NBA Playoffs, Lakers Suns Game 3: The Suns get in the zone and suddenly it looks like a series

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stoudemire_Odom.jpgSaturday in practice, Suns coach Alvin Gentry was not happy. He wanted to run some more zone but the Suns were playing it worse than they had in the first two games. Which was hard to do because they had been terrible at it in those games and the Lakers had carved it up.

“To be honest with you guys, in practice yesterday it was the worst it has ever been,” Gentry said in a post-game interview shown on NBATV. “I got really upset because I didn’t think it was very good at all. When (the Lakers) started the game making a ton of shots we said, ‘well, we’ve got to give it a try’ and we got some stops.”

The Lakers shot just 4 of 21 against the zone in the second quarter. The Lakers who had shot 58 percent in the first two games shot 48 percent in this game, largely because of the zone. Combine that with an aggressive and attacking Amare Stoudemire and the Suns won Game 3 118-109.

If the zone works again in Game 4 on Tuesday, the series will head back to Los Angeles tied (Lakers lead 2-1 now).

The Lakers came out settling more for their jump shots even before the zone came in, but they hit them. That is why they led after one quarter 32-29. Then Phoenix went to the zone and the Lakers put up just 15 points in the second quarter as their outside shots stopped falling. That should be expected — the Lakers are not a great outside or three point shooting team, just 34.1 percent from beyond the arc on the season (23rd in the league). The only guy hitting shots was Kobe Bryant, who had 36 points on 13 of 24 shooting.

Usually against the zone the Lakers still try to go inside, with bigs flashing into the high post, they did a little of that in the second half, but they still settled enough to take 32 threes, making just nine. In two of the three Lakers losses this postseason, they have taken more than 30 threes.

“I think we figured (the zone) out in the third quarter, but we didn’t figure out defensively what we had to do,” Jackson said in his televised interview.

While the Lakers settled, the Suns attacked. Phoenix had 42 free throw attempts — sorry Lakers fans, that had nothing to do with the officiating and everything to do with the Suns taking the ball the rim. Stoudemire had Andrew Bynum — a clearly slowed and hurting Bynum — in quick foul trouble. His replacement, Lamar Odom, ended up fouling out.

For the first time in this series, the pressure shifts to the Lakers to adjust — to use actions in the triangle offense to better exploit the zone they will certainly see next game. Jackson has two handfuls of rings because he knows how to make playoff adjustments. But if the Suns zone can force the Lakers into jumpshooters again, this series could end up tied.

Report: Pelicans, Pistons, Kings NBA’s most active buyers in trade market

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The Pelicans are likely in a make-or-break season.

They can offer Anthony Davis a super-max extension next off season. If he signs it, he’d be locked up for five more years. If not, he’d head toward 2020 unrestricted free agency. New Orleans could keep an un-extended Davis through the 2019-20 season and hope for the best, but a trade seems inevitable if he’s not willing to sign the largest-possible extension next summer.

So, this season is the last before that moment of truth. And the Pelicans are just 15-15, tied for 10th in the Western Conference.

That’s why they’re on the far end of the trade spectrum.

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

But what about the buyers? League executives report the New Orleans Pelicans, Detroit Pistons and Sacramento Kings lead the list of teams calling around looking for ways to upgrade their rosters in recent weeks.

All three of these teams are understandable buyers:

Pelicans

New Orleans needs to upgrade around Davis before it’s too late. He has set high standards and placed the burden on himself, but he might eventually look around and realize it shouldn’t be this hard.

The Pelicans have drafted in the first round only once since 2012 (when they picked Davis), and they traded that pick – Buddy Hield – during his rookie year. They have all their future first-round picks and could again use one to get immediate help.

New Orleans could also move Solomon Hill (making $12,252,928 this season, $12,758,781 next season) to match salary, though he holds negative value on that contract. Several smaller expiring contracts could also prove useful.

Unloading yet another first-rounder could come back to bite the Pelicans, but they must impress Davis first. Secure him, and worry about everything else later.

Pistons

The Pistons haven’t won a playoff game in 11 years. They’ve missed the postseason entirely the last two seasons. At 13-13, they could fall out again.

Or they could bolster their roster to become more competitive in April.

Detroit is fairly locked into this expensive team, led by Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond. The Pistons are stuck, somewhat by choice, playing for the present. They might as well make it count.

They could dangle Stanley Johnson if they don’t plan to re-sign him in restricted free agency this summer. The 22-year-old could fetch a better, older player.

Detroit has little breathing room below the luxury-tax line, and as much as owner Tom Gores wants to make the playoffs, I doubt he’d pay the tax on this team.

