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. 

NBA suspends Hassan Whiteside for elbowing Boban Marjanovic’s head

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Hassan Whiteside lost his cool and elbowed Boban Marjanovic in the head Tuesday.

The Heat center received a flagrant 2 and an ejection, and now he’s getting the rest of his punishment.

NBA release:

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside has been suspended one game without pay for throwing an elbow and making contact with the head of San Antonio Spurs center Boban Marjanovic, it was announced today by Kiki VanDeWeghe, Executive Vice President, Basketball Operations.

The incident, for which Whiteside was assessed a Flagrant 2 and ejected, occurred with 9:35 remaining in the fourth quarter of the Spurs’ 119-101 win over the Heat at AmericanAirlines Arena on Feb. 9.

Whiteside will serve his suspension when Miami plays the Atlanta Hawks on Feb. 19 at Philips Arena.

The suspension will cost Whiteside $8,921. As a result, the Heat – in line to become the first team in NBA history to pay the repeater luxury-tax rate – trim their impending tax bill by $24,534.

More importantly for Whiteside, this will be a strike against him for teams considering offering him a big contract in free agency this summer.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist tears labrum

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
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October:

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist‘s shoulder injury?

It’s bad.

Now:

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist‘s shoulder injury?

It’s bad.

Hornets:

Kidd-Gilchrist tore his labrum in the preseason, and the injury was expected to sideline him for the year. But he returned a couple weeks ago and helped Charlotte go 5-2.

Now, another setback. This is just awful news for Kidd-Gilchrist and the Hornets. He had worked so hard to get back.

Hopefully, this injury isn’t as severe and Kidd-Gilchrist can play again this season.

Report: Rockets working with Dwight Howard’s agent on trade

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - JANUARY 29: Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets leaves the game after he was ejected during the third quarter of a NBA game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at the Chesapeake Energy Arena on January 29, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 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 J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
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The Rockets have a lot of problems.

One of them is Dwight Howard.

Howard plans to opt out this summer, and he could command a max contract. Does Houston want to pay the 30-year-old center that much?

That question has become increasingly essential as Houston – losers of three straight and six of eight – has sunk out of playoff position. If Howard can’t help the Rockets achieve anything of note this season, determining his place past this season takes priority.

On that note…

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

The Houston Rockets have started contacting teams about trading eight-time All-Star Dwight Howard, league sources told The Vertical.

The Rockets are working with Howard’s agent, Dan Fegan, on possible destinations, league executives told The Vertical.

Working with Fegan is imperative. Because Howard can become an unrestricted free agent, teams will fear him walking in free agency and propose trades to the Rockets accordingly. That could sink Howard’s value below the threshold where Houston would trade him.

But Howard and Fegan can assure certain teams Howard would re-sign, which would make Howard more valuable to them – and boost their trade offers. The NBA forbids under-the-table agreements, but these discussions happen.

Teams could also look at Howard as a rest-of-season rental, but it’s tough to find win-now teams that need a center. And again, it’s less likely a team would value Howard as a rental enough to appease the Rockets’ trade demands.

For Howard, this could be a chance to secure a larger contract. His max projects to be about $170 million over five years if he re-signs or $128 million over four years elsewhere. Ideally for him, he’ll finish the season with a team he wants to re-sign with.

Is that Houston? He’s reportedly unhappy taking a backseat to James Harden, though he denies it. The Rockets’ dismal record certainly doesn’t engender confidence from anyone.

The Celtics and Rockets reportedly talked Howard trade, and the notion Houston won’t trade Howard looks outdated.

It’ll still take multiple sides to make a deal happen – the Rockets, a trade partner and, depending on the details, probably Howard. Those are a lot of hurdles.

But it seems Houston is ready to try clearing them.

Report: Patrick Beverley to drop from All-Star Saturday Skills Challenge title

Patrick Beverley
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Last season, the Rockets’ Patrick Beverley won the NBA All-Star Saturday skills challenge because of his jump shot. In head-to-head battles with the Hawks’ Jeff Teague and the Bucks (now a Sun) Brandon Knight, Beverley fell behind on the passing part of the competition but made up the ground by knocking down his jump shot at the end.

He was set to come to Toronto to defend his skills title but has been forced to back out due to injury, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

After tweaking his ankle Wednesday night in a loss to Portland, Houston Rockets guard Patrick Beverley will not travel to Toronto to defend his skills competition title at All-Star Weekend, league sources told The Vertical.

Beverley wants to rest the ankle over the All-Star break for the Rockets’ final push to make the Western Conference playoffs.

This has yet to be confirmed by the NBA, nor has a replacement been named, but no doubt Woj is accurate on this. No player would risk further injury for a skills competition.

The Rockets have lost six-of-eight, and with the loss to the Blazers Wednesday night have fallen out of the playoffs in the Western Conference. They will need all their players healthy, including Beverley, but they will also need a lot more than that to climb back in the race — they need to start playing defense, they need to stop becoming disinterested for large stretches of the game, and they need someone in that locker room to step up and be a serious leader of men.