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.

Former Nuggets coach Bernie Bickerstaff talks when Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf sat for Anthem

15 Mar 1996: Point guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf of the Denver Nuggets stands in prayer during the singing of the National Anthem before the Nuggets game against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. Abdul-Rauf came to an agreement with
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Twenty years before Colin Kaepernick made his stand by sitting for the national anthem during preseason games — something he has every right to do: if we are going to force compliance in our rituals of allegiance how are we different as a nation than the countries we rail against for forced indoctrination? — the NBA had Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf.

For those that don’t remember, Abdul-Rauf was a good NBA guard and a member of a Denver Nuggets in the mid-1990s. He had converted to being a Muslim during his playing career. As his faith and beliefs grew, he came to view the flag as a symbol of oppression. In the middle of the 1995-96 season, he told the NBA he would no longer stand for the anthem. Everything was kept quiet for a while, but when the PR storm hit it led to a few strange days — the league suspended him at one point — before was a compromise where he would stand for the anthem but pray into his hands during it.

Bernie Bickerstaff was the coach of the Nuggets at the time and went on SiriusXM NBA Radio Monday to talk about those days. His first reaction was that of virtually every coach who has heard or talked about Kaepernick.

“Distractions,” Bickerstaff said. “It caused a lot of distractions, and you know at that point the number of media members was not quite as resounding as it is today. But still, it was a distraction.”

Bickerstaff said he was blindsided byAbdul-Rauf’s decision, and he said they scrambled to deal with the fallout. He said he and the brain trust of the team eventually had a meeting with the guard and told him if he wanted to be on the team he had to stand for the anthem.

“We had him come in, to sit down and have a conversation, and the conversation was about, the one thing that we have in this life is freedom of choice, and with that choice comes consequences. And my conversation with him was simply that one of the guys I probably admired most at that time was Muhammad Ali, because not only did he make a decision not to step forward but it was the part of it, the things that he gave up, and our message basically to (Abdul-Rauf) was ‘Hey, that’s the guy I admire. If you really feel that way then you go home, and you give us a call and let us know you’re willing to walk away from that contract, and then I can really, really, respect that…

“When he got home, we got a call and he said ‘I think I want to be on the trip.’ And that’s our understanding, if you’re on the trip, then you’re standing.”

The NBA came in with a more fair compromise.

If this were to happen again with the NBA, it would be interesting to see how Adam Silver would handle this compared to the heavy-handed David Stern.

Bucks re-sign Steve Novak to provide depth, shooting

MILWAUKEE, WI - FEBRUARY 22: Steve Novak #6 of the milwaukee Bucks makes his debut during the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers at BMO Harris Bradley Center on February 22, 2016 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 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 Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)  *** Local Caption *** Steve Novak
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Last season, the Oklahoma City Thunder waived Steve Novak and as soon as he was a free agent the Milwaukee Bucks jumped in — they wanted his veteran presence and his ability to space the floor as a big with his shooting. That lasted all of three games before he injured his MCL and was done for the season.

Milwaukee is going to give it another shot — they have re-signed Novak for this season, the team announced. Novak was born in Wisconsin and played his college ball at Marquette.

Details of the contract were not announced, but you can be sure it’s for the veteran minimum. This would give the Bucks 15 fully guaranteed contracts heading into training camp, the max they can carry once the season starts.

Novak may get limited run as a backup three or four (behind Mirza Teletovic). At this point, the 33-year-old is a dangerous catch-and-shoot three point threat (7-of-15 from deep last season), but brings little else to the table. He’s a defensive liability, which will limit how much he gets on the court for Kidd. But he fills a need.

Kids, if you’re tall and can shoot the rock, you can get paid for a long time in the NBA.

Warriors confident Kevin Durant will fit in, improve team’s switching defense

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 21:  Wesley Johnson #33 of the Los Angeles Clippers has his shot blocked by Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder as Enes Kanter #11 looks on during a 100-99 Thunder win at Staples Center on December 21, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Part of the reason Oklahoma City was able to push Golden State so far in the Western Conference Finals was Kevin Durant on defense. He could switch out on the perimeter and use his length to bother Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson, and take away their driving lanes. Multiple times in that series he was the guy rotating into the paint to protect the rim and he gave Draymond Green trouble in the paint. Durant is listed as 6’9″ but look at him from this summer standing next to DeMarcus Cousins or DeAndre Jordan, and you can see he’s more like 7-foot — the most mobile seven-footer in the league.

Which is why the Warriors — who already had a top-five defense the past two seasons — think they have another guy that fits right in with their switching-heavy style and can make them better on that end.

Here is what Warriors’ assistant coach and defensive guru Ron Adams told Monte Poole of CSNBayArea.com.

“His versatility is outstanding,” Ron Adams says of Durant. “He’s a terrific defender, who played with great defensive consistency in our playoff series. We will expect a lot out of him in that regard….

“He can, if necessary, guard all five positions – and do it effectively,” Adams says of Durant, who spent most of the conference finals smothering Warriors forward Draymond Green.

“He’s a really good rim protector, in a non-traditional way,” Kerr says. “When he played the ‘four’ against us in the playoffs, he was brilliant. He blocked some shots and he scored a bunch of times. So he’ll play a lot of ‘four’ for us, for sure.”

You don’t need me to tell you the Warriors are going to be good this season. Hate them and KD if you want, but know they will be a force.

Just remember they are not a team looking just to get in a shootout — the Warriors get stops, too. And that’s not changing.

 

 

Steven Adams and Andre Roberson passionately sing Backstreet Boys (video)

GREENBURGH, NY - AUGUST 06:  Grant Jerrett #47, Andre Roberson #21, and Steven Adams #12, of the Oklahoma City Thunder pose for a portrait during the 2013 NBA rookie photo shoot at the MSG Training Center on August 6, 2013 in Greenburgh, New York.  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 Nick Laham/Getty Images)
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Steven Adams and Andre Roberson are just like the rest of us.

The Thunder players sit around and belt out the Backstreet Boys’ “I want it that way.”