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


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.

Lakers keep Metta World Peace and Thomas Robinson, waive Anthony Brown

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 15:  Metta World Peace #37 of the Los Angeles Lakers stands on the court during warmups before a preseason game against the Golden State Warriors at T-Mobile Arena on October 15, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Golden State won 112-107. 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 Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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The NBA just can’t shake Metta World Peace as a player.

Despite the Lakers’ reported intention of waiving World Peace and making him an assistant coach, they’ll keep him, Thomas Robinson and Nick Young into the regular season. After waiving Yi Jianlian at his request, they’ll also waive Anthony Brown.

Lakers release:

The Los Angeles Lakers have waived forward Anthony Brown, it was announced today by General Manager Mitch Kupchak.

Brown was the No. 34 pick just last year, but he didn’t show much as a rookie and is already 24. There was no need to keep him over more valuable players – like Robinson.

But World Peace, who turns 37 next month? He’s washed up and offers no upside. The Lakers don’t already have enough veteran leadership between Luol Deng, Jose Calderon, Lou Williams and Timofey Mozgov?

The Lakers probably won’t regret dropping Brown – though they might – but there are better uses for a roster spot in 2016 than World Peace.

51 Questions: Which team will win the West? Make NBA Finals?

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It is the final days of PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For six weeks we have tackled 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. Today the PBT staff answers the biggest questions of them all this season:

Which teams make the playoffs, then who wins the East? Who will be NBA champion?

Here are our staff predictions.

Kurt Helin

1. Warriors
2. Spurs
3. Clippers
4. Jazz
5. Rockets
6. Grizzlies
7. Trail Blazers
8. Thunder

Western Conference Finals:
Warriors over Clippers
NBA Finals: Warriors over Cavaliers

There is a clear top three in the West, and while I think Golden State gets the top seed (but falls just short of 70 wins) I could flip Los Angeles and San Antonio without a problem — and I like the Clippers more in the postseason, they finally get past the second round. Much like the East, then I think 4-11 are all going to be within a handful of games of each other — Dallas, Minnesota, and Denver all could get into the playoffs with good health and a few breaks. Maybe Sacramento, too, but a lot more needs to go right for them.

As for the NBA Finals, the Warriors and Cavaliers are just clear and away the best teams on paper and, assuming health, it’s hard not to pick another Finals rematch. However, this time the Cavaliers can’t put LeBron James on Draymond Green when the Warriors go small because of the threat of Kevin Durant, and that opens up the Warriors offense again in ways it was shut down in the last Finals.

Dan Feldman

1. Warriors
2. Clippers
3. Spurs
4. Rockets
5. Jazz
6. Trail Blazers
7. Thunder
8. Grizzlies

Western Conference Finals: Warriors over Clippers
NBA Finals: Warriors over Cavaliers

I’d give the Warriors about a 50-50 chance of winning the title — which means there’s no way I’m picking any other single team. The Clippers and Spurs lead the pack fighting for second, and I’m clearly intrigued by Houston’s offensive prowess with Mike D’Antoni and James Harden. The Timberwolves and Nuggets could knock on the postseason door, but I don’t think either is quite ready.

Dane Carbaugh

1. Warriors
2. Clippers
3. Spurs
4. Thunder
5. Blazers
6. Jazz
7. Rockets
8. Mavericks

Western Conference Finals: Warriors vs. Spurs
NBA Finals: Warriors over Cavaliers

I genuinely hope I’m wrong about how the West shakes out if only for Chris Paul‘s sake. The Point God and his band of Merry Complainers are in a perfect position to take over a stratified Western Conference that will doubtless be a bastion of parity in only a few years time. But the Clippers just always fall short somehow, be it injury or otherwise. I’m going with the Spurs — who had a historic defensive season in 2015-16 — and who are just too good on paper vs. the rest of the competition. San Antonio still might be the only team that can challenge Golden State, as weird as that sounds.

Reports: Celtics waive R.J. Hunter, keep James Young

WALTHAM, MA - SEPTEMBER 26:  (L-R) RJ Hunter #28, James Young #13, Jordan Mickey #55 and Ben Bentil #50 of the Boston Celtics pose during Boston Celtics Media Day on September 26, 2016 in Waltham, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)
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The Celtics’ final regular-season roster spot came down to a couple recent first-round picks who had guaranteed salaries on their rookie-scale deals:

Young won.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

Jeff Goodman of ESPN:

Someone should claim Hunter on waivers. I rated him a mid-first-rounder just last year, and limited playing time in his rookie season only somewhat dissuades me. He’s no guarantee to pan out out in the NBA, but I like his odds better than many currently on other rosters. Just 23 – it’s his birthday – Hunter still has time to develop.

I’m skeptical anyone will claim him, given that Boston couldn’t trade him for even a second-rounder. But perhaps someone will take a chance rather than battling the field if Hunter becomes a free agent.

Young is similarly unproven in two NBA seasons, but beating Hunter for this job is a positive sign. Like Hunter, Young fits a 3-and-D mold. But the Celtics are betting on Young’s athleticism advantage rather than Hunter’s more refined all-around game. Young definitely has a higher upside.

Spurs waive first-rounder Livio Jean-Charles before first NBA game, putting him in small club

San Antonio Spurs' Livio Jean-Charles, center, and Orlando Magic's Bismack Biyombo (11) go after a loose ball during the second half of an NBA preseason basketball game, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. San Antonio won 95-89. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
AP Photo/John Raoux
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It took a few years, but the Spurs finally signed Livio Jean-Charles – the No. 28 pick in the 2013 draft – to a rookie-scale contract this summer.

The problem: Jean-Charles tore his ACL in Europe and hadn’t developed as San Antonio hoped.

So, San Antonio is cutting bait historically quickly.

Spurs release:

The San Antonio Spurs today announced that the team has waived Joel Anthony, Ryan Arcidiacono, Patricio Garino and Livio Jean-Charles.

This allows the Spurs to keep two players without guaranteed salaries, Bryn Forbes and Nicolas Laprovittola. A shooting guard, Forbes is a 3-point specialist who went undrafted out of Michigan State. Laprovittola, a point guard, will give San Antonio a second Argentinian with Manu Ginobili – though Garino could’ve been three.

Jean-Charles is just the fifth first-round pick in the rookie-scale era to be waived or renounced before playing in the NBA. The other four:

Royce White (No. 16 pick in 2012 by Rockets)

White and and Houston never got on the same page about how to handle his anxiety issues. The Rockets traded him in a financial move to the 76ers, who waived him. White later played three games with the Kings.

Frederic Weis (No. 15 pick in 1999 by Knicks)

Weis never came to the NBA from Europe, but he became infamous for getting dunked on by Vince Carter in the 2000 Olympics. New York traded Weis’ rights to the Rockets (for Patrick Ewing Jr.) in 2008. Weis retired in 2011, and Houston renounced him.

Leon Smith (No. 29 pick in 1999 by Spurs)

The Mavericks acquired Smith in a draft-night trade, and the player who jumped straight from high school struggled in every respect. He clashed with coaches and management, attempted suicide and got arrested twice before being released during his rookie season. It’s a sad tale. Smith later had short stints with the Hawks and Sonics.

Travis Knight (No. 29 in 1996 by Bulls)

Knight never even signed a contract. Chicago renounced him rather than giving him the required three-year guaranteed deal. He signed with the Lakers and made the All-Rookie second team. That led to a more lucrative contract with the Celtics, and Knight also played for the Knicks in a seven-year NBA career.