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.

Dave Joerger: Kings will play more small ball

Sacramento Kings head coach Dave Joerger talks to reporters during the Kings basketball media day Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif. Joerger, who was fired by the Memphis Grizzlies at the end of last season, was hired by Kings to replace George Karl, who was fired by the Kings.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
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Shortly after the Kings chose center Georgios Papagiannis with the No. 13 pick in the draft, DeMarcus Cousins tweeted, “Lord give me the strength.” Sacramento already had an abundance of centers with Cousins, Willie Cauley-Stein and Kosta Koufos. If Cousins wasn’t talking about yoga, Sacramento adding center Skal Labissiere with the No. 28 pick would’ve driven Cousins batty.

At least Kings coach Dave Joerger is accustomed to using two bigs, as he did with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in Memphis.

Joerger, via Cowbell Kingdom:

I anticipate us playing a lot more small ball this year.

I’m not playing big.

Oh.

This is going to lead to some unhappy campers in Sacramento. It won’t be Cousins (not for getting his role reduced, at least). But this will make it hard for Cauley-Stein and Koufos to get satisfactory playing time. It’ll also make it harder for Papagiannis and Labissiere to get minutes to develop.

Like with most things, winning is the best way to quash griping. The Kings have enough wings – Rudy Gay, Matt Barnes, Arron Afflalo, Omri Casspi, Ben McLemore, Garrett Temple and Malachi Richardson – to theoretically play small effectively. If Joerger goes that route, he better find success with it. Otherwise, he could get plenty of heat – including from general manager Vlade Divac, who spoke incredibly highly of his first-round picks, the players most likely to get squeezed out of a small-ball rotation.

Dwane Casey: Jared Sullinger has Raptors’ starting PF job to lose

BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 05: Jared Sullinger #7 of the Boston Celtics drives to the basket against Patrick Patterson #54 of the Toronto Raptors in the first half at TD Garden on November 5, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts. 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 Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
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Last year, Patrick Patterson declared the Raptors’ starting power-forward job his to lose.

Well, he lost it.

Luis Scola started most of the regular season before Toronto tinkered in the playoffs. Patterson claimed the job. Then, the Raptors turned to DeMarre Carroll with Norman Powel in a small-ball lineup. Finally, Toronto reverted back to Scola.

A year later, there’s still no clear, great option at the position. Scola went to the Nets. Patterson returns. Pascal Siakam and Jarrod Uthoff are rookies. First man up: Newly signed Jared Sullinger.

Raptors coach Dwane Casey, via Doug Smith of the Toronto Star:

“I would say Sullinger is the guy now that it would be his to lose, but I reserve the right to change my mind,” Casey said, citing the need to see how that group reacts defensively.

If Sullinger’s bar is defensive, he’ll have a tough time clearing it. He neither protects the rim nor moves well on the perimeter – making him similar to Scola. But Scola got the job last year with similar contributions.

Sullinger rebounds well, and he has some shooting range, though he hasn’t been selective enough with it.

Patterson’s ability to defend the pick-and-roll might make him a better fit next to Jonas Valanciunas, especially if Patterson has confidence in his 3-point shot.

There should be a place for Sullinger in the rotation, but if he’s starting at power forward, that speaks to a lack of quality options.

Report: Cavaliers giving championship rings to 1,000+ workers

CLEVELAND, OH -  JUNE 20: The Cleveland Cavaliers mascot Moon Dog cheers on the fans prior to the arrival of the Cavs players return to Cleveland after wining the NBA Championships on June 20, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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The Cavaliers will reportedly give David Blatt a championship ring, and Anderson Varejao also has one available.

They aren’t the only two unexpected ring recipients.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

Majority owner Dan Gilbert and his partners decided to present rings to more than 1,000 full and part-time employees throughout the Cavaliers and Quicken Loans Arena organization, employees who’ve been fitted for rings told cleveland.com.

A conservative cost for distributing rings to employees is more than $1 million.

This is very cool by Gilbert. Obviously, lower-level team employees won’t receive the same blinged-out rings the players get. But this is a nice way to reward their hard work.

Not to go all Jerry Krause, but organizations win championships. Some pieces – LeBron James – matter much more than others, but everyone plays a part. Security guards keep players safe, preventing a dreadful incident that could derail a playoff run. Public-relations staffers ease the burden on players. Ushers improve the fan experience, which increases revenue and helps Gilbert afford a massive luxury-tax bill.

It all adds up, as Gilbert clearly recognizes.

Mike D’Antoni: Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony rejected my system, but new (old) approach with James Harden

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 20:  Head coach Mike D'Antoni of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrates with Kkobe Bryant #24 and Pau Gasol #16 after the game against the Brooklyn Nets at Staples Center on November 20, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. The Lakers won 95-90.   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 Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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I can’t understate how revolutionary Mike D’Antoni’s offense looked with the Suns. In his first full season, 2004-05, they scored 110.4 points per game – the most anyone had scored in a decade. And it wasn’t even close. Phoenix played fast and scored efficiently.

That offense eventually got D’Antoni jobs in the NBA’s biggest markets and with two of the league’s best scorers, Carmelo Anthony (Knicks) and Kobe Bryant (Lakers).

Ian Thomsen of NBA.com:

But his coaching relationships with Anthony and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles did not turn out so well. The last two stars essentially rejected his system.

“They did,” acknowledged D’Antoni. “And they were paid 20-something million dollars for it — they were successful. So I don’t blame them. Nothing’s been proven up to that point.”

The Warriors had yet to show that D’Antoni’s offense could thrive in late May and June.

“They’re thinking, like, he’s crazy,” D’Antoni said of Anthony and Bryant. “So I don’t blame them at all. This is a much better situation.”

With the Knicks and Lakers, D’Antoni edged back from his own offensive principles in part because he wasn’t sure, either. He was in a lonely place as the proponent of a style that was rejected by NBA fundamentalists. In New York and L.A., D’Antoni lacked the proof that would be provided years later by the Warriors of Kerr, who when serving as GM of the Suns had himself objected to D’Antoni’s point of view. The inventor didn’t believe fully in his own invention.

“I wasn’t that confident,” D’Antoni insisted. “It was a little bit before analytics. Everybody was telling us that we couldn’t do it, no one was telling us we could. Analytics came in and said, hey, you can do this — this is good, actually. So now you’ve got (GM) Daryl Morey with the Rockets and how they play and different teams trying to do it, and now it’s kind of caught on.

This bucks the narrative that D’Antoni’s offense can’t work with a score-first star. If D’Antoni compromised his scheme for Kobe and Melo, we haven’t yet seen it full bore with a player like that.

We will this season in Houston, where D’Antoni has turned score-first James Harden into the Rockets’ point guard.

As D’Antoni said, it’ll be easier to sell his scheme now that it has been proven to work. But as other teams adopt elements of it, he’ll have less of a strategic advantage.

The best coaches have revolutionary ideas AND get their players to buy into them. D’Antoni’s methods are no longer as cutting-edge, but he’ll have an easier time selling his players. That’s a justifiable knock on D’Antoni’s overall coaching prowess, but he still brings positives.

We’ve seen D’Antoni’s system at full throttle, and we’ve seen him coach generational scorers. To get both simultaneously will be a fun experiment in Houston this year.