NBA Playoffs, Lakers v. Suns Game 1: Everything's coming up Lakers

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kobe-wcf-game1.pngGame 1 of the Western Conference Finals made one thing abundantly clear: unless the Suns are able to come up with some truly remarkable performances, the Lakers will win this series. L.A. is so talented and so long that they’ll receive the benefit of the doubt in almost every regard, and barring a transcendent performance from Steve Nash or Amar’e Stoudemire, Phoenix will lose.

Call it cheap analysis if you will, but the Lakers are better. They are not going to melt down in this series, which puts the onus on the Suns. It’s up to Phoenix to somehow stop the unstoppable force in purple and gold and manage to see the sky through the trees.

I wouldn’t say Game 1 was necessarily par for the course (the Lakers’ offense scored at a rate of 139.1 points per 100 possessions, a truly scorching level of efficiency) but L.A.’s dominance in their 128-107 victory was not unfounded.

Los Angeles has a much better shot at stopping Phoenix’s offense than vice versa, and the Lakers exposed that painful truth in their complete dissection of the Suns’ vaunted, improved defense. Kobe’s 40 has to be the centerpiece, and his 21-point third quarter was the type of noteworthy performance that so frequently gets lost in the playoff shuffle. If the Lakers go on to win the championship, few will remember Bryant’s 21-point Q on a mid-May night, no matter how it demoralized the Suns’ defenders.

That said, we may not see a more singularly dominant stretch of basketball from any Laker this postseason, and for that Kobe deserves to be recognized. Grant Hill, Jared Dudley, and Jason Richardson all did their best to defend Bryant. They fought for position, tried to deny, and challenged shots. It didn’t matter, because Kobe is so, so good at what he does. When Bryant is in that special place, the bucket is less a possible outcome and more an inevitability. That’s what the Suns were charged with stopping tonight, and it’s what the Jazz failed to stop at times in their four-game out in the previous round.

I’d love to say that Kobe is destined for a fall back to earth at some point, but the guy has scored 30+ in every game he’s played since April 27th. He’s done it with plenty of time off and just a day off, at home and away, by shooting 45% from the field or better, against three different opponents, and with one notable constant: winning. Kobe is putting up impressive totals and guiding the Lakers to the promised land, two results that have not always coincided. During this playoff run however, they seem almost inextricable, with just two of the Lakers’ nine wins coming in sub-30-point performances for Bryant.

As always seems to be the case with these Lakers, he wasn’t alone. Lamar Odom (19 points, 19 rebounds) was ridiculously effective, and looked right at home working against Amar’e Stoudemire. Pau Gasol wasn’t nearly as good on the boards (or rather, didn’t have to be as good on the boards), but had 21 points on 10-of-13 shooting.

Those two players best exemplified the problems with the Suns’ defense; Hill et al’s defense on Bryant may have been an exercise in futility, but the Suns’ D on Odom and Gasol was more of a demonstration of their ineptitude. Even if you buy the argument that the Suns are improved on defense this season, those improvements amounted to nothing against players as skilled, as versatile, and as big as Gasol and Odom.

Throw in some beautiful discretion from Ron Artest, better-than-expected defense from Derek Fisher, and solid play from the Lakers’ bench, and it would be a wonder if the Lakers didn’t win in a walk.

Los Angeles wasn’t exactly perfect on defense, though, even if they did manage to prevent Phoenix from scoring at maximum efficiency. The Suns benefited from a balanced offensive performance, featuring six double-digit scorers who were able to attack the Lakers’ D in a variety of ways. However, the Lakers’ true battle was fought — and won — against the Suns’ pick-and-roll.

Robin Lopez (14 points 6-7 FG, six rebounds) looked great rolling to the rim and working the offensive glass, but even his impressive playoff debut wasn’t enough to overcome the Lakers’ smothering of Steve Nash and assault on the passing lanes. Phoenix found ways to move the ball, but the great looks the Suns are accustomed to getting were merely good ones, and considering Phoenix’s considerable defensive troubles, that was more than enough to drop Game 1 into L.A.’s lap.

As I mentioned before, Steve Nash (13 points, 13 assists, four turnovers) and Amar’e Stoudemire (23 points, just three boards) can’t just show up and play. They have to seriously perform if Phoenix is going to have any shot in this series. They’ll need to execute tirelessly on the offensive end, not only to provide the bulk of the offense, but to open up the game for the Suns’ shooters. In a sense, you have a situation in Phoenix similar to that in Orlando, only instead of relying on Dwight Howard’s interior dominance as an offensive foundation, this team relies on the Nash-Stoudemire tandem.

Without that regular offensive threat, the Suns shooters were blanketed on the perimeter, as evidenced by the team’s 22.7% shooting from beyond the arc. That’s more than just a cold night, even if every miss from the perimeter can’t be attributed to L.A.’s close-outs. Jared Dudley (1-5 3FG) and Channing Frye (1-7 3FG) were forced into some contested looks and were out of rhythm when they finally found the space to fire unimpeded.

If you’re looking for one side of the ball to attribute blame, the offense wasn’t it for Phoenix. The Suns’ offensive efficiency in this game (116.3 points per 100 possessions) was actually higher than their season average. As I mentioned before though, the Suns will have to be good enough on offense to make up for their major defensive flaws, and until we see even a spark of that in this series, the games will continue to default Lakers.

Hawks trade Harkless, second-round pick to Thunder for Vit Krejci

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The Atlanta Hawks just saved some money, getting under the luxury tax line. The Oklahoma City Thunder picked up a second-round pick for their trouble of taking on a contract.

The Hawks have traded Moe Harkless and a second-round pick to the Thunder for Vit Krejci the teams announced (Shams Charania of The Athletic was first).

