NBA Playoffs, Lakers Suns: Game 3 was a nice win for Phoenix, but can they do it again?

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One of the things that made the second round of this year’s playoffs so bizarre was the prevalence of sweeps. It’s incredibly difficult for any NBA team to sweep another regardless of talent, because beating the same opponent four times in a row requires such an incredible level of focus and consistency. It just doesn’t happen all that often, and the losing team typically wins a game or two to delay the outcome even it it seems inevitable.

I wouldn’t say that a Laker win in the Western Conference Finals is inevitable, but one can’t help but wonder if last night’s Suns’ victory was a temporary diversion rather than real resistance. Phoenix won the game while playing solid — but not dominant — basketball, and is that really good enough to compete with this particular Lakers team?

It’s a complicated question, admittedly, and at its core, it begs us to analyze the sustainability of the Suns’ efforts on both ends of the court.

Offensively, one could actually argue that Phoenix survived (and thrived) in spite of two rather notable obstructions: the Suns shot poorly from three as a team and the usually solid bench was nowhere to be found. The reserves (including sharpshooters Channing Frye, Jared Dudley, and Goran Dragic) went 0-fer in 11 attempts from long range, but the starters didn’t really offer much long-range support, either. Jason Richardson made four of the team’s five attempts, which means that the rest of the starters (or really, Steve Nash and Grant Hill) weren’t doing all that much to balance the court.

On this night, it was probably for the best. The Suns fed Amar’e Stoudemire over and over, and he produced. Not only did Amar’e put up 22 field goal attempts, but he got to the line 18 times, and the Suns as a team shot 42 free throw attempts. Phoenix can survive a rainy day with that kind of scoring coming from the free throw line, but any free throw total that high will be met with some skepticism. That said, while Game 3 featured the same questionable calls that can be found in just about any NBA contest, this result was not entirely without precedent.

In Game 2, the Suns shot 32 free throws to the Lakers’ 22. The difference in attempts between the teams in that game may not have been as profound as the Game 3 differential, but the pace was notably higher in Game 3 (98 possessions to 92 in Game 2), and both Amar’e Stoudemire and Steve Nash were far more assertive within the Phoenix offense on Sunday night. They combined for 13 attempts in Game 2 and 25 attempts in Game 3, which is more than enough to compensate for the generous bump of the team totals.

I wouldn’t say anyone should expect the Suns to shoot 42 free throws again in this series, but if Stoudemire, Nash, and the Suns remain aggressive on offense, they can still boast a considerable free throw advantage against the Lakers.

The bench will bounce back, the three-point shooting will no doubt return, and the total free throw attempts will drop slightly but could still be an advantage for Phoenix. All in all, there’s no reason to think the Suns can’t be even better offensively, which is good news for an already confident Phoenix team playing at home in Game 4.

On defense…well, that’s where the news isn’t quite so good. From the second quarter onward, the Suns relied on a zone defense that produced some impressive results. The Suns’ Game 3 fortunes turned on a time, with the zone sparking a 15-2 run going into halftime that gave Phoenix a seven-point lead. It was fun to watch the Suns’ defenders not only active and involved, but making the right rotations to prevent exploitations of the zone. Brilliant, brilliant move by Alvin Gentry.

Each defensive scheme has its own weaknesses though, and the zone is certainly no exception. The zone was so problematic for the Lakers not because it was perfectly executed (although the Suns certainly did a stellar job relative to their usual man-to-man defense, which has characteristically featured some poor rotations), but precisely because it was a zone. They settled for too many contested threes, didn’t properly utilize one of the best high post centers in the game in Pau Gasol, and didn’t employ the right kind of ball and player movement.

The Laker offense didn’t make any significant adjustments against the zone, and thus their usual movement was stifled. Kudos to L.A. for not stopping the ball, but they need to replace their usual cuts and slashes with moves more effective against the zone: baseline movement, overloading a player’s zone, etc. With NBA versatility, size, and speed at a coach’s disposal, it’s really only a matter of time before any NBA team cracks the zone, much less one with this much talent from coach down. Phil Jackson and his staff will work with the Lakers and hit the film room hard to show exactly how to attack the Suns’ zone D, and unfortunately for Phoenix, it’s that simple.

Andrew Bynum may not be the best counter to the zone, but any lineup featuring Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant, and Lamar Odom is more than capable of getting easy shots against it. That’s not meant to be a slight against Phoenix’s defense in Game 3, which was much improved, but rather as a general statement concerning the limitations of the scheme. The zone can be incredibly effective over the course of a single game, but if the Suns are relying on it to win them the series (as they may be forced to, considering how ineffective their man defense has been), they’re in trouble.

