Lindsey Hunter introduced as Suns head coach, details emerge on reasons the team made a change

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PHOENIX — Lindsey Hunter met the media on the Suns practice court Sunday, just hours after formally being offered the position of interim head coach and running the team through practice.

Almost two full days after Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby held a press conference but didn’t offer up a lot in terms of reasons why Alvin Gentry and the team parted ways, GM Lance Blanks hinted at some internal things that were going on behind the scenes that led management in that direction.

When asked how Hunter’s success would be measured the rest of the season, Blanks pointed to off-the-court ideals rather than wins and losses as things the team is looking to see improve under its interim head coach.

“Some of the success will be in ways that you may not be able to see with the naked eye,” Blanks said. “First off, we’ve got to look at the culture and the environment, which you may not be able to see when you’re watching the game. Because I think the team has played pretty hard for most of the season. but at the same time, in the back we’ve seen guys become more disappointed than we would like.

“We’ve seen a culture where the guys haven’t been as responsive as we would like, so we’ll be measuring that right out of the gate,” Blanks said. “We saw an uptick already in practice with the way that things were conducted [this morning].”

Hunter’s first practice was full of all the team’s players, but noticeably absent were two prominent assistant coaches under Gentry in Elston Turner and Dan Majerle. While Blanks said that all of Gentry’s assistants were offered the opportunity to stay through the end of the season, only Igor Kokoskov and Noel Gillespie, along with player development coach Ralph Sampson were seen in the gym putting players through workouts.

Turner was Gentry’s lead assistant, so it would be understandable if he was upset about being passed over for the interim spot in favor of someone with zero NBA coaching experience. And while Majerle may not have been the favorite to replace Gentry, if he does have future head coaching aspirations, it would be tough to see him being pleased with the decision to go with someone who he may not be able to learn as much from as as he would from a more tenured head coach.

As far as the reason given for the selection of Hunter, Blanks said they needed to go in a direction that would shake things up.

“The simple answer is that the organization needed a jolt,” Blanks said. “We needed something that would shock the systems of us, the players, and risk trumps safety in this business. And we felt this was the right person to take the risk on.”

There’s no question that Hunter will be learning on the job, and Blanks mentioned that the team will look to add a veteran coach either on or behind the bench to assist Hunter through the transition. But the Suns feel that his strong personality will hold players more accountable than they’ve been in the past, and that will lead to a positive culture the team can build around.

When asked what qualities he possesses that make him a good coach, Hunter was honest and humble in his response.

“We don’t know if I’m a good coach yet, right,” he said. “It remains to be seen. But I just think playing as long as I did and growing up around the game, I think that in itself has prepared me. Being a basketball junkie my entire life has prepared me. When I got here Lon and Lance were like, you have a Ph.D. in basketball. And that’s kind of how I look at it. My entire life has been surrounded by this game.”

Anthony Davis rattles rim with dunk on Juan Hernangomez (video)

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A sweet-shooting stretch four, Juan Hernangomez has a bright future in the NBA.

It’s not because of his rim protection.

Video Breakdown: How to ICE the pick-and-roll on defense

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NBA teams can defend the pick-and-roll game in many ways, but one of the most common is called ICE. This method sometimes goes by the name of Blue, Down, or Black, and it is ubiquitous as way to defend in the most popular offensive action in the modern NBA.

The basic idea is that the screener’s defender — usually a big man — stays parallel to the baseline and below the screen itself. The goal is to force the dribbler east to west, and to defend the paint while allowing for a lower percentage long range jumper.

The dribbler’s defender — usually a guard or a wing — fights over the top and pressures the shooter from above, ensuring that he cannot take a 3-pointer.

ICE pick-and-roll coverage has two main goals:

  1. Stop the ball handler and force the offense to move to another action.
  2. Stop a shot in the paint or at the 3-point line.

This varies from other kinds of pick-and-roll defense, including the hedge, the show, and the blitz. We’ll cover those in future videos, but you can get a little taste of them in a defensive glossary video I’ve done previously.

Meanwhile, get the full breakdown on ICE pick-and-roll coverage with the video breakdown above.

Rockets’ Patrick Beverley says players “disrespecting game” by resting when healthy

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Former Bulls guard turned agent and podcaster B.J. Armstrong said on our podcast last week that no, players didn’t have DNP-rest days back when he played — but he added that might well have been different if they had the information on injuries that today’s teams and players have. He said they got tired, they got banged up, and they played through it. You can call that tough, but it likely took time, maybe years, off their career.

