NBA Playoffs, Suns v. Spurs Game 4: The deed is done.

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Nash_eye.jpgThe Phoenix Suns just swept the San Antonio Spurs. The Phoenix Suns
just swept the San Antonio Spurs. The Phoenix Suns just swept the San
Antonio Spurs.

Maybe if I type that phrase enough times, the
basketball gods will tie my precious typing fingers into knots for my
blasphemy. In what universe could the Suns sweep the Spurs in the
playoffs? In what bizarro dimension is this Phoenix team a
Western Conference finalist, and the most respected franchise in the
league receiving the business end of a broom?

Ours,
apparently. Suspend your disbelief. It’s not easy; it wasn’t easy to
foresee the Suns closing out the series in four games in San
Antonio facing yet another double-digit deficit. Yet they did it,
107-101, because Phoenix has played like the best team in the Western
Conference, even if a little team in Los Angeles would have something
to say about that.

The Suns aren’t just good, they’re damn
good. They’ll be considered underdogs against the Lakers even after
ousting the Spurs in the most impressive of fashions, but any fan,
basketball junkie, or NBA scribe that pencils L.A. in as a Finals
participant needs to take a long, hard look at what Phoenix was able to
accomplish in this series.

Manu Ginobili, who could have made
a legitimate claim as the best Spur over the final stretch of the
regular season, was trapped like mad in the pick and roll and
completely smothered offensively at times. He finished Game 4 with 15
points and nine assists, but shot just 2-of-11 from the field. Tim
Duncan may seem like an imposing match-up for the Suns, but it’s no
secret that Manu and Tony Parker hold the keys to the offense.
Eliminate the threat of Ginobili operating (for either scoring or
playmaking purposes) off of the Spurs’ staple pick-and-roll, and San
Antonio is quite beatable. Quite sweepable, apparently.

Not that
the Suns’ defense ignored Duncan, either. His lack of effectiveness as
the roll man in pick-and-roll situations was shocking, and though
Phoenix committed two defenders and a strong front to the ball-handler
on almost every screen, Duncan never seemed all that open. There were
so many cases where the Suns’ help defenders would beat him to his spot
rolling down the lane in order to contest his attempts or run
interference on the roll lob, and Tim was left in limbo.

That
strategy wasn’t enough to deny him from reaching 17 points (on 50%
shooting) and eight rebounds in Game 4, but the fact that Duncan wasn’t
more of a factor in this series is as much a tribute to the Suns’ post
defense as it was their defensive rotations on the pick-and-roll.

Limit
the effectiveness of those two players on the offensive end, and Tony
Parker’s 22-point, five-assist effort is solid rather than deadly,
George Hill’s night is nice rather than headline-worthy, and hell, Matt
Bonner’s 14 points on just six attempts is nothing special, as opposed
to the Red Rocket that broke the camel’s back.

It’s almost
cliché these days to praise the Suns’ defense, but there’s simply no
way to write a proper recap without giving Phoenix their due. Alvin
Gentry has simply done a phenomenal job — a Popovichian job, dare I
say — of coaching this team into rotating properly on the defensive
end. No matter how much pressure was committed to blitzing Ginobili or
doubling Duncan in the post, the Suns’ defense never seemed to be on
tilt. It was vulnerable at times, but they always recovered.

Phoenix
just came down the court again and again and played consistently solid
defense. It wasn’t so much the effectiveness of the Suns’ D on a
per-point or even per-possession basis (San Antonio still scored 101
points and scored at a rate of 105.2 points per 100 possessions), but
the resiliency of that defense that was the most impressive. It wasn’t
always effective, but the Suns’ rotations were just relentless. They
forced 16 turnovers and limited San Antonio’s three-point attempts
(just 11 to Phoenix’s 24), and they worked, worked, worked.

With
the difficulties that the Suns posed for the Spurs on the other end,
that was obviously enough for them to not only win the series, but do
it without dropping a single game. San Antonio simply lacked the
ability to cover all of the bases of the Suns’ multifaceted offense,
and their peak-too-early performances reeked of a team that was just a
bit outmatched. “They made it hard for us to guard them for 48
minutes,” Gregg Popovich said. “We’d go into the fourth quarter and
someone for them would step up. Those are the kinds of things that
happen with that team.”

At various points in this series, that
nameless “someone” that stepped up has been a strong perimeter
defender, a three-point shooter, a hustle rebounder, and an undersung
reserve. In Game 4, it was Steve Nash, who came back into the game
after receiving six stitches over his right eye in the third quarter to
lead the Suns to a remarkable close-out performance. Nash, with one eye
swollen shut, was responsible for 21 of his team’s 31 points while the
game was still meaningful.

“I just feel fortunate that I had the
chance to get back out there,” Steve Nash said. “I don’t know how it
didn’t keep me on the sidelines.” It’s something of a wonder that it
didn’t. Nash’s eye was not only bruised, but swollen almost completely
shut. So naturally, he not only hit a pull-up three in transition just
moments after returning the floor, but got excellent looks for both
himself and Amar’e Stoudemire in the game’s deciding minutes.