That makes Phoenix’s Game 3 win a bit tough to replicate. Phoenix’s offensive potency has never really been in question in this series, but the Suns’ ability (or inability) to defend the versatile and efficient Laker offense sits in the spotlight during every game. That’s where these games (and this series) need be won, and unfortunately, the Phoenix zone is vulnerable to the law of diminishing returns; the more the Suns use the zone, the less effective it will be.

The key for Phoenix will be maintaining the same emphasis on defensive rotations in their usual defensive sets that they seem to exhibit in the zone, as the decreasing effectiveness of the zone will ultimately force the Suns to revert to man-to-man defense. If Phoenix can be even moderately successful without the zone, their offense will give them a shot to win Game 4 and perhaps a few more. If not, Game 3 was merely artificial resistance in a series that could be over sooner rather than later.

Kevin Love steps on referees foot, tweaks knee, sits fourth; expect to play in Game 5

TORONTO, ON - MAY 23:  Rapper Drake reacts in the first quarter of game four of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Toronto Raptors and the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 23, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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Once again Monday night Kevin Love struggled — 4-of-14 shooting overall, 2-of-7 from three — and once again he sat on the bench in the fourth quarter in favor of Channing Frye.

However, this time an injury played a role.

Love was limping around by the end of the third and said after the game he stepped on a referee’s foot and tweaked his knee. He also said this was not going to keep him out of Game 5, reports Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.

“I think Kyrie [Irving] was shooting towards the end of the third quarter, and I stepped on the official’s foot, and it didn’t feel too great,” said Love, who had a total of 13 points and 11 rebounds in Games 3 and 4. “More so the knee [than the ankle hurting]. Will be sore tomorrow, but nothing that will prevent me from playing.”

Love had seemed to find a groove playing with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving to start the playoffs, averaging 18.4 points per game and shooting 44.9 percent from three in the playoffs as the Cavaliers opened the playoffs with 10 straight wins. But like a few Cavaliers, his shooting has gone ice-cold in Canada — he also was rejected at the rim by Bismack Biyombo. Frye has played in crunch time because he is hitting shots.

“I had a lot of great shots, I just didn’t knock them down,” Love said. “It’s a simple as that. I had a lot of confidence in shooting the ball, a lot of really wide open 3’s, especially to start that first quarter. A number of them went in and out, so I just need to continue to stay aggressive.”

This series is knotted 2-2, and the Cavaliers need Love to find his shot before Wednesday night’s Game 5 — the Cavaliers have a series on their hands.

Kevin Love shut down at the rim by Bismack Biyombo (VIDEO)

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Once again, Bismack Biyombo was a force in the paint that the Raptors leaned on heavily during their Game 4 win against the Cavaliers.

His biggest play of the night was this clean block of Kevin Love at the rim. Love passed to LeBron James in the post, caught his defender napping and cut the rim, got the pass back from James and… denied.

Biyombo also got LeBron James at the rim but was called for a foul much to the dismay of Biyombo, Raptors fans, and the ESPN broadcast crew (it was the right call — watch Biyombo leap across the lane, he is anything but vertical, he contacts LeBron’s body, that’s a foul).  Either way it’s worth watching.

NBA VP explains decision not to suspend Draymond Green; says very different play than Dahntay Jones

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 22:  Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors drives against Steven Adams #12 of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second quarter in game three of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 22, 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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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All day long NBA Twitter — and the Warriors, and the Thunder — waited for the shoe to drop on a decision about suspending Draymond Green for a kick to the “groin” of the Cavaliers’ Steven Adams.

Everyone just waited. And waited. And waited.

It took that long because the league wanted to be thorough — watching the film, looking at similar incidents (and the punishments there), talking to the players and the referees, and thinking it through. It was a decision with a huge impact on the series (Golden State was not winning Game 4 without Green).

So why did NBA executive vice president of basketball operations Kiki VanDeWeghe decide not to suspend Green, rather upping the foul to a flagrant 2 and taking on a $25,000 fine?VanDeWeghe talked in some detail to Sam Amick of the USA Today in a piece you should read right now. This is just a highlight.

We have professional investigators that conduct the investigation. They talk to the players, they talk to all the referees, including the replay officials, and they all come back and report to me. I obviously discuss it internally, and especially with referee operations, get their perspective. But at the end of the day … every play is different and that’s the problem. You take into account everything. You take into account t what the referees have said. They obviously went with a Flagrant One last night, and you take into account the comparables. The problem with comparables is they never tell the whole story.

One comparable a lot of people supporting the suspension brought up was the one-game suspension for Cleveland Dahntay Jones just a day before (for a punch to the groin of Bismack Biyombo. Except VanDeWeghe says it was not comparable.

