NBA Playoffs: Breaking down the second quarter

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After the first two games, it looked like the Los Angeles Lakers were getting ready to waltz into the NBA Finals. We all know the old saying that a playoff series doesn’t really start until one team loses at home, but Phoenix looked just plain outclassed throughout the first 96 minutes of the conference finals — the final two Laker wins seemed like a formality. Less than a week later, it’s a tie series again. 
There have been plenty of strategies, players, and shots behind Phoenix’s two consecutive victories. But for right now, let’s take a look at one of the high points of the playoffs so far: That insane 41-32 second quarter that featured frenetic action, momentum shifts, and stars and role players alike hitting shot after shot after shot. Here’s a rehashing of the quarter, with some commentary added:
-The Lakers start out the quarter with Kobe and Bynum out on the floor. The Suns go with their bench-only lineup of Dragic/Barbosa/Dudley/Frye/Amundson. Dragic starts the quarter out by setting Dudley up with a drive-and-kick three, which breaks the tie and puts Phoenix up 26-23. 
-Shannon Brown answers with a 20-footer to cut the lead to one. Random note: how many jumpers did the Lakers hit with their feet on the three-point line? It seems like they did it at least five times over the course of the game. In what turned out to be a close game, those things do matter. Watch those toes, Los Angeles. 
-Bynum hits a hook shot for the Lakers, but in the meantime Barbosa, Dragic, and Amundson all get layups. The Suns’ bench unit is doing to the Lakers what the Thunder did in round one — they’re beating them down the court, getting easy baskets, hustling all the time, and frustrating themselves with their athleticism. They don’t play defense as well as the Thunder do, but they make up for it by being much better shooters. 
-After Amundson dunks to put the Suns up six, Kobe finds a soft spot in the zone, spots up, and drains a catch-and-shoot jumper. 27 seconds later, Kobe answers a tough Barbosa jumper by hitting from the exact same spot he’d made from before. 
-With seven minutes to play in the quarter, Channing Frye hits a quick-trigger catch-and-shoot three. Before that shot, Frye had missed his previous 19 attempts from the field. The crowd goes absolutely crazy — huge momentum shift on that play, and all of a sudden Frye looked like he enjoyed basketball again. A minute later, Dudley hits a three to put the Suns up 10. Phil is forced to call timeout. 
-At this point, the Suns were up double-digits, they were making everything they looked at, and the crowd was in the game. The Lakers have yet to lose a home game in these playoffs, and the Suns have to beat them at home to win this series. In short, this was the point in the game where most teams could have folded. We’ve seen it plenty of times in these playoffs. 
But most teams don’t have Kobe Bryant. After the time-out, Kobe hit two tough threes in the span of 34 seconds to keep the Lakers in the game. The Suns kept answering with threes of their own, but Kobe wasn’t backing down either. Time after time Kobe would find a spot, wait for the pass, set up, and drain the jumper over whoever had the audacity to try and contest his shot. Kobe would end up tying the game in the third quarter by utilizing all aspects of his game, but his second-quarter performance was just as effective. He was taking the shots the Suns wanted him to take, and they were finding net every single time. 
Since the Lakers lost (and the Suns were able to take Kobe out of the game with some extreme double-teams in the fourth quarter), there’s no way this will be talked about as one of Kobe’s great games. In fact, this performance will probably be forgotten within 48 hours. But what Kobe did to keep his team in the game in the second and third quarters of game four was special nonetheless. If anybody but Kobe Bryant had been taking those shots, this would not have been a competitive game. 
-If this game had happened in Los Angeles, I don’t see how the Suns would have been able to survive this Kobe performance. Their threes would have been greeted by silence, and the “M-V-P” chants for Kobe may have reached other celestial bodies. But with the crowd behind them in Phoenix, the Suns were able to keep their composure, play with energy, and drain three after three to keep Kobe and Co. at bay. Channing Frye hit two more threes over the rest of the third quarter, Steve Nash hit a three of his own, J-Rich added a putback and a layup, and Amar’e was able to finish the quarter with an easy little pull-up. 
That second quarter wasn’t just one of the most entertaining 12 minutes of the postseason so far — it gave us a look at the blueprint the Suns need to follow to win this series. They need to hit their threes. They need to play with more energy and put the pressure on the older, bigger Lakers. Their bench needs to be a major advantage for them. They need to do whatever they can to keep the Lakers from beating them with their size in the paint and make them beat them from the perimeter, even if Kobe starts to get hot. Doing all those things in front of a hostile crowd will be very, very difficult. But if the Suns can do all of those things, they might just be able to pull off the upset and get themselves into the NBA Finals. 

