Utah Jazz v Phoenix Suns

The Extra Pass: Eric Bledsoe’s path from afterthought to building block; plus Sunday’s recaps

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In Eric Bledsoe’s final game with the Los Angeles Clippers last season, he played nine minutes and 28 seconds.

In that game, the Memphis Grizzlies scored 118 points despite possessing what most would consider a below-average offense.

Mike Conley, a player Bledsoe has routinely shut down throughout his career, went to the free throw line 17 times.

All while Bledsoe sat.

This wasn’t particularly uncommon throughout Bledsoe’s tenure with the Clippers. For whatever reason, the explosive young guard was never seen as a viable partner in the same backcourt as Chris Paul, despite Paul’s supernatural ability to set his teammates up perfectly.

It’s not like the Paul-Bledsoe backcourt was a failed experiment, either. Although they shared the court for just 185 minutes, the Clippers posted an offensive efficiency of 115.9 (which would be the best in the league, by far) and a net efficiency of +11.1 points. Not only did Paul and Bledsoe work well together, but Bledsoe worked better than any other “true shooting guard” did next to Paul.

The inability to think outside of the box made Bledsoe expendable for the Clippers, which in turn made him a bargain for someone else.

That someone was Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough. Somehow, McDonough flipped a player with no athleticism who had reached his ceiling (Jared Dudley) for a player with all the athleticism and no ceiling.

It didn’t matter that the Suns already had a point guard in Goran Dragic, because any fears of fit were largely unsubstantiated in the first place.

So far this year, Dragic and Bledsoe have played 310 minutes together and have a net efficiency rating of +4.7 together.

More importantly, Phoenix’s most commonly used lineup with Bledsoe and Dragic has a net rating of +9.6, which ranks fifth in the entire league for lineups that have played over 150 minutes together.

Bledsoe didn’t have many doubters individually, but this pairing did. Any questions have been largely put to rest, though, as the Suns are the only team in the NBA with a starting backcourt comprised of two players with a PER over 20.

After vanquishing the more highly regarded “Splash Brothers” backcourt of Golden State on Sunday night, Phoenix is officially red hot. Five straight wins won’t melt away the talks of rebuilding or trading Dragic altogether, but Bledsoe has given McDonough the same flexibility off the court that he gives the Suns on it.

-D.J. Foster  

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Kings 106, Rockets 91: Here is my key takeaway from this game — DeMarcus Cousins completely outplayed Dwight Howard. Cousins had 21 points on 14 shots plus pulled down 10 boards, and he held Howard to 13 points. Rudy Gay dropped 26, Isaiah Thomas had 11 of his 19 in the second quarter when the Kings took control of the game. Houston’s league-best offense got open looks but simply didn’t hit them (they were 3-of-8 from the midrange and shot 25 percent from three).

Timberwolves 101, Grizzlies 93: Minnesota took the lead with a 17-4 run in the first quarter and while Memphis made it interesting at points (Mike Conley’s 15 pints in the third quarter helped that) the Timberwolves never trailed. Kevin Love put up 31 points and had 9 boards, but he also played good post defense on Zach Randolph to help keep the Grizzlies attack under control. Love can play straight up post D pretty well (when he avoids fouls).

Trail Blazers 111, Pistons 109: Detroit fell victim to one of the classic blunders — the most famous of which is “never get involved in a land war in Asia” — but only slightly less well-known is this: “Never get in a close game with the Trail Blazers!” Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! (Seriously this team just does not lose close games, only once this season to Monta Ellis and the Mavs, aside that they just make shots at the end of games. It was Damian Lillard’s turn this time to throw the dagger.)

Thunder 101, Magic 98: If you were expecting a blowout that’s what you got, with OKC leading comfortably most of the second half, until an 18-4 Magic run late in the fourth quarter made it interesting. Arron Afflalo had 9 of his 25 in the fourth quarter and had a key three to cut the Thunder lead to four with less than a minute. Next a Mo Harkless dunk cut it to two. Kevin Durant split two free throws and the Magic got one last shot to tie — but a Glen Davis fadeaway three was not what they had in mind. Durant had 28 points to lead everyone.

Nuggets 102, Pelicans 93: A lot of Denver players pitched into this one, but it was two guards who were really key. One was Ty Lawson, who had an awful game in the loss to the Jazz, but he bounced back with a good game (12 points, 8 assists) directing the offense. The other was Nate Robinson off the bench with 14 points, but you know he can score; it was a couple key blocks and some good defense we didn’t expect that really mattered. Ryan Anderson had 26 for the Hornets but he was 10-of-21 shooting and missed a lot of good looks.

