NBA Playoffs, Lakers v. Suns Game 1: Everything's coming up Lakers

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kobe-wcf-game1.pngGame 1 of the Western Conference Finals made one thing abundantly clear: unless the Suns are able to come up with some truly remarkable performances, the Lakers will win this series. L.A. is so talented and so long that they’ll receive the benefit of the doubt in almost every regard, and barring a transcendent performance from Steve Nash or Amar’e Stoudemire, Phoenix will lose.

Call it cheap analysis if you will, but the Lakers are better. They are not going to melt down in this series, which puts the onus on the Suns. It’s up to Phoenix to somehow stop the unstoppable force in purple and gold and manage to see the sky through the trees.

I wouldn’t say Game 1 was necessarily par for the course (the Lakers’ offense scored at a rate of 139.1 points per 100 possessions, a truly scorching level of efficiency) but L.A.’s dominance in their 128-107 victory was not unfounded.

Los Angeles has a much better shot at stopping Phoenix’s offense than vice versa, and the Lakers exposed that painful truth in their complete dissection of the Suns’ vaunted, improved defense. Kobe’s 40 has to be the centerpiece, and his 21-point third quarter was the type of noteworthy performance that so frequently gets lost in the playoff shuffle. If the Lakers go on to win the championship, few will remember Bryant’s 21-point Q on a mid-May night, no matter how it demoralized the Suns’ defenders.

That said, we may not see a more singularly dominant stretch of basketball from any Laker this postseason, and for that Kobe deserves to be recognized. Grant Hill, Jared Dudley, and Jason Richardson all did their best to defend Bryant. They fought for position, tried to deny, and challenged shots. It didn’t matter, because Kobe is so, so good at what he does. When Bryant is in that special place, the bucket is less a possible outcome and more an inevitability. That’s what the Suns were charged with stopping tonight, and it’s what the Jazz failed to stop at times in their four-game out in the previous round.

I’d love to say that Kobe is destined for a fall back to earth at some point, but the guy has scored 30+ in every game he’s played since April 27th. He’s done it with plenty of time off and just a day off, at home and away, by shooting 45% from the field or better, against three different opponents, and with one notable constant: winning. Kobe is putting up impressive totals and guiding the Lakers to the promised land, two results that have not always coincided. During this playoff run however, they seem almost inextricable, with just two of the Lakers’ nine wins coming in sub-30-point performances for Bryant.

As always seems to be the case with these Lakers, he wasn’t alone. Lamar Odom (19 points, 19 rebounds) was ridiculously effective, and looked right at home working against Amar’e Stoudemire. Pau Gasol wasn’t nearly as good on the boards (or rather, didn’t have to be as good on the boards), but had 21 points on 10-of-13 shooting.

Those two players best exemplified the problems with the Suns’ defense; Hill et al’s defense on Bryant may have been an exercise in futility, but the Suns’ D on Odom and Gasol was more of a demonstration of their ineptitude. Even if you buy the argument that the Suns are improved on defense this season, those improvements amounted to nothing against players as skilled, as versatile, and as big as Gasol and Odom.

Throw in some beautiful discretion from Ron Artest, better-than-expected defense from Derek Fisher, and solid play from the Lakers’ bench, and it would be a wonder if the Lakers didn’t win in a walk.

Los Angeles wasn’t exactly perfect on defense, though, even if they did manage to prevent Phoenix from scoring at maximum efficiency. The Suns benefited from a balanced offensive performance, featuring six double-digit scorers who were able to attack the Lakers’ D in a variety of ways. However, the Lakers’ true battle was fought — and won — against the Suns’ pick-and-roll.

Robin Lopez (14 points 6-7 FG, six rebounds) looked great rolling to the rim and working the offensive glass, but even his impressive playoff debut wasn’t enough to overcome the Lakers’ smothering of Steve Nash and assault on the passing lanes. Phoenix found ways to move the ball, but the great looks the Suns are accustomed to getting were merely good ones, and considering Phoenix’s considerable defensive troubles, that was more than enough to drop Game 1 into L.A.’s lap.

