On Aaron Brooks and life after Steve Nash in Phoenix

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Steve Nash has defined the Phoenix Suns franchise since the summer of 2004, but every passing day brings the Suns that much closer to parting with their only remaining star. Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion, and Amar’e Stoudemire have all come and gone, and the last great remnant of the Suns team that embarked on Seven Second or Less’ maiden voyage will likely be out of Phoenix by the end of the season. By this time next year, Nash will be almost 39 years old and an unrestricted free agent. As committed as he’s been to the Suns over the last half-decade or so, the man would be twiddling away the twilight of his career on a fringe playoff team if he elected to remain in Phoenix beyond the completion of his current deal.

With Nash no longer in the locker room, controlling the offense, and selling tickets, the Suns will have a lot of introspection to do. If Phoenix lets Nash’s contract expire without dealing him for assets of some kind, the team will be left with what’s functionally a blank slate in terms of roster construction. Marcin Gortat, Jared Dudley, Channing Frye, Hakim Warrick, and Josh Childress are all rotation-caliber players, but they lack the ability to collectively grant their team a post-Nash identity. The Suns will have options, but for the moment appear lacking in the ability to execute a rebuilding plan with any kind of expediency.

That said, the one unknown in Phoenix’s future that could potentially shift their long-term plans — if only slightly — is Aaron Brooks. The Suns already gave Brooks a qualifying offer back in June, giving them the right to either retain him for another season or match any offer sheets he gets as a restricted free agent. That should extend Brooks’ trial run in Phoenix, and give Alvin Gentry and his staff time to properly evaluate whether Brooks is able to act as some kind of Steve Nash surrogate in order to keep the current offensive system in place after the former MVP’s departure. That may not sound like much, but a capable initiator — armed within a team’s proven stylistic approach and given effective sets to work with — would at least give the Suns a very basic foundation.

Brooks is coming off of the most disappointing season of his professional career, but that’s true in part because his play had previously never garnered much expectation at all. The ’09-’10 season served as his public arrival; Brooks’ per-game averages shot up to 19.6 points and 5.3 assists per game, good enough to earn him the league’s kind-of-bogus Most Improved Player award. Brooks was able to live up to his solid per-minute projections from his first few seasons in the league, and play well for a winning team that barely missed the postseason.

Yet his latest campaign was a fair bit more disastrous, as Brooks combined injury, poor play, and a worse attitude in order to put up some incredibly underwhelming numbers . Houston traded Brooks to Phoenix mid-season for Goran Dragic, and a surface-level glance at that production and narrative would deem Brooks unworthy of starting responsibilities just about anywhere.

But Brooks is a better player than he let on last season in Houston, and he showed just enough in his 25 games as a Sun for us to wonder how extended playing time in Gentry’s system might bode for Brooks’ career. Don’t let his mere 9.6 points per game fool you; Brooks played limited minutes as a Sun, but he produced at a level virtually on-par with his offensive production in ’09-’10. That doesn’t make him an offensive star, but all signs point to him being a decent shot creator and a strong outside shooter in Phoenix for as long as they’ll have him.

Picking out the inconsistencies

A player who posts unremarkable points per game averages for two consecutive seasons to start his career, manages one season of almost 20 points per game, and subsequently falls back to Earth in the following year naturally garners some skepticism. Yet in Brooks’ case, his per-minute averages suggest he was capable of solid production in each of his four NBA seasons to date. It’s his minutes per game that have dictated the variance in his production, all the while his efficiency has stayed within a much smaller range. Brooks’ latest partial season in Houston was still a step down, but his uptick in Phoenix was enough of a return to normalcy to quell the thought of Brooks’ 2010 season being an aberration.

Instead, the real inconsistency appears to be Brooks’ randomly slashed three-point percentage. After starting out his career as an average shooter from the perimeter and improving that percentage in his second and third seasons, Brooks’ shooting from beyond the arc plummeted to .284 in his 34 games for Houston last season. Perhaps Brooks won’t consistently be able to shoot around 40 percent from three-point range as he did in ’09-’10, but there’s something to be said about Brooks’ best shooting season coinciding with his most consistent playing time.

The fluke in Brooks’ profile is this latest season, if only because his awful shooting percentages sandbagged what otherwise was a comparable statistical campaign. We can expect that shooting to return to a more acceptable mark in the year(s) to come, as he’ll likely settle in at slightly above the league average in three-point percentage.

Hope as a playmaker

Even in a golden age of point guards, Nash’s vision is unparalleled. In that regard, Brooks is a poor substitute; he sees the most obvious and immediate trees in the forest, but fails to see the forest itself for the trees. Passing is a simple action for Brooks rather than a mechanism through which an offense functions, a reality that warranted him a “shoot-first,” label.

