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.

Steve Kerr will not “just stick to sports,” embraces new era of player political/social activism

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NEW ORLEANS — “Just stick to sports.”

Anytime an athlete speaks out on social issues, or wades into the political arena, Twitter swells with that comment — from people who disagree with the statement. In the wake of a polarizing election and controversial moves from President Donald Trump — such as his executive order on an immigration seven majority Muslim countries — there has been criticism of his moves from Commissioner Adam Silver, coaches such as Gregg Popovich, as well as players.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr has been at the front of that criticism, and he is not going to “just stick to sports.”

“If you stick to that mantra, then everybody should stick to what they’re doing, right? That means nobody’s allowed to have a political opinion,” Kerr said during All-Star weekend, where he was repeatedly asked about political and social issues. “It just so happens we get these microphones stuck in our face and we have a bigger platform. But it’s free speech and, if you look at the history of the world, the biggest problems come when people don’t speak.”

The “just stick to sports” crowd almost always opposes what the players said, but root their comments in the idea sports should be an escape from the political realm or other worldly challenges. Even though at it’s best sports has never been that — not with Jackie Robinson or Muhammad Ali or Olympic protests.

Kerr noted that in our modern world with so many outlets for getting your information, fans can choose to avoid political discussions in sports if they wish — just don’t click the link.

“I think you can follow sports however you want as a fan. If you want to watch the games to get away from everyday life, you can do that,” Kerr said. “You can turn on the games and watch the Warriors play or watch the Spurs play or whoever, and it’s just going to be about basketball. If you don’t want to read about political issues, you don’t have to read it. It’s the same in any field, whether it’s basketball, or entertainment, even politics themselves, you have to choose what you want to read about and follow. 

“We are in a society where a lot of us have microphones in our face every day, and a lot of us feel strongly about our need to speak out on injustice. I think it’s important. But it’s up to the individual fan to take that in or not. They can pick and choose.”

For a long time, there has been less social activism among athletes — not just in the NBA, but across sports. That is changing again, and Kerr said it’s a reaction to the times in which we live.

“I think maybe over the last 20 or 30 years there hasn’t been that same sense of urgency because we’ve generally lived in a pretty peaceful era, but it feels like it’s changing and so the whole country is changing in terms of its activism and social awareness,” Kerr said…

“For a long time, a lot of athletes stayed out of the political forum, out of fear of losing customers, and I think it’s refreshing that we have athletes who are putting their social beliefs ahead of any marking issues. I think that’s powerful.”

Kerr spoke out some on a long weekend where he had a microphone in his face a lot,  opposing President Trump policies such as building a border wall with Mexico for example. However, mostly he praised both the increased social activism of players and the stance of the league to stand up for inclusion — including moving the All-Star Game out of Charlotte because of North Carolina’s “bathroom bill.”

“Free speech is one of the principles our country was founded on, I think there’s some responsibility that goes with that if you see injustice,” Kerr said. “That’s why I think the league has been great in terms of understanding that responsibility and taking action, such as moving the All-Star Game from Charlotte to New Orleans….

“I think what the NBA tries to preach is equality, and inclusion — we don’t just talk about it, we live it. We have this beautiful game where we have people from every race and religion and background, and we like that in our fans, too.”

While the league has turned its words into actions such as moving the All-Star Game — and warning Texas if they pass a similar bill Houston is likely out of the running for the 2020 edition of the game — the question is what the next step will be for the players. Commenting on social injustice is one thing, but how do they turn that into actions?

“That’s not my department,” Kerr said with a shrug. “I have spoken out on issues and will continue to do so, and I think the league has done a really good job of walking the walk. Moving the All-Star Game from Charlotte to here I think was an important statement for the league — we are about inclusion and equality for everybody, regardless of gender, race, religion, background, anything.”

Coaches such as Kerr, as well as NBA players, have a bigger megaphone to get out their views because they are interviewed by the media almost daily. Kerr said that he feels players have a responsibility to step up and be heard on issues, not just “stick to sports.”

“I think if you’re in a certain position, and you feel strongly about something, then I think it’s important and you should (speak out),” Kerr said. “But we all live different lives in different places, we’re from different backgrounds with different journeys, and what’s important to me might not be important to somebody else, and visa vera.

“But we’re all in a position where we can make a difference, and I think players understand that.”

Isaiah Thomas (correctly) says that trade wouldn’t be allowed in a video game

Sacramento Kings Media Day
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images
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The Kings trade of DeMarcus Cousins and Omri Casspi for a first-round pick, a second-round pick, Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans and Langston Galloway left many of us shellshocked by Sacramento’s meager return.

Apparently including Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas:

I recently participated in the Dunc’d On Basketball Podcast mock trade deadline, in which Nate Duncan, Danny Leroux, Kevin Pelton and I each took teams and negotiated trades. After the actual Cousins deal, I asked Pelton what he would’ve done if he had the Kings in our podcast and got that offer.

He just burst into laughter.

Thomas might likewise find the trade laughable, but that’s not everything at play with his tweet. The Kings once scorned him, and he hasn’t forgotten.

Emotional DeMarcus Cousins near tears saying goodbye to Sacramento after trade

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Kings’ general manager Vlade Divac took a parting shot at DeMarcus Cousins‘ character when he spoke to the media about the deal.

Cousins could be challenging in the locker room, but he was committed to Sacramento in ways most teams wish their star would be. He was active in the community, did charity work, and was not one of the players that alerted the media and dragged along a video crew when he did. Cousins loves Sacramento.

You can see it as he tears up when saying goodbye to those close to him in this video.

On the court, the trade to New Orleans and the chance to play next to Anthony Davis could be a huge boost for Cousins’ career. We’ll never know what could have been if the Kings knew how to draft or stuck with a system/coach.

But off the court, Sacramento will miss him. And he will miss them.

All-Star game television ratings are best since 2013

Western Conference forward Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans (23 ) slam dunks during the first half of the NBA All-Star basketball game in New Orleans, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, Pool)
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NEW YORK (AP) — The NBA All-Star game drew an average audience of 7.8 million viewers, making it the most-viewed All-Star broadcast since 2013.

Turner Sports announced the numbers on Monday. The number of viewers peaked at 8.5 million and the total audience was up 3 percent from last year’s game.

The hype surrounding the game centered on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook playing on the Western Conference team together. Durant left Oklahoma City last summer to join Golden State, leaving his longtime teammate Westbrook behind with the Thunder. Westbrook did not hide his dissatisfaction with Durant, which ratcheted up the intrigue heading into the game on Sunday.

The two shared the court for just 81 seconds and Oklahoma City posted the highest local market rating with a 10.9.