NBA Playoffs, Suns v. Spurs Game 1: Stars for Phoenix are hidden in plain view

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Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire are All-NBA caliber players, and in this series they will perform and be praised. They’re just too talented not to, and their combined 56 points — as well as their respective double-doubles — speaks to their tremendous impact on the Suns’ huge Game 1 victory over the Spurs.

On the other end of the rotation are the Suns reserves, who have rightfully been praised for their superior play over the course of this season. Their ability to relieve Nash and co. is a crucial reason why this Phoenix team is still alive in the playoffs, or playing in the postseason at all. Jared Dudley, Leandro Barbosa, Channing Frye, Goran Dragic, Louis Amundson…these guys have been quality players for a team that desperately needed depth, and all the talk over how the bench will be the key to this series is not misguided. They matter that much.

Then, somewhere in between, are the other Suns. Oh, you know, the ones who probably won the game for Phoenix last night with their ability to get out in transition, defend, and hit big shots. Jason Richardson and Grant Hill are overshadowed in the starting lineup by their more impressive counterparts, but each was absolutely stellar last night. Jason Richardson’s contributions seem easy to quantify, as he finished with 27 points on 10-of-16 shooting, but even those numbers don’t properly capture what J-Rich was able to add to the mix.

Richardson is something of a Shawn Marion/Joe Johnson (Phoenix era) hybrid, in that his designated role in the offense is to leak out intro transition as quickly as possible. His ability to finish lies somewhere between the two, as he’s athletic enough to finish in the paint over and around defenders, but hardly as explosive as Marion was in his prime. He also shows off Johnson’s three-point range and leans more to his defensive style than he does Marion’s. Richardson is hardly a part-for-part Frankenstein’s monster-ish amalgam of the two former Suns, but the elements of each are there, and the playoff results have been fantastic.

Jason is a central reason why Phoenix was able to push the pace up to 98 possessions, which is about in line with the Suns’ season average. He runs the court so well and gets out into transition so early that many possessions are just a Steve Nash outlet away from completion. On most nights, you’d expect the Spurs’ transition defense to perform better than they did in Game 1. Then again, maybe that’s a testament to how quickly Phoenix was able to trigger the break, and Richardson’s consistently aggressive style in the open court offered an invaluable weapon.

Grant Hill, on the other hand, did most of his damage on defense. Hill guarded Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker for a majority of the night, and while the Suns double-teamed Manu to get the ball out of his hands later in the game, Hill did a good job of denying the ball and playing solid one-on-one defense earlier in the game. Grant scored just seven points, but also grabbed six rebounds and notched four assists; it wasn’t exactly Hill’s most impressive statistical performance, but his ability to contain the Spurs’ deadlier threats on the perimeter was particularly notable.

When the Spurs struggled offensively in Game 1, ironically it was because they couldn’t get past the Suns’ defense. Phoenix limited San Antonio’s penetration as much as possible given the personnel on the floor, and the quick rotations of players like Hill and Richardson (and Amar’e Stoudemire, who was quite impressive defensively in the fourth quarter) denied the Spurs the usual advantages of playing against heavy double-teams.

When San Antonio went small in the fourth, they couldn’t manage to find a fifth player for the lineup that could actually contribute offensively. Roger Mason can’t shoot anymore for some reason, Keith Bogans has always been iffy at best on that end, and Richard Jefferson seems to make things so much more difficult than they have to be. The Suns scrambled to cover the Spurs’ four more threatening players while still managing to rotate onto the fifth, weaker offensive player, and their defense supplied just enough of an edge for Jason Richardson and Grant Hill to hit dual daggers in the final minutes.

Hill filled the gaps, and while the stat sheet may not reflect too kindly on his 32 minutes, he still played rather well. I don’t think Alvin Gentry would mind seeing Grant hit more than two of his seven shots, but this is a case where you take the defense (both on and off the ball), you take his passing and his help in establishing an offensive flow, and you take the win that he helped earn. 

Lakers’ Anthony Davis expected to return Friday; Avery Bradley out 1-2 weeks with fracture

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Anthony Davis sat out Wednesday night’s comfortable Lakers win over Golden State, the star letting a sore shoulder and ribs heal.

Apparently, that’s all he’s sitting out. While nothing will be official until close to game time, Davis went through shootaround and looks to be a go Friday night against Sacramento at Staples Center. From Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“Went through shootaround today,” Davis said Friday morning. “Felt good.”

