Portland Trail Blazers v Phoenix Suns

NBA season preview: Phoenix Suns

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Last Season: We could talk about the slow start, the impressive run in the season’s second half, or the eventual finish two games outside of the playoff picture. But all anyone in Phoenix will ultimately remember about the 2011-12 campaign is that it was the last time they would witness the on-court brilliance of Steve Nash while he was still a member of the Suns.

Key Departures: The face of the franchise and the team finally parted ways, after an eight-year run that gave fans more than their fair share of memorable moments. Nash’s departure certainly wasn’t unexpected, as the team had gone as far as it could with its former two-time MVP orchestrating the offense on every meaningful possession. But insult may have been added to Phoenix fans’ misery when Nash ended up in Los Angeles playing for the hated Lakers, whether it was the right move for the franchise or not.

Nash wasn’t the only cornerstone to leave. Grant Hill also ended up in L.A., albeit with the city’s far less-inflammatory version of an NBA team: the Clippers. Other departed players include Robin Lopez, a project whom the team decided to give up on, as well as deep bench players in Michael Redd, Josh Childress, Hakim Warrick, and Ronnie Price.

Channing Frye isn’t gone, but he’s out for at least the season after an enlarged heart condition was discovered during a routine training camp physical.

Key Additions: The Suns didn’t hesitate in replacing Nash, and did so by bringing back a familiar face. Goran Dragic returned to Phoenix in free agency, after being unceremoniously traded out of town by the same Suns franchise just two seasons before. Michael Beasley was acquired from Minnesota, as was Wesley Johnson. Luis Scola was picked up off the amnesty wire after Houston decided it wasn’t interested in competing any longer, the team added veteran big man Jermaine O’Neal, and grabbed point guard Kendall Marshall with the 13th overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft.

Three keys to the Suns season:

1) I know the pieces fit, ’cause I watched them fall away*: This must be Alvin Gentry’s mantra heading into a transitional season. The team’s head coach is now entering his fifth year in that role, although his contract is currently set to end once the year is finished. Gentry has seen the good and the bad with this Suns team — he’s made it through the star-studded Shaquille O’Neal years, has taken the team to the Western Conference Finals, and has barely missed the playoffs a couple of times.

Now that Nash is gone, Gentry will have to make the new pieces fit into a cohesive unit — a challenge to be sure, but not impossible given the talent on the roster. The staring five should be able to compete with all but the league’s elite on most nights, and finding the right rotations to keep the game close with the reserves is something that’s more than possible considering the veteran NBA leader’s skill set.

2) It’s all about chemistry: There are a lot of new faces on this Suns roster; it’s truly a team in transition. Jared Dudley is the longest tenured team member at this point, and he has the personality to help congeal his new teammates into a group that can be productive together on the basketball court. But essentially, these guys don’t know each other. Once you get past Dudley, Marcin Gortat, Shannon Brown, and Sebastian Telfair, it’s a whole new group of guys. You don’t just wake up one day knowing how to play with one another, and how quickly these players are able to come together will go a long way in determining their success this season.

3) Maximizing Marcin Gortat: Gortat can be a beast of a low post player, a strong pick-and-roll finisher, and a serviceable rim protector. But all of that depends on how he’s used. Last season, he flirted with All-Star numbers at the break thanks to a heavy dose of finishes out of the pick-and-roll with Steve Nash. Early on it doesn’t appear that Gortat will be afforded the same high volume of pick-and-roll opportunities that he received a season ago, so the team will need to find new ways to utilize his skill set and keep him engaged offensively.

The good news about Gortat is, if things aren’t going his way, or he feels he’s not getting the opportunities he should, he’ll let us know about it. He’s one of the most open and honest players in the game — not to the detriment of the team or in a complaining capacity, but simply from a standpoint of the facts as he sees them. So, either way — good times.

*It seemed fitting to quote lyrics from a Tool song in a Suns post at some point, since I met the band’s drummer — Danny Carey — in the team’s locker room during the Shaquille O’Neal era back in December of 2008. Better late than never.

What Suns fans should fear: This is completely dependent on your team-building philosophy. If you’re of the belief that a team needs to be blown up to try to rebuild through the draft, then your fear is that this team sneaks into the playoffs. If you simply want to see the team compete at the highest level, then you’re rooting for an eight seed, just to see what happens.