As I mentioned before, Steve Nash (13 points, 13 assists, four turnovers) and Amar’e Stoudemire (23 points, just three boards) can’t just show up and play. They have to seriously perform if Phoenix is going to have any shot in this series. They’ll need to execute tirelessly on the offensive end, not only to provide the bulk of the offense, but to open up the game for the Suns’ shooters. In a sense, you have a situation in Phoenix similar to that in Orlando, only instead of relying on Dwight Howard’s interior dominance as an offensive foundation, this team relies on the Nash-Stoudemire tandem.

Without that regular offensive threat, the Suns shooters were blanketed on the perimeter, as evidenced by the team’s 22.7% shooting from beyond the arc. That’s more than just a cold night, even if every miss from the perimeter can’t be attributed to L.A.’s close-outs. Jared Dudley (1-5 3FG) and Channing Frye (1-7 3FG) were forced into some contested looks and were out of rhythm when they finally found the space to fire unimpeded.

If you’re looking for one side of the ball to attribute blame, the offense wasn’t it for Phoenix. The Suns’ offensive efficiency in this game (116.3 points per 100 possessions) was actually higher than their season average. As I mentioned before though, the Suns will have to be good enough on offense to make up for their major defensive flaws, and until we see even a spark of that in this series, the games will continue to default Lakers.

Hornets’ GM slips up, introduces Dwayne Bacon as Dwyane Wade

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It’s a slip that would have made Freud proud.

Charlotte had a good draft night. In the first round, Kentucky shooter Malik Monk fell to them at 11 and they grabbed him. In the second round, they took a smart risk with Florida State wing Dwayne Bacon.

Friday came the usual team press conference with the GM introducing his players and Charlotte GM Rich Cho made a mistake, introducing Bacon as “Dwyane Wade.”

I love Bacon’s reaction.

Cho instantly realized his mistake and laughed it off, then later said: “Actually, I think they have some similarities.” Hornets fans can only hope.

Kevin Durant trolls Westbrook, haters with cupcake hat — now topped with a ring

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Back when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were breaking into the NBA together and learning how to win together, one of their veteran mentors was tough guy Kendrick Perkins. When Perkins thought someone was acting soft, he called that player a “cupcake.”

When news broke on the Fourth of July last summer that Durant was leaving OKC for Golden State, the NBA world freaked out. Except for Westbrook. He just posted one Instagram photo that day — a tiered tray of red, white, and blue cupcakes. It was meant as a subtle jab at Durant, but when word got out (via Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated) what it meant, Thunder fans embraced it and had cupcake signs and clothing made for Durant’s return to Oklahoma City.

Durant had the last laugh — he’s got a new hat with a cupcake on it, topped by a ring.

Well played Durant. Well played.

Another report Rockets “aggressively” trying to clear cap space to chase Chris Paul

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Daryl Morey is big game hunting. Again.

The Rockets, with James Harden running Mike D’Antoni’s offense, made a leap up to the NBA’s second tier last season — then landed with a playoff thud. The team should be better the second season in the same system, but to get past the Warriors, the Rockets need more talent.

Hence the Rockets are going to chase Chris Paul. That’s not new news to anyone paying attention, but Chris Haynes laid it out in more detail in on SportsCenter.

The Rockets need talent and Chris Paul is unquestionably that. He and James Harden could figure out how to play together.

The problem is money. Chris Paul is going to demand max or near-max money, so close to $30 million. The Rockets enter the summer with about $10 million. The Rockets need to clear cap space and are ready to deal so long as they don’t take contracts back. Lou Williams will make $7 million next season, so even moving him and Patrick Beverley is not enough to land a Chris Paul or Paul Millsap. Moving Ryan Anderson ($19.6 million) or Eric Gordon ($12.9 million) helps much more.