Davis is averaging 26.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.9 blocked shots per game, anchoring a Lakers’ defense that has been best in the NBA this season. It goes without saying the Lakers are better when he is on the court.

Only Davis knows his body and how he feels, but he also has a history of missing games due to minor but nagging injuries. Should the Lakers consider giving Davis another night off to make sure he is fully healed, plus give the rest of his body some time to rest?

“What, like, load management? No,” Davis said…

“I want to play,” Davis said. “But obviously saying that, the training staff will probably be more reluctant to [let me play]. If it’s still bothering me a little bit, [they’ll] have me sit out. Or if it’s feeling good, I’m going to play. … Just to know that the way the team played when I sat out, I don’t have to be in a rush to get back.”

For some fans — and LeBron James (in a shrewd PR move with the team down the hall) — have pushed back on the idea of load management. Which has somehow become a dirty phrase around the NBA, despite the science showing it can help reduce injuries, improve performance, and lengthen careers.

Lakers fans buying into and parroting the anti-load management argument may want to go find a Toronto Raptors fan and ask if they would trade the 22 games Kawhi Leonard missed last regular season for that championship parade. Or, just wait until the Lakers do some of it later in the season (but, like all teams now, will mask it with “sore back” or some other minor ailment that could be played through, just to avoid the PR hit).

While Davis is back, the Lakers are going to miss Avery Bradley for at least a week with a hairline fracture in his leg. From the official Lakers’ press release:

An MRI last night revealed a hairline fracture in a non-weight bearing bone of Avery Bradley’s right leg (on the fibular head). Bradley will be re-evaluated in 1 to 2 weeks.

Bradley has started all 10 games he has played in for the Lakers, averaging 9.4 points a game and giving them an active perimeter defender. Fortunately, this doesn’t sound like it will sideline him for long.

Other teams reportedly eyeing Magic’s Aaron Gordon, Orlando not interested. Yet.

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Orlando’s offense is dreadful. In the past week it finally moved into scoring more than a point per possession — just barely — but they are ranked 29th in the league. They just can’t hit shots. The Magic have the worst team three-point percentage (28.5 percent) and the worst true shooting percentage. It’s not that they’re taking bad shots, they are just not making them.

When a team struggles, other teams start to look at what players they like and may be available in a trade. Other teams watching the Magic stumble to a 4-7 start have their eyes on Aaron Gordon, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic — and he adds the Magic are not going there.

Multiple teams are monitoring Magic forward Aaron Gordon with interest should an opportunity present itself, but the Magic have shown no interest in moving him, sources said. Orlando is 4-7 and working to turn the corner early this season. Gordon signed a four-year, $76 million deal to return to the Magic in 2018.

At least not yet.

The Magic reportedly have been interested in DeMar DeRozan, but Orlando would have to move a lot of salary to land him (DeRozan makes $27.7 million this season).

One thing that has been good for Orlando this young season is the emergence of Jonathan Isaac as a player — he is already outstanding defensively, and his offense is improving (but still has a long, long way to go). Sean Deveney notes at Forbes that Orlando could change its mind about trading Gordon because of concerns about how he fits with Isaac (the team is basically net neutral when they are paired this season).

The Magic could give up forward Aaron Gordon, because there are concerns that he might not fit well over the long term with forward Jonathan Isaac, but Orlando won’t trade away Gordon for a few months of renting DeRozan, who is hardly the guy to help fix the Magic’s 3-point shooting troubles.

Gordon has two fully guaranteed years left on his contract after this season, however, it declines in value (down to $16.4 million the final season) making it very tradable.

Deveney mentions another potential target: D'Angelo Russell of Golden State. Much like Gordon, the Warriors are not interested in talking Russell trades yet, but that could change depending upon how the season evolves.

It’s early. Teams are just in the first stages of assessing their team and thinking about potential players who can help. The Magic, and Gordon, are a team to watch, particularly if the offense doesn’t turn around.

 

 

The time Kendall Gill stayed out all night then led Hornets to early-afternoon win (video)

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In the great history of NBA party-then-play stories, 15-year-pro Kendall Gill has a new tale from his rookie year with the Hornets in 1991.

