Dirk Nowitzki, Grant Hill

Phoenix 96, Dallas 94: Suns come back from double-digit defict to take down Mavericks

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A few weeks ago, any talk involving the Phoenix Suns and the word “playoffs” would have seemed completely ridiculous — and maybe, to a certain extent, it still is. But the Suns have shown they possess the necessary grit and fight that is evident in postseason teams, battling back from double-digit deficits in their last four home victories, most recently in a crucial 96-94 win over the Mavericks on Thursday.

It was maybe the Suns’ best victory of the season.

After leading for three quarters the night before in Oklahoma City against a Thunder team which possesses the league’s best record, Phoenix fell apart in the fourth, and lost a game the players felt they had played well enough to win. Suns head coach Alvin Gentry said before Thursday’s game against Dallas that he wanted to be careful not to get into moral victory territory in discussing the positives against OKC.

The victory was real on this night, and was one that was earned over the defending champs.

“As a team we sort of collectively came out and willed a victory,” Grant Hill said afterward. “We probably should have won the game last night (against the Thunder), we played well and just didn’t do good job there in the fourth quarter of maintaining the lead.

“I think it showed a lot tonight that we didn’t quit, we didn’t fold, and we managed to figure out a way to get the win.”

Phoenix trailed early, thanks to Vince Carter torching his former team for 13 first-half points, which led all scorers at the break and helped get the Mavs out to a nine-point lead at intermission. Hill, who always guards the other team’s best player and held Dirk Nowitzki to just six points through two quarters, was assigned to Carter to start the second half.

Hill’s defense slowed Carter considerably in the second half, but more importantly, the Suns to a man played as hard as they have all season during a stretch that ran from late in the third quarter through more than halfway into the fourth, where Phoenix put together a monstrous 30-8 run that turned an 11-point deficit into a lead of the same margin with just over five minutes to play.

There were defensive stops that lead to transition baskets, open pull-up jumpers, or wide-open threes. There was Jared Dudley’s 12-point third quarter. There was Shannon Brown’s monster putback slam dunk that blew the roof off of the US Airways Center,  and pushed the Suns lead to double digits four and a half minutes into the fourth.

There was Hakim Warrick’s inspired play off the bench, bringing energy, athleticism, and easy points at the free throw line to a second unit that has struggled to keep things stable all season long. Warrick has only gotten his chances in spurts, and hasn’t played the 17 minutes he did against Dallas in a game since the end of January, while receiving 13 DNP-CDs since.

But it wasn’t by any means a cruise to the finish line for Phoenix. Dallas is a deep and experienced team, and was able to close the gap to just two, while gaining possession with 14 seconds left after fouling Hill, who missed two free throws. After getting the ball to Nowitzki initially, the Suns had a foul to give and used it. When the Mavs inbounded the ball next, Rodrigue Beaubois was the one who got the clutch shot opportunities, first missing a floater at the rim that went in and out, then missing an 18-foot jumper with just a couple of seconds remaining that left the victory in the hands of the Suns.

Rick Carlisle was questioned as to why Beaubois was even in the game, when normally Jason Terry would be the one on the floor ready to produce should the ball not find its way into the hands of Nowitzki.

“Coach’s decision,” Carlisle said, repeating it twice more when pressed for details.

“You’re not always going to get your star players a shot at the end because they attract so much attention,” Carlisle said. “And that’s one of the reasons Roddy got so open.”

Most teams will happily take their chances with Beaubois at the end of games, given the number of capable alternatives on the Mavs’ roster. But the game wasn’t won or lost on the final possession. The Suns won it with their desire, and maybe, with their sense of urgency. Steve Nash said afterward that the team placed a significant amount of emphasis on winning this game, specifically due to the fact that Phoenix is running out of opportunities to make up the ground that it needs to in the conference standings.

“We couldn’t lose both these and stay in the playoff picture,” Nash said, referring to the game on Wednesday in Oklahoma City that was already lost. “It’s an early crunch time for us. We’ve got to keep crawling back to that eight, nine, ten spot and try to give ourselves a chance to sneak in there.”

Phoenix has won six of its last eight, with four of those wins coming against teams that the Suns are chasing in the standings. The next three are at home as well, and are also against playoff hopefuls or contenders.

The Suns aren’t ready to talk playoffs just yet. But they are playing with a desperation that seems to be working, and are going out there each night like their season is on the line. With this critical stretch of home games ahead against teams they need to outrun in the race to the postseason, it probably is.

Cavaliers’ defense foundation for blowout win

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers gestures in the second half against the Toronto Raptors in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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 Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Cleveland blitzed Toronto from the opening tip.

