NBA Playoffs, Lakers Suns: Game 3 was a nice win for Phoenix, but can they do it again?

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One of the things that made the second round of this year’s playoffs so bizarre was the prevalence of sweeps. It’s incredibly difficult for any NBA team to sweep another regardless of talent, because beating the same opponent four times in a row requires such an incredible level of focus and consistency. It just doesn’t happen all that often, and the losing team typically wins a game or two to delay the outcome even it it seems inevitable.

I wouldn’t say that a Laker win in the Western Conference Finals is inevitable, but one can’t help but wonder if last night’s Suns’ victory was a temporary diversion rather than real resistance. Phoenix won the game while playing solid — but not dominant — basketball, and is that really good enough to compete with this particular Lakers team?

It’s a complicated question, admittedly, and at its core, it begs us to analyze the sustainability of the Suns’ efforts on both ends of the court.

Offensively, one could actually argue that Phoenix survived (and thrived) in spite of two rather notable obstructions: the Suns shot poorly from three as a team and the usually solid bench was nowhere to be found. The reserves (including sharpshooters Channing Frye, Jared Dudley, and Goran Dragic) went 0-fer in 11 attempts from long range, but the starters didn’t really offer much long-range support, either. Jason Richardson made four of the team’s five attempts, which means that the rest of the starters (or really, Steve Nash and Grant Hill) weren’t doing all that much to balance the court.

On this night, it was probably for the best. The Suns fed Amar’e Stoudemire over and over, and he produced. Not only did Amar’e put up 22 field goal attempts, but he got to the line 18 times, and the Suns as a team shot 42 free throw attempts. Phoenix can survive a rainy day with that kind of scoring coming from the free throw line, but any free throw total that high will be met with some skepticism. That said, while Game 3 featured the same questionable calls that can be found in just about any NBA contest, this result was not entirely without precedent.

In Game 2, the Suns shot 32 free throws to the Lakers’ 22. The difference in attempts between the teams in that game may not have been as profound as the Game 3 differential, but the pace was notably higher in Game 3 (98 possessions to 92 in Game 2), and both Amar’e Stoudemire and Steve Nash were far more assertive within the Phoenix offense on Sunday night. They combined for 13 attempts in Game 2 and 25 attempts in Game 3, which is more than enough to compensate for the generous bump of the team totals.

I wouldn’t say anyone should expect the Suns to shoot 42 free throws again in this series, but if Stoudemire, Nash, and the Suns remain aggressive on offense, they can still boast a considerable free throw advantage against the Lakers.

The bench will bounce back, the three-point shooting will no doubt return, and the total free throw attempts will drop slightly but could still be an advantage for Phoenix. All in all, there’s no reason to think the Suns can’t be even better offensively, which is good news for an already confident Phoenix team playing at home in Game 4.

On defense…well, that’s where the news isn’t quite so good. From the second quarter onward, the Suns relied on a zone defense that produced some impressive results. The Suns’ Game 3 fortunes turned on a time, with the zone sparking a 15-2 run going into halftime that gave Phoenix a seven-point lead. It was fun to watch the Suns’ defenders not only active and involved, but making the right rotations to prevent exploitations of the zone. Brilliant, brilliant move by Alvin Gentry.

Each defensive scheme has its own weaknesses though, and the zone is certainly no exception. The zone was so problematic for the Lakers not because it was perfectly executed (although the Suns certainly did a stellar job relative to their usual man-to-man defense, which has characteristically featured some poor rotations), but precisely because it was a zone. They settled for too many contested threes, didn’t properly utilize one of the best high post centers in the game in Pau Gasol, and didn’t employ the right kind of ball and player movement.

The Laker offense didn’t make any significant adjustments against the zone, and thus their usual movement was stifled. Kudos to L.A. for not stopping the ball, but they need to replace their usual cuts and slashes with moves more effective against the zone: baseline movement, overloading a player’s zone, etc. With NBA versatility, size, and speed at a coach’s disposal, it’s really only a matter of time before any NBA team cracks the zone, much less one with this much talent from coach down. Phil Jackson and his staff will work with the Lakers and hit the film room hard to show exactly how to attack the Suns’ zone D, and unfortunately for Phoenix, it’s that simple.

