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.   

Missouri’s Jontay Porter announces he will enter NBA Draft

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Jontay Porter — the younger brother of Denver’s Michael Porter Jr., who did not play all season as he recovered from back issues — was impressive as a freshman, the one season he played at Missouri. He averaged 9.9 points and 6.8 rebounds a game (mostly off the bench), showed a shooting touch from three, he plays a high IQ game, and at 6’11” he has NBA size and a strong frame.

But since then Porter has been a story of injuries. A lot of them. He did not play this past season after tearing the ACL and MCL in his right knee back in October. By his own admission he tried to rush back and tore the same ACL again in March.

Now, Porter is declaring he will enter the NBA Draft.

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Porter has legitimate potential as a stretch five in the NBA, but the knee injuries and questions about Porter’s athleticism (he’s not athletic by NBA standards) makes teams hesitant. That’s why Porter is projected as a second-round pick, a big man with potential but one who needs time to get healthy and develop.

A couple other draft notes:

• Charles Bassey, the 6’11” big man out of Western Kentucky, will test the draft. He is projected as a late second rounder, if drafted at all.

Mike Daum, who averaged 25.3 points and 11.7 rebounds a game this past season for South Dakota State, has entered the draft and signed with Octagon Sports. He needs to impress at combines and workouts to make sure he gets drafted.

• Two European big men, Louis Olinde (6’10” out of Germany) and Aleksander Balcerowski (7’1” center from Poland) both have put their names in the NBA Draft pool. ESPN’s Jonathan Givony announced both of the Euros looking to come to the NBA.

Draymond Green dropped 26 pounds to be ready for playoff basketball

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Draymond Green was not himself this season. He averaged 7.4 points per game, the first time he was below double digits during the Warriors run, Green shot just 28.5 percent from three, and he played in just 66 games due to toe and knee injuries. Green was not an All-Star. He had a PER of 12.9, a below average number (while it’s not a stat that takes into account what Green brings, he’s long been above average at least in it). When it came time to talk Defensive Player of the Year, he got mentioned more on reputation than his in-season performance.

Playoff Green has been different: 13 points and 8.7 assists per game, his true shooting percentage is back above average (57.2) as is his PER (the three-pointers are still not falling, however). He’s a force on defense and a playmaker on offense through the first three games of the postseason.

What changed? He dropped 26 pounds in the final couple months of the season to get in playoff shape. Marcus Thompson II has a fantastic story about this at The Athletic. It started with GM Bob Myer confronting Green about his conditioning after the All-Star break.

“If we’re going to win a championship,” Myers said, “you’ve got to get in shape….”

“Yeah, I start this strenuous regimen on March 6,” he told Myers. “It’ll take me like two weeks, maybe like 10 days, to really get to where I need to be.”

Myers replied with a puzzled glance: “Wait, you already knew this?”

Green explained his whole plan. He has a nutritionist guiding his diet, his chef making his meals. The strength and conditioning team had the strategy for him dropping weight while maintaining strength. It turns out, Green knew it was time, too.

Green is the lynchpin for the Warriors in the playoffs. Stephen Curry still provides the gravity on offense and is the guy the system is built around. Kevin Durant is their best all-around player, a guy who is a walking mismatch who can get one-on-one buckets whenever he wants, defends well, and is the two-time Finals MVP for a reason. Klay Thompson is an All-NBA level two-way player.

But it’s Green’s ability to switch on defense, to cover centers bigger than him but keep them in check, and to be an outlet on offense that sets him apart. As does his intensity and energy — he is the Warriors emotional leader.

With DeMarcus Cousins out, Green’s role got even bigger.

Maybe more than all that, Green is playing for his next contract. He is a free agent in the summer of 2020, but the Warriors could extend his rookie deal this summer. Rumors of him being traded bounce around the league (with not every team interested in bringing him in, his skill set is a specific fit), and teams guessing if Green will get a max contract or not. Green wants to get paid, just as the other big three in Golden State have, but he’s the one on the bubble (Thompson is a free agent this summer but the Warriors have said they will max him out, and sources around the league expect that to happen).

Green looks himself for these playoffs, ready to go and earn a three-peat and a place in history.

Then this summer things could get interesting.

Tyronn Lue, Monty Williams reportedly to get second interviews with Lakers

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The “let’s get to know each other” first meeting is out of the way.

Now things get serious. Multiple reports have the Lakers conducting second interviews with Tyronn Lue and Monty Williams next week — serious, detailed interviews that will include GM Rob Pelinka and owner Jeanie Buss.

Lue and Williams are considered the frontrunners for the job. ESPN’s Wojnarowski also reports that Juwan Howard will get a first interview next week, although he has a lot of catching up to do in the process.

Lue is the former Laker player and Cavaliers’ coach who led that franchise and LeBron James to a title in 2016. Wojnarowski reported Lue is pushing back on the perception he is LeBron’s coach, saying he will push everyone on the roster. In Cleveland, Lue had the trust of LeBron, and that allowed the coach to challenge his star at points.

Williams is a former Pelicans’ head coach who also has a strong relationship with Anthony Davis. Williams has spent time in the Spurs front office and on the coaching bench for the Sixers and Thunder.

