Game of the Night: Suns bury Lakers with 22 threes

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What a crazy game in Los Angeles. The Phoenix Suns managed to hand the Lakers their first home loss of the season despite losing their starting center (and the only Phoenix player who would have had a chance of keeping the Lakers off the boards) early in the game, but it was far from easy. Even though the Suns hit 22 of their 40 three-point attempts, one make shy of an NBA record, the Suns needed a crazy three from Hedo Turkoglu and a controversial technical on Lamar Odom to escape Los Angeles with a five-point win.

For the majority of the game, it seemed like the Suns were simply delaying an inevitable Laker blowout. Phoenix’s big men had little hope of keeping the Lakers away from the basket before Robin Lopez went down with a knee injury — after that happened, things just became comical. The Lakers got to the rim seemingly at will for much of the game, using crisp passing, strong drives, and lots of movement off the ball to get easy looks at the rim over and over and over again. Lamar Odom was particularly effective when he put the ball on the floor and went to the basket, and the Suns had no prayer against Pau Gasol when he got the ball near the rim. On top of that, Kobe was being Kobe, whether he was setting his teammates up with crisp passes, making shots from the mid-post, or up-faking his man, stepping through him, and passing off the backboard to himself for a layup.

When the Lakers missed a shot, they would often just get the ball right back again — Channing Frye had no prayer of effectively boxing out Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom kept coming out of nowhere to grab the ball after Laker misses, and the Suns were simply unable to gain possession of loose caroms for most of the game.

After the game, Suns coach Alvin Gentry talked about his team’s inability to keep Gasol off the boards, saying “You know we’ve still got to try and stop the rebounding situation, but Pau is just so long, we have him boxed out, he goes over the back but doesn’t foul…he’s just so long, our guys try to get a body on him and we just couldn’t. It wasn’t that we weren’t trying to win, that we weren’t playing hard and trying to be physical with him, we just couldn’t move him out. And that’s a credit to Pau more than it is a negative to our guys.”

The Lakers’ size advantage was overpowering — the Lakers outscored the Suns by 40 points in the paint, and had 20 offensive rebounds to the Suns’ 22 defensive rebounds. 99 times out of 100, the team that controls the paint like the Lakers did on Sunday will win the game, but that wasn’t the case against the Suns.

How did the Suns overcome the Lakers’ size and strength mismatch? They hit threes. A lot of them. The Suns found themselves open from beyond the arc early and often against the Lakers, and their shooters weren’t afraid to let fly. The Suns did a great job of moving the ball from side to side, staying away from isolation play, spacing the floor, and keeping the Lakers off-balance in both the half-court and transition game. The Laker forwards were able to overpower the Suns when Los Angeles had the ball, but they often seemed a step slow on the opposite side of the floor, either leaving Channing Frye or Hedo Turkoglu open beyond the arc or being forced to switch onto a guard. Lamar Odom had a particularly uneven defensive game — there were times he would go to give help and appear to simply forget that Channing Frye and Hedo Turkoglu love to shoot threes.

Jason Richardson, Channing Frye, and Hedo Turkoglu absolutely killed the Lakers from deep by camping out on the weak side in the half-court and trailing the break — that kind of shooting would be impressive in an empty gym, but it also seemed like the Lakers were giving up open three-point looks because they thought the Suns would eventually start missing and they could simply outscore Phoenix when the Suns started to miss.

Unfortunately for the Lakers, the Suns never stopped missing. During one four-and-a-half minute stretch in the third quarter, the Suns made six straight three-pointers, and it got to the point where the Staples center crowd would begin groaning as the shots were in the air. When asked after the game if he thought the Suns’ three-point shooting would cool down, Kobe Bryant said “that’s what normally happens, but tonight it didn’t. They just continued to make them.”

