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: Thunder have planned Blake Griffin pursuit for months

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The Clippers sound confident about re-signing Blake Griffin in the wake Chris Paul going to the Rockets.

But L.A. will have competition for the star forward – from the Nuggets, Celtics (depending how their primary plan goes), Heat and Griffin’s home-state Thunder.

Royce Young of ESPN:

It’s a shame for the Thunder they backed off their plan to sign Griffin last summer, signing Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo to contract extensions, only to resume it a few months later.

Letting Adams and Oladipo hit unrestricted free agency would have given Oklahoma City an additional $22,514,699 in cap flexibility while maintaining Adams’ and Oladipo’s Bird Rights. That alone wouldn’t have been enough to offer Griffin a max salary, but dumping Enes Kanter, Kyle Singler and either Doug McDermott or Domantas Sabonis would’ve projected to get the Thunder there. In that scenario, Oklahoma City could have also exceeded the cap to re-sign Adams and Oladipo after inking Griffin.

Alas, the Thunder are now limited to dumping contributors that make the team appealing to someone like Griffin in the first place or executing a sign-and-trade. But a sign-and-trade gets complicated. Adams’ salary alone isn’t enough to return Griffin on a max, and it’s not even clear the Clippers – with DeAndre Jordan – would want Adams (though losing Griffin could initiate an even greater rebuild that includes trading Jordan). And again, the Clippers reportedly want to keep Griffin rather than go this route.

This was all foreseeable, though some surprising factors worsened the consequences of the extensions for Oklahoma City.

Griffin seemed more certain last summer to stay in L.A. The 2017-18 salary cap appeared on track to be higher. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement won’t raise cap holds for first-round picks until next year. So, Adams’ deal projects to save the Thunder just $6,425,000 over the next four years relative to a max offer sheet – a paltry sum in the face of the potential cap flexibility lost this year by extending him instead of waiting to re-sign him.

The Thunder making moves earlier than necessary and salary-cap developments turning those plans especially imprudent – where have I heard this one before?

Report: Gordon Hayward will meet first with Heat in free agency, then Jazz, then Celtics

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Gordon Hayward is arguably the biggest available prize in free agency, and his dance card for the first couple of days in July is filling up.

Miami and Pat Riley will bat lead off in a series of meetings, reports ESPN.

Gordon Hayward will take his first free-agent meeting with the Miami Heat on Saturday, a source told ESPN’s Jorge Sedano. Hayward will then be traveling Sunday to meet Utah on Monday, with Boston coming after that…

Sources previously told ESPN the Jazz regard the Heat as no less a threat to lure Hayward away than the Celtics, whose interest in the former Butler star has been anticipated for some time, largely thanks to the presence of Hayward’s college coach, Brad Stevens, on Boston’s bench.

For the record, there are rumors it’s Miami Saturday, Boston Sunday, Utah Monday, then he will take some time to make a decision. I’m not sure the order matters that much.

Hayward is an All-Star level player at a position of need for a lot of teams out on the wing. He averaged 21.9 points per game last season, shot 39.8 percent from three, can put the ball on the floor and be a playmaker for himself and others, plus can defend everything from stretch fours to point guards (he’s not a lock-down defender, but he is good). Hayward is the kind of versatile player teams need to compete in a modern NBA. He’s an elite wing player who is about to get paid like one.

The question is by whom? Around the league teams are convinced it will be one of those three, but which one depends on who you talk to. The Jazz seem confident they can retain him, where others seem confident he’s got one foot out the door. Only Hayward truly knows, and he’s wise to not speak on it and take the meetings. (If he takes his time deciding that could impact the chase for Blake Griffin, Miami and Boston reportedly have interest if they don’t land Gordon, but that can’t be Gordon’s concern. He has to do what’s right for him in his own time.)

Doc Rivers says Chris Paul left to be with James Harden not because of Clipper players

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Chris Paul essentially forcing a trade to the Houston Rockets was an earthquake that shook the Los Angeles Clippers and destroyed them as any kind of contender. (How much of a contender they really were is up for debate, they did win 50+ games five of the past six years, but a combination of injuries, mediocre chemistry and toughness questions never let them get past the second round.)

Then came the aftershocks — or spin. First, there was the report that Paul had it with Doc Rivers because he and the team felt Austin Rivers gets favorable treatment. That was followed by the Clippers spin saying they never formally offered Paul a five-year max deal because they were concerned about paying a 37-year-old CP3 more than $40 million.

Now Doc Rivers entered the fray, defending his players saying Paul left he wanted to play with James Harden, via Brad Turner of the Los Angeles Times (below is his comments from a series of Tweets combined).

“At the end of the day, when you lose a CP, it’s a big loss. I thank him for the years he was here. He left because he wanted to be with James Harden. Let’s not get that twisted. I wish him well. I have no problem with that. Do I disagree? Yeah, I think he would have been better served here. But that’s not for me. That’s CP to decide and he decided against that. We’ve heard all the stories about Blake and DJ and Austin. I can’t comment just on Austin because it’s just not right. We’ve heard he left because of all three today. He left because of DJ, he left because of Blake and now he left because of Austin. We know he didn’t leave because of that. There is a lot of speculation on why he left. The one thing I know is he didn’t leave because of any of those three guys. He left because he felt like he would have a better chance to win somewhere else.”

Doc is right. And wrong. Almost all spin is like a myth — there’s some truth in it, then everything around that gets blown up to put that truth in the light that best suits one side. All of the aftershocks in the wake of Paul’s exit from L.A. have some truth, what any one person believes to be “the truth” speaks more to their viewpoint.

Did Paul leave the Clippers because he wanted to play with Harden and saw that as his best chance to a ring? Absolutely. After six years of playoff frustration, it was clear what the Clippers were not: A team getting to the Finals past the Warriors. These Rockets have a better chance of that and CP3 is a very competitive person.

Were Paul, and many of his teammates, frustrated with what they saw as favoritism toward Austin Rivers? I can tell you that is also unequivocally true. Any reporter that has been around this team at all in recent years has heard that from a variety of sources, myself included.

Were the Clippers worried about the fifth year of CP3s deal? Of course they were, any sane executive would be. Now, if Paul had demanded a five-year max to stay with the Clippers I also have no doubt they would have given it to him, they just would have done it knowing the last year or so of that deal was an anchor. Teams do that all the time.

Life is rarely something black and white, it’s always shades of gray. Major decisions — like changing where you work and live — are not based on just one factor, but a variety of them. Did the chance to win weigh more on Paul than money or frustration with Doc Rivers? Only Paul can answer what the ratios were, but winning probably was the biggest factor. That doesn’t make the other factors less true.

It also doesn’t change the fact Doc Rivers and the Clippers have some hard choices — and some recruiting of Blake Griffin to do — coming up this summer.

Ex-financial adviser gets 4 years in federal prison for defrauding Tim Duncan

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) An ex-financial adviser to retired San Antonio Spurs player Tim Duncan has been sentenced to four years in federal prison for defrauding the former NBA star of millions of dollars.

Federal prosecutors say 49-year-old Charles Banks of Atlanta was sentenced during a court hearing Wednesday in San Antonio.

A judge also ordered Banks to pay $7.5 million in restitution.

Banks had pleaded guilty in April to one count of wire fraud.

Investigators say Banks manipulated Duncan -who retired last year after five NBA championships with the Spurs – into guaranteeing payment of a $6 million debt related to a merchandising business.

Prosecutors say Banks failed to disclose commissions and loans he received in the deal.

Banks is set to report to federal prison as early as Aug. 28.