Literally.

Cleveland cranked up their defensive pressure by getting back to aggressively blitzing Raptors’ guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan every time they came off a pick. Or they would chase DeRozan over the top of the pick and trail him, never letting him get comfortable to pull up from the midrange. Whatever the defensive scheme, the Cavaliers were physical with Lowry and DeRozan — the pair was 4-of-14 shooting in the first half.

From the start, the Cavaliers defense dictated the flow of the game and set the tone for a 38-point blowout win.

It is that defense they will need to close out this series on the road Friday night.

“We understood that coming back from Game 3 and Game 4 we just didn’t play our defense the right way,” LeBron James said after the game. “We didn’t play how we should have played, and they took advantage of every moment. We had to get back to our staple; we had to get back to what we wanted to do defensively in order for us to play a complete game. That’s the most satisfying thing, the way we defended, holding these guys to 39 percent shooting.”

Defense triggered the offensive runs by the Cavaliers in the first half — Cleveland had eight steals and scored 20 points off turnovers before halftime. Playing with a renewed energy, the Cavs did a fantastic job fighting over screens and disrupting plays, and they closed out on shooters at the arc. It was their best defensive game of the series. It was the polar opposite of how they played in Toronto.

“I think our intensity picked up, our aggressiveness picked up, we were very physical to start the game and it just kind of led to us getting out in transition, us getting steals and getting easy baskets,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said.

“They were locked in, from the start to the finish,” according to Raptors coach Dwane Casey.”The force that they play with is different here and we didn’t meet it.”

Back home and with their backs against the wall, you can expect a very different, very desperate Raptors team. Lowry and DeRozan will shoot better.

But if the Cavaliers pack their defense and take it north of the border this time, they should close out the series.

LeBron James was dunking all over the Raptors (VIDEO)

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With their defense creating turnovers to get breaks — and the Raptors’ defense just breaking down — the Cavaliers put on a dunking exhibition against Toronto Wednesday.

LeBron James led the way, with 23 points and plenty of dunks. Here is another.

To change things up, here is an and-1.

Cavaliers retake series lead at home with rout of Raptors

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers drives to the basket in the second quarter against the Toronto Raptors in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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 Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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The Eastern Conference Finals have been all about the comforts of home. Through five games between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors, the home team has come out on top convincingly every time. Wednesday’s Game 5 was no different, with the Cavs destroying the Raptors, 116-78 to take a 3-2 series lead.

After a pair of awful games in Toronto, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving stepped up at home to score 25 and 23 points, respectively, to go along with 23 from LeBron James. The big production from their stars was enough to keep the Raptors at bay — the only other Cavs player to score in double figures was Richard Jefferson, who had 11 points, but it didn’t matter.

On the other side, after coming up huge at home in Games 3 and 4, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan combined to shoot 7-for-20 from the field Wednesday, and nobody else did much to pick up the slack. After not trailing by 30 at a half at any point this season, Toronto trailed by 31 at halftime, and the lead ballooned to 100-60 at the end of the third quarter. From the beginning, this game was one-sided.

The Cavs can close out the series on the road on Friday, ensuring James’ sixth straight trip to the Finals. But the Raptors have been a different team at home during this series, and in a do-or-die situation they should come out with more fight. It’s hard to imagine things going much worse than they did Wednesday.

Report: Joakim Noah having “positive dialogue” with Bulls about future

Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah dunks the ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons, Friday, Dec. 18, 2015, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
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And the spin keeps on happening.

First came the report that Joakim Noah was telling teammates he was out of Chicago. Followed by Noah’s agent — the person charged with keeping Noah’s options open — saying that was not true.

Now comes team management — the people who said they want to keep Noah with the Bulls — saying the sides are still talking, and they want him to stay. Via Nick Friedell of ESPN:

Veteran Bulls center Joakim Noah, his representatives and the Chicago front office continue to have a “positive dialogue” about a new contract amid a report that Noah has been telling teammates he’s ready to leave the franchise, a league source told ESPN.com on Wednesday.

Those close to Noah, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, are still hopeful that he will be able to work out an agreement to stay in Chicago long term.

I’m going to let you in on a real insider bit of knowledge on what team Noah will play for next season:

Whatever team pays him the most money.

I know, it’s crazy, but sometimes people make a decision about where to work based on pay. Right now, everything is posturing. Come July 1, money will go on the table, and then Noah will know just how badly the Bulls want to keep him vs. other teams wanting to bring him in. Once the money is out there, if things are roughly even, then minutes and role on the team, lifestyle, weather and all the rest come into play.

But Puffy had it right — it’s all about the Benjamins.