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.

Craig Sager to get third bone marrow transplant thanks to anonymous donor

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 16:  Legendary TNT sideline reporter Craig Sager talks with Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors at Quicken Loans Arena on June 16, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. Sager is on a one game assignment for ESPN. 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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Craig Sager couldn’t be in Rio covering the Olympics for NBC, his cancer wouldn’t allow it. That didn’t stop Team USA from reaching out to him before they left. Or from Nike designing a sweet pair of shoes for him.

Now there is good news on his battle against leukemia β€” he will have a third bone marrow transplant, according to his son Craig Sager II.

This is fantastic news for a man and family who have been through a lot. Hopefully, this treatment is a step forward for Sager, a man beloved by everyone around the NBA.

Report: With Joffrey Lauvergne trade, Mitch McGary likely done with Thunder

DALLAS, TX - MARCH 16:  Mitch McGary #33 of the Oklahoma City Thunder at American Airlines Center on March 16, 2015 in Dallas, Texas.  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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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The Oklahoma City frontcourt is crowded. Enes Kanter and Steven Adams will start, and they will have Nick Collison, Ersan Ilyasova, Domantas Sabonis, and now Joffrey Lauvergne behind them.

Which likely means Mitch McGary‘s done as a member of the Thunder, according to Royce Young of ESPN.

McGary has battled injuries his two seasons in the league and got on the court for only 72 minutes total last season for the Thunder (he played in more games and put up solid numbers in the D-LEague). He was not part of the future there regardless. He’s an undersized five trying to play the four and what he brought as a rookie β€” energy β€” was not enough as a sophomore.

McGary will make $1.5 million this season. He may be tough to move because he’s suspended for the first five games he’s eligible to play next season for failing the league’s drug policy (five games is the standard suspension for testing positive for marijuana three times). Maybe a team looking to develop players will give him a shot, but there is little trade value for him.

Dwight Howard is shooting 19-footers to improve his free throw stroke

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If you can knock down a 19-foot shot, then a 15-footer should be easier. Right?

Apparently that β€” and just basic muscle memory β€” is the latest attempt to improve Dwight Howard‘s free throw shooting. And, he seems to be knocking down those shots.

It’s not hard to see the logic in this approach.

The challenge is form and reps are not the problems for Howard β€” or DeAndre Jordan or Andre Drummond or others β€” when it comes to hitting free throws. Anyone who says “why don’t they just practice the shot” doesn’t pay attention, these guys put in a lot of work on the shot. Pregame and in practice (I’m Los Angeles based), Jordan probably hits 65 percent from the line. At least.

The problem is mental. That can be a tougher hurdle to clear. Maybe taking 19 footers and knocking them down will have Howard feeling more confident at the stripe this season.

But we’re going to need to see it to believe it. Just like we’re going to have to see a rejuvenated Howard in Atlanta before we believe this season will be different from the last few.

Report: Veteran big man Jason Thompson agrees to deal in China

BEIJING, CHINA - OCTOBER 15:  Jason Thompson # 34 of Sacramento Kings in action during the 2014 NBA Global Games match between the Brooklyn Nets and Sacramento Kings at MasterCard Center on October 15, 2014 in Beijing, China. 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 Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
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Until this season, Jason Thompson had never been to the playoffs. He spent seven seasons in Sacramento before getting traded to the Warriors last offseason, and then signing with the Raptors midseason when Golden State waived him to make room on the roster for Anderson Varejao. His NBA days appear over, at least for now. International basketball reporter David Pick reports that Thompson has agreed to a deal to play in China.

Since the CBA’s season ends in March, Thompson could theoretically join an NBA team for the stretch run next year. But he didn’t appear to have much interest on the free-agent market this summer.