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.       

Warriors know they have is something special, with uncertainty ahead

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Stephen Curry hears the dynasty discussion about his Golden State Warriors during another postseason run.

Draymond Green realizes special teams only stay together for so long before something breaks them apart.

That’s why the Warriors decided from Day 1 of training camp to cherish this season.

Golden State is a franchise in its prime – five straight trips to the NBA Finals and seeking a third consecutive title. But the clock is ticking and the Warriors are well aware of the possible ramifications of free agency and how things could change in a hurry this summer.

“Basketball careers aren’t that long. If you can get 10 out of it, you’re lucky,” Green explained. “To be to five straight finals, I don’t even know what to say about it. This is what you play for. This is our goal every year and to get here five straight times is special.”

The Warriors started this run with three All-Stars in Curry, Green and Klay Thompson. They added two more in Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins. How many they’ll have after free agency is any and everyone’s guess.

Curry – with nearly 11-month-old son Canon regularly in his arms for the ride – is certainly relishing this stretch of his decorated career, appreciating how far the Warriors have come during the 10 years he has been in the league.

A third straight title is suddenly within reach, which would be Golden State’s fourth championship in five years.

“We know what’s at stake and what we’re chasing this year, this series, this game, and that’s the only way that you can really put your best foot forward in terms of trying to get back to the mountaintop,” Curry said. “We’ll have plenty of time when we hang the sneakers up to really go back and think about all the different experiences and highs and lows, but right now, we’re two games away from another finals appearance. It’s pretty special.”

The Warriors are the first team to reach five straight finals since the Celtics advanced to 10 in a row from 1957-1966.

Another championship would cement this run of titles among the best ever.

The Los Angeles Lakers of 2000-02 – led by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal – are the last team to capture three straight titles.

Golden State advanced without Durant, the reigning two-time finals MVP, and Cousins. Both were sidelined with injuries for the entire Western Conference finals. The finished off Portland without Andre Iguodala, another finals MVP who sat out Game 4 with an injury.

While the Bucks and Raptors are slugging it out in the East, the Warriors are rehabbing.

“I hope it doesn’t go unnoticed or underrated. Five straight finals hasn’t been done since the 60s, since Bill Russell’s Celtics,” fifth-year Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Hasn’t been done for a reason: It’s really, really difficult. I just can’t say enough about the competitive desire about the group of players that we have here and the culture that they have built together, playing together regardless of injury.”

Each Warriors run has been unique. When they won in 2015 it was the first title for the franchise in 40 years.

LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers derailed them in 2016, but the Warriors bounced back in 2017 with a dominant 16-1 record during the postseason.

Last year, Golden State joined Russell’s Celtics, Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and trio of Lakers teams – including George Mikan and company in the 1950s, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the `80s, and Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant nearly 20 years ago – as the only franchises in NBA history to capture three championships in four years.

“When I was here the first time, they rebuilt and retooled,” said Andrew Bogut, a member of the 2015 title team before rejoining the Warriors in March.

“They didn’t just sit on their hands thinking it was going to last forever. They freed up cap space, you have to give (general manager) Bob Myers, (owner) Joe Lacob and the coaching staff a lot of credit. There are a lot of teams that win a championship and kind of reward the whole roster, then they end up two-three years down the track and end up in a bit of a hole. Whereas this is a great run for a franchise that will end up as one of the all-time greats.”

The Warriors enjoy playing together and with so many selfless stars and a deep bench they are rarely out of any game.

That doesn’t mean it has been easy, especially with the constant free agency chatter this season.

Durant is an impending free agent and the basketball world continues to speculate on his next move. Thompson’s future with the Warriors is unclear as well, while Green is signed through next season.

“We know that these runs don’t last forever, and obviously there are so many questions and things that could possibly happen with this team this summer,” Green said. “So want to try to take advantage of this opportunity and make the most of it, and deal with the things that come after whenever those things arrive, but right now we’re focused on the task at hand and try to do something that hasn’t been done in a long time, or many times.”

The Warriors are aware of the dynasty talk, but aren’t labeling themselves. They have consistently said their focus is the task of raising another banner in the final season at Oracle Arena before the franchise moves into Chase Center in San Francisco to begin 2019-20.

“I don’t think in those terms. It’s just every opportunity we have to play, these are big moments, big games,” Curry said, “and the context of what this five-year run has been and all that stuff doesn’t really dominate my mind when we’re out there competing.”

 

Nikola Jokic announces he will play for Serbia in World Cup

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This year’s World Cup is going to be stacked with elite NBA players. It usually is a big draw, but this World Cup brings a couple additional things to the table. First, it’s part of the Olympic qualifying process for the 2020 games in Tokyo.

More importantly for players, the World Cup is in China. That is a fast-growing basketball shoe and apparel market and that will push Nike, Adidas, Reebok and any other shoe brand you can think of to “encourage” their stars to go. For example, the Sixers’ Ben Simmons will be playing for Australia.

Nikola Jokic will be one of those stars. The Denver Nuggets center told the Serbian state news agency, via ESPN.

“I am very pleased with everything I did in the NBA this season. I had a great year in which I performed at the All-Star Game and was selected [to the All-NBA first team]. For me, the cherry on top of this whole season would be a medal with the national team.”

Jokic and Serbia may be the USA’s biggest threat in that tournament, this is the team that picked up the silver medal in the last Olympics. Jokic is a better player than he was a few years ago and the team has a long list of quality players including Bogdan Bogdanovic, Milos Teodosic, and Boban Marjanovic.