Yet Brooks’ skill as a set-up man surfaced a bit when he was asked to back up Nash. His mere 25 games in Phoenix provides a terribly small sample size, but in those contests Brooks posted easily the highest assist rate of his career (35.3% — on par with Jason Kidd, Andre Miller, and Tony Parker). His assists per minute didn’t just crank up as a product of the Suns’ fast pace; Brooks was legitimately making plays for his teammates more than ever, as he benefited from the perimeter shooting and offensive fluidity that makes the Suns such a marvel.

Rick Adelman’s offense can be a beautiful thing, but it doesn’t exactly empower the point guard. By using the high post as a focal point of the offense, Adelman took the ball out of Brooks’ hands in Houston and pigeon-holed him into a label he barely had a chance to earn. Next season could serve as a referendum on Brooks’ ability to create plays for others.

The bad news

There’s no getting around it: if Brooks is going to be a regular for Phoenix going forward, they’ll have to account for his defensive limitations; Brooks is undersized and lacks the defensive technique to properly make up for it. Starting from square one with a defensive liability isn’t ideal, but again, the Suns aren’t without a ton of assets at this point. Brooks is capable of becoming a decent contributor (if not a tradeable asset down the line) for Phoenix, and any new deal he signs would be under the more team-friendly limitations of the next collective bargaining agreement. The Suns could lock up a good offensive player for relatively cheap, and considering the limitations throughout the rest of a Nash-less roster, Phoenix can’t afford to be terribly picky.

Brooks isn’t a poor enough defender that his weakness can’t be hedged elsewhere in a potential lineup, meaning all Phoenix has to do is keep him in mind when selecting wing players to put on the floor with him and bigs to cover the space behind him. So long as the Suns are willing to begin reconstructing their team with that consideration in mind, Brooks could be a very affordable playmaking option with decent long-term returns.

Hayward, Johnson, good ball movement lift Jazz past Clippers 98-94, Utah up 3-2

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LOS ANGELES — Chris Paul is the best player on the floor in the Los Angeles vs. Utah first round series. He’s also the best playmaker on either team, a guy who can survey the court and quickly decide whether he should score or what teammate he can set up. He also gets the Clippers points and plays solid defense.

However, for lengthy stretches of the game, he’s the only playmaker on the court for the Clippers. He has to be Mr. Everything.

Utah has multiple guys they can lean on to create looks — George Hill, Gordon Hayward, Joe Johnson — and with that has come better team ball movement and open shots.

It also came with a crucial Game 5 win over Utah, 98-94, putting the Jazz up 3-2 heading to Utah for Game 6 on Friday night. Utah has the chance to advance past the first round for the first time since 2010, when Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer were at their peaks, and Jerry Sloan was still patrolling the sidelines.

Gordon Hayward is Utah’s big star now, and he returned from missing Game 4 with food poisoning. This time he made the Clippers sick, with 27 points on 9-of-16 shooting, plus he made the little plays like a tip-out offensive rebound to Johnson late in the game that turned into a key made three for the Jazz.

“Hayward killed us early,” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought Hayward set the tone tonight in the first six or seven minutes of the game (Gordon had 11 first quarter points on 4-of-6 shooting).”

The Clippers often use Blake Griffin as a secondary playmaker, because he has good handles and is a strong passer. However, with Griffin out for the rest of the series with a foot injury that will require surgery, the Clippers are stuck. Backup point guard Austin Rivers returned to the Clipper lineup, but he could only play 16 minutes. Too much of the time it felt like CP3 against the world to create shots for the Clippers. That’s rough against a long, disciplined Jazz defense.

Meanwhile, the Jazz were moving the ball and getting better looks — if guys such as Joe Ingles (0-of-4 from three) or George Hill (1-of-7) had knocked down their shots, this game may have been decided much earlier. Utah’s drive-and-kick game was in full force, and with Griffin out the Jazz have nobody who can check Joe Johnson effectively.

“That’s beating us off the dribble way too much and making us rotate,” Rivers said. “Also, we did a good job — we took the ball out of Joe (Johnson’s) hands… by doing that they’re going to get open threes. And listen, we were fortunate tonight with them being on the road, their role players didn’t make some of those.”

That’s what the first half felt like. The Jazz pushed the pace at times, moved the ball well in the half court, exploited mismatches, and largely got better looks than the Clippers, but missed enough good shots that the game was always close. It was 21-19 Clippers after one, led by six points from Paul Pierce nailing a couple open threes. By the half the Jazz had a small 46-43 lead behind 14 from Hayward on 5-of-8 shooting. But neither team was able to take control.

