NBA Playoffs, Lakers Suns Game 3: The Phoenix starters came up big on a rare off-night for the heralded reserves

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stoudemire.pngThe Suns’ reserves have been the heart and soul of Phoenix’s extended playoff run. Goran Dragic, Leandro Barbosa, Channing Frye, Jared Dudley, and Louis Amundson have each had their moment in the spotlight, with their collective shooting, energy, savvy, and synergy making all the difference for the Suns in these playoffs.

That wasn’t exactly the case in Game 3. Those same five reserves combined for just 15 points on a horribly ineffective 3-for-21 from the field, and they missed each of their 11 total attempts from three-point range. The spark that made the second and fourth quarters so enjoyable for Suns fans this postseason was extinguished for Game 3, which would seem to be a recipe for disaster given the constitution of this series thus far. Phoenix was having trouble matching L.A.’s offensive output even with some serious help from the bench. Take away that crutch, and the Suns’ return to the US Airways Center would seem destined to end in failure.

That wasn’t exactly the case, either. The Suns’ starters stepped up in a big way, with Amar’e Stoudemire (42 points on 22 shots, 11 rebounds) not just returning to form, but evolving into something of a monster. He still won’t be making the All-Defensive team anytime soon, but Stoudemire played with more focus on the fairer end of the court while completely dominating the offensive end.

Steve Nash (17 points, 15 assists, just one turnover) and Amar’e looked far more comfortable operating in the pick-and-roll than in the two games prior, which made a world of difference for the Western Conference Finals underdogs. Part of that is Nash having the benefit of better screens, but the improved timing and accuracy of his passes and Stoudemire’s newfound assertiveness were crucial to the slight refocusing of the Phoenix offense.

The Suns’ weren’t exactly struggling on the offensive end in this series prior to Sunday night (they scored at a rate of 116.3 and 116.7 points per 100 possessions in Games 1 and 2 respectively), but Game 3 marked Amar’e’s first breakout performance in the series and a nice uptick in team-wide offensive efficiency (120.4 points per 100 possessions).

The subs clearly weren’t the source of that offensive improvement, meaning that on this night, the starters were the team’s rightful saviors. Jason Richardson finished with 19 points on 15 shots, including four threes made in seven attempts. Grant Hill only scored five points, but had nine rebounds, three assists, and three steals. Robin Lopez very nearly stole the show by dropping 20 points on eight of his 10 attempts, but his ability to finish around the rim was a bit dwarfed by Amar’e’s fantastic outing.

This isn’t to neglect the Suns’ improved defense in Game 3, which our own Kurt Helin already addressed in this space. The adjustment from man-to-man coverage to a zone look did exactly what Phoenix needed it to: bogged down L.A.’s offense just enough to secure a win. The Suns honestly don’t need to play terrific defense in order to win games in this series, but they do have to play some defense. The Suns need to work as hard, rotate as quickly, and contest as much as they did in Game 3 if they’re going to take another game in this series, but the starters’ ability to execute in the zone does offer a glimmer of hope.

Goran Dragic may have completely blitzed the Spurs in the second round and Jared Dudley’s hustle has justly received praise throughout the playoffs, but Game 3 serves as a much-needed reminder that the Suns’ starters are the bread-winners. Replacing the useless Jarron Collins with Robin Lopez makes that even more apparent, and though the boost from the reserve unit has been welcome throughout the season, the production of Phoenix’s starting five has always been the foundation for the Suns’ success. Complementary players are nice additions to any team, but at the end of the day they’re still just complementary players.

Against elite competition (and the Lakers are just that), the Suns’ starters will have to perform like they did in Game 3; less as a collection of the team’s most talented players, and more like the cohesive whole they’re capable of being.  

Watch Russell Westbrook drop 36 on Golden State in Oklahoma City win

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Once again, Russell Westbrook was the force of nature the Warriors could not solve.

The athletic point guard forced turnovers, threw it down in transition, and drove right past Stephen Curry or  was guarding him. The result was 36 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists — Westbrook’s first triple double of these playoffs.

“He’s got such great force and great will,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said after the Thunder’s Game 4 win. “And he’s really a high IQ basketball player, he sees a lot of things going on out there… As a coach, you have great respect and admiration for a guy who plays the game that hard and gives to our team what he gives.”

He helped give them a win that has the Thunder on the verge of a return to the NBA Finals.

Russell Westbrook, Thunder defense again overwhelm Warriors 118-94, take commanding 3-1 lead

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 24:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts in the first half against the Golden State Warriors in game four of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 24, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 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 J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
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One year ago, it was the Warriors’ adjustments, the Warriors’ defense that was propelling the franchise to its first title in 40 years.

This season, the Thunder turned the tables on the champs.

The length and switching of the Thunder defense resulted in 16 steals Tuesday night — and that means easy transition buckets for OKC. That swarming defense had an off Stephen Curry open the game 1-of-10 shooting, turning the ball over six times on the night, and finishing 6-of-20 shooting, 2-of-10 from three. The Thunder defense has made the Warriors shooters tentative; they are hesitating before making a play rather than just shooting in the flow, something that has seemed impossible to do to Golden State for a couple of seasons now. As a team, the Warriors shot just 30 percent from three and 41.3 percent overall, with Klay Thompson in the second half being the only guy who could knock down shots.

Curry was also asked to guard Russell Westbrook for long stretches of the game and that didn’t go well. Westbrook was the Thunder engine again and finished with a triple-double of 36 points, 11 assists, and 11 rebounds.

