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.   

NBA’s Basketball Without Borders to host first event in Australia

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 21:  A general view is seen of the city skyline over Melbourne Park during day three of the 2015 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 21, 2015 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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Andrew Bogut. Dante Exum. Matthew Dellavedova. Patty Mills. Joe Ingles. Technically Kyrie Irving (he was born there but plays internationally for the USA).

Australia has brought a fair amount of talent — and scrappy players — to the NBA, and now the NBA is taking one of its outreach programs there.

Yesterday the NBA, FIBA, and Australia’s National Basketball League announced a Basketball without Borders event June 23-26 at Dandenong Basketball Stadium in Melbourne. It’s the first time the community outreach program will come to the island nation of Australia.

“We are pleased to partner with FIBA and the NBL to bring the first Basketball without Borders camp to Australia,” NBA Asia Managing Director Scott Levy said in a statement. “The league has seen a surge of Australian talent in recent years, and we look forward to supporting the next generation by giving them a platform to showcase their skills alongside their peers from throughout the region.”

These events bring in youth basketball players and work with them, both giving young players highest quality instruction and raising the profile of the sport in the nation with a little star power. Basketball Without Borders will celebrate 15 years this summer and has been all over the globe with similar events.

Now they can check Australia off the list.

Free agent Nicolas Batum sounds like a guy who wants to return to Charlotte

MIAMI, FL - APRIL 17: Nicolas Batum #5 of the Charlotte Hornets  looks on during Game One of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Miami Heat during the 2016 NBA Playoffs  at American Airlines Arena on April 17, 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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Let’s not pretend it’s about anything else — it’s about the money.

Nicolas Batum is a free agent this summer, right after the best season of his career averaging 14.9 points a game and shooting 34.8 percent from beyond the arc. The last couple years quality “3&D” guys such as DeMarre Carroll have gotten paid bit money, and Batum is next on that list.

But all things being equal, he sounds like a player who would love to stay with Charlotte. Look at what he said the day of exit interviews to Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer:

“We should be playing tomorrow (in the Eastern Conference semifinals) and we’re pretty mad about that,” Batum said of Sunday’s Game 7 loss to the Miami Heat.

“So this is unfinished business.”

“It was a pretty cool year. First time I got to play like I want to in eight years in the NBA.”

Batum went on to say the Hornets will be the first team he speaks with July 1. If the Hornets want to keep him, they will get their chance.

The Hornets have some difficult decisions to make this summer. In addition to Batum, their most coveted free agent around the league, the Hornets also have Jeremy Lin (who will opt out), Al Jefferson, Marvin Williams, and Courtney Lee. Keeping all of them may not be possible in a market where teams are flush with cap space thanks to the new television deal and overspending.

It may take a max or at least near max deal to keep Batum — GMs across the league saw what he could do this season and want him. That fifth year that only Charlotte can offer may be key for a guy who will be on the other side of 30 when he tries to get his next contract. Which is overpaying some, but that’s what the market will be like this summer. The Hornets have to decide their priorities on bringing their current core of free agents back, and what price tag they are willing to pay for each guy.

But if they are willing to pay, Batum would like to be back.

Kevin Love says he’s fine after leg, shoulder injuries in Game 1 vs. Hawks

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Kevin Love was hobbling off the court more like he just played a football game than a basketball game. He took a few hits during the game.

The most notable was to his surgically repaired shoulder left when the Hawks’ Kent Bazemore bought a pump fake and ended up landing on that shoulder (video above). Love came off the court holding his shoulder after that one, which was a little too reminiscent of last year for Cavs fans. Then there was the leg injury when he landed awkwardly trying to tip out a rebound.

So how is Love doing? He said after the game he’s just fine, as reported by Ken Berger of CBSSports.com.

“I’m fine,” Love said. “It was just one of those plays. You’ve always got to watch those plays when you pump fake on the 3-point line or on a jump shot and you’re leaning in and get hit, but I feel good.”

Love also came up limping later in the quarter when he landed awkwardly on his toe. He was weight-bearing in a vulnerable position for his knee momentarily, but appeared to catch himself before coming out of the game. A team source said it was more of a precaution than a necessity, as the game was well in hand by that point.

Love will be on the court for Game 2 Wednesday night. He had 17 points (but on 4-of-17 shooting) and 11 rebounds in Game 1, finishing a +15 on a night when the Cavaliers starters did their jobs, and the bench showed its flaws. I thought this could be a breakout big playoff series for Love, and his shooting certainly did not live up to that billing, but he did draw Kent Bazemore on him (keeping him off LeBron), which is a good thing. Also, he did a solid job defensively matched up on Al Horford (4-of-13 shooting) and if he can continue that the Cavs path to the next round is easier.

Spurs fan grabbed Steven Adams arm during final, wild play of Game 2

SAN ANTONIO,TX - MAY 2: Steven Adams #12 of the Oklahoma City Thunder grabs a rebound against the San Antonio Spurs during game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals for the 2016 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center on May 2, 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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We went over a lot of the wild, freewheeling final 13 seconds of Oklahoma City’s Game 2 win over San Antonio — there were a host of missed calls both ways, the most egregious being Dion Waiters shoving Manu Ginobili from out of bounds.

Or was it? How about a fan grabbing a player, trying to keep him from returning to the court? That happened to Steven Adams of the Thunder after his brilliant — very possibly game saving — close out on Patty Mills corner three.

That’s just wrong. And you can add it to the list of things the referees just did not see.

The only silver lining here is it didn’t impact the play, with just two seconds left Adams was not going to get back into rugby scrum that was happening on the ground under the basket. A scrum the Thunder won (after fouling LaMarcus Aldridge) along with the game.

If the league can find out who that fan was, he or she should be banned from the front row of future games.