Houston’s Patrick Beverley is from that old-school mentality and said players are disrespecting the game if they don’t get out there when healthy. Via Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

“I think that’s bulls—,” Beverley said after the Rockets’ 137-125 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday. “I think that’s a disgrace to this league. I think that fans deserve better.

“I could care less about coaches asking players to rest or not. It’s up to you to play or not, and if you don’t, you’re disrespecting the game. And I don’t believe in disrespecting the game, because there was a time where I wasn’t playing in the NBA and I was trying to get here. So me resting, I feel like, is disrespecting me, disrespecting the name on the front of the jersey and disrespecting the name on the back of the jersey.”

It’s the coaches and the organizations telling players to rest, it’s rarely the players themselves, and the teams are doing it because they want their guys at their peak come the playoffs. If the goal is winning a title in June (or at least going deep into May) then not wearing guys down matters.

Everyone has their opinions on it, Gregg Popovich did a good job trying to explain the nuances, but the simple fact is player rest games are not going away. They did it back in Armstrong’s day too, they just called a sore ankle or back rather than rest. What helps lessen games stars have off is building more rest and days off into the schedule, which the NBA is trying to do. But that’s a challenge that will continue to be discussed.

Three Things We Learned Sunday: Westbrook, Harden showdown leaves MVP race same as it ever was

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How many teams did you get right in your Final Four bracket? For the record, I have one (North Carolina). Which is why I was watching a lot more NBA on Sunday than NCAA (that and it’s my job). Here are the big takeaways from Sunday.

1) Russell Westbrook gets 36th triple-double. James Harden lifts Rockets victory. The MVP race is the same as it ever was. If you wanted to make a case for Russell Westbrook as MVP, he gave you reason on Sunday in a showdown with James Harden and the Rockets. Westbrook dropped his 36th triple-double of the season with 39 points, 11 rebounds, and 13 assists, and the Rockets could not stop him.

Harden put up numbers — 22 points on 15 shots, plus 12 assists — but his team got the win because he got help: 31 from Lou Williams, 24 from Trevor Ariza, and 24 from Eric Gordon. Williams had 18 points in the first half. As a team, the Rockets shot 63.3 percent overall and 51.3 percent from beyond the arc.

Harden has better teammates around him, but he is orchestrating them beautifully, he’s more efficient, and he’s lifting his team to higher heights. Westbrook is almost single-handedly carrying the Thunder offense by putting up historic numbers.

This game offered no clarity in the MVP race. In one of the closest, most interesting award races in years, your pick for MVP depends on how you want to define the award and its criteria. (And we’re not even getting into the legitimate case that can be made for Kawhi Leonard here. LeBron James is in the mix, too, although the recent stumbles of the Cavaliers may hurt his case.) We know where the Rockets organization stands.

Sunday’s Thunder/Rockets just an MVP showdown, it was a potential first round playoff matchup. On that front, the Rockets led by as many 25, and while the Rockets made a late push to get the lead down to single digits in the final couple minutes, but the Thunder couldn’t get stops, and the result was never really in doubt. It’s hard to see a playoff series going much differently, the Thunder just don’t defend well enough to slow Houston.

2) Celtics beat Heat, move into tie with Cavaliers for top record in the East. Boston just keeps on grinding, keeps on making enough plays, and keeps on winning. So much so that with a hard-fought win over the Heat on Sunday Boston finds itself tied with Cleveland for the top seed in the East (Boston has one more win, Cleveland has one fewer loss).

Boston may well finish on top, it has an easier schedule to close out the season. However, the big game — and what will determine who has the tiebreaker between the two — comes when the Celtics and Cavaliers play on April 5.

The Celtics got the win because they made crucial shots down the stretch, like this driving floater by Isaiah Thomas (who finished the night with 30 points).

Then Al Horford‘s block sealed the 112-108 victory.

For Miami, even with the loss they sit as the eight seed in the East, the final playoff spot, but Chicago is just half a game back, and the Pistons one game back. While the race could go any direction, the Bulls have the softest schedule the rest of the way of any of those three teams.

3) Blazers win, Nuggets lose, teams now tied for the eighth seed in the West. The race to be the team destroyed by the Golden State Warriors in the first round out West is heating up — Denver and Portland are now tied for the eight seed.

On Sunday, Denver had a sloppy loss at home as New Orleans came to town without DeMarcus Cousins, and yet Anthony Davis dropped 31 and the Pelicans won.

Portland got 22 from Damian Lillard and pulled away in the third quarter to beat the hapless Lakers, 97-81.

Denver and Portland play Tuesday night in what will be a huge game in that race.