Amar’e
was a force on his own for most of the game (he had 29 points of his
own), but with Nash spoon-feeding him wide open mid-range jumpers to
complement his prior assault of layups, dunks, and runners, he was
finally able to exact his revenge against San Antonio. “It’s
beautiful,” Stoudemire said of finally defeating the Spurs in the
postseason after falling short in four straight attempts. “It feels
great.”

It must. Phoenix has a long road to head, but the sight
of San Antonio’s corpse at their feet has to offer some relief. If not
as evidence that the Suns have exorcised their demons, then at least as
validation of their success this season. This is no longer the team
that struggled to match up with the Blazers at times, but a deep,
talented squad capable of giving any playoff opponent a run for their money. Even the Lakers. Even an opponent waiting beyond that’s even more challenging.

That’s
just how good these Suns are, and though Phoenix still continues to
surprise — as they did tonight, even when their series victory seemed
imminent — nothing about this team should be startling from this point
forward. Based on their performance from this series, we should expect
the best from the Suns. They’ve played well enough to earn that.   

Bulls sign Shaquille Harrison, waive Omer Asik

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Kris Dunn, the Bulls’ clear top point guard, has yet to play this season due the birth of his child. Even when he returns, Chicago’s other point guards – Cameron Payne, Ryan Arcidiacono, Tyler Ulis – are uninspiring, even as backups.

So, the Bulls added Shaquille Harrison, whom the Suns waived after agreeing to sign Jamal Crawford.

Bulls release:

The Chicago Bulls have signed guard Shaquille Harrison.

In a preceding move, the Bulls waived center Omer Asik.

Harrison is a nice pickup, one of the better free agents available and someone who plays a position of need. The Bulls could use several swings at finding long-term point guards, and the 25-year-old Harrison is a potential fit.

Waiving Asik is an interesting move. Asik was injured, and this could end the 32-year-old’s career. But Chicago loses the ability to trade his contract. Just $3 million of Asik’s $11,977,527 2019-20 salary was guaranteed, which could have been useful in a salary-accepting trade.

Instead, Asik will count $11,286,516 against the cap this season and $3 million after that. The Bulls can either pay the entire $3 million next season or stretch it to $1 million each of the next three seasons. Stretching the money would indicate Chicago still plants to be aggressive in free agency next summer. Paying all it once would suggest a more patient rebuild.

Report: Darius Bazley, who’s sitting out awaiting draft, receives $1 million guaranteed on shoe contract

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Negotiations on lowering the NBA’s age limit have stalled, though there’s plenty of time to negotiate before the targeted allowance of high school players declaring for the draft in 2022.

In the meantime, the NBA’s minor league will soon offer $125,000 salaries to 18-year-olds – up from the standard G League salary of $35,000. Will players sign those Select Contracts rather than playing college basketball, which comes with cartel-limited compensation?

Darius Bazley – who committed to Syracuse, planned to play in the NBA’s minor league then decided to sit out the upcoming season – could provide an illuminating test case. Represented by Rich Paul, Bazley signed an endorsement deal with New Balance.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

According to Paul, Bazley’s multiyear deal will pay him $1 million “no matter what happens” with his N.B.A. career — and can pay up to $14 million if he reaches all performance incentives.

That dwarfs even the increased minor-league salary. Bazley can receive that endorsement money because he no longer cares about preserving college eligibility. The same would apply to Select Contract players.

But the shoe company would become the primary employer. If the shoe company decides playing in the NBA’s minor-league for $125,000 offers the best return on investment, that’s what the player will do. If the shoe company decides the player is better off doing something else, the player will do that.

Bazley ranked just No. 17 in his class, per the 247 composite. He projects as a late first-rounder once draft-eligible next year. The money gets even bigger with more highly touted prospects.

College basketball remains the place that offers them the most exposure, and shoe companies might continue to funnel players there with under-the-table payments. That was no longer an option with Bazley, but this ought to serve as a reminder of who drives the money for elite 18-year-old players. It isn’t the G League.

Gary Harris can’t contain smirk after getting away with fouling Kevin Durant

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Gary Harris hit Kevin Durant‘s arm during the Nuggets’ 100-98 win over the Warriors yesterday. Except officials didn’t call a foul. They did call a technical foul on Durant for arguing about it, though.

Meanwhile, Harris made this fantastic face:

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When you hit your brother and your mom yells at him.

Report: Rajon Rondo’s girlfriend confronted Chris Paul’s wife in stands after on-court fight

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The longstanding tension between Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul boiled over with a fight during Saturday’s Rockets-Lakers game, including Rondo spitting on Paul.

The animosity apparently extended even further.

Sam Amick of The Athletic:

A heated Paul told teammates and coaches in the locker room afterward that Rondo’s girlfriend had sparked a verbal confrontation with Chris’ wife in the stands, according to sources.

Jonatan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:

Lauren A. Jones of the Los Angeles Sentinel:

One person could see a shove when another person sees someone getting in someone’s face. There’s a fine line amidst chaos.

If Paul wasn’t talking about a shove after the game, I tend to think there wasn’t one.

Still, a verbal altercation alone is a lot here.