ENDING: Kemba Walker said while losing to Miami in Game 7 was disappointing, the season is “one to be proud of.” Walked add, “At one point we were 17-20 and then we finished the season with 48 wins. I don’t think anybody expected that. Nobody even thought we would make the playoffs, so for us to force a Game 7 against a really good team like Miami.”

ZELLER AT CENTER: The Hornets plan to stick with Cody Zeller at center next season – instead of power forward – but Clifford said he still wants the 7-footer to work on his outside shot.

Doc Rivers says he doesn’t plan to break up Clippers’ core

Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers leans on the scorer's table during the second half in Game 5 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers, Wednesday, April 27, 2016, in Los Angeles. The Trail Blazers won 108-98. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
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Once again the Clippers had an impressive 53-win season where they were sixth in the NBA in offensive and defensive rating — something done without Blake Griffin for large stretches of it — but it ended early in the playoffs. This time the reason was a legitimate one — Chris Paul and Griffin were lost to injuries — but the results are the same.

Is it time for a major overhaul in Los Angeles?

Not if you ask coach/GM Doc Rivers. Here is what he said on Monday, via Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times and Dan Woike of the Orange County Register.

Those free agents Rivers likes are key bench guys: Jamal Crawford, Luc Mbah a Moute and Jeff Green. In the summer of 2017, Rivers and everyone else on the planet expects Paul and Griffin to opt out.

While the Clippers are good there is one big problem — Golden State is better and not going anywhere. They loom over the West like Everest. And that’s not to mention the Spurs will continue to be good and, depending on what happens with their key free agent, Oklahoma City is a very good team. The top of the West is stacked, and it’s hard to see the Clippers climbing out of it as currently constructed. They are in a loop where they are good but not good enough.

Changing that is not simple.

There are plenty of rumors that the Clippers will seriously listen to offers for Griffin this summer, and that they laid the groundwork for it at the deadline. But with Griffin showing some age and wanting a long max contract a year from now, how much are teams going to give up to get him if they could lose him in free agency? And will those teams want to keep him at that price in 2017? While the Clippers may be open to a deal they are a win-now team that can’t just get prospects and picks back for him, they need to get better now. That deal may not be available.

The Clippers most likely will come back with their core next season and make one more run at it, just because better options will not present themselves.

But the Clippers will be out there looking for a blockbuster.

Back to the drawing board for Thunder against Spurs

SAN ANTONIO,TX - APRIL 30: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs scores against the Oklahoma Thunder during game one of the Western Conference Semifinals for the 2016 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center on April 30, 2016 in San Antonio, Texas. 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 Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
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There was a possession where LaMarcus Aldridge grabbed a defense rebound, outlet-passed to Manu Ginobili, who then turned and fired a 70-foot strike to Kawhi Leonard for a dunk.

The whole play took about 3 seconds. And the ball never touched the floor.

Not everything came that easily for San Antonio in the opener of the Spurs’ Western Conference semifinal series against Oklahoma City. It only seemed that way, as they rolled to a 124-92 win and will now look to take a 2-0 lead when the series resumes in San Antonio on Monday night.

“Now we’ve got to get back to the drawing board and see what we’ve got to do better to get ready for Game 2,” Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook said. “Come out and play with a different mindset.”

That would be a start.

The three worst playoff losses of Kevin Durant and Westbrook’s time together in Oklahoma City all have one thing in common – they all happened in San Antonio.

The Spurs won by 35 on May 21, 2014, followed that up eight nights later with a 28-point win and now added a 32-pointer for good measure. And the Game 1 margin was the biggest defeat Thunder coach Billy Donovan has dealt with in more than 17 years.

It was Feb. 10, 1999 – 660 games ago for Donovan – when his Florida Gators lost 91-56 to Tennessee. That Gator team recovered and won four of its next five games, and if the Thunder are going to get out of this series they’ll have to do something similar.

“I think the guys in that locker room are pretty competitive,” Donovan said. “I think they’re going to want to come back and respond.”

The key for the Thunder in Game 2 will be stopping Aldridge. They had no answers for him in Game 1; Aldridge scored 38 points and didn’t even play 30 minutes.

When the Spurs acquired him, it was evident that San Antonio would again be a major title favorite. It’s working out exactly as San Antonio planned.

“I don’t know an exact date,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said when asked how long it took Aldridge to get comfortable with the Spurs. “It was a progression. Any new player in a new program, it’s a progression. It takes a little bit of time to get comfortable with the system and secondly, with teammates – who does what, when, where, how, all that kind of thing. It was just a steady kind of improvement and recognition as the year went on.”

If players get asked to play big minutes Monday, that shouldn’t be an issue. Game 3 isn’t until Friday night in Oklahoma City.

A look at Game 2:

Thunder at Spurs, San Antonio leads 1-0. 9:30 p.m., TNT

It’s been long established that Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are one of the league’s all-time trios. But the sheer margin by which they’re separating themselves from some of the others on that list is getting to be staggering.

Consider:

Magic Johnson, Michael Cooper and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won 600 games together for the Los Angeles Lakers. Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish won 632 in their days as Boston Celtics teammates.

It took a long time for those numbers to be passed. It’s going to take a real long time before anyone even comes near what Duncan, Parker and Ginobili have done – now with 700 wins together after Saturday’s Game 1 triumph.

Everything worked for the Spurs in the opener. They had 39 assists and all but one of their players who got minutes had at least one – the exception being Andre Miller. And the Spurs are now 43-1 at home this season, 34-0 when Duncan is in the lineup.

And for all the adjustments Oklahoma City will make, figuring out how to get better against Leonard’s defense probably should be foremost. Leonard spent much of Game 1 guarding Westbrook, helping force him into a 5 for 19 night from the floor. Meanwhile, Leonard and Aldridge combined to make 28 of 36 shots.

NBA report admits referees missed Raptors’ DeRozan’s foul on Pacers’ Mahinmi

TORONTO, ON - MAY 01:  DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors is congratulated by Paul George #13 of the Indiana Pacers following the final whistle of Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 01, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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It was one of the most discussed plays in the final minutes of Toronto’s thrilling if sloppy Game 7 win against Indiana. The Pacers were down three with less than 20 seconds left (after Frank Vogel had taken a poor timeout messing up a four-on-two transition chance) and ran a play for a quick two that resulted in Paul George driving on the right side and Bismack Biyombo coming over to help. George could have gotten off a shot but instead threw a lob to Ian Mahinmi at the rim.

Except that DeMar DeRozan can in and fouled Mahinmi, pushing him out of the way. The ball flew over Mahinmi’s head and became a turnover on what was Indiana’s last decent offensive possession of the game.

Monday the league admitted DeRozan committed a foul, saying:

DeRozan (TOR) makes body contact with Mahinmi (IND), dislodging him and affecting his ability to catch the alley-oop pass.

This, of course, changes nothing.

There were a number of other questionable calls in this game, but the league said every other one in the last two minutes of the game was correct, save for the fact Myles Turner should have been called for a foul on Biyombo with 2.6 seconds left, but that would not have changed the outcome. The NBA’s report does not look at close calls outside the final two minutes, such as Paul George’s offensive charging foul on DeRozan with 3:51 left.

Ultimately, it’s not the referees that decided this game. If Pacers fans want to be frustrated, they need to look at the fact their team let Toronto grab the offensive rebound on 35 percent of their missed shots, and the seven George turnovers (including a couple of key ones late). Those are the things that turned the game.