Report: Kawhi Leonard to return to San Antonio around exit interviews. Then…

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Nobody is sure how the Kawhi Leonard situation is going to play out with the Spurs. As is the nature of the NBA, the GMs of other teams are starting to circle the Spurs like vultures, on the chance that this time Gregg Popovich cannot smooth out the relationship with his star player and needs to trade him. Leonard spent the playoffs away from the team, working out and talking to doctors in New York while “his group” shielded him from attempts from San Antonio to reach out.

Now has come the time for the sides to talk, and that will happen soon reports Jabari Young of the San Antonio Express-News.

What happens during and after that meeting is anyone’s guess.

The Spurs will only move Leonard as a last resort, and they have two things on their side. First, Gregg Popovich, who has maintained a healthy relationship with his star pupil through all of this. LaMarcus Aldridge told Popovich he wanted to be traded last summer, and over the course of some dinner meetings and self-reflection, Popovich was able to both keep Aldridge in the fold and put him in positions to be an All-NBA level player this season. The key is that both sides were willing to talk with an open mind, are Leonard and his advisors open to that?

Second, the Spurs have the ultimate hammer — the $219 million designated veteran extension (the contract James Harden and Russell Westbrook signed this year). Put that on the table and Leonard will sign it. The question is will the Spurs put it out there? Probably not if Leonard makes it clear he doesn’t want to be in San Antonio any longer. That’s when the trade talks start to gain traction.

But we’re not there yet. Not even close. Let the meetings play out first.

Back home, Thunder try to avoid elimination against Jazz

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma City was built this offseason around three All-Stars with the hopes of contending for the Western Conference crown.

The Utah Jazz started the year 18-26 without center Rudy Gobert. However, Gobert returned and the Jazz rolled off 11 straight wins into Valentine’s Day with the help of a surprise rookie of the year contender.

One more win and the Jazz will reach the second round for the second straight year. They’ll send the Thunder home with a second straight first-round exit — despite Oklahoma City’s overhauled, star-studded roster.

After losing the first game on the road, Utah won decisively in each of the past three games, including a 17-point victory in Game 4 — a game the Thunder called a must-win in Salt Lake City.

“It’s the playoffs, it’s gonna be war,” Utah point guard Ricky Rubio, who had a triple-double in Game 3, told the Salt Lake Tribune after Utah’s 113-96 victory in Game 4. “We know that it’s gonna be another war next game. We just have to be tough but at the same time, mentally ready for that.”

Game 5 is set for 9:30 p.m. EST Wednesday at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell, who averaged 20 points per game during the regular season, has averaged 27.6 points during the past three games — taking his play to another level to lead a balanced Jazz attack that has five players averaging in double figures. Mitchell, who was the 13th overall pick in last year’s draft, has scored 110 points through the first four games, the most by a rookie in his first four games since Michael Jordan’s 117 in 1985, according to nba.com.

“To be honest, a lot of this is surreal. I’m just taking it game-by-game and not really getting caught up in the big picture,” Mitchell told the Salt Lake City Tribune. “Just focusing on game-by-game. My teammates have helped me out a lot as far as that goes. But we’re playing together.”

Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook picked up four fouls before halftime in Game 4 and was fined $10,000 for an altercation with Gobert late in the game. Luckily for the Thunder, he was not suspended following his altercation with the Utah center.

Westbrook’s foul trouble has hardly been the Thunder’s biggest issue.

