NBA Playoffs, Suns v. Spurs: And now was acknowledged the presence of the Black and Silver Death

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Nash and Suns.pngThe
Phoenix Suns and the San Antonio Spurs will meet for the fourth time in
six years, and Steve Nash and friends will try their damnedest to avoid
their fourth elimination in as many tries by the Black and Silver
Death.

You see, some will tell you that the Suns are stylistically doomed to
falter in the playoffs. I disagree. What plagues Phoenix is the very
existence of the San Antonio Spurs, who not only present another foil
for the Suns in these playoffs, but have historically been a bit of a
match-up nightmare.

Phoenix didn’t come up short in the playoffs during the D’Antoni era
because their style wasn’t good enough to win or because their offense
wasn’t superior enough to make up for their defense. Phoenix came up
short because they lost to the Spurs three times in four years, and
their one other opponent? The Avery Johnson-led Mavs, who were
constructed with the Spurs model and who scraped by an Amar’e-less Suns
team thanks to a superhuman performance by Dirk Nowitzki.

That’s all. ‘Seven Seconds or Less’ was deemed a failure by so many
because it failed to capture hardware, but all it really did is fail to
beat the Spurs. Other than that, you’re looking at a wildly successful
team that hit just the wrong opponent.

These Suns may not be those Suns, but Steve Nash is still Steve Nash,
and Amar’e Stoudemire is still Amar’e Stoudemire. I guess he used to be
Amare. Whatever. Those two — along with Leandro Barbosa — who are the
few remnants of the SSoL Suns along with head coach Alvin Gentry (who
was a D’Antoni assistant) will get a shot at revenge. Taking a series
over the Spurs now won’t take back those playoff losses, won’t un-bloody Steve Nash’s nose,
and won’t un-implode the roster that was, but it could go a long way in
restoring some prestige to the careers of Nash and Stoudemire.

Both are considered great players, but ultimately flawed ones; Nash’s
two MVP awards are seen by many as tainted, and Stoudemire as a
phenomenal offensive talent that’s perhaps too preoccupied with himself
(the man once nicknamed himself “Isreal” because his game, well, is
real, and subsequently STAT, for “Standing Tall and Talented,”) to
worry about defense.

There may be a bit of truth to each, but neither flaw compares to the
painfully unfair stigma that goes with being a great player that hasn’t
(note that hasn’t is not the same as can’t) won a
championship. Beating the Spurs won’t bring the Suns a title, but it
could — if only for a moment — cure the franchise of the plague that
marred some of the most terrific teams of this era.

That’s why this series isn’t about the title, and all about titles
past. There are no guarantees the Steve Nash would have led the Suns
all the way to the promised land, but wouldn’t it have been fun to see
him try? The Spurs denied the Suns — and NBA fans everywhere — that
opportunity thanks to their smothering defense, their incredible
talent, and their relentless execution. The hot streak Phoenix rode
with into the playoffs has cooled a bit, but they still enter this
series as the higher seed and rolling defensively.

Whether or not they have the bodies to throw at Tim Duncan or the
perimeter defense to stop Manu Ginobili (paging Grant Hill) remains to
be seen, but perhaps this is the way it was supposed to be. D’Antoni’s
gone, and so are Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion, Shaquille O’Neal, and the
weight of expectation.

No one expected this level of success from the Suns this year, and
despite their performance, something about Phoenix’s playoff run still
strikes many as improbable. After all, beyond Nash and Amar’e, this
team depends on Jared Dudley, Channing Frye, and Louis Amundson. Goran
Dragic completely turned his career around after a woeful rookie
season. Grant Hill, at 37, is not only a vital offensive cog in the
machine, but their defensive stopper. These Suns carry with them not
only an air of unpredictability, but improbability.

At this point, a series win over the Spurs seems just as improbable.
The match-up problems are still there, and San Antonio looked awfully
good in eliminating Dallas in the first round. However, this series
should be accompanied by one, enduring question: why not? Given
everything Phoenix has been able to accomplish this season, would
toppling the Spurs even qualify as the most surprising? We’re in for a
riveting series, a million storylines, and just as many questions. But
that one question should stand out among many, if only as a reminder of the importance of this season in the Suns-Spurs lore.  

Celtics’ Terry Rozier on Game 3: “We needed to get our butts whooped”

Associated Press
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Cleveland dominated Game 3 Saturday night. They played harder, to start. The Cavaliers’ defensive pressure on the ball was better, they were sharper rotating out to shooters and covering passing lanes. Cleveland’s role players stepped up and helped LeBron James.

