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.  

NBA fines Chicago’s Rajon Rondo $25,000 for attempting to trip Jae Crowder (VIDEO)

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Rajon Rondo‘s end-of-season performance may have helped him earn a little extra coin this offseason. He’s certainly going to need it given that the NBA has fined the Chicago Bulls PG $25,000 after he attempted to trip Boston Celtics wing Jae Crowder.

The league released the decision in a statement on Sunday morning.

The incident occured with 31 seconds left in the first quarter of Game 3, a game the Celtics won, 104-87. Rondo was on the bench, and as possession changed Crowder took a wide sweeping angle along the sideline, right in front of Rondo.

Rondo casually stuck his leg out as Crowder passed by, but didn’t seem to make any contact.

Chicago leads the series, 2-1.

Thunder’s Taj Gibson providing scoring help for Westbrook

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Taj Gibson often describes his role for the Thunder as doing whatever the team needs.

For now, scoring is playing a bigger part than usual. The versatile 6-foot-9 power forward has found his way since being traded from Chicago and has emerged one of Oklahoma City’s few consistent offensive weapons alongside Russell Westbrook in the playoffs. He may need to keep it up to give the Thunder a chance of winning the first-round series with Houston – Oklahoma City trails 2-1 heading into Game 4 Sunday at home.

Gibson built a sterling reputation in Chicago, but the Brooklyn, New York native is more concerned with the respect he’s earned since his arrival.

“They see I’m in here late nights, early mornings, just constantly working with my teammates, constantly putting work in,” he said. “The confidence is going to be there because they understand you do the work, but I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help my team.”

Gibson has done a little bit of everything since coming to the Thunder. He has provided experience and versatility to an already stacked frontline that includes emerging young players Steven Adams and Enes Kanter. He also has added toughness, and at times, scoring punch. His athleticism and ability to guard on the perimeter against outside-shooting big men and on switches fills some of the void created when the Thunder traded Serge Ibaka on draft night this past offseason.

“Great vet,” guard Victor Oladipo said. “Great man, first and foremost. Very positive and does what it takes to win. It was a great pickup for us.”

Domantas Sabonis was the starting power forward when Gibson arrived in Oklahoma City, but once he got settled and began to understand coach Billy Donovan’s system, the Thunder improved. Gibson replaced Sabonis for the first time March 9 against San Antonio, and the Thunder went 11-5 with him in the starting lineup. He averaged 9.0 points and 4.5 rebounds in 21 regular-season games for the Thunder.

He is averaging 11 points on 65 percent shooting in the playoffs. He was effective on offense in Game 2, establishing himself early and helping put the Thunder in position to win. Oklahoma City went away from him late, and Houston rallied for the victory.

In Game 3, the Thunder went back to him consistently. a href(equals)’https://apnews.com/dab4b99c496a4450906c11a9c72132d1/Westbrook’s-triple-double-leads-Thunder-past-Rockets-115-113?utm-campaign=SocialFlow&utm-source=Twitter&utm-medium=AP-Sports’He finished with 20 points on 10-for-13 shooting in Oklahoma City’s 115-113 win/a on Friday night.

“Taj is a great post player,” Westbrook said. “He does a great job of getting in great position down low. When we see a matchup that we like we are going to keep going to him. Whether it is a miss or a make, it gives us the opportunity to score the basketball in the paint.”

Gibson did damage inside and out and punished the Rockets with his mid-range jumper.

“It’s no shock to me, just because that mid-range is automatic for him,” Thunder forward Doug McDermott, who also joined the Thunder in the trade with Chicago, said. “He’s tough to guard on that block too.”

Gibson also had a fast start in Game 2, but once the Thunder began to struggle, they went away from him. Gibson knew he didn’t need to change much going into Game 3.

“Just continue to be aggressive,” he said. “I felt like I had good shots in Game 2. Just got to stay with it and play the game as it flows to me.”

On defense, Gibson has been a better option than Kanter and Adams, who have struggled to keep up with the more athletic Rockets. Gibson performed well in all facets in Game 3, and Donovan needs more of that in Game 4.

“I was happy for him last night,” Donovan said Saturday. “I thought he gave us a great lift in both the first and second half. He’s professional, he’s a man, and he’s a reliable guy.”

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP .

Watch Kawhi Leonard, Mike Conley in epic playoff duel Saturday (VIDEO)

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Kawhi Leonard scored 16 straight points for the Spurs at the end of regulation to give San Antonio the lead and a chance. Then Mike Conley hit a floater in the lane forced overtime.

There Mike Conley hit a floating bank shot that had the Grizzlies up three with :47 seconds left, only to have Leonard answer with a three to tie the game. Marc Gasol would break that tie and get Memphis the series-evening win.

Conley and Leonard traded blows through the clutch parts of Saturday’s epic Game 4 between Memphis and San Antonio. It’s worth checking out the highlights again.

John Wall goes coast-to-coast, behind-the-back for lefty dunk (VIDEO)

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There’s not going to be many plays better than this in the entire playoffs.

There wasn’t a lot for Wizards’ fans to cheer in Game 3, the Hawks took control early and routed Washington, making it a 2-1 series. But there was this, John Wall going coast-to-coast with the ball, going around-the-back and throwing it down left handed.

Wall is just so fast end to end.