NBA Playoffs, Suns v. Spurs Game 2: Ignore the shiny superstars, this one's about the reserves

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dudley.pngTim Duncan had 29 points and 10 boards, the Spurs had an effective field goal percentage of 55.1%, and George Hill and Richard Jefferson combined for 32 points (including a 18-10 double-double). It just wasn’t enough. San Antonio made runs and they pressed Phoenix repeatedly, but every lineup the Suns put on the floor had an answer.

Regardless of which five of the Suns — I’m sorry, Los Suns — were on the floor, they were able to compete. Things were looking bright for the Spurs after they racked up a 10-point lead in the game’s first 12 minutes, but from that point on, the Suns simply outworked and outperformed them. Duncan was brilliant, Parker’s game was lethal at times, and the help from RJ and Hill was much-needed, but the Suns really looked the part of the better team on Wednesday night in beating the Spurs 110-102.

Probably because they were the better team. It was Phoenix that was able to persevere despite poor shooting (the Suns’ eFG% was a full seven percentage points below their regular season average) thanks to effort plays (18 offensive rebounds will do wonders), huge three-pointers (Channing Frye and Jason Richardson were especially prolific), and their frequent trips to the free throw line (37 FTAs to the Spurs’ 22). San Antonio may still be something of a powerhouse, but Phoenix clearly wasn’t ready to play the role of the underdog in this series. They’re playing like the 3-seed that they are, and right now it’s a bit too much for the Spurs.

The Suns remain the most deceptively deep team in the playoffs, and Alvin Gentry’s decision to run with a bench unit at times is not at all misguided. Every player off the Phoenix bench plays with an incredible energy, and the unique combination of shooting, defense, hustle, talent, and rebounding among the Suns’ reserves has a tremendous impact on a frequent basis. Frye and Jared Dudley were the heroes this time around, but on Friday it could just as easily be Lou Amundson and Goran Dragic.

The Suns had two essential 17-8 runs, one to start the second quarter and another to start the fourth. Any guess as to which lineup was on the floor for Phoenix? The reserve unit did serious damage in the second, and reprised their roles as gangbusters to start the fourth quarter with the help of Grant Hill. The first run brought a solid San Antonio lead to a measly two points, and the second run gave Phoenix a seven-point edge that the starters would essentially hold for the rest of the game.

Contrast that success with the limited production from the Spurs bench — Tony Parker aside, San Antonio’s reserves scored four points on 28.5% shooting in almost 29 combined minutes — and it’s no wonder why Duncan, Parker, Jefferson, and Hill weren’t enough. The four productive Suns starters (woe is Jarron Collins) just about went point-for-point with the four highest-scoring Spurs, meaning this game really was won in the trenches.

When both teams were looking for a spark, Jared Dudley came up with offensive rebounds and loose balls while Tim Duncan ran on tired legs. Channing Frye shot the lights out while Matt Bonner clanged away open looks. Having a reliable bench is a luxury that few head coaches have in the NBA, but Alvin Gentry is a lucky man. Or really, a man that has done his job over the course of the season in not only recognizing the talent that he had but also in grooming them for situations just like this one both as individual players and as a unit. This did not happen by accident.

If the Suns end up winning two more games, one could look at two of Phoenix’s offensive sequences in the mid-fourth quarter as the series’ defining moments. With Channing Frye as the lone big man on the floor for Phoenix, Tim Duncan was out of his element. He had no one to guard and no way to help. The Suns moved the ball, set screens to force switches, and isolated Grant Hill against Duncan. That was Phoenix’s game plan: they used two straight possessions with the specific purpose of going at one of the greatest defenders of all time.

And it worked. Hill hit two huge jumpers over Duncan, each helping to preserve the Suns’ then-vulnerable lead. The point is not Tim’s decline from his glory days, but just the fact that whereas he was once the matchup nightmare for the Suns, it now seems that the Suns are the problematic matchup for him. All of a sudden it’s the Spurs trying to find a place to put Duncan on defense rather than the Suns desperately searching for someone who can defend him.

He may still get his 29, but apparently Phoenix can live with that. There’s enough scoring and enough depth that it just doesn’t matter. We could be in for a very different series when things shift to San Antonio, but two games into the series, it’s abundantly clear that the Suns are not messing around. This is a dangerous team playing with a lot of confidence, and unless the Spurs pull off the four-wins-in-five-games mini-miracle, they’ll soon be rolling into the Western Conference Finals.       