Oklahoma City was inconsistent much of the year, but it has had to contend with shooting woes from offseason acquisition Carmelo Anthony, who has hit just 25 percent of his 3-pointers in the first four games of the playoffs.

“We gotta win, nothing to it,” Anthony said after the Game 4 loss. “We’ve just gotta win. We can sit here and say what we gotta do, or what we didn’t do or what we did do, but it comes down to having the will to win that game Wednesday and forcing a Game 6 back in Utah.”

Winning in Utah won’t to be easy, where the Jazz have won six straight. Oklahoma City has to get back to Salt Lake City first and stave off elimination. But Utah hasn’t lost three straight games since Gobert’s return to the lineup in mid-January.

“Every game’s been physical,” Gobert said to reporters. “We just got to watch the tape, see how much better we can get and get ready to play basketball.”

Any end to one-and-done rule remains a couple of years away

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Condoleezza Rice and the Commission on College Basketball released their much-anticipated report and…

Yawn.

We’ll see how much the NCAA wishes to police itself and ban coaches caught cheating from the sport, or to do anything that would stem the flow of money from shoe companies and boosters into college hoops. Will the NCAA make an organizational shift to focus less on enforcement and more on involvement with players before they get to college?

One thing the report wants is an end to the one-and-done rule with the NBA, and it issues some veiled threats about getting back together and coming up with new recommendations if the NBA and its players’ union does not act within a year. Yawn. The NBA will continue to work toward this at its own pace, as Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN notes.

Allowing guys to go back to college if not drafted — even if they had an agent — is a good step.

The NBA will move at its own pace with reforms to its draft rules, and we are still years away from that (if the owners can be herded into a consensus in the first place). This commission’s report changes none of that, and without the NBA and players’ union’s cooperation the commission can’t accomplish some of its goals anyway.

The NBA is moving toward ending one-and-done, NBA commissioner Adam Silver had said they were waiting on this report to take the next steps down that road. With the assistance of the NCAA, the league could move to something more akin to the baseball model (players can be drafted out of high school to the NBA, but if they go to college they have to stay two or three seasons). However, this remains years away. For now, players such as Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III will continue to be one-and-dones. Nobody likes it, but it is the rule for now.

Hassan Whiteside knows Heat’s problem: Not enough Hassan Whiteside

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In 10 minutes on the court in Game 5, Hassan Whiteside was 0-of-4 from the field, picked up three fouls, and was -14. He couldn’t handle Joel Embiid physically on either end, and Miami had better success against the Sixers big man with Kelly Olynyk or other shooters at the five, pulling Embiid away from the basket some.

In the three games since Embiid returned to the Sixers, when Whiteside was on the court the Heat were outscored by 11.9 points per 100 possessions. For the entire five-game series Whiteside shot just 45 percent (50.5 true shooting percentage, well below the league average). Outside of grabbing some rebounds, Whiteside was not a positive for the Heat against the Sixers.

Whiteside said after the Heat were eliminated the problem was he didn’t get enough of a chance.

That’s not how the playoffs work. When something doesn’t work — and Hassan being able to hang with Embiid clearly did not work, they are not on the same level — coaches don’t have time to let a guy play through it. Time and possessions are too precious in the postseason, if something doesn’t work the coach needs to look for something that does.

Not that if he’d been given “a chance to fight” it would have made a difference. Whiteside likes to think of himself as an elite NBA center near the class of Embiid. He’s not.

The question is will he be back with Miami next season? On the court, coach Erik Spoelstra appears ready to go another direction. However, trading Whiteside — who is owed $25.4 million next season and has a player option for $27 million the season after that — will not be easy. Teams are not going to want to take on that much salary for Whiteside’s level of production (and style that doesn’t completely mesh with where the game is going for big men). The Heat would have to attach a pick or another player that teams would want, a sweetener in the deal. That may be too rich for Miami to play that hand.

It’s something to watch over the summer. Whiteside and Spoelstra are not on the same page right now and so something needs to change, the question is what?