NBA Playoffs, Suns v. Spurs Game 4: With blood in the water, Phoenix will go for the quick kill

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Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker have become a basketball establishment in their eight seasons together. They’ve captured three titles, made it to the postseason in each of those eight seasons, and lost in the first round of the playoffs only once.

They also have never, in the time that the three have been teammates in San Antonio, been swept. Not in any playoff series in any round. Phoenix will have an opportunity to be their auspicious first in Game 4 tonight, as the Spurs will look to defend their home court against an onslaught of Suns brooms.

With the outcome of the series no longer in doubt, the only question remaining is ‘when?’ or really, ‘how long?’ How long can Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker prolong the inevitable? How long can San Antonio keep false hope alive?  

The Spurs do have a few things on their side. For one, the sweep is such a difficult feat in a seven-game series, and when the opposition includes Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan, it seems rather impossible. Duncan may not be balling at best-player-in-the-game levels these days, but he’s still a tremendously skilled two-way player that’s capable of extending the Spurs’ playoff lives into next week. Pop isn’t just one of the greatest to ever run a post-game presser, but also one of the greatest to sit at the head of the bench.

Plus that home court advantage thing? It matters. Especially in the playoffs, and though the AT&T Center crowd may be a bit deflated after the Spurs’ Game 3 letdown, there’s something to be said for friendly cheers and an ocean of silver, black, and white. Even in spite of a potentially limited Tony Parker, the Spurs should be expected to win tonight.

Then again, the same could have been said before Game 3. Or in the first half of Game 3 when San Antonio was up by 18 points. Or even when the Spurs and Suns were in a virtual deadlock to start the fourth quarter, and SanAn as the squad with the veteran savvy, the championship experience, and the future hall-of-famers.    

The only thing anyone can say with certainty is that San Antonio will not win this series. They don’t even have a chance. Not with Phoenix finding consistent answers to each of the Spurs’ adjustments, getting contributions from top to bottom, and coming up with every big play. I never thought I’d be writing a “Can the Spurs even win one game against the Suns?” post, as if San Antonio was playing the part of an outmatched Atlanta team facing off against big league Orlando, yet here I am and here the Spurs are.

This series was expected to not only be extremely entertaining — which it has been — but very competitive. The games themselves have been battles, but how can anyone look at a 3-0 advantage and see anything but an anticlimax? It’s fun to see Goran Dragic go nuts, or Channing Frye step up, or Jared Dudley get some long overdue respect, but even those noteworthy performances don’t give this series the life that it could have had.

This could all be over tonight, and while the Suns have been a true pleasure to watch, it’s a shame that we’ll never really know just how great this series could have been.   

Bulls reportedly apply for cap relief from Omer Asik contract

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Omer Asik didn’t play a minute for the Bulls this season (they got him in the Nikola Mirotic trade). Back in training camp he ruled out indefinitely with inflammatory arthritis, which had flared up last summer. Asik had played in just 49 games combined the two seasons before that.

Prior to this season, the Bulls waived Asik. He was paid his full $11.3 million for this season but had only $3 million guaranteed for next season. The Bulls have now applied for cap relief — meaning taking that $3 million off the books for next season — because of Asik’s injury, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

One year after a player last appeared in a game, teams can apply for cap relief if a player’s injury or condition is determined to be career-ending. An independent doctor needs to verify that Asik could not play again to get the extra cap relief. Asik gets paid, it is still a guaranteed contract. Miami took this step with Chris Bosh, for example.

The Bulls have talked about being aggressive in free agency — finding guys to pair with Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, and Otto Porter — and while that $3 million is not a lot, it helps. The Bulls will have between $20 million and $23 million in cap space if/when the league approves Asik coming off the books (depending on what they do with a couple of players), according to our Dan Feldman. That’s not max contract money, but it can help bring in some depth and shooting to go around the young core in Chicago.

LeBron James, Stephen Curry top NBA jersey sales again

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There are new names on and climbing the list: Joel Embiid is up to No. 5, Luka Doncic came in 13th as a rookie.

However, for the most part, the names on the list of the most sold jerseys in the NBA look very familiar.

With LeBron James jumping teams to the Los Angeles Lakers, it should be no surprise he tops the list of most-sold jerseys (based on NBAStore.com sales since the start of the season). Stephen Curry is second, and the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo climbed up to third.

Here are the top 15 in jersey sales this season.

1. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
2. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
4. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics
5. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
6. James Harden, Houston Rockets
7. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
8. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
9. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
10. Jimmy Butler, Philadelphia 76ers
11. Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat
12. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder
13. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
14. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
15. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Three Sixers made the list (Embiid, Simmons, Butler), the most of any team. Also, Wade went out in the top 15 after his Last Dance farewell tour.

Here are the top 10 franchises in team merchandise sales:

1. Los Angeles Lakers
2. Golden State Warriors
3. Boston Celtics
4. Philadelphia 76ers
5. Milwaukee Bucks
6. Chicago Bulls
7. Oklahoma City Thunder
8. Houston Rockets
9. Toronto Raptors
10. New York Knicks

Malcom Brogdon out for Bucks-Celtics Games 1 and 2

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Malcolm Brogdon suffered a foot injury that’d sideline him for the start of the playoffs.

The Bucks (vs. Pistons) and Celtics (vs. Pacers) won their first-round series too quickly.

Milwaukee-Boston will be the first series between teams coming off sweeps since Lakers-Suns in the 2010 Western Conference finals and first such second-round series since Pistons-Bulls in 2007. So, the Bucks-Celtics series will begin Sunday, the second-earliest of four possible dates.

Which means no Brogdon to begin the series.

Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Game 1 is Sunday, and Game 2 is Tuesday. That leaves open the possibility of Brogdon returning for Game 3 Friday, May 3.

Brogdon is a good shooting guard, but the Bucks were just fine without him in the first round. Sterling Brown and Pat Connaughton played well against Detroit, and Tony Snell could enter the rotation as he gets healthy.

But the Celtics are a far bigger challenge. Milwaukee won’t necessarily need Brogdon against Boston, but the Bucks’ chances are much higher if he returns to full strength.

Russell Westbrook to critics: ‘I don’t really care what people say’

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Russell Westbrook has faced a lot of criticism this season, a chorus that grew louder in the first round of the playoffs.

While he averaged a triple-double for the third straight season, his shooting degenerated and his efficiency dropped. This is Westbrook’s shot chart for the regular season.

Which was better than his playoff shot chart.

The results of his shooting woes were obvious in the playoffs. Portland big man Enes Kanter can be exposed as a pick-and-roll defender if pulled out on the perimeter to deal with a ball handler, but the Trail Blazers didn’t have to do that. Kanter would sag back, clog the paint, and dare Westbrook to take jumpers or drive past him. Even when Westbrook drove there were not clear lanes and he struggled to finish.

That swelled the volume of criticism of Westbrook. Not that he cares. Did anyone actually expect him to be bothered? Westbrook brushed off his critics speaking with the media after his exit interview on Thursday. Via Royce Young of ESPN.

“There used to be conversations if I was a ball hog, but now I lead the league in assists for the past three years or whatever it is, that’s getting squashed out,” he said. “So now the conversation is about shooting. Next year I’m going to become a better shooter. After that it’ll be probably, f—, my left foot is bigger than my right one. Who knows.

“So that’s why, back to your point, I don’t really care what people say, what they think about me, because it doesn’t really matter. I know what I’m able to do and know what I’m able to do at a high level every night, and nobody else can do what I can do on a night-in, night-out basis, and I truly believe that. If they could, I’m pretty sure they would. But I know for a fact that nobody can.”

Westbrook still impacts the game with his drives and athleticism, he is still an All-NBA level guard in this league, if not MVP level anymore. He is still one of the game’s elite players. However, as he was getting outplayed by Damian Lillard in the first round the questions came up again, “just how far can the Thunder go with Westbrook as their primary option?” After four surgeries in six years, can he still carry a team deep into the playoffs?

When Westbrook was on the floor without Paul George this season, the Thunder struggled. When it was George without Westbrook, they still played well. It’s become clear that not only must Westbrook improve his shooting — not to Curry levels, but closer to his MVP self that shot better from the midrange — but also Sam Presti and Thunder management need to find a way to get more shooting around Westbrook. A stretch-five, in particular, would help (Stephen Adams is good at a lot of things, but spacing the floor is not one of them). OKC needs shooters around Westbrook.

How the Thunder pull that off with a capped-out team — they have the second-highest payroll in the league this season and Westbrook and George are maxed out for years — is going to require some real creativity. But if the Thunder are going to be more than a first-round-exit team in the West, they need to find a way.