NBA Playoffs, Lakers Suns Game 4: Suns in a different kind of zone but it still means a win

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Frye_Bench.jpgPhoenix was in the zone again.

Not the defense… well, they were in that too and it had an impact, but this time it was an offensive zone. There were stretches of Game 4 where it seemed no Sun could miss. The Lakers couldn’t figure them out.

But that offensive zone was really a string of little things that started with the defense, led to open threes for the Suns bench that got hot, and ended with a 115-106 Suns win that has even this series 2-2.

The series everybody had written off as over just a few days ago is now headed to a clash-of-styles Game 5 Thursday in Los Angeles that likely will decide the series.

Phoenix has figured out the little things. The question that remains is can they do this on the road, where their role players struggled and the calls are often not as friendly? You can see in the Suns eyes they think they can.

That confidence starts with the zone defense. The Lakers played better against it, to the tune of 105 points and 49 percent shooting. The Lakers scored, and at times they did what they wanted to do by getting the ball into the teeth of the Suns zone with passes to Pau Gasol in the high post, or off penetration.

But then they’d stop doing it for stretches. They’d take the path of least resistance and just go back to taking threes — they took 28 in this game after taking 32 last game. The Lakers are not a good three point shooting team, and they hit just 32 percent of those threes in Game 4.

That means a lot of long rebounds to fuel the Suns offense. And for the Suns bench, it was like rocket fuel. The Suns bench had 54 points (to the Lakers 20) on 62.5 percent shooting. The Suns took those rebounds and were off to the races — the Suns had 40 second quarter points largely fueled by those missed shots becoming Suns shots before the Lakers could get back and set their defense. They could not miss — even Channing Frye, who was 0-16 before this game, finished 4 of 8 from
three. The same thing happened in the fourth quarter, when the Lakers had tied the game but the Suns pulled away on three consecutive threes, two of them off missed Lakers shots.

“What was disappointing for me is the fact we took five threes in that sequence of action where they made up the ground when we took the lead in the fourth quarter,” Phil Jackson said in a televised interview on NBA TV after the game.

The chance to get out and run made the Suns the aggressors. Again. Phoenix made 22 free throws on 32 attempts, the Lakers were 7 of 13. The reason was not the referees, it was that the Lakers were settling for jumpers while the Suns were attacking. Further evidence of that, the Suns had 18 offensive rebounds.

Phoenix also exploited Andrew Bynum, who is clearly hurting. The Suns had Bynum’s man — Robin Lopez or Amare Stoudemire — come out and set the high screen for Steve Nash because Bynum was not mobile enough to slow Nash and recover to his man rolling toward the basket. Stoudemire finished with 21 points.

Kobe tried to take control himself, and he put on an impressive display of shooting on his way to 38 points (he hit 15 of 22 shots and was 6 of 9 from three). But late in the game the Suns started sending kamikaze double teams at him to get the ball out of his hands (same with Gasol) — let anyone else try to beat them, but not Kobe. It worked. The Lakers took threes and missed them.

Jackson said after the game he was fine with the Lakers offense, it was the defense that bothered him. But the two were interrelated — the Suns aggressiveness in their zone forced the Lakers into bad shot selections that fueled the Suns offense the Lakers couldn’t stop. It was more mental than physical, Kobe said.

“I think our concentration was focused on how to attack the zone, I think it kind of flipped our attention to detail defensively,” Bryant said in his televised interview. “Our focus was on the other end of the floor, which doesn’t win championships.”

If the Lakers are going to win a championship — or even compete for one in the Finals — they need to get that defensive attention back.

The Suns, on the other hand, need to keep riding the zone and the three point shooting. Their offense is a beautiful and powerful thing when unleashed. And right now, that storm is blowing the Lakers out of the way, much like the Lakers did to them in the first two games.

Game five Thursday night is going to be a fascinating clash of styles.

Rajon Rondo: You couldn’t name three players on 2015-16 Kings, but I led NBA in assists

SACRAMENTO, CA - MARCH 09:  Rajon Rondo #9 of the Sacramento Kings dribbles the ball against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Sleep Train Arena on March 9, 2016 in Sacramento, California. 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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Months into his first and only season with the Kings, Rajon Rondo declared himself to be the first veteran teammate ever respected by DeMarcus Cousins.