Suns 106, Warriors 102: The backcourt of Eric Gordon and Goran Dragic stood toe-to-toe with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in this one — the Suns/ starting backcourt had 45 points, 12 assists and 9 rebounds. (For the record, the Warriors starting backcourt had 49 points.) Credit the Suns defense for forcing turnovers on 19.3 percent of the Warriors possessions (they have been turnover prone lately). Also, the Warriors miss Andre Iguodala as teams load up on Curry to prevent his threes.

After loss, Kevin Durant doesn’t sound like guy looking to bolt Oklahoma City

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 30:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder walks off the court after being defeated 96-88 by the Golden State Warriors 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 Robert Reiners/Getty Images)
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The conventional wisdom around the NBA shifted some as the NBA playoffs wore on, moving from “Kevin Durant is definitely in play” to “Kevin Durant likely stays with the Thunder for at least a year” as the Thunder kept on winning and came close to knocking off the Golden State Warriors. Where is he going to go and have a better chance at a ring?

Of course, when asked directly about free agency after the game, Durant would have no part of it.

“I mean, we just lost like 30 minutes ago, so I haven’t even thought about it,” Durant said. “I’m just embracing my teammates and just reflecting on the season. I’ll think about that stuff, I don’t know when. But we just lost an hour ago, 30 minutes ago, so I don’t know.”

But some of the other things he said over the course of the night sounded like a guy who is going to stay put. At least for now. There was this comment reflecting back on the season:

“I’m just proud of what all we’ve been through this season. We stuck together and we sacrificed for each other. That’s just what makes this game so special.”

Notice the use of the word “we.” He used that word a lot in his postgame press conference.

He used that word more speaking to Sam Amick of the USA Today a little later in the evening.

“We all grew up,” Durant said. “I think more than anything, we embraced the moment. We stayed in the moment every game. I’m more proud because most of these guys haven’t played in this atmosphere before.

“From (fellow free-agent-to-be) Dion (Waiters) to Enes to Andre, Steven – this is his first time as a starter playing, in this type of atmosphere as one of the main guys,” Durant said. “(Veteran) Randy (Foye) never made it to the Western Conference Finals, and he played a lot. Anthony Morrow had never made it to the playoffs, so I was just proud of how everyone just stayed in the moment and enjoyed it. That’s what I’m most proud of.”

And then, the curious kicker.”I see bright things for this team,” he added. “And it’s great to be a part of it.”

Once Durant’s emotions have settled after the loss, he may look at his situation and decide he does want to test the waters of free agency. There are no certainties in the NBA.

However, the sense around the league is that Durant will sign a two-year, one-plus-one deal with the Thunder, where he gets max money next season then can opt out again after one year (the kind of deal LeBron James did last summer). The reason starts with money. Durant’s max salary next season (whether with the Thunder or another team) will start at around $28 million a year, but if he signs a new contract in 2017 — after another salary cap bump and he gets 10 years in the league, so the percentage of his max deal goes up — his max would  start in the $37 million a year range. There’s a risk with a one-year type deal, but it makes a lot of sense because he will make a lot more money and get to make one more run at a ring with Russell Westbrook and the developing cast in Oklahoma City.

We will see what Durant decides, but the smart bet is on him staying in OKC for at least one more season.

In-flight meeting helped spark Warriors rally from down 3-1

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 30:  Klay Thompson #11 of the Golden State Warriors hoists the Western Conference Championship Trophy after defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder 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 Pool/Getty Images)
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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) A heart-to-heart was in order.

As the Golden State Warriors made the long, frustrating flight home from Oklahoma City last week suddenly facing elimination, Draymond Green gathered with a few fellow starters at a table in the front of the plane to discuss how to get the defending champions back to winning – and fast.

No other choice to avoid a premature end to this record-setting season.

“We just kept talking about what we needed to do and what we were going to do,” Green said.

Somehow, six days later, the Warriors had won Game 7 with a third straight victory against the Thunder after falling behind 3-1 in the best-of-seven series. And they are headed back to the NBA Finals for a rematch with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the title defense still very much within reach. Game 1 is Thursday night on Golden State’s Oracle Arena home floor.

“We never lost confidence, and every game just played with fearlessness and that confidence that we could get back to the Finals however we had to get it done,” MVP Stephen Curry said after his 36-point performance in Monday night’s 96-88 clincher of the Western Conference finals.