The World Cup tips off Aug. 31 in China, right up against the start of NBA training camps.

 

Rumor: Clippers not interested in Jimmy Butler, he would sign with Lakers for max

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Should a team feel comfortable giving Jimmy Butler — who will turn 30 before next season, is a hard-charging personality who plays a hard-charging style that can be hard on his body, and has only once played 70 or more games in the past six seasons — a four-year, $141 million max contract?

If the Lakers strike out with Kyrie Irving and other top targets (Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard are not interested, according to sources), should they give Butler the max and sign him comfortable or not?

LeBron James has already reached out to start recruiting Butler, and if the Lakers offer him the max Butler would love to come, Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times said on the Colin Cowherd. Markazi adds that the Clippers are not interested because they are aiming higher on the food chain.

That is what a lot of sources have said about the Clippers, they would need to move Danilo Gallinari (and do a little more) to sign both Leonard and Durant, but would and should in a heartbeat.

Butler is going to have options, starting with the Philadelphia 76ers, who do not want to let him go. As it got near the end of Philly’s playoff run it had seemed Butler had found a home, both on the court as a primary ball handler in the halfcourt, and off the court as a leader and someone who bonded with Joel Embiid. Also, Philadelphia can offer more money, a projected $190 million over five years, and for a guy who has had injury issues that extra year and extra money might matter a lot.

Is Butler going to stay? What should we read into his cryptic Instagram post? If he leaves, does he want to play with LeBron? Is that the Lakers’ best option? (I think the Lakers should prefer Irving, who is younger and coming off an All-NBA regular season, plus he has a track record of winning with LeBron, but if not him…)

It is going to be a wild July in the NBA.

Raptors bench play key reason Toronto on cusp of first trip to NBA Finals

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There are multiple reasons the Toronto Raptors have beaten the Milwaukee Bucks three times in a row and now are one win away from the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals.

Kawhi Leonard and his play — particularly his defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo — is a huge one. So is the Raptors incredible halfcourt defense, which has held the Bucks to an 84.3 net rating on halfcourt possessions in this series. When the Raptors have been able to slow the game down (which they have done very well the last two games, with possession totals in the mid-90s) they win.

Just don’t forget about the Raptors bench.

Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, and Norman Powell — the three guys coach Nick Nurse leans on in his regular rotations — have been critical for the Raptors, and if they are again on Saturday night in Toronto it will lift the franchise to a place it has never been before.

Toronto’s starting lineup is -23 in this series. That fivesome — Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Leonard, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol — was -10 in Game 5, struggling against an impressive Milwaukee starting lineup.

On Thursday night, it was the Raptors’ bench that sparked the comeback after the Bucks’ fast start. It has been that way all series. Lineups that have at least one of those core three Raptors bench guys on the floor are +30 this series. Lineups with all three of them on the court together are +12.

Different guys are stepping up each game. In Game 5 it was VanVleet’s turn. After a rough few games in this series, he got to Milwaukee late after being with his wife for the birth of their son, then proceeded to knock down 7-of-9 threes in Toronto’s come-from-behind win.

“He oozes the confidence that spreads to the other guys,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said of VanVleet. “Again, he just stepped into the shots that were there tonight, and he was probably due to get hot in these playoffs. It’s been probably a long time coming. Great game by him.”

In the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals, it was the Milwaukee bench led by Malcolm Brogdon and George Hill that played better and propelled their side to wins. That has flipped in the last three games, it’s been all Raptors after the starters.

Toronto’s bench — and Leonard — are key reasons that this team responded to adversity, going down 0-2 in the series and bouncing back. It’s the experience of having been there before, having dealt with the pressure before, learning about themselves because they have been tested like this in previous years. Leonard and Green have rings from San Antonio, Gasol has been to conference finals in Memphis, Lowry has been there through all the Raptors struggles in recent playoffs. On the bench, Ibaka has seen plenty, and these guys have not been fazed by the moment.

It’s the test the Bucks are facing now — this group had never been challenged like this. Their athleticism and Antetokounmpo’s MVP-level season propelled this team to the best record in the NBA, then they swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs with an 8-1 record. After that, they beat the Raptors the first two games of this series.

However, now they have lost three in a row for the first time all season and they are learning about their weaknesses. The Bucks entire offense is based around the idea that nobody can slow Antetokounmpo one-on-one — except Leonard has done just that. The Greek Freak has shot 35.5 percent this series (11-of-31, via Second Spectrum data) when Leonard has been his primary defender. Antetokounmpo also hasn’t found shooters and those guys have not hit the passes he does make, particularly in the halfcourt. Toronto has controlled the tempo the past few games, and when Antetokounmpo isn’t getting easy buckets in transition the Milwaukee offense stumbles. Toronto also has taken care of the ball and hit shots, with Leonard getting to his spots on the floor, which has limited the Bucks transition chances.

The Bucks need to make adjustments — finding ways to get Antetokounmpo the ball with better matchups, not having him attack from the top of the key every time and giving him some picks to force switches — and they need another ball handler, such as Eric Bledsoe or George Hill, to have a monster game. Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon can and should do a little more shot creation.

And Milwaukee has to contain that Raptors bench and not get beat so badly when they are on the floor.

If not, the Bucks will be on vacation in Cabo next week while the Raptors are still playing.