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.

Paul Millsap out at least three more games with knee issue, Hawks 0-8 without him

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The Atlanta Hawks have come apart at the worst time. They have lost seven in a row and have fallen from comfortably in the playoffs to tied for the 5-6-7 seed in the East, just 2.5 games out of falling out of the playoffs altogether.

It has all happened with Paul Millsap out, and that is going to continue for about a week more the team announced Monday.

Atlanta Hawks forward Paul Millsap has been diagnosed with left knee synovitis and has undergone a non-surgical procedure at Emory (Orthopaedics & Spine Center in Atlanta). He will be listed as out for the next three games and his status will be updated as appropriate.

Synovitis is when the synovial membrane — which encases joints and helps lubricate them with synovial fluid — becomes inflamed. It’s usually a sign of another issue causing the inflammation.

The Hawks problem is they are 0-8 this season when Millsap is out.

It still feels unlikely Atlanta will fall all the way out of the playoffs (they have a slightly easier schedule than everyone they’re competing against for the slot), but they are more likely than Indiana or Milwaukee to slip. Also, the odds of them finishing with the seven or eight seed seem high, and that likely means a quick one-and-done visit to the postseason.

After that would come some real questions in Atlanta about how much they want to pay Millsap to keep him as a free agent (it’s going to have to be near max money and for five years, or he will look hard at his other options).

Reports: Kings’ owner reaches out to Sam Hinkie; team quickly denies any interest

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Sacramento Kings’ owner Vivek Ranadive’s handling of his team makes President Donald Trump look patient and measured. It’s been less than two seasons since Vlade Divac was handed the reins of the Sacramento Kings, and apparently, that means the Kings are overdue for a change.

Ranadive is getting pressure to make a change because the Kings are seen around the league as a poorly run front office (that other teams try to take advantage of), and as part of that process he is reaching out to former Sixers’ GM Sam Hinkie, according to multiple reports. Yes, the controversial man behind “the process.” Zach Lowe and Marc Stein of ESPN have broken the story.

The Sacramento Kings have expressed exploratory interest in former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie, according to league sources.

‎Sources told ESPN.com that Kings owner Vivek Ranadive sought and received permission directly from Sixers counterpart Josh Harris to speak with Hinkie.

Sources say Hinkie has long intrigued Ranadive, whose franchise has been thrust into a rebuilding mode not unlike Philadelphia’s status under Hinkie in the wake of trading DeMarcus Cousins to New Orleans.

Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports adds these details.

The Kings quickly came out and denied the story.

After the denials they would trade DeMarcus Cousins and all the misdirection around the hiring of George Karl, it’s tough to take the Kings fully at face value here.

Hinkie is currently under a non-compete clause as part of his buyout agreement with the Sixers. He can take a job starting this summer.

We’ve got questions.

Question No. 1: If it is available, does Hinkie really want this job? Wojnarowski says he may not be interested. If he’s being brought in to rebuild the Kings from the ground up, that is a long process. Any GM, not just Hinkie, is going to need five years (at least) to have the planted seeds start to bear fruit. As mentioned above, Ranadive has been anything but patient. Hinkie may be willing to wait for another situation that seems a better fit.

Question No. 2: Did Ranadive decide “I need to get the guy that ripped me off on that Nik Stauskas trade?”

Question No. 3: Are the Kings serious about sticking with Vlade Divac, or is Hinkie also going to talk to other potential GMs? There would be guys interested, but they’d want a lot of assurances (read: five years guaranteed and a lot of money).

Question No. 4: What other teams have interest in Hinkie? The ESPN report says other teams have reached out, does this include places were we expecting front office changes such as Orlando? Hinkie in a situation where he already had pieces (like Orlando) and was in the next phase of rebuilding could be interesting.

Question No. 5: Did Divac have any idea this was coming? After that Cousins trade he had to know something could be up, but he said fans should give him two years and the team would be in a better spot or he would step down. But did anyone, including Divac, think Ranadive would be that patient?

Father trolls son with signs at NBA games saying he will join dad when grades improve

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As a father who has threatened to take things away from my daughters if some behavior/school situation didn’t change (then felt bad when I had to follow through on the threat), I appreciate parents willing to follow through on what they say.

But this guy is taking it to a new level.

This father showed up at two nationally televised games this week with a sign and a message for his son.

Good on Dad for following through and not caving and taking his kid to the games, but the signs are a kicker.

As Matt Moore points out at CBSSports.com (who gets the hat tip for finding this, he better never do this to his son), how much time does this dad have, he was in Charlotte for the Cavaliers game, then in Houston. Did he spend a Spring Break traveling the country to go to NBA games and troll his kid? (It makes you wonder if it’s real.)

Steven Adams, Enes Kanter with another Russell Westbrook for MVP video

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I don’t know if Russell Westbrook is going to win the MVP award this season — Sunday night’s showdown with James Harden didn’t clear up the picture. This year’s four-way race (also with Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James) is one of the most interesting and even ones in decades.

If Westbrook doesn’t win, don’t blame Steven Adams and Enes Kanter.

The Stash Brothers, the roommates, are doing their best with videos to promote him. And take subtle jabs at Westbrook’s fashion sense.