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.

Report: Tampering investigation stems from Magic Johnson’s TV interview

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In April, new Lakers president Magic Johnson went on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and discussed then-Pacers forward Paul George:

We’re going to say hi, because we know each other. You just can’t say, “Hey, I want you to come to the Lakers,” even though I’m going to be wink-winking like [blinks repeatedly]. You know what that means, right?

Now, the Lakers – at Indiana’s request – are being investigated for tampering.

Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times:

The investigation, which has been going on since May, stemmed from comments Magic Johnson made on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” that angered Pacers owner Herb Simon, according to several NBA officials who were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

This doesn’t mean the Pacers believe Johnson tampered with his televised comments. It seems as if that was the last straw following numerous rumors about George going to Los Angeles.

However, there’s a case Johnson’s televised remarks alone would constitute tampering. The Collective Bargaining Agreement prohibits “assurances of intent, or understandings of any kind (whether disclosed or undisclosed to the NBA), between a player (or any person or entity controlled by, related to, or acting with authority on behalf of, such player) and any Team (or Team Affiliate)” – and even attempts to solicit assurance of intent or understanding – when the player is still under contract with another team. Johnson sure appeared to do that.

But it’d be shocking if Johnson or the Lakers were punished for the interview alone. Indiana probably needs more evidence.

Then again, the arbitrary way the NBA enforces tampering, who knows?

Report: Nerlens Noel hires Rich Paul as agent, looking for big deal from Mavericks

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It’s been a rough year for restricted free agents (and plenty of unrestricted ones). After NBA teams spent like drunken sailors on shore leave last summer, this time around — with the cap not rising as much as had been expected — the market got tight quickly, and few questionable contracts were handed out. A year ago the Brooklyn Nets were making the Miami Heat pay big to retain Tyler Johnson and the Trail Blazers pay big to keep Allen Crabbe. This year teams were not biting the same way on restricted free agents.

Which left guys like Nerlens Noel, who expected to be maxed out by the Mavericks (or someone), still looking for a deal. Noel was frustrated enough to switch agents, picking up Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, according to Michael Scotto of Basketball Insiders.

Paul is LeBron James‘ agent, and in recent years has done well getting Tristan Thompson and Eric Bledsoe good contracts as extensions to their rookie deals. In both cases, he showed a fearlessness in holding out longer and being willing to push the envelope. That had to appeal to Noel.

But it doesn’t change the underlying dynamics at play — and not just with Noel. Paul also represents restricted free agents this summer Shabazz Muhammad — who has yet to sign a deal — and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who had to take a one-year deal with the Lakers for $18 million (well below his max). Throw in Noel’s injury history, and teams were not eager to jump in with a big offer for the athletic big man.

At this point, no team has the money to offer Noel a max contract right now — the Bulls have the most available money at $17.3 million, the Sixers and Suns have about $15 million and $14 million. Noel’s max is $24.7 million a year. Dallas is playing hardball because they can — without another offer on the table, Noel’s only real threat is to sign the qualifying offer (about $6 million) and play the season for that, then become an unrestricted free agent next summer. That’s possible, but a guy with Noe’s history of injuries may want to be careful betting on himself like that.

With Paul in the negotiations, expect them to drag out. That’s about the only sure thing.

Remembering Notre Dame, Laker legend Tommy “the hawk” Hawkins

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Tommy Hawkins passed away recently at the age of 80.

The former NBA player was the first black athlete to earn All-America honors in basketball at Notre Dame (he still holds the school’s total rebounds record), was drafted in the first round, and went on to have a 10-year NBA career playing for the Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers as well as the Cincinnati Royals. Los Angeles fans may also remember him as the long time director of communications for the Los Angeles Dodgers after his playing days ended.

The NBA put together this well done video look back at Hawkins’ career.

Celtics’ Brad Stevens said early September tests will show if Thomas ready for camp

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Isaiah Thomas said he expects to be ready for the Celtics’ training camp next month. The guard’s All-NBA season came to an early end in the playoffs when he aggravated a labral tear in his right hip initially suffered back in March. At least the injury did not require surgery.

Players are also about the worst judges of when they will recover from an injury. They pretty much all think they are invincible and will be healthy faster than doctors predict.

Coaches tend to be more pragmatic. Take Boston’s Brad Stevens, who told Chris Mannix on The Vertical Podcast that tests in a couple of weeks will show if Thomas is ready for camp.

“He has another follow-up and another scan in the early part of September. Obviously, it’s been a lot of appropriate rest, a lot of rehab. There have been some good strides here certainly in the last month or few weeks, but we’re not going to know that until after that early September timeframe.”

The Celtics are understandably going to be cautious with Thomas, while Thomas wants to prove he is healthy and has no ill effects from the injury as he enters a contract year (one where he expects to get PAID). Also, the Celtics could use him in camp as they start to figure out how he and Gordon Hayward can share playmaking duties.

Still, from the outset, the timelines have suggested he should be ready for camp in late September. Coaches are just cautious on these things by nature.