“I knew we were ready for the moment. We were a mature basketball team that tried our best not to listen to the noise outside when six, seven days ago, we’re down 3-1, everybody thought the wheels were falling off and it was kind of the end of our run,” Curry said. “But in that 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 and claw our way back into the series and see what happens.’ We followed that kind of mindset these last three games.”

In the airplane sit-down, Klay Thompson was clear he could only focus as far ahead as winning Game 5 before shifting to think about how to win another one on the Thunder’s court. Golden State’s most steady player this postseason, he hit an NBA-postseason record 11 3-pointers for 41 points in a thrilling 108-101 Game 6 comeback, then another six on Monday night on the way to 21 points.

Even after two embarrassing, lopsided road losses at Oklahoma City that put the Warriors in a big hole, Green counted on them finding a way to come back. He believed it would happen, “Because once we figured something out, we can get it rolling.”

Those two defeats were by 52 combined points.

“We were not just down 3-1, we had gotten blown out two straight games,” coach Steve Kerr said. “So obviously everything started with Game 5, kind of rediscovering ourselves and our style. Then Game 6 was kind of magical. What Klay did that night, basically putting us on his shoulders and allowing us to have this opportunity tonight at home, it’s a pretty remarkable comeback and it shows a lot about our guys and their will and their grit.”

Green is the one who made it clear to Kerr the Warriors wanted to go for the regular-season wins record rather than resting down the stretch, and they topped the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ 72-wins mark.

This time, the animated, emotional swingman helped Golden State become the 10th team to win a postseason series after falling behind 3-1, and it did it against Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the powerful Thunder.

“I think everybody will look at 73 wins and say, `Wow, this team never hit any adversity,’ but there is adversity in every season. It all comes in different forms,” said Green, who had 11 points, nine rebounds, four assists and two blocks. “But when you’re talking down 3-1, and everything’s on the line, that makes it 10 times worse. So it’s definitely the biggest thing that this team has had to overcome, and it took a great, tremendous effort and fight to overcome it.”

The Warriors now must figure out a way to pull off four more wins against James and the Cavs, who will be eager to change their fortunes following that 4-2 Finals defeat last June when Golden State captured its first championship in 40 years.

Kerr made the spot-on decision to move Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup for Game 7 to defend Durant, just as the Coach of the Year did during the NBA Finals last year when Iguodala earned Finals MVP honors.

“To have our back against the wall and do it three straight games is tough,” Iguodala said. “I’ll probably forget about it tomorrow morning because we really want to get another one. But it was good for us to have to battle like that. Hopefully it carries over and we can continue with that intensity we’ve had the last three games.”

Reserve center Marreese Speights offered his postgame insight on Twitter.

“Y’all never seen a 73 win team .. Y’all never seen a player win unanimous mvp… Hahha this story not over!! (hash)history (hash)believe.”

Watch all 17 three pointers from Warriors Game 7 victory over Thunder

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

He’s right. For most of seven games the Oklahoma City Thunder owned play inside the arc — their length and athleticism gave the Warriors tremendous trouble. But the Warriors had the three ball as the equalizer — or, it turns out, slightly more than the equalizer. Golden State shot their way to a series win by knocking down threes the last two games. Often contested, well-defended threes.

Above check out the 17 threes the Warriors nailed in Game 7 (on 37 attempts, or 45.9 percent shooting). There’s a lot of Stephen Curry (7) and Klay Thompson (6) in those highlights.

Here’s the NBA Finals schedule, clear your schedule accordingly

San Antonio Spurs v Miami Heat - Game 7
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The Cleveland Cavaliers vs. the Golden State Warriors. A rematch of the highest-rated NBA Finals since the Jordan era, which you know makes the suits at ABC/ESPN/Disney happy. But it’s also good for fans, these are the best teams from each conference, and it should be an interesting matchup.

The NBA has moved away from the Sunday/Tuesday/Thursday pattern of games the NBA Finals has followed for years. Below is the schedule for this year’s Finals, all times are Eastern, and all the games will be broadcast on ABC.

Game 1 – June 2 (Thursday) at Golden State  9:00PM

Game 2 – June 5 (Sunday) at Golden State 8:00PM

Game 3 – June  8 (Wednesday) at Cleveland  9:00 PM

Game 4 –Fri  June 10 (Friday) at Cleveland 9:00PM

Game 5 * — Mon  June 13 (Monday) at Golden State 9:00PM

Game 6 *  — Thu  June 16 (Thursday) at Cleveland 9:00 PM

Game 7 * —  June 19 (Sunday) at Golden State 8:00 PM

* means if necessary