Gill on Off The Dribble:

We pulled into D.C. My cousin took me out. I was out until 6 in the morning. He brings me back to the hotel. My coach, Gene Littles, is sitting in the lobby. And as I walked in the door, he’s like, “What the hell are you doing out here, rook? Don’t you know we’ve got a game at 12 o’clock in the afternoon?” Well, turns out, I go and I score 28 points that day, the high for my rookie season. I scored 28 points. He comes to me after the game and says, “You can go out and hang out any time you want to until 6 in the morning – if you play like that.”

A couple details are off. Gill scored 24 points to lead Charlotte over the Washington Bullets on March 31, 1991. But that wasn’t his season high. He scored 28 a few days earlier in Phoenix. The Washington game also had a listed start of 1 p.m., not noon.

Still, this comes close enough on the verifiable facts. Besides, I want the fun parts of this story to be true, so I’ll choose to believe them, anyway.

Birthday boy Karl-Anthony Towns giving Timberwolves even more reason to celebrate

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Tom Thibodeau is gone. Jimmy Butler is gone. Karl-Anthony Towns has taken greater ownership with the Timberwolves.

Towns organizes team-building activities like Topgolf and a halloween party. Towns gives the pump-up speech before each game. Towns communicates more on the floor.

That’s why, Towns said, he didn’t even realize his birthday was approaching until his parents recently reminded him.

“I get caught up in work,” Towns said.

Whether or not Towns actually needed the reminder, let alone for such a flattering reason, his birthday – which is today – got him reflecting. He felt old.

So, Towns mentioned to Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders that his birthday was around the corner. Saunders had the opposite realization: Towns is turning 24 today. Just 24!

“He’s still young,” Saunders said. “As a coach, that gets me excited.”

Towns is one of the NBA’s special talents – a proven star with room to improve. Picking up the momentum he built last season, Towns appears to be really coming into his own this year.

The center is posting his usual impressive numbers (25.8 points and 12.0 rebounds per game), but his new attitude has stolen the show. He fought Joel Embiid and went face-to-face with Rudy Gay.

Don’t let the antics completely overshadow an impressive basketball story, though. Towns has led Minnesota to a surprising 7-4 start by revamping his game. Most of his shots are coming from beyond the arc, and his 4.2 assists per game are a career high.

By creating spacing and keeping the ball moving, Towns is contributing to a style that lifts all the Timberwolves. Perhaps, nobody has benefited more than Andrew Wiggins, who’s fitting right into this modern look.

The transformation is only the latest chapter for Towns, whose reputation has fluctuated significantly throughout his five-year career. This might explain why he already feels so old:

Minnesota drafted Towns No. 1 in 2015, and he won Rookie of the Year. In the 2016 and 2017 NBA general-manager survey, a plurality of voting executives picked Towns as the player they’d most like to start a team with. In the 2017 survey, Towns also received the most votes for league’s best center (even while getting a couple votes as league’s best power forward).

On paper, Towns delivered. He made his first All-Star and All-NBA teams the following season. He also reached the playoffs for the first time.

But Thibodeau and Butler butted heads with Towns, who never showed the hard edge those former Bulls tried to coax from him. After trading Butler, Minnesota went right back to losing.

In the 2018 and 2019 surveys, no general manager picked Towns to start a team with. Only a few picked him as best center.

Now, the landscape has shifted again. Anthony Davis spends a lot of time at power forward. Joel Embiid doesn’t stay as healthy. Nikola Jokic has fallen way off.

Towns is the early frontrunner for All-NBA first-team center.

“Everybody takes big steps in their growth at different times,” Saunders said, “and I think we’re seeing that from Karl.”

Towns can’t take anything for granted, and neither can the Timberwolves. But he at least has a good chance for vindication after his preseason playoff talk.

The way Towns has implemented more 3-point shooting into his game is particularly impressive. His 9.0 attempts per game lead NBA bigs, and he’s converting more than 40%. But floating on the perimeter was once a sign Towns was being too passive. Now, Towns is finding the right balance between spotting up beyond the arc and playing aggressively.

That’s in part his own mentality changing, in part his teammates’ mentality changing. Gone are the days when Towns could be an afterthought outside the paint.

“The ball is always going to find KAT,” Timberwolves guard Josh Okogie said. “He’s the center of our offense.”

Towns’ defensive intensity still comes and goes. He still must prove himself in the playoffs, and that usually requires trials and tribulations he hasn’t yet experienced.

But at age 24, Towns is finally/already showing something special.