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.   

Serge Ibaka, Giannis Antetokounmpo trade massive blocks during Raptors-Bucks (VIDEO)

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Giannis Antetokounmpo is a long dude. So is Toronto Raptors big man Serge Ibaka. The two faced off in Game 6 at the Bradley Center on Thursday night, so it makes sense the two wound up using one of their most impressive physical assets against each other.

Let the battle of length begin!

Via Twitter:

That’s Ibaka blocking the Milwaukee Bucks star on an attempt at the rim, on a dunk no less. That was impressive, no doubt, but just a minute later, it was Antetokounpmo coming through with a big time block on DeMar DeRozan:

But DeRozan got his revenge later in the fourth quarter, throwing down a dunk over the Bucks defense that was perhaps the finger in the wall needed to stop the leak that was Toronto’s disastrous final period.

DeRozan and the Raptors got the last laugh, winning the closeout game on the road, 92-89. Toronto will go on to play the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semi finals.

Should the Trail Blazers go after Pacers star Paul George? CJ McCollum says yes

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The Portland Trail Blazers need to do something drastic this offseason. Fans in Oregon should be expecting something big with a roster of players prime for the trade market and three first round picks in GM Neil Olshey’s pocket for the 2017 NBA Draft.

Who should Portland go after? That is a tough question to answer.

The Blazers are not exactly a huge free agent destination, although the city is changing its reputation toward NBA players in recent years with the help of star players Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, who have fully embraced Oregon’s largest city.

McCollum, in fact, has his own opinion on who the Blazers should go after this summer: Indiana Pacers star Paul George.

Via Twitter:

George, who is under contract for 2017-18 but has a player option for 2018-19, has been rumored to desire playing in Los Angeles. In any case, fans around the league are looking at George as a potential trade candidate.

He would certainly do well on the Blazers, who had a disappointing 41-41 season in 2016-17. After a surprising effort last year, the Trail Blazers were slotted to expand upon their finish in 2016. But a sluggish start from Damian Lillard mixed with one of the worst defensive rosters in the NBA found them battling for the No. 8 seed come the end of the season. Even still, a miraculous stretch of good play after the All-Star Game was what it took for the Blazers to beat out the likes of Denver, Dallas, and Sacramento for the final playoff spot.

We know now that the Blazers were swept by the top-seeded Golden State Warriors, and up here in the Northwest it only solidified the fact Portland needs to get better on the wing.

Last season, Al-Farouq Aminu showed he could shoot a league average percentage from 3-point range, which helped relieve some pressure off Lillard and CJ McCollum. But Aminu regressed to shooting 33 percent from deep in 2017, and although Maurice Harkless did an excellent job as a young starter he’s not yet the kind of dynamic offensive player the Blazers need to be a Top 4 team in the West.

Aminu projects for Portland better as a 4, and with Jusuf Nurkic now anchoring the center position, the goal for Portland will be to strengthen the wing and flesh out the bench.

George would be an excellent get, but the Blazers would need to have the salaries match in any trade with Indiana. Allen Crabbe seems the most likely option, given his RFA match for Portland was a clear move to retain an asset. Evan Turner occupied a lot of guard minutes for Portland, and it seems the Blazers aim to keep him.

Meanwhile, you have other players like Meyers Leonard and Ed Davis who still have some value and could help Portland’s cap situation or work as part of a trade with Indiana.

Having watched Portland closely the past six seasons or so, and seeing how parts of this roster has developed, it would make the most sense to add a third star to this team. Turner hamstrings the bench unit with his gargantuan $17 million salary next season, so building out the bench unit under him still won’t put the Blazers in a position to compete with the top teams in the West without another star.

I think the clearest way to capitalize on the prime part of the careers for Lillard and McCollum is to grab another star right now. George might be out of reach — and he reportedly wants to play in LA anyway — but I think the Blazers should think big this offseason. Whether that means trading for George or doing something else bold remains to be seen.

Report: Clippers’ management remains committed to re-signing Blake Griffin

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Maybe Friday night in Utah, maybe not for a few weeks, but the Clippers season is going to end before they reach the conference finals, and with Blake Griffin sidelined by injury. It’s an all-too-familiar scene. It will be six seasons of the Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, Griffin experience in Los Angeles, and they will not have gotten out of the second round (unless you think they can come back on the Jazz from down 3-2, then beat the Warriors).

That has come with a lot of talk about the Clippers breaking up the core. Jordan remains under contract, Paul would be too hard to replace, and that leads to a lot of speculation — inside and outside the league — that Griffin could be on the move this summer, when he becomes a free agent.

That’s not what the Clippers want, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports in a video essay.

Management remains committed to signing him to a long-term deal this summer, league sources tell me.

Doc Rivers has said he wants to bring back this core. Multiple times. His argument is that this is a 50+ win team that is one of the better teams in the NBA, why would you take a big step back rather than look for the tweaks that get the team to a title?

Steve Ballmer has the checkbook deep enough to pay both Paul and Griffin max money (although keeping fellow free agent J.J. Redick as well would be difficult). The Clippers will have one of the highest payrolls in the NBA, and is this team worth that? Especially in a conference where the Mount Everest of Golden State is not going anywhere for a few years, not to mention the Spurs and Rockets will remain good, Utah is on the rise, and so are teams like the Wolves. The Clippers will be a good team that needs a lot of breaks to go their way to really contend — how much would Ballmer pay for that?

The Clippers need to do some soul searching this offseason.

Just don’t be shocked if the result of that is them running this team back again.

Playing through sore knee, Jimmy Butler says “I’m good,” will go in Game 6

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At this point in the season, everyone is banged up. It’s just a matter of degree.

But with Rajon Rondo listed as out for Game 6, the Bulls’ need a big game from Jimmy Butler if they are going to extend this series to a Game 7. And he is not near 100 percent.

In Game 4, Butler banged knees with a Celtic and it impacted him during Game 5, as Vincent Goodwill detailed at CSNChicago.com.

But he could only muster two shots and barely seemed to push off on his left foot—his lead foot, and it hampered what the Bulls could do late as he was their prime fourth-quarter performer.

He couldn’t even go straight up on a jumper over the diminutive Isaiah Thomas without pump-faking, throwing off his rhythm. He wouldn’t elaborate on the injury, although he said it happened during the second half of Game 4 on Sunday night when he collided with a Celtics player.

“I’m good. Everyone’s a little nicked up; I’ll be all right,” Butler said in the locker room.

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune added this detail.

Boston has done a good job of limiting the number of times Isaiah Thomas is exposed on defense, having to cover Wade or Butler. Essentially, the Celtics switch in sort of a matchup zone to keep IT covering a shooter on the wing, even if his man goes up and sets the pick. Zone’s can be exposed (there’s a reason they’re more a change-of-pace rather than a basic set defense in the NBA), but it involves getting into the middle, getting into the paint. Which comes back to driving the ball and pushing off, things that Butler is struggling to do at his usual level.

There are a lot of other factors favoring Boston in Game 6, but if Chicago is going to force a Game 7 Sunday they need Butler to be an All-NBA level player.