Boston, meanwhile, wilted in the face of that pressure Saturday, something it has done a few times on the road these playoffs. The Celtics got away from the things that got them to the Eastern Conference Finals. Guard Terry Rozier put it more bluntly, via A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston:

“I feel like we needed this (loss) to get us back … to get us ready for Monday,” Rozier said.

Rozier later added, “We needed to get our butts whipped. Come back to reality and take care of business on Monday.”

Cleveland is a championship team — from LeBron James on down through the core guys, they all have rings. They have been down before, and heading home it was expected they would play with force. Cleveland’s back was against the wall and they responded.

From the Celtics’ perspective, they also got a little too fat and happy and were not ready for what the Cavaliers came with in Game 3.

Now the pressure is on Boston to push back, to get back to their level of execution and do it under pressure. Make the Cavaliers prove the improved defensive effort was not a one-off game. The Celtics must move the ball and play with some pace, then see if the Cavaliers can keep it together in the face of crisp play.

When this series heads back to Boston Wednesday, it will either see the Celtics in control up 3-1, or the series will be a best of three (with the Cavs still having to figure out if they can win on the road). At home, the Cavaliers are going to play with force again and have some depth. We’ll see if Game 3 was enough of a wakeup call for Boston.

PBT Extra: Can Rockets take Game 2 energy, execution on the road?

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Houston found its blueprint to beating Golden State in Game 2: Strong defensive pressure on the ball, quick switches and communication on defense, getting out in transition when possible, and starting sets earlier in the shot clock and attacking downhill with James Harden and Chris Paul.

Now can they do that on the road? Against a more focused and sharper Warriors’ team?

That will be the question in the next two games of the Western Conference Finals, and it’s what I discuss in this latest PBT Extra.

Cavaliers cruise past Celtics in Game 3, change complexion of Eastern Conference finals

AP Photo/Tony Dejak
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The Cavaliers were heavy favorites over the Celtics entering the Eastern Conference finals. LeBron James has dominated the East for years, and Cleveland appeared to hit its stride in a sweep of the Raptors last round. Boston was shorthanded and inexperienced.

Were the Celtics’ two wins to open the series, as impressive as they were, really enough to override everything else we knew about these teams?

The Cavs walloped Boston in Game 3, 116-86, Saturday. Cleveland now has four of the NBA’s last five 30-point playoff wins – two against the Celtics last year, one over Toronto last round and tonight. (The Cavaliers lost the league’s only other 30-point game between, to the Pacers in the first round.)

Boston still leads the series 2-1, and teams up 2-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 80% of the time.

But the team up 2-1 is usually the one seen as better entering the series. That isn’t the case here, not with LeBron on the other side. And the leading team usually isn’t so woeful on the road, which will remain a major storyline entering Game 4 Monday in Cleveland.

The Celtics bought themselves margin for error, but they blew a lot of it tonight.

It’d be an oversimplification to say the Cavs just played harder, but they did, and it went along way. They chased loose balls, tightened their defense and moved more off the ball offensively. Cleveland jumped to a 20-4 lead, led by double digits the rest of the way and spent most of the game up by at least 20.

LeBron (27 points, 12 assists, two blocks and two steals) dazzled as a passer and locked in as a defender. He received help from several players:

In a low-resistance effort, Boston didn’t goon up the game at all.

The Cavaliers still have plenty of work ahead to reach their fourth straight NBA Finals, but tonight, they showed a path to advancing. Climbing out of their early series deficit now looks far less intimidating.

Luka Doncic named EuroLeague MVP at age 19

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Luka Doncic, the likely top two pick in the upcoming NBA draft, has led his Real Madrid team to the EuroLeague finals at age 19.

Now he has been named the youngest player ever win the EuroLeague MVP.

For those unfamiliar, EuroLeague is the equivalent of the Champions League in soccer — the very best club teams from around the continent face off against each other. On this biggest of European stages, Doncic has been a force. He is a gifted passer with great court vision. He can take his man off the dribble. He can hit threes. And he knows how to be a floor general and run a game. Did we mention he’s just 19?

Doncic said before the start of EuroLeague that he hasn’t decided what he is going to do about coming to the NBA or going back to Real Madrid. Don’t buy it. This is like asking a major college basketball star right before the NCAA Tournament if he is coming back to “State U” next year, they don’t want to say “no” right before the tourney so they give a non-committal answer. Same here. He’s not leaving millions on the table, he’ll be in the NBA next season.

And he’ll bee good.