The third quarter was just ugly basketball — it was slow, physical, and Utah missed shot after shot. So did both teams — Utah “won” the quarter 18-15 to have at 64-58 lead after three. Still, it just felt like Utah was playing better and just missing looks.

Utah pushed the lead to 11 in the fourth after some threes started to fall, but the Clippers went on their own 11-0 run sparked by Paul to tie the game up 69-69. Staples Center was getting loud. But out of a time out the Jazz scored five quick points off well-designed plays, and order was restored (as far as Utah was concerned). From there Utah just held on.

Hayward finished with 27 to lead the Jazz, followed by Rodney Hood who came off the bench with 10. Utah had six players in double figures.

There was little pretty about this game, or for that matter the series. It’s become slowed down and grinding. It’s not a style the Clippers thrive in, but they’re going to have to find a way — or pick up the pace — by Friday night, or their season will come to an end. Then the questions will begin.

Russell Westbrook, Patrick Beverley get weak double techs for trash talking (VIDEO)

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Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley had no love lost during Tuesday night. The Houston Rockets closed out the Oklahoma City Thunder, 105-99, but that didn’t stop Brodie and Beverley from getting one of the weakest double technical foul calls we’ve seen during these playoffs.

The two squared off midway through the fourth quarter, with both players seemingly OK and a bit incredulous after getting techs for what amounted to trash talk.

I’ll let you be the judge for yourself whether it was worth of a tech.

Via Twitter:

The double technical foul is definitely one of the dumbest calls in the NBA.

Houston goes on to face the winner of the series between the San Antonio Spurs and the Memphis Grizzlies.

Kawhi Leonard, Patty Mills lead Spurs by Grizzlies for 3-2 series lead

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) Kawhi Leonard had 28 points and the San Antonio Spurs rebounded from two discouraging road losses to beat the Memphis Grizzlies 116-103 on Tuesday night and take a 3-2 lead in their first-round series.

San Antonio shot 14 for 28 on 3-point attempts, two off its postseason record, including 5-for-7 shooting by Patty Mills.

Mills finished with 20 points and Tony Parker added 16.

Mike Conley had 26 points and Marc Gasol added 17 for the Grizzlies, who have lost nine straight postseason games in San Antonio.

With each team winning on its homecourt, Game 6 is Thursday night in Memphis.

The Spurs went on an 11-0 run shortly after switching Leonard onto Conley defensively, holding the Grizzlies scoreless for 2:46 midway through the first quarter.

But it was the few times either team had success defensively.

San Antonio shot 53 percent from the field and Memphis shot 52 percent in a surprisingly explosive game between teams renowned for their defense.

Conley had seven points during a 17-3 run bridging the third and fourth quarters to pull Memphis within 87-83 with 9 minutes remaining.

The teams exchanged baskets over a 3-minute span before consecutive 3-pointers by Mills helped break the game open for San Antonio.

After failing to score in the first four games, Manu Ginobili had six points in 33 seconds in the first quarter and finished with 10 points.

James Ennis III had 11 points and Andrew Harrison added nine, as both took advantage of Leonard leaving them to help defensively during the second and third quarters.

TIP-INS

Grizzlies: Conley and Gasol are the only Memphis players to score in double figures in all four games. . Zach Randolph had nine points and six rebounds Tuesday after averaging 17 points and 9.7 rebounds in the previous three games. Randolph was held to six points and three rebounds in Game 1. . Tony Allen remained out with an injury to his right leg after being kicked in the calf during Memphis’ regular-season finale against Dallas. . Ennis was 4 for 9 from the field in scoring 11 points after averaging 7.0 points in the previous four games.

Spurs: San Antonio’s franchise record for 3-pointers made is 16 against Miami in the 2013 NBA Finals. . Leonard has scored in double figures in 25 straight playoff games, the longest streak in franchise history since Tim Duncan had 26 from 2011-2013. . The Spurs have lost three straight only once this season, dropping their final three games of the regular season after clinching the second seed. They have lost two straight on four occasions, including back-to-back losses in Memphis in this series. . Dewayne Dedmon returned after missing Game 4 due to an illness. . Ginobili’s eight points in the opening quarter are the most he scored in any quarter of a playoff game since scoring nine in the 2014 NBA Finals.

Watch Houston’s Eric Gordon yam it down over Thunder forward Jerami Grant (VIDEO)

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Eric Gordon is a leading Sixth Man of the Year candidate for the Houston Rockets for one reason: he can shoot the lights out.

But that didn’t stop Gordon from surprising a few folks during Tuesday night’s closeout Game 5 against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Gordon scored just eight points in Houston’s 105-99 win, but two of those points came on a thunderous dunk over Oklahoma City’s Jerami Grant.

Via Twitter:

Wasn’t expecting him to get up like that.

Houston will go on to play the winner of the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies series.