Alvin Gentry, Steve Kerr, and the power of expectation

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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.      

 

Luka Doncic had more points, rebounds and assists than Warriors in first quarter

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Luka Doncic keeps doing amazing things.

But he really outdid himself in opening quarter of the Mavericks win over the Warriors last night. The box score after the first quarter:

  • Points: Doncic 22, Warriors 16
  • Rebounds: Doncic 5, Warriors 4
  • Assists: Doncic 5, Warriors 4

Outscoring Golden State? OK. Getting more assists? OK. Doing both? That’s just incredible. Doncic was in total control offensively.

The 6-foot-7 wing out-rebounding the Warriors is especially astounding. Though I suppose if 6-foot Allen Iverson out-rebounded an entire team for a quarter, it’s not that crazy Doncic did, too.

To be fair, this achievement deserves a little context. Warriors who played in the first quarter:

Three Things to Know: Kawhi Leonard, Paul George’s sloppy first game shows promise

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Kawhi Leonard, Paul George’s first game together is both sloppy and shows moments of real promise. This was what the Clippers had been waiting for since July, what they had paid a steep price to make a reality and change the course of a franchise.

Paul George and Kawhi Leonard shared an NBA court for the first time and it was…

Sloppy.

A bit awkward, like a blind first date. Credit Boston’s active defense for some of that — it’s not a fluke Boston has the seventh-best defense in the league this season and forced 23 turnovers on the night — but through the muck there were moments of real promise. Like the first play of the game, when the Celtics trapped Leonard off an Ivica Zubac pick, Leonard fed Zubac, who quickly found Leonard for a three.

Moments later, when the Celtics trapped Leonard, and he found George for three.

For much of the game, things were not as smooth with those two on the court together — as should be expected. George missed the first 11 games of the season following double shoulder surgery this offseason. Once he returned, Leonard was out three games with a bruised knee. The pair had literally one practice together, and in the full-contact scrimmage to end that day they were on opposing sides.

This marriage going to take time. The Clippers didn’t even explore a Leonard/George pick-and-roll in this game, but you know that’s coming. As Doc Rivers put it postgame:

“We were kind of trying not to get in each other’s way at times, you could feel that…

“We need a lot of work, you can see that… part of that was we were trying to get the ball to guys instead of trying to score.”

With the game on the line in overtime against one of the NBA’s better and hotter teams in Boston, two things that make the Clippers so dangerous were evident.

One is the defense — George and Leonard each made big defensive plays late, including Leonard blocking Marcus Smart’s attempt at a game-winner.

All game long the Clippers length and defense gave Boston — which came into the game with the league’s fourth-best offense — trouble.

Second is Leonard and George have a good team around them — Patrick Beverley was the best Clipper on the floor Wednesday night and the team gave him the game ball afterward. He was intense on defense (as always), had 14 points and 16 boards, and with the Celtics making the choice to trap and double on offense guys were open, and it was Beverley who made Boston pay with the overtime dagger to seal a 107-104 win.

The Clippers, for all their star power, look a lot like Beverley. This is a scrappy, hard-working team with guys who play their roles and bring intensity. Even their stars are that way — George and Leonard are not anointed No. 1 picks where everyone saw their stardom coming, they are lunch pail guys who had talent but came out of smaller colleges and had to work hard to get where they are. Nothing was handed to them, they had to grind it out.

This is why pairing Leonard and George was always going to take a little time to make work. They were always going to have to figure it out.

But when they do…. you can already see why the rest of the league should be worried.

2) Another night, another ridiculous Luka Doncic triple-double. This feels like a nightly thing, and I’m fast running out of ways to praise Luka Doncic, his play, and to remind everyone that he’s just 20 years old and in his second NBA season.

Age doesn’t matter, he’s been so good he’s injected himself into the way-too-early MVP conversation. His latest feat Friday night was a 35-point, 11 assists, 10 rebound triple-double against the hapless Warriors — this time he did it in just 25 minutes on the court.

Doncic scored more points in the first quarter than the Warriors (22-16) and also had more rebounds and assists than the Warriors team. The last guy to do that to any NBA team was Allen Iverson.

Doncic is now averaging a triple-double over his last 10 games: 31.9 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 10.5 assists in that stretch. Here’s the list of other NBA players to average a 30+ point triple-double for 10 games or more: Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Oscar Robertson. That’s it.

Doncic is special, has willed the Mavericks to a 9-5 record, and has them looking like a playoff team in the West. Lifting up your team to the next level is what MVPs do, and so far in Dallas it’s what Doncic has done.

3) Do you believe in miracles… YES! Ben Simmons hits his first NBA three. That headline may overstate the excitement around Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons on Wednesday. But not by that much. Sixers fans — and coach Brett Brown — has had to wait three seasons, 193 games, and 18 attempts from three clank off the rim, if they hit anything at all. (Those numbers include his playoff stats.) It finally happened:

Ben Simmons has made his first NBA three.

We’ve all seen the videos of Simmons knocking down threes in an empty gym, but that’s the NBA equivalent of dunking on an 8-foot rim at the local elementary school. Not the same thing.

This was Simmons’ first attempt at a three all season — that’s the real concern. To create floor spacing Philly wants and needs, Simmons needs to be much more willing to uncork this shot — he’s got to take a bunch and make enough of them before teams respect him from deep.

This is at least a start. And it feels like a miracle.

There’s a mural in L.A. of Alex Caruso dunking over Harden, Leonard, Doncic

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It’s hard to overstate how popular Alex Caruso is in Los Angeles. Seriously. This isn’t just cult status popular, when he enters the game off the bench Staples Center explodes in cheers like LeBron James just fed Anthony Davis for an alley-oop.

Now Caruso has his own mural in Los Angeles.

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This is legit, it’s on the side of SportieLA, a clothing/apparel store on Melrose Ave. in the trendy heart of Los Angeles. Artist Gustavo Zermeño Jr. has done murals in the past for LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and other Los Angeles sports icons such as Vin Scully.

This one plays off a huge Caruso dunk from earlier this month when Dallas’ Maxi Kleber was the victim.

It’s good to be Alex Caruso in Los Angeles right now.

Kawhi Leonard just destroyed Boston’s Daniel Theis on dunk

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Daniel Theis‘ play as a rim protector is one of the reasons Boston has a top-10 defense this season. He has anchored the Celtics’ defense in the paint.

Kawhi Leonard is a two-time Finals MVP, and if he wants to go to the rim nobody is stopping him. Theis found out the hard way.

After the game, Leonard was asked about the dunk and he responded in about the most Kawhi way possible.

This was the first game Leonard and Paul George played together and they combined for 42 points, and they both made key play down the stretch of a 107-104 overtime win.