Tag: Suns-Blazers

NBA Playoffs: Robin Lopez inches toward his return

1 Comment

It’s been obvious for some time now that Robin Lopez is quite important to the Phoenix Suns, but he’s even more so after the Suns took a 3-2 series lead over the Blazers last night. With just one win between Phoenix from the second round of the playoffs, I think it’s a bit natural to look forward and see what could be ahead for the Suns.

Hint: it’s big and bad, black and silver, and beats up Phoenix on the regular.

Should the Phoenix-Portland and Dallas-San Antonio series’ go to the teams that currently have the advantage, the Suns will find themselves again matched up with the Spurs. Oh yeah, and those Spurs? They happen to have a hall-of-fame power forward/center (whatever) that will be able to pick the Suns apart from the inside if Phoenix can’t shore up their interior defense pretty quickly.

Lopez would be a huge asset in that regard, and though he’s not quite healthy, he’s getting closer to real game action. From Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic:

A month after coming out of a game because of a twinge in his back and numbness in his legs, Suns center Robin Lopez was on the court Monday, taking his first contact since then.

Another checkup for Lopez’s rehabilitation for a bulging disk cleared him for more work this week after a good week of running and jumping on the court. Lopez will not return this series but is a possibility to play if the Suns advance. “As long as there’s no setback, which there haven’t been, you continue to ramp it up,” Suns General Manager Steve Kerr said. “The biggest thing is for him to respond well to the activity.”

Considering that Lopez is still recovering, maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for Portland to win Game 6. Or Dallas to win Games 5 and 6. Or a series of other bizarre events to transpire that would somehow hold off the second round until Robin is ready to make his return. Phoenix shouldn’t necessarily like their odds against San Antonio with Lopez, but without him? Things could get awfully messy.

NBA Playoffs: Phoenix and Portland are finding a stylistic middle ground

1 Comment

The Phoenix Suns and the Portland Trailblazers are stylistic opposites, and it’s been largely assumed that the winner of the series will be the team that can assert their own stylistic preference on their opponent; if the Suns can make the Blazers run, Phoenix would seem to have the advantage, and if the Blazers can force the Suns to slow down, Portland would be presumed to have an edge.

I can understand the logic, but I’m not sure I agree. Instead, I’d propose that neither team will be able to force their style onto the series conclusively, and both teams will be left with a back-and-forth between the Suns pushing the pace and the Blazers grinding the game down to a mechanical halt. Instead, the winner of the series (at least based on the four games so far) will be the team that can better acclimate themselves to the style of the other, with the series depending on how the Blazers can both run and defend the break and how Phoenix can operate.

First, consider Paul Coro’s account of the pace of Game 4 from the Arizona Republic:

It might have taken a double take to recognize the Suns, who scored 87 points, hardly resembled the NBA’s best-shooting team and often walked up the ball to give Portland the pace it wanted. Previous Suns teams starved for a stretch such as the one Saturday in which Portland missed 12 shots in a row over 8:29 of the second half. But the Suns scored just 11 points and did not take the lead during that span.

“If you walk it up and they get in a half-court situation, I think their defense is as good as anybody’s in the NBA,” Gentry said. “Our wings have to run. Steve (Nash) has to push it. Our bigs got to get down so we can run drags and step-up. It’s not one person. It’s the way we’re approaching it from a team standpoint. That’s something we have to get away from right away.”

A perfectly reasonable perspective given the way the game went, and in particular the Suns’ 87-point total. That said, the difference in pace between Games 2 (90 possessions), 3 (89), and 4 (88) was negligible, despite the radically different results. It’s not as if Games 2 and 3 were out-and-out track meets, the Suns were just much better at containing Andre Miller than they had been in Game 1, and their offense thrived after finding a rhythm in the open court. For Phoenix, it’s no longer paramount that they push the ball at every opportunity, but that they use the open space of the break to establish offensive momentum.

That’s where the Suns failed in Game 4, but it shouldn’t shock anyone to find out that the Blazers won the day using the very same plan of attack. Portland outscored Phoenix on the break 16-4 in Game 4, and the number of note is the Blazers’ 16, not the Suns’ 4. Once Portland was able to get free points and establish their offense on the break, Phoenix’s defensive adjustments weren’t quite so stifling. Things became substantially easier for the Blazers as they opened up the game, despite the clear departure from their style.