A stretch like that would have buried most teams, but the Lakers were resilient, and were in the game for most of the fourth quarter thanks to some big threes from Shannon Brown and some missed threes by the Suns. The turning point of the game was a controversial one. With 53 seconds remaining, Lamar Odom made a layup that put the Lakers down by two points. There was some contact on the play, and Odom wanted to get an and-1 call and a chance to bring the Lakers within a point. He didn’t get the call, and was fairly demonstrative to the ref, who slapped him with a technical. After the Suns hit the resulting free throw and Hedo Turkoglu nailed a deep, flat-footed, contested three over Kobe Bryant on the next Suns possession, the game was all but over.

After the game, Kobe called the technical on Odom “disgusting, in that situation.” Odom himself said “It’s tough, you know, it’s tough. There were 55 seconds left. I think that’s why people are questioning it. But a rule’s a rule.”

After the game, both coaches were in awe of Phoenix’s hot shooting. Phil Jackson said in his post-game press conference that “Our philosophy is that [the three-pointers] even out over time, but they didn’t tonight. A team’s going to make a certain percentage of threes. If they make ten in a ball game that’s a high number; this team averages 9, so that’s a really high number. The real issue is about those other 80 points they got in the paint.”

Suns coach Alvin Gentry was of the opinion that Sunday’s outcome was more the  result of Phoenix’s insanely hot shooting rather than anything the Lakers did wrong. When asked about the Lakers, who have dropped their last two games, Gentry went into a comic outrage, saying “It’s one game! We made 22 threes, and still had to hold them off at the end! People are talking like their season is over!” before breaking into a wide smile. The Lakers were a little nonchalant defensively against the Suns and gave Phoenix more good looks than they should have had, but the fact the Lakers were in this game up until Phoenix’s 22nd three is a far more significant long-term takeaway than their two straight losses. The Lakers are good. Scary good. But for one night, Phoenix’s near-historic shooting allowed them to be just a little bit better.

Rumor: Portland coach Terry Stotts could lose job after being swept out of playoffs

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Regular season: Terry Stotts was mentioned as a Coach of the Year candidate after leading the Portland Trail Blazers to 49 wins and the three seed in the West, led by a top 10 defense.

Playoffs: Portland was swept out of the postseason in the first round by Anthony Davis.

The latter part of that is going to lead to some real soul searching and changes coming to the Trail Blazers. That could include Stotts losing his job, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times.

There is plenty of blame to go around for Portland’s quick exit from the postseason, Stein is right that it’s not all on Stott’s shoulders.

However, this is the third time in four years Portland is out in the first round, and it leads to the question “what is it about their style that makes them so defendable and beatable in the playoffs?” This is a little like Toronto in recent years, where despite a lot of talent they were predictable and therefore defendable in the postseason. How much of that falls on Stotts?

After a period of reflection in Portland, there are going to be changes in the wake of this sweep. Stotts’ job will be part of that discussion, no matter how good a job he did.

That said, if Stotts were to be let go he would hand on his feet very quickly.

After Ricky Rubio’s triple-double, Russell Westbrook promises to “shut that s*** off”

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Ricky Rubio outplayed Russell Westbrook Saturday night in Utah and now the Jazz are up 2-1 in that series.

Rubio did his damage from the midrange — he was 5-of-5 between the key and the arc — on his way to 26 points, to go with 11 rebounds and 10 assists. All series the Thunder have dared Rubio to shoot and to beat them, Saturday he did. It was a stark contrast to Westbrook’s 14 points on 17 shots Saturday with eight turnovers.

When asked about Rubio’s big night postgame, Westbrook was looking ahead to Game 4 and using a little NSFW language (hat tip to Ben Golliver of SI, who loves him some playoff podium video).

There you have it, a personal guarantee.

Rubio struggled some in Game 1, taking 18 shots and mostly the ones the Thunder wanted him to. However, after that he has been better at getting to his spots and taking the shots in rhythm, and it’s worked — he’s averaging 20.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 8 assists per game this series. OKC has been focused on making life difficult for rookie Donovan Mitchell (with limited success) and it’s freed up Rubio to make plays.