This saves Atlanta a little over $3 million, which moves them from above the luxury tax line to $1.3 million below it. While the almighty dollar was the primary motivation in the ATL, the Hawks also pick up a development project. Krejci showed a little promise in his rookie season, appearing in 30 games and averaging 6.2 points plus 3.4 rebounds a night, before having his knee scoped in April.

Krejci was on the bubble of making the team in Oklahoma City, now the Thunder pick up a second-round pick for a guy they might have waived anyway.

Harkless, 29, is on an expiring $4.6 million contract, which fits nicely into the Disabled Player Exception the Thunder were granted for Chet Holmgren’s season-ending foot injury.

The Thunder are expected to waive Harkless and buy him out, making him a free agent. However, they could keep him and see if another trade could net them another second-round pick.

Lonzo Ball says ‘I can’t run’ or jump; Bulls’ Donovan has to plan for extended absence

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
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Officially, Lonzo Ball will be out 4-6 weeks after getting his knee scoped this week.

However, this is his second surgery on his left knee this year — he had meniscus surgery in January, after which he was never able to return to the court — and there are concerns Ball could miss significant time again. And coach Billy Donovan has no choice but to plan for an extended absence.

Ball did a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday and it’s hard to come away from what he said overly optimistic. Rob Schaefer reported on the call for NBC Sports Chicago:

“Literally, I really can’t run. I can’t run or jump. There’s a range from, like, 30 to 60 degrees when my knee is bent that I have, like, no force and I can’t, like, catch myself. Until I can do those things I can’t play,” Ball said. “I did rehab, it was getting better, but it was not to a point where I could get out there and run full speed or jump. So surgery is the next step.”

The symptoms are something Ball said he has never dealt with and have left doctors, in his words, “a little surprised.”

It’s never good when doctors are surprised. Ball said the doctors don’t see anything on the MRI, but there is clearly something wrong, so they are going in and looking to find the issue and fix it.

Ball has been diligent in his recovery work from the start, the problem was pain in his knee. Something was still not right after the first surgery. Whatever it is.

The 4-6 week timeline would have Ball back in early November, but you know they will be overly cautious with him after the past year. Coach Billy Donovan was honest — he has to plan for a season without Ball.

The Bulls need Ball in a deep and challenging East. He brings defense, pushes the pace in transition, and takes care of the rock. Chicago has other players who can do those things individually — Alex Caruso can defend, Coby White pushes in transition, Goran Dragic takes care of the ball — but the Bulls lack one player who can do all those things. At least they lack one until Ball returns.

Whenever that may be.

Deandre Ayton says he hasn’t spoken to coach Williams since Game 7

Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans - Game Four
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In a Game 7 against the Mavericks last May, Suns coach Monty Williams benched center Deandre Ayton, who ended up playing just 17 minutes in an ugly, blowout loss for Phoenix. When asked about it after the game Williams said, “It’s internal.”

Ayton and Williams have not spoken since then, according to Ayton.

Yikes. Remember that includes a summer where the Suns would not offer Ayton a max contract extension so he went out and got one from the Pacers, then the Suns instantly matched it. Ayton did not sound thrilled to be back in Phoenix on Media Day, and he was rather matter-of-fact about dealing with his coach.

It’s what every fan wants to hear — “this is just my job.”

Reporters asked Williams about this and he played it off, saying he hasn’t spoken with a lot of players yet.

It’s just day one of training camp, but there are a lot of red flags around the Suns: owner Robert Sarver being suspended and selling the team, Jae Crowder not in camp waiting to be traded, and now not a lot of communication between the team’s star center and its coach.

Maybe it all amounts to nothing. Maybe the Suns get on the court, Chris Paul looks rejuvenated, Devin Booker looks like Devin Booker, and none of this matters. But what had looked like a stable situation not that long ago now has a lot of red flags flying heading into the season, and that has to concern Suns fans.

 

Report: Lakers would have traded both first-round picks for Irving, Mitchell

Utah Jazz v Brooklyn Nets
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“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it,” Lakers GM Rob Pelinka said at media day, pulling back the curtain a little on his thinking of trading two first-round picks. “So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

That tracks with the consistent messaging out of Los Angeles all summer: The Lakers would only trade the only two first-round picks they fully control for the rest of this decade (2027 and 2029) for a deal that made them a contender.

That meant landing Kyrie Irving or Donovan Mitchell, ESPN’s Dave McMenamin said on The Hoop Collective Podcast.

“I’ve been told that had the Lakers been able to acquire, Kyrie Irving, or the Lakers been able to acquire Donovan Mitchell, either of those players, the Lakers were willing and able to move both those [first-round] picks to do it.”

The problem for the Lakers is the market price for elite talent has moved beyond two first-round picks. The Jazz got three unprotected first-round picks (2025, 2027 and 2029) plus the rights to two pick swaps (2026 and 2028) in the Mitchell trade, not to mention three players: Lauri Markkanen (who they will try to trade for another pick), Collin Sexton, and Ochair Agbaji. The price for Kyrie Irving would have been at least as high, if the Nets really wanted to trade him.

The Lakers traded all of their young players and most of their picks to land Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook, except for the ones they let walk away (Alex Caruso). Before he was judicious in making trades like he was this offseason, Pelinka made deals that backed him into this corner.

The Lakers likely could use both picks to acquire Buddy Hield and Myles Turner out of Indiana (sending Westbrook back), but that doesn’t make Los Angeles a contender (a playoff team, but not a title threat) and it messes with the plan to have around $30 million in cap space next summer to chase a big name.

The Lakers you see in training camp are the Lakers you get. At least for now.