NBA Playoffs Suns Lakers Game 6: Is everything else for the Suns gravy?

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The Suns take the floor tonight for Game 6 versus the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers an underdog. They are considered out-sized, out-talented, and outmatched. But the Suns have shown resiliency in this series, coming back from a dour 0-2 deficit to even the series, then pushing the Lakers to the very wire. The Lakers needed a shot Phil Jackson described as “lucky” from Ron Artest (it was actually just a remarkably heady and well executed shot from the explosive wing) to put the Suns away, at home, and set themselves up for a closeout in Phoenix.

We tend to always put things in perspective after they’ve occurred, and the final minutes of a game tends to be the epitaph of a team’s season. The Spurs were a failed experiment. The Jazz were always a fraud. The Cavaliers were foolhardy in acquiring a top stretch four and one of the greatest centers of all time. The list goes on and on. The latest victim will be the Orlando Magic, who had another terrific regular season and swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs before crashing and burning.

So what will the Suns’ tombstone read, if they don’t manage to force a game seven? We’re not trying to bury the Suns before the three point shooting body is cold, but instead we want to take a moment and put this season in context before they face the best team in the Wast in an elimination game.

The Suns had low expectations coming into this season. They were coming off a lottery appearance, trying to rediscover who they were. Amar’e Stoudemire was on the trade block. There was a world of doubt as to whether they could even return to the playoffs. Steve Kerr was on the hot seat after his two biggest decisions, acquiring Shaquille O’Neal and hiring Terry Porter, were both magnificent failures. It was a season expected to be full of angst and discontent.

Instead?

A return to the fun and gun of the Suns of old, with some improved defense and a focus on rebounding to boot. The Suns did what they did best, spread the ball, enjoy playing basketball, and win games. Still, the doubts persisted. We expected their talent to carry them past a depleted Trailblazers team, and when they lost the first game at home, the talk of the Suns’ style not being able to win in the playoffs (when in fact the only that had been proven is it can’t beat the Conference Champions, particularly the Spurs) started to rumble again.

But they got past Portland, only to face their hated rivals, the Spurs. The Suns spoke of how both teams were difference, that there was no history for them to worry about, but we didn’t buy it. We expected the Spurs’ grinding defense to wear them out, to solve Nash and Stoudemire, and for the Spurs to hit big shots on their way to a victory. Instead, we sat stunned as the Suns raced out to a 2-0 series lead, then took it to the Spurs in San Antonio, and closed them out in a sweep.

Okay, fine, Suns. You had your fun. But this is the big time, the Lakers, the defending champions and the best team in the league. And after two games, we again readied the casket for this Suns team, that looked completely overwhelmed.

But again, they fought back. Amar’e Stoudemire had his best game of the playoffs, and then the bench mob once again showed its teeth. Tie series. Lakers fans were apoplectic. Analysts were simply impressed. This Suns team won’t die. They rallied from down 18 in Game 5 to tie the game before Ron Artest made a game saving play.

But even after that heartbreaking game, after working so hard only to have it disappear, the Suns were unfazed. Steve Nash made comments guaranteeing a Suns win in Game 6. The locker room and subsequent practices were light and upbeat. These guys must be on Prozac. Nothing gets them down.

If the Lakers win tonight, it will be because they were the better team, as they were in the regular season. They spend more money on their All-Star studded roster. They feature a Hall of Famer and several top 20 players on their starting five. They have no excuse for not making the Finals. The Suns? They had no expectations of going this far, no matter what they tell you. But they hung together, played with heart and grit. If they fail to reach the summit, it will not be for lack of effort or heart. They simply won’t have the size and guns to overcome Mount Kobe.

Perhaps that’s the worst part of the playoffs. That so many brilliant careers are tarnished when the other team is simply better. Steve Nash is criticized constantly. “He didn’t deserve two MVPs.” “He can’t play defense.” “He’s not that good.” And yet not only has he played brilliantly, hit huge shots, continued brilliant passing and led this team to the Conference Finals, but he’s done so with a broken nose, a gashed eye, and been bloodied from start to finish. And that’s before we talk about the back pain that forces him to lay down whenever he’s not in the game.

This team has earned your respect. The Lakers being better doesn’t make this Suns team less of a worthy opponent. They’ve taken everything the Lakers can throw at them and come back for more. If they were to win tonight? Anything can happen in a Game 7. If it would shock you to see the Suns in the Finals, you haven’t been paying enough attention to the Suns. It would be stunning for the Lakers not to win the West. Not for the Suns to win it.

This team had nothing more to prove after sweeping Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan into the sea. Pushing LA to a Game 6? Gravy. It’s already been a fantastic season for the Suns. Now we just have to see exactly how much gravy these guys get to add on top.

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.

Allen Iverson predicts LeBron James will win MVP

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LeBron James has four NBA MVP trophies in his case. (Does he keep that case in his home in Akron or the one in Los Angeles… that’s a question for another day.) Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six) and Michael Jordan (five) have more.

Could LeBron James add a fifth to his case this season?

Allen Iverson said yes at last weekend’s Big3 playoffs in Seattle.

LeBron was fourth in preseason odds to win the MVP at 15/2, behind Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard.

To me, LeBron could be a good bet. If/when Kyrie Irving is traded, the chances of LeBron getting the MVP go up. If LeBron puts up impressive numbers (again) and leads a depleted Cavaliers team to a top two seed in the East, he is certainly going to be in consideration. And should be.

It’s a long season, and personally, I think you need to get midway through the season before seriously considering the year-end awards. But history says LeBron will be in the mix, and Allen Iverson could be proven prophetic.