More than just slowing the Spanish point guard, Westbrook and the Thunder need to figure out how to get their offense back on track against a Jazz defense that was best in the NBA once Gobert got healthy last season. Oklahoma City lost Game 2 when their big three — Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony — went 0-of-15 in the fourth quarter. In Game 3, OKC averaged 100 points per 100 possessions (well below their season average of 110.2) and Westbrook shot 29.4 percent. Do that again in Game 4 and it will not matter what Rubio shoots, what matters is the Thunder could be looking at a 3-1 deficit. The Thunder need to even this series before it heads back to Oklahoma City.

Gregg Popovich will not coach Game 4 following death of his wife, Erin

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San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will not be on the sidelines again for Game 4 Sunday following the death of his wife, Erin, to a lengthy illness.

Ettore Messina will again coach the Spurs.

Popovich also missed Game 3. His San Antonio Spurs are down 3-0 to the Golden State Warriors in the first-round matchup. None of that matters compared to the loss of a woman he loved and was married to for four decades.

Erin Popovich’s passing has cast a pall over the series, especially with Warriors coach Steve Kerr being very close to the Popovichs dating back to his playing days with the Spurs.

The reaction and sadness about Erin’s passing has reached well beyond this series.

Our thoughts are with the Popovich family in this difficult time.

Anthony Davis’ 47 points, Pelicans sweep Trail Blazers out of playoffs

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Anthony Davis scored 33 of his franchise playoff-record 47 points in the second half, and the New Orleans Pelicans completed a first-round playoff sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers with a 131-123 victory on Saturday.

Jrue Holiday capped his 41-point performance with an 18-foot pull-up jumper that gave the Pelicans a six-point lead with 40 seconds left.

Rajon Rondo added 16 assists, and Davis also had 11 rebounds and three blocks for New Orleans, which is moving on to the second round of the playoffs for only the second time since the NBA returned to the city 16 seasons ago.

C.J. McCollum scored 38 for the Trail Blazers, who responded to a blowout loss in Game 3 by keeping Game 4 close until the final minute. Al-Farouq Aminu scored 27, Damian Lillard added 18 points and Jusuf Nurkic had 18 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out.

Lillard’s difficult driving layup had just tied the game at 60 when the Pelicans briefly pulled away, going on an 11-2 run capped by Davis’ 3.

Soon after, Nikola Mirotic added step-back 3. Davis, who scored 19 in the third quarter, then added a layup while falling down after a hard foul by Aminu, after which Davis flexed both biceps while still sitting on the court.

Holiday’s transition 3 made it 87-72, prompting Portland to call timeout while Holiday walked slowly toward mid-court, nodding and smiling wide as he soaked in the crowd’s adulation.

New Orleans led by 13 to start the fourth quarter, but Portland refused to wilt, opening the period on a 15-4 run that included Nurkic’s hook shot, 20-foot jumper and dunk. McCollum’s transition layup made it 104-102 with nearly nine minutes to play.

Portland got as close as a single point on Aminu’s layup with 5:08 to go, but Davis responded with 12 points over the final 4:56, starting with a layup as he was fouled and a 3-pointer. Holiday scored six points during the final 2:52, starting with his 3-pointer. The pair combined for all but one of New Orleans’ points during that pivotal stretch.

Leading up to Game 4, Lillard spoke of the need for the Blazers to ramp up their intensity and physicality. From the tip, it looked as though they’d done so.

In stark contrast to Game 3, when New Orleans led by 18 in the first quarter, this game was tight and testy.

Anthony and Ed Davis received double technical fouls after bumping one another following one of Anthony Davis’ dunks – and that was just the beginning.

McCollum was called for a flagrant foul when he stormed into the lane behind E'Twaun Moore and grabbed the Pelicans guard by the shoulders to thwart a driving layup attempt. Moore then shoved McCollum and was assessed a technical foul.

And in the final seconds of the half, double technicals were assessed to Rondo and Portland center Zach Collins after Rondo lowered his forehead into Collins’ chest and Collins shoved back.

When halftime arrived, New Orleans led 58-56.