That Morey is being aggressive isn’t the news, the question is can he find a willing partner to lower some money off his cap and give him a sense of what is to come. CP3 is going to meet with a lot of teams, but the Clippers do have advantages and are the favorites to retain him.

Jimmy Butler trade sets the stage for looming free agency

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(AP) — As draft night approached, some of the heavy hitters in the NBA – Cleveland, San Antonio, Houston, Boston, the Clippers among them – were jockeying, making calls and looking for deals to try to position themselves to make a run at the Golden State juggernaut.

The Warriors’ greatness has forced the rest of the league to do deep self-examination and be aggressive in upgrading their rosters if they’re even going to have a chance to compete. The Celtics and Cavaliers were looking hard at Pacers star Paul George and Bulls guard Jimmy Butler, the Rockets and Spurs were looking at clearing cap space to make a run at some big-name free agents next week and the Knicks were, well, the Knicks.

Draft night always lays the groundwork for what will happen when the circus (officially known as free agency) begins on July 1. And with all of those contenders looking to make a splash, the biggest move was made by … the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The Wolves reunited Tom Thibodeau with Butler, giving up two promising young players in Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn and the No. 7 overall pick to land one of the best two-way players in the game. The move should jumpstart Minnesota’s pursuit of its first playoff spot since 2004 and, the Wolves hope, pave the way for success in free agency.

“I think it will (help) a lot,” Thibodeau said. “With players, they look around the league, they see the makeup of the team, they see how they play, play together. That’s the main thing. Both offensively and defensively.”

The Timberwolves have long had difficulty attracting free agents to a relatively small market that spends four months of the year covered in ice and snow. Landing a top-15 player like Butler to team with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins sends a sign of how aggressive the teams could be.

The Bulls plunged head-first into a rebuild with the decision, and now it’s up to the Pacers to decide if they want to do the same.

Much to the dismay of Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard, George let it be known last week that he did not plan to re-sign in Indiana when he becomes a free agent next summer. Most of the league assumes that he wants to play for the Los Angeles Lakers, who appear to be in a tug-of-war with the rival Celtics for George’s attention.

“I’m confident we’ll get something,” Pritchard told reporters in Indianapolis on Friday.

One of the big markets affected on Thursday night was at point guard, the deepest position in the league. Philadelphia, the Lakers, Sacramento, New York and Dallas all drafted point guards in the top 10, which could diminish the options for veterans like Jrue Holiday, George Hill, Jeff Teague and Patty Mills.

The elite point guards available – Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry – should have no trouble finding significant contracts. With Tony Parker suffering a serious injury in the playoffs, the Spurs were reportedly trying to clear space to make a run at Paul, who is widely considered the best point guard in the league. Paul has spent the last six seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers, but has yet to advance to the Western Conference finals.

The Clippers are trying to make a decision about retooling around the core of Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, but really it’s a decision that depends largely on Paul’s thinking. He has long struggled to win big in the postseason, and heading to San Antonio to join with Kawhi Leonard or Houston to team up with James Harden could prove to be more attractive.

Lowry figures to remain in Toronto with a Raptors franchise that he has helped put back on the map, but after that there will be few teams in the market for a high-priced starting point guard. Denver, Utah, New York and Indiana could wade into those waters. But if they look at themselves as still being a couple of year away, they might be hesitant to spend big bucks on a veteran.

Other big names available include Gordon Hayward, Paul Millsap and Andre Iguodala. And while some of the very biggest names like Kevin Durant and Steph Curry figure to stay put, it only ramps up the sense of urgency for teams that have big holes to fill.

The clock is ticking and Thursday night provided the first steps toward making big improvements to the roster.

The Timberwolves rocked the boat with Butler, but the waters were calm after that, which should only mean one thing: It’s about to get real choppy when the clock strikes midnight on July 1.