All three candidates have a relationship with LeBron James and would get the star’s thumbs up. Lue was LeBron’s chosen coach in Cleveland, Williams coached LeBron as part of Team USA, and Howard was a former LeBron teammate.

Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Westbrook vs. Lillard is best show in playoffs

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The NBA playoffs are underway and there can be a lot to unpack in a series of intense games, to help out we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Russell Westbrook vs. Damian Lillard is the best show in playoffs; Round 3 goes to Westbrook and Thunder. Oklahoma City vs. Portland has become must-watch TV. This third-quarter sequence shows exactly why Russell Westbrook vs. Damian Lillard is the best drama going right now. Well, second after Game of Thrones, but best in the NBA playoffs and one you need to be watching.

Less than two minutes into the third quarter, Westbrook anticipated a Lillard layup attempt, got up, and swatted the shot back. When he landed, Westbrook looked at the crowd along the baseline and yelled something. Lillard, in turn, said something right back to Westbrook, and then the two started jawing. As they have at points throughout the series. Westbrook was making it personal, he demanded the ball on the next Thunder possession, posted up Lillard and knocked down a little turnaround jumper right over the Blazers’ guard. Westbrook then celebrated with his rock-the-baby move (the way he did this one was more shook-the-baby). After the game, Lillard said he didn’t even see it, although in the videos Lillard seems to smirk at it.

Lillard then went off scoring 23 of his 25 points in a historic, franchise-best third quarter to make it a game.

In the end, Oklahoma City got the needed win 120-108 behind 33 points ( on an efficient 11-of-22 shooting ) and 11 assists from Westbrook. Westbrook even hit the dagger three over Lillard.

The Thunder still trail in the series 2-1 and need another win on Sunday in Game 4 or they may fall too far behind to catch up.

Two keys in Game 3 led to the Thunder win.

First, Oklahoma City finally decided to be aggressive in trapping and pressuring Damian Lillard, taking the ball out of his hands early in the shot clock. At least OKC did in the first half. This has been the book on how to beat Portland in the playoffs for a couple of seasons now — make anyone other than Lillard or C.J. McCollum beat you — but OKC used it sparingly in the first couple of games. During the regular season Jusuf Nurkic became an excellent outlet for Lillard when those traps came, but he is out and now Enes Kanter has to be that man. He was not as good. Portland got away from it when Lillard got hot but the Thunder need to go back to it as often as they can.

Second, the Thunder hit their threes. Oklahoma City shot 10-of-61 from three (16.4 percent) from three in the first two games in Portland, but at home they felt comfortable and the shots fell — 15-of-29. This was the biggest difference in the game, Portland’s defense but the Thunder could not beat them from three and on Friday night OKC won that bet.

Can the Thunder sustain that at home?

Tune in for Game 4 Sunday to find out. Lillard vs. Westbrook is the best show going right now.

2) Pascal Siakam goes off for 30 points, 11 rebounds in leading Raptors to win on the road over Magic. During his pregame media availability, Raptors coach Nick Nurse was asked if Pascal Siakam was formally the Raptors third offensive option now.

“If he has he’s dropped down from being the 2nd option,” Nurse responded.

Siakam was option No. 1 on Friday night, scoring 30 points, pulling down 11 rebounds, and leading the way for Toronto to get a 98-93 win on the road. Siakam did it impressively, with everything from threes to postups, and plenty of attacking off the bounce, much of it against a good defender in Jonathan Isaac.

Toronto now leads the series 2-1 and if Orlando is going to have a real chance in this series it needs to win game 4 Sunday.

The Raptors needed the breakout game from Siakam because Kawhi Leonard looked human, scoring 16 points but needing 19 shots to get there (he also had 10 rebounds). Orlando geared its game to stop Leonard (who was under the weather), but the Raptors had other options in this one.

The Raptors also defended well — Evan Fournier was 1-of-12 shooting on a night the Magic as a team shot 36.2 percent and scored less than a point per possession (98.9 offensive net rating). Terrence Ross had 24 off the bench — and hit a halfcourt shot right before halftime — to keep Orlando close. The Magic better find their shooting touch before Sunday or this series will end quickly.

3) Boston has Kyrie Irving (and Jaylen Brown), Indiana can’t score consistently, and Boston is in command of series. We’ve seen this movie before. Boston went into Indiana Friday night and took control of the series going up 3-0 after a 104-96 win that followed the same formula that has worked for the first two games.

First, Kyrie Irving can get buckets whenever he wants. He had 19 points in this game, although it was Jaylen Brown’s 23 points on 8-of-9 shooting that was the dominant force. Jayson Tatum pitched in 18 points.

Second, Indiana just can’t score consistently The Pacers had 61 points in the first half, finding some offense in playing uptempo, even if that is not their style (the Pacers were 25th in the NBA in pace during the regular season, then this had been the second slowest paced playoff series so far this season). But the scoring would not last. Indiana started the third 1-of-8 from the floor and finished the quarter 5-of-21 shooting. Then down the stretch, Indiana was 1-of-7 from the floor. Without Victor Oladipo the Pacers are prone to these offensive droughts, especially against a good Celtics’ defense, and it is simply too much to overcome.

Game 4 is Sunday and maybe the Pacers extend the series to a fifth game, but we know how this movie is going to end.