Once again the Thunder played fast, aggressive and beat the Warriors at their own game — a 118-94 Thunder win. Oklahoma City now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out Thursday night in Golden State. If not, it feels like Saturday night will be the end of the Warriors 73-win season.

And maybe just the beginning for a talented Thunder team that is just now coming together.

Right now, everything the Thunder try works.

For example, on offense, Billy Donovan made another smart adjustment — if the Warriors were going to ignore Andre Roberson (allowing bigs like Draymond Green or Andrew Bogut to patrol around the rim), the Thunder would start using Roberson like a power forward who set picks, rolled to the rim, and surrounded by shooters he and his teammates could make plays. Roberson finished with career high 17 points on 12 shots.

“He’s a pretty active player so he got some offensive boards and he snuck behind our defense a couple times and we did not guard him correctly,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.

It all worked in the first half again, when the Thunder were attacking the rim — leading to 28 first half free throws from the Thunder — and after a tight first quarter OKC stretched the lead out to 20 points behind a 16-point quarter from Westbrook. This is when the Thunder took charge of the game.

“He’s got such great force and great will,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said of Westbrook. “And he’s really a high IQ basketball player, he sees a lot of things going on out there… As a coach, you have great respect and admiration for a guy who plays the game that hard and gives to our team what he gives.”

Golden State made a comeback in the third that was all Klay Thompson — he had 19 consecutive points for the Warriors, and the lead got cut down to 6 at one point. Thompson finished the night with 26 points on 17 shots and was clear and away the best Warrior (with Harrison Barnes second).

But then Westbrook led a push back that again stretched the lead out, and he got help from Dion Waiters with a three (Waiters played well again and had 10 points on the night). The Thunder never looked back.

Kevin Durant added 26 points (but on 8-of-24 shooting, not his best night), while Serge Ibaka added 17. The Thunder may be the only team in the NBA with the depth of athletes to run with Golden State, and they are doing it and making it work.

The Warriors defense has no answer for the Thunder attack, and Golden State is getting away from some of their identity. They have always switched nearly every pick with their small lineup, but because of rebounding concerns this series they have gotten away from that. The Thunder have figured out how to exploit that.

The Warriors have just not adjusted to the length of the Thunder defense — Golden State turned the ball over 21 times, 19.9 percent of their possessions. If you give it away one every five times down the court to a good team, you lose.

“I thought we competed again tonight, I just thought we didn’t play very intelligently,” Kerr said postgame. “Too many turnovers, careless passes. This is probably the longest team in the league we are facing and we continue to try and throw passes over the top of their outstretched arms. Probably not a great idea.”

In addition to Curry, Draymond Green had his second poor game in a row — 1-of-7 shooting with six turnovers, and again he was out of position on defense too often. He has played like a guy flustered by the opponent.

A lot of the Warriors have, while the Thunder just gain confidence. The kind of confidence that will carry them back to the NBA Finals.

 

Thunder’s Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant put on first-half show at Warriors’ expense

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I’d say Warriors fans are stunned, but more than that Warriors players look stunned — they are getting steamrolled by Oklahoma City again, giving up 72 first half points and being down by 19.

I guess we tell Warriors’ fans what we have told the fans of teams they have steamrolled the past couple years — enjoy the show, you don’t get to see many like this.

Above was a Kevin Durant to Russell Westbrook fastbreak assist and bucket. Now check out the fantastic Steven Adams pass, and a highlight package of Westbrook dropping 16 in the second quarter on the Warriors (21 in the first half).

 

Charles Barkley: “I’ve never seen the NBA as bad as it is”

HOUSTON, TEXAS - APRIL 04:  Former NBA player and commentator Charles Barkley looks on prior to the 2016 NCAA Men's Final Four National Championship game between the Villanova Wildcats and the North Carolina Tar Heels at NRG Stadium on April 4, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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Charles Barkley is walking entertainment and the brilliant Inside the NBA would not be the same without him and his off-the-cuff opinions (which is a great thing in sports talk, not so much with national policy).

But he remains the leader of the annoying #getoffmylawn crew of older players who don’t like today’s game.

Barkley was on the Bickley and Marotta on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM last week and went off again on the state of the game, (hat tip For The Win).

“People think us old guys hate when we talk about it. It has nothing to do with the Warriors’ greatness, LeBron’s greatness. But I’ve never seen the NBA as bad as it is, and I’ve been saying it the last three or four years. We’ve got too many young players coming out of college that don’t know how to play. It’s frustrating for me because I want to see competitive basketball.

“We took a survey on our crew … How many actual NBA teams would you buy season tickets for?” he added. “Four in the west and Cleveland obviously in the east. That’s not good for our league.”

To be fair, Barkley speaks for a lot of people here.

I think they are all wrong, but he speaks for them. And I think they are a plurality. Based on television ratings going up even as streaming of live games spikes (as someone who works for Comcast/NBC, I can say the in-market streaming of CSN teams such as the Warriors, Celtics, Wizards, etc. did well this year and grew faster than projections), as I look at the crossover appeal of Stephen Curry, the sendoff Kobe Bryant got, the popularity of LeBron James and Kevin Durant etc, the league is doing well by any measure.

But more than that, the game now is more entertaining than it’s been in years. Tell me how grabbing some guy on the perimeter, the clutching and clawing to slow the game down in the 1990s leading to 86-82 slogs, was more fun than the skill being shown today. Jordan was must watch, frankly Barkley was fun, but Mike Fratello’s Cavaliers teams? The Mavericks and Clippers of that era? I think Barkley and others look at the past through some Mr. Magoo glasses, but that is their prerogative. I loved 80s basketball. I liked 90s basketball. But to constantly dismiss the game today just sounds like someone clinging to the past.