The good news for Suns fans is that there really are no worries with this year’s squad — there are certainly no championship aspirations, so just enjoy the ride, and hope for the best. Oh, and hope that whatever happens, it’s good enough for the franchise to sign Gentry to a new long-term contract.

Prediction: The Suns should compete on most nights, but the lack of depth should be problematic to the point that it will jeopardize the club’s ability to win on a consistent basis. Shooting for the eighth seed will be the priority, but it will be tough to get there given the level of talent on the competing teams in the Western Conference.

Watch Stephen Curry drop 36 in Game 7 to knock off Thunder (VIDEO)

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If you watch the highlights, you will see plenty of Stephen Curry hitting threes — including the dagger late — to lead the Warriors to a 96-88 Game 7 win over the Thunder. He was masterful and finished with 36 points.

But it was more than just the threes.

Curry was attacking the bigs that switched on to him off the pick-and-roll far more this game, both by hitting threes over them — four of his seven threes came against bigs switched onto him, according to Synergy Sports — but also by blowing by those bigs and getting into the lane. Look at his shot chart from the night.

Curry Game 7 shotchart

When Curry is attacking and hitting threes, well, you get nights like this.

Kevin Durant entering free agency on sour note

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 30:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder hugs Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors after losing 96-88 in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 30, 2016 in Oakland, California. 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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The superstar free agent enters the offseason with three straight playoff losses, a once-promising season ended in devastating fashion.

Kevin Durant? Yes.

LeBron James in 2010? Also yes.

Will Durant follow LeBron’s lead and leave the team that drafted him?

Those Cavaliers didn’t beat the 67-15 Spurs. They didn’t push the 73-9 Warriors to a Game 7. They didn’t have Russell Westbrook.

And, of course, Durant isn’t LeBron.

But the Thunder must feel sick about letting this opportunity slip away – not just a trip to the Finals, but a chance to remind Durant of their virtues. Golden State – a leading suitor for Durant – undid so much of the progress Oklahoma City made in the postseason with this comeback from down 3-1, capped with a 96-88 win tonight.

“We just lost like 30 minutes ago,” Durant said. “So, I don’t have any thought about it.”

For much of the playoffs the Thunder did everything they could to convince Durant to stay. They carved up the Mavericks, overpowered the Spurs and outraced the Warriors through the Western Conference finals’ first four games. It seemed no team could offer Durant a better situation.

Now, it’s as tempting as ever to imagine Durant with Golden State.

Durant must weigh what joining the team that beat him would do to his image, but there’s no doubt that the Warriors are better than the Thunder. There can’t be after a 16-win difference in the regular season and these last three games. Oklahoma City might flip the script next season if Durant re-signs, but he must also assess how much better Golden State would be with him. At minimum, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson not guarding him anymore.

The Thunder didn’t do their part to send Durant into free agency on a high note, but he did all he could. Unlike LeBron in 2010, Durant didn’t shrink from the moment of his high-pressured closeout game with free agency looming. Durant scored 27 points on 10-of-19 shooting against those elite defenders, including a late personal 7-0 run that cut the deficit to four points.

Then, Stephen Curry scored six straight – drawing a foul on a 3-pointer and hitting a 3-pointer – to put the game out of reach. These Warriors are special. Durant has to see that.

Not that he’s focused on Golden State (or the Spurs, Celtics, Rockets or…). This loss is too raw.

“It hurts losing,” Durant said. “It hurts losing, especially being up three games to one.

“It sucks to lose. It sucks.”

How long will that feeling last, and how strongly will Durant associate it with Oklahoma City? The Thunder can offer more money, but one of their biggest selling points is their team success – and that seems like a distant memory. Right now, Oklahoma City is on a three-game losing streak that won’t be snapped before Durant signs somewhere.

Durant will weigh the prudent details, but his will be an emotional decision. Where does he feel most comfortable?

There’s plenty of time to decide. Free agency begins July 1, and he’ll surely want to meet with teams before finalizing a choice.

The Thunder have done him well for years, and they’d remain elite with him.

But they can’t feel good with this being Durant’s final image of their season – victorious Warrior after victorious Warrior hugging Durant and consoling him on Oklahoma City’s third straight failure.