The winner of every game thus far has been the leader in fast break points, but every game has also been more in line with Portland’s average page (90) than Phoenix’s (97.6). The fastest game of the series was the Blazers’ Game 1 victory, and the two run-and-gun Suns wins were in games with very few possessions. Those aren’t signs that either team is struggling with the sense of identity, but rather that the series itself has become something of a compromise.

Alvin Gentry, Steve Kerr, and the power of expectation

Leave a comment

Since the Shaq flub, Steve Kerr’s work as the GM/President of Basketball Ops of the Phoenix Suns has been understated but effective. He flipped Boris Diaw for Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley. He drafted Robin Lopez, who was quickly disregarded as an NBA talent but has made a legitimate impact this season. He acquired Goran Dragic, who has evolved into one of the top back-up point guards in the league. He unearthed Lou Amundson and signed a contributor on the cheap in Channing Frye. He extended Steve Nash’s contract, who remains the key to keeping the team competitive. He didn’t trade Amar’e Stoudemire, who could very well re-sign with the Suns this summer.

Plus, after a short-lived experiment with Terry Porter at the helm, Kerr wasn’t afraid to cut his losses and move on. Kerr gave the reins to Alvin Gentry last February, and since that time we’ve seen the Suns absolutely take off. It seemed like a given that Phoenix would start to decline along with Nash, but Gentry has made the most of what looked like a limited roster on paper.

Think of all of those players mentioned above that have made a huge difference for Phoenix this season: Frye, Dudley, Amundson, Dragic, Lopez. With a lesser coach running the show, how many of those players get considerable playing time, even if the Suns faced injury problems? Frye couldn’t find a consistent role in Portland, Dudley was unjustly buried in Charlotte, Amundson played for three different teams before landing in Phoenix, and Dragic or Lopez could easily have been painted a draft bust before their careers rightfully started.

Gentry found value in each of them, and though Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire are undoubtedly the keys to the operation, the Suns don’t run as smoothly or effectively without that core of role players. Gentry deserves credit for not only relying on those players to give him consistent minutes, but finding the roles and positions that offer the best fit for each player’s strengths.

He’s not perfect, though. He couldn’t, for instance, coach his team to a victory in Game 1 against the undermanned Portland Trailblazers. From Paola Bolvin of the Arizona Republic:

Alvin Gentry’s promotion to head coach 14 months ago was the right one, a just reward for someone who excels at player management and whose growth during 22 years in the NBA paid off with this season’s 54-28 record. Little is known about Gentry the postseason coach, however, his sole experience a first-round knockout with Detroit coming during the strike-shortened 1998-99 season.

Welcome to the pressure cooker, Coach. All eyes are on you after the Suns were the only home team to lose Game 1. Gentry needs to make sure his players have rebounded emotionally. Mike D’Antoni used to say if you lose a playoff game, you feel like you’ll lose all of them, and if you win, you feel invincible. It’s an oversimplification but there is truth to the remark.

“We haven’t lost confidence,” Gentry said after practice Monday. Good for them. Now let’s see what Gentry can do with a team that lost its way in the opener. Assignment No. 1: Prevent Portland’s guards from a repeat performance.

This Suns-Blazers series should give us an interesting look into two things: Alvin Gentry’s ability to coach on a micro level over the course of a playoff series (timeout play-calling, matchup meta-game, various strategic adjustments) and Steve Kerr’s patience. Should the Suns cede to the resilient Blazers (which is hardly an assumption just one game in), is Gentry suddenly on the hot seat, despite elevating the team well beyond reasonable expectation? Few anticipated Phoenix being as good as they are, and though the credit should absolutely go to the players first, Gentry deserves some credit.

That credit should be enough to help Gentry survive even a Portland upset, but we can’t say for sure. Coming into the playoffs as the no. 3 seed does bring with it some level of expectation, even if those expectations were generated by the team and the coach’s surprising success. Plus, as little as we know about Gentry as a playoff coach, we know a similar amount about Kerr’s style as a GM. He’s just starting to get into a rhythm in terms of talent acquisition, but he’s also had two coaching changes in three seasons. What’s to prevent Gentry being the first to go if the Suns hit a substantial roadblock?

There’s no certainty that Gentry’s job is in jeopardy if the Suns manage to lose this series; the only thing that we know for sure is that we don’t know. That’s a bummer considering how good Gentry has been this season, but a reality in world where we still don’t know all of that much about Steve Kerr’s managerial style.