Rumor: LeBron James suggested Cavaliers trade Kyrie Irving to Trail Blazers for Damian Lillard

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When Kyrie Irving requested a trade from the Cavaliers last year, LeBron James told the Cavs not to trade the disgruntled star. But LeBron also made no effort to win over Irving.

If that weren’t unhelpful enough…

Ric Bucher of Bleacher Report:

League sources say that when James became convinced Irving couldn’t be persuaded to stay in Cleveland, he suggested to the Cavs front office that it deal Irving to the Blazers for All-Star point guard Damian Lillard. The Cavs never called the Blazers

Of course LeBron wanted Lillard. Lillard is very good, even better than Irving.

But that deal probably wouldn’t appeal to the Trail Blazers. Though Irving is younger and cheaper, Lillard is locked up two additional seasons. That greater team control is huge.

Perhaps, the Cavs could have bridged the gap in Irving’s and Lillard’s values by sending draft picks to and/or taking bad contracts from Portland. LeBron left Cleveland for the Lakers after last season, anyway. Long-term issues like lost picks and toxic contracts weren’t necessarily his problem. It’s more understandable the Cavaliers resisted.*

*However, a team with an all-time great like LeBron in his problem should have been more committed to winning a title last season than they were. Those opportunities come along only so often.

What makes this particularly interesting: The Lakers are trying to get another star. Does LeBron still want to play with Lillard? The Trail Blazers insist they’re keeping Lillard, and he has repeatedly said he wants to stay in Portland. But LeBron wanting Lillard in Los Angeles could be the seed that grows into something bigger.

Report: Knicks have held no internal discussions about trading for John Wall

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A rumor emerged the Knicks could be looking to trade for Wizards point guard John Wall.

That always seemed dubious. Marc Berman of the New York Post cited “Some in the league believe.”

But now comes the counter-leak, anyway…

Ian Begley of ESPN:

This is an overcorrection that only makes the Knicks look worse. Not internally discussing a trade candidate does not inspire confidence. Sound organizations evaluate their options. The Knicks should discuss Wall internally.

They should also likely conclude it’s not worth trading for him.

Wall is due about $171 million over the next four seasons. He’ll be 29 when that super-max contract extension kicks in, and he already looks hurt, lazy and grouchy.

Maybe if the Knicks still had Joakim Noah to trade, it might makes sense, though still probably not. As is, New York doesn’t have enough bad contracts to match Wall’s toxic del.

So, I don’t expect New York – or anyone – to trade for Wall. But I’d be more encouraged by the Knicks if they internally discussed this then passed on Wall. If we’re to believe this latest leak,* who knows what they’ll decide if they ever talk about Wall?

*Which I don’t, for what it’s worth. I suspect even the Knicks at least discussed why trading for Wall was a bad idea.

Denver Nuggets sign Nick Young

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The Nuggets have so many injured backcourt playersJamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton and Isaiah Thomas (plus forwards Paul Millsap, Michael Porter, Jarred Vanderbilt are also hurt).

Denver is adding a reinforcement – Nick Young.

Nuggets:

Young has had a rough go since winning a championship with the Warriors last season. The 33-year-old is probably on his last legs as an NBA player.

But Denver needs someone. Young might still be serviceable. He can make 3-pointers, though he defends like a sieve and doesn’t contribute much else offensively. With the ball running through Nikola Jokic, maybe that will be enough – until better Nuggets get healthy.

Stephen Curry: I don’t believe we went to the moon

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Kyrie Irving‘s first public flat-Earth comments came on a light-hearted podcast.

Will Stephen Curry also become notorious for his conspiracy theory, revealed on a light-hearted podcast?

The Warriors star appeared on “Winging It” with Vince Carter, Kent Bazemore and Andre Iguodala. The conversation:

  • Curry: “We ever been to the moon?
  • Multiple responders: “Nope.”
  • Curry: “They’re gonna come get us. I don’t think so, either.”

Podcast co-host Annie Finberg asked whether Curry actually believed that. He responded affirmatively.

Still, Irving immediately doubled down outside the podcast – then tripled down and quadrupled down and… This hasn’t gotten away from Curry in the same way. He could still easily explain he was joking during the podcast.

Or he could stick with his conspiracy theory. I don’t know what he actually believes.

For what it’s worth, I believe we went to the moon. So many people would have to know if the moon landing were faked, and there’s no way they’d all keep it secret.