Too much Stephen Curry, too many threes bury Thunder in Game 7, Warriors win 96-88, advance to Finals

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 30:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors celebrates after defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder 96-88 in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 30, 2016 in Oakland, California. 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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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For seven games the athleticism and improved defense of the Oklahoma City Thunder smothered nearly everything Golden State tried to do inside the arc. The Thunder length and aggressiveness had them owning the paint and dominating the glass much of the series. Oklahoma City outplayed Golden State below the arc all series long.

But the Warriors owned the three ball.

“They beat us from the 3-point line the last two games, we beat them from everywhere else,” Kevin Durant said after Game 7.

After a rough shooting first half (again), the three balls started to fall for Golden State in the second half of Game 7 Monday — many of them contested, the Thunder defense remained stout. The Warriors opened the game 2-of-6 from three, then hit 12 of their next 24 — 10-of-20 in the second half — while the Thunder missed 13 straight at one point.

The Warriors made 10 more threes than the Thunder in Game 7 and — just as it was in Game 6 — that proved to be the difference. The Warriors came from down 3-1 to win Game 7 96-88 and take the series.

Golden State will host Cleveland in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night.

“I knew we were ready for the moment,” Stephen Curry said after the game. “I knew we were a mature basketball team that tried our best to not listen to the noise outside. Six or seven days ago when we were down 3-1 everybody thought the wheels were falling off and it was the end of our run, but not the locker room. The talk was positive, it was let’s figure this out, let’s go out and take it one game at a time, claw our way back into the series, and see what happens.”

It took the best run of games these Warriors have put together in two-plus seasons — a stretch that included a championship and 73 regular season wins — to get past OKC and back to the Finals. The Thunder’s improved defense and great scoring  forced the Warriors to find another gear.

But Golden State always had the three ball to bail them out. Look at their shot chart from Game 7.

Warriors Game 7 shot chart

Curry, who finished with 36 points and hit 7-of-12 from three, was the difference as he played like the MVP version of himself. That version had been held in check much of the series by the Thunder’s defense, and likely a lingering knee issue (although he would never admit that). All series long Curry had struggled to beat the Thunder bigs who switched onto him off picks, but not in Game 7 when he hit four threes over those bigs, and blew by them and into the lane a host of other times.

Kevin Durant was giving up the ball and finding teammates early in the game, trying to get others involved, but late in the fourth he put together a personal 7-0 run that made it a four-point game inside three minutes. Durant was a beast and finished with 27 points to lead the Thunder. Russell Westbrook added 19 points and 13 assists. They just didn’t have the threes to keep up with the Warriors.

Early on it in Game 7 felt like it might be the Thunder’s night. It was a disjointed start to the game (as often happens in Game 7s), which helped Steven Adams get a couple of buckets and had the Thunder trying to move the ball. Both teams had jitters and guys are trying to do a little too much, evidence by Curry starting 3-of-8 and Thompson 0-of-4. What OKC did was get six offensive boards in first quarter, which had then up 24-19.

In the second, Waiters came in and played a little out of control but proved to be a spark that had the Thunder pushing the lead up to 13. The Thunder also got solid play early from Enes Kanter, who had eight points and four rebounds in eight minutes. Meanwhile, the Warriors were missing their twos — started 6-of-20 inside the arc — but unlike Game 6 they were missing their threes as well. Play Thompson started 0-of-7.

Then Thompson hit three in a row from beyond the arc, the Warriors’ energy returned, and they went on 11-2 run to make it a game again. Thunder responded with 7-0 run of their own. Then Warriors have 7-0 run to get it to five. By the half, it was 48-42 Oklahoma City.

Golden State came out gunning from three to start the second half and behind a few Curry threes went on a 15-4 run and the Warriors were up 57-54. The Thunder hung around but got sucked into the wrong style of play and they missed 13 consecutive threes at one point. The threes were falling for the Warriors, the Thunder could not buy a bucket, it was a 29-12 third quarter for the Warriors and they were up 71-60. The Warriors felt in control.

But the Thunder played too hard and too well this series to go quietly into that good night. Durant made his push, they crashed the glass, they defended with heart and made plays down the stretch. Just not enough.

Because the Warriors threes kept falling no matter what.

Stephen Curry goes high off the glass at the buzzer just before the half

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Golden State hadn’t shot well all first half — 38.6 percent — and Stephen Curry was 4-of-10 with time running out in half.

Then Curry hit this high, high off the glass to end the half and bring Golden State within six at the break, 48-42.

Notice that Curry grabbed his knee after the shot. He was out for the start of the second half.