But just to talk about the Dahntay Jones situation, I think that was basically a completely different play. That, you had somebody (who was) tussling for a rebound, and Jones brings back his hand his hand is open. And as he brings his hand back forward and makes contact with Bismack’s (Biyombo) groin area, the fist is closed. And so you have contact with a closed fist, so to me that’s a very different scenario and, to me, a different fact pattern, so it’s very different from what we’re talking about with Draymond, that I viewed as a flail that is becoming, you know, pretty common amongst our players in trying to sell calls. Draymond does it a fair amount, Westbrook does it a fair amount, and a number of other players. Unfortunately, in this particular one, Draymond’s leg connected in the same Adams groin area, the same area, as the Jones one, but everything else about the call, or the play, was really different.

That is what the Warriors tried to sell, and the league came to find — Green was fouled but in trying to sell that call a little he accidentally kicked Adams where men least like to be kicked.

None of this is going to change anyone’s mind — if you’re convinced Green’s kick was intentional, and he should have been suspended, there is no evidence that will get you to think otherwise. This is just context, it helps everyone understand the process and the decision. More information is a good thing.

Raptors race out to lead, hang on to beat Cavaliers 105-99, even series 2-2

TORONTO, ON - MAY 23: Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors handles the ball in the fourth quarter against LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers in game four of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 23, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 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 Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
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Now this is some adversity.

After winning 10 straight games to open the playoffs, the Cavaliers struggled in Game 3 in Toronto last Saturday, but that felt almost like a setback rather than a change of direction in the series. At least it did until Game 4 tipped off.

Toronto again came out with fantastic energy again on defense, scrambling and contesting everything. The Cavaliers were not attacking (well, except LeBron James) and were kicking out for threes — and missing. As a team, Cleveland was 3-of-22 from three in the first half. Meanwhile, Kyle Lowry was hot on the other end, both hitting long threes and setting up teammates. Lowry was 8-of-11 shooting in the first half, 4-of-6 from beyond the arc, and had three assists as well.

Raptors led 57-41 at the half. They needed every point of that down the stretch.

Cleveland started the second half on an 11-0 run and came back behind Kyrie Irving (15 second half points), LeBron, and a more focused defense. With six minutes to go in the game Cleveland even took the lead. It felt like this was when the Cavaliers would assert themselves as the best team in the East.

Except the Raptors out hustled and out executed the Cavaliers down the stretch. Bismack Biyombo was grabbing key rebounds inside (Patrick Patterson had a huge offensive rebound as well), and Lowry and DeRozan remained hot — the guards combined for 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting in the fourth quarter — not taking threes (0-of-1) but attacking and getting to the basket an the line.

The result was a 105-99 Toronto win that evens the Eastern Conference Finals at 2-2 heading back to Cleveland Wednesday for Game 5.

“I thought we come back, had control of the game, was up three points, then we made some defensive mistakes you can’t do down the stretch, and they cost us — each time we made a mistake they made us pay,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said postgame.

This was another game where Toronto played with great defensive energy and the Cavaliers responded by settling — they took 41 threes in Game 3 (hitting 13), Monday they were 13-of-42. J.R. Smith was 3-of-11, Kevin Love 2-of-7 (and sat out the fourth quarter with a potential injury, he was limping). The guys that kept the Cavaliers in it in the fourth (besides LeBron, who was fantastic again) were Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye, who combined 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting. But it was not enough.

“We’ve got to be more well balanced,” LeBron said on a night he finished with 29 points on 11-of-16 shooting. “We started the game, we had some great looks, but when they’re not going you’ve got to be able to switch it up and get into the paint and do what you can do. I was able to get into the paint a little bit, Kyrie as well, but we just haven’t shot the ball from the three point line.”

Offensively, the Raptors were carried by Lowry and DeRozan, which was the case all season. Lowry had 35 points on 20 shots and looked every bit the All-Star version of himself.

“He’s made shots,” Lue said. “He’s being aggressive. He’s making shots. Tonight he made some early baskets that gave him some confidence, I thought, in the first quarter, and he carried it throughout the game.”

DeRozan had 32 points on 23 shots and was getting to the spots on the floor he liked. Once in Toronto both Biyombo and Patterson have done a good job of switching up their screen angles on the pick-and-roll, and the Cavaliers get flummoxed by this.

“We’ve got to find a way to be more consistent,” Lowry said. “(He and DeRozan) need to find a way to be consistent throughout a whole series.”

Then again there was Biyombo, the free agent to be making the case he should get paid big this summer. He finished with 14 boards — including a number of key ones late — and three blocks. His presence inside has the Cavaliers hesitant to attack the paint.

This sets up a lot of interesting questions heading into Game 5 Wednesday.

Can Toronto play with the same energy on the road? Can Cleveland adjust to the Toronto defense and get back to attacking the paint? Will Lowry stay hot? Will Love regain his stroke?

The bottom line is this is a series now — best of three. And the Cavaliers are no lock to advance.