Andrew Bynum may not be the best counter to the zone, but any lineup featuring Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant, and Lamar Odom is more than capable of getting easy shots against it. That’s not meant to be a slight against Phoenix’s defense in Game 3, which was much improved, but rather as a general statement concerning the limitations of the scheme. The zone can be incredibly effective over the course of a single game, but if the Suns are relying on it to win them the series (as they may be forced to, considering how ineffective their man defense has been), they’re in trouble.

That makes Phoenix’s Game 3 win a bit tough to replicate. Phoenix’s offensive potency has never really been in question in this series, but the Suns’ ability (or inability) to defend the versatile and efficient Laker offense sits in the spotlight during every game. That’s where these games (and this series) need be won, and unfortunately, the Phoenix zone is vulnerable to the law of diminishing returns; the more the Suns use the zone, the less effective it will be.

The key for Phoenix will be maintaining the same emphasis on defensive rotations in their usual defensive sets that they seem to exhibit in the zone, as the decreasing effectiveness of the zone will ultimately force the Suns to revert to man-to-man defense. If Phoenix can be even moderately successful without the zone, their offense will give them a shot to win Game 4 and perhaps a few more. If not, Game 3 was merely artificial resistance in a series that could be over sooner rather than later.

Portland survives against Nets 134-133, advances to play-in; Suns out

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Damian Lillard looked every bit the seeding games MVP — he carried Portland for critical stretches against a scrappy Nets team and was a leader on the biggest night of the Trail Blazers season.

Portland is going on the West play-in games as the eighth seed — win one of two games against Memphis on Saturday or Sunday and the Trail Blazers will face the LeBron James and the Lakers in the first round.

All because Portland held on for a 134-133 win against Brooklyn.

The Portland win means the Phoenix Suns — the darlings of the bubble at 8-0 behind Devin Booker‘s play — are going home. As impressive as the Suns were in the bubble, they could not climb out of the hole they dug the first part of the season, before the coronavirus shut the league down.

Monty Williams — very likely the winner of the “Coach of the Seeding Games” award — deserves credit for getting his team to take advantage of the extra games and practices to get better in a way that Sacramento, New Orleans, and other teams did not.

Thursday night, however, belonged to Lillard.

Lillard finished with 42 points on the night, bringing him up to a 37.5 points per game average in the bubble.

Brooklyn tried, they threw two guys and Lillard and blitzed trying to force the ball out of his hands and anyone else to beat them. Enter CJ McCollum, who did not play like someone with a back injury on his way to 25 points.

Both Lillard and McCollum played every minute of the second half — and Portland might not have won if they didn’t.

Brooklyn’s effort and scrappy style of play has caught teams off-guard all restart long, and it pushed Portland. Caris LeVert added to his “sure we have Kyrie and KD, but I should get some touches too next season” case with 37 points.

Portland came into the restart with the goal of making the playoffs, and it is now just one win away. The first game between Portland and Memphis is on Saturday at 2:30 Eastern. If the Grizzlies win, it forces a second game, Sunday at 4:30 Eastern.

Memphis is an impressive young team, but it’s tough to beat Lillard when he is playing like an MVP.

 

NBA playoffs schedule 2020: First round dates, times, matchups

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We’ve all had our fill of the seeding games appetizer, it’s time to dig into the main course: The playoffs. On Thursday, the NBA released the first-round playoffs schedule for 2020.

Those seeding games saw unexpected stars — Indiana’s T.J. Warren looking like an elite scorer — and teams we didn’t expect exploding on the scene, such as the 8-0 Suns. The playoffs promise even more of that — and a few upsets.

Here are a few more notes on the NBA’s first-round playoff schedule 2020:

• The NBA is continuing with the Summer League/AAU style format with four games a day spread out over the course of the day.
• Games are played every other day in all eight series.
• It will not be known who which team the West’s top seed (the Lakers) will face in the first round until the play-in games on Saturday and, if necessary, Sunday.
• The first Western Conference Play-In game is Saturday, Aug. 15 at 2:30 ET (ABC). If the eighth-seeded team wins the series is over and that team moves on to the Lakers; if the eighth seed team loses a second game will be played on Sunday at 4:30 ET (ESPN).
• The Heat and Pacers played last Monday, meet again on Friday, then next