Kings

Sacramento (15-12) is the NBA’s brightest surprise. After missing the playoffs 12 straight seasons – the NBA’s longest active postseason drought – the Kings are eighth in the Western Conference. They also already traded their 2019 first-round pick.

It’s time to go for it.

Sacramento’s priority should be building long-term around a young core led by De'Aaron Fox. But there’s still room to focus on satisfying this season, especially with no first-round-pick fallback if the team slips.

The Kings are the only team still with cap space, and they have $11,024,578 of it. They also have several veterans on expiring contracts – Zach Randolph ($11,692,308), Iman Shumpert ($11,011,234), Kosta Koufos ($8,739,500) and Ben McLemore ($5,460,000). That opens a lot of possibilities.

Maybe Sacramento can get a helpful and not-too-old, but overpaid, player on a multi-year deal from a team looking to shed salary? Prime example: Wizards forward Otto Porter.

Bradley Beal foils Celtics’ foul-up-three plan, forces OT (video)

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Foul or defend?

Though it’s always worth it for teams to consider how they can incrementally improve their odds of winning, the debate over strategy when leading by three points late probably gets too much attention. Teams up by three points late almost always win, regardless.

But the rare cases of a team overcoming a late 3-point deficit are so memorable.

Take last night, when the Celtics – up three – intentionally fouled Bradley Beal with 13 seconds left. Beal made the first free throw, missed the second, grabbed the offensive rebound and scored. It was a heck of a play that forced overtime.

It didn’t pay off for the Wizards, who lost in overtime. But it paid off for us, as the extra period produced this awesome sequence.

Report: Knicks undrafted rookie Allonzo Trier will have higher salary than 20 of 30 2018 first-round picks

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Allonzo Trier took a winding road to the Knicks – grade-school acclaim, failed drug tests at Arizona, going undrafted – but he’s thriving now. Trier is scoring 11.3 points per game, one of the highest marks ever for an undrafted rookie in his first professional season.

About to run out of NBA service days on his two-way contract, Trier is cashing in.

Ian Begley of ESPN:

The most the Knicks had to offer Trier over two years is $6,933,100 through the bi-annual exception – $3,382,000 this season and $3,551,100 next season. It sounds as if Trier got that and Begley is rounding.

That’d put Trier’s 2018-19 salary above 20 of this year’s 30 first-round picks. Not bad for an undrafted player.

Trier gets buckets. I still have questions about the 22-year-old’s all-around game, but he has proven himself an NBA contributor. New York did well to reward him and keep him on the roster the rest of the season.

The Knicks are essentially buying flexibility next summer by paying Trier so much now. They’re gearing up for 2019 free agency – most notably, Kevin Durant – and value cap space.

If Trier plays well enough, New York can always exercise his team option and keep him for next season. If not, the Knicks can decline the team option. At that point, they could make Trier a restricted free agent or renounce him entirely to maximize cap room.

Even if he completes this contract, New York can still make Trier a restricted free agent in 2020. It’s a lot of team control.

This comes at a cost, in addition to Trier’s salary, of waiving potential trade chip Ron Baker. Baker’s $4,544,400 expiring contract could have been useful in a trade, though the Knicks’ reluctance to add future salary limited options for utilizing Baker’s contract.

Baker will be best remembered for New York rushing to give him that absurd deal on the first day of 2017 free agency, breaking his face when Anthony Davis dunked on him and sucking on a contact lens then trying to put it in his eye.

Hornets owner Michael Jordan playfully slaps Malik Monk for premature-celebration technical foul (video)

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Malik Monk ran onto the court to celebrate Jeremy Lamb‘s game-winner last night.

One problem: The game wasn’t over.

Lamb’s jumper put the Hornets up two with 0.3 seconds left, and the Pistons were trying to inbound. Officials called a technical foul, and Detroit made the free throw. But Charlotte still held on for the 108-107 win.

The situation created a few tense moments, though. While officials reviewed the play, Hornets owner Michael Jordan playfully slapped the back of Monk’s head a couple times.

Zach Aldridge of WCCB:

I’ll be honest: I wasn’t sure those slaps were playful until Jordan and Monk smiled afterward. Jordan is an intense competitor. He once punched then-Bulls teammate Steve Kerr in the face during practice. I bet there was an element of actual warning behind Jordan’s slaps, even if they were mostly joking.

Why did only Monk receive the treatment? He drew the most attention for running onto the court – but just because he stayed at least somewhat near the bench. Bismack Biyombo was practically at halfcourt! Ashley Holder:

It’s amazing Biyombo escaped the owner’s wrath. Does Jordan know how much he’s paying Biyombo?