As he deals with new problems with the Bulls, Rondo is again trashing his former Sacramento teammates.

Rondo, via David Aldridge of NBA.com:

“It’s just, maybe, the personnel in this situation,” Rondo says in response. “I mean, last year — I hate to keep talking about last year — but you couldn’t name three people on my team, the Sacramento Kings, and I led the league in assists. You know? I don’t know. I believe so (that his skill set still has value), given the right personnel and the flow of the game.”

Rondo is right: Playing with Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade is not ideal, and his passing was an asset to the Kings.

He’s also proving his critics right: He’s too often a jerk.

Rondo has declined significantly overall, particularly on defense. His plus passing is barely enough to make him rotation-worthy. It’s not enough for teams cast aside his hardheadedness.

But is Rondo right that you can’t name three members of the 2015-16 Kings? Take this quiz to find out:

Report: Nike doesn’t plan to make sleeved NBA jerseys

LeBron James
AP Photo/Tony Dejak
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Sleeved NBA jerseys sell poorly. Players dislike them.

So, the NBA switching from adidas to Nike is apparently an excuse to ditch the sleeves.

Sara Germano of The Wall Street Journal, via Paul Lukas of Uni Watch:

Nike, meanwhile, is expected to present its initial NBA jersey designs to retailers beginning this week. The company said it doesn’t plan to produce sleeved jerseys, a style debuted by Adidas in 2013 that received mixed reviews from players and fans.

Whether or not sleeves were introduced for ad space, uniform advertisements are still coming. The ads can fit on standard jerseys, no problem.

At this point, there’s just little to no upside for sleeved jerseys.

Nostalgia will treat sleeves better than present-day evaluations, but until we look back wistfully on this mostly failed experiment, good riddance.

Report: Carmelo Anthony twice asked to meet with Phil Jackson, who will get around to it soon

New York Knicks president Phil Jackson watches from the stands during the second half of the Knicks' NBA basketball game against the New Orleans Pelicans at Madison Square Garden in New York, Monday, Jan. 9, 2017.  The Pelicans won 110-96. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Despite sounding like he wanted a conversation with Phil Jackson, Carmelo Anthony said he hadn’t spoken with the Knicks president since Phil Jackson mouthpiece Charley Rosen wrote Anthony no longer fit in New York.

It hasn’t been for a lack of effort.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

If you’re trying to keep up with the Jackson-Anthony feuds, their previous meeting came after Jackson publicly critiqued Anthony’s ball-hogging.

That affair should’ve provided a sense of Jackson’s communication skills. This latest episode only reinforces it.

The Knicks were in New York on Thursday, when Rosen’s article was published. They played in Toronto on Sunday and returned home for a game yesterday. That’s plenty of time for Jackson and Anthony to talk.

Why hasn’t it happened yet?

Isaiah Thomas on pace to break modern-era fourth-quarter scoring record

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With seven and a half minutes left, Isaiah Thomas drained a 3-pointer, held up his left wrist and stared at it.

It was time.

His time.

Thomas scored 17 fourth-quarter points in the Celtics’ win over the Hornets yesterday.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” Thomas said. “It just surprises everybody else.”

It shouldn’t any longer.

Boston has won seven of eight, and in that span, Thomas has scored most of the Celtics’ fourth-quarter points. He has pushed his fourth-quarter scoring average to 10.1 for the season – putting him on track to break the modern-era record.

Kobe Bryant scored 9.5 fourth-quarter points per game in 2006, the most in the previous 20 years (as far back as NBA.com has data). The leaderboard:

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Russell Westbrook is also on track to surpass Kobe and join this rarified air. LeBron James, Tracy McGrady, Kevin Durant and Dwyane Wade are the only other players to average even eight fourth-quarter points per game in a season over the previous 20 years. Not even Michael Jordan (7.1 in 1997, 7.3 in 1998) did it.

Boston’s offense has blasted into the stratosphere with Thomas on the court in the fourth quarter, scoring 122.1 points per 100 possessions. However, the Celtics allow even more with him on the floor in the final period (122.8 points per 100 possessions). The 5-foot-9 point guard has limits.

But where those limits exist when it comes to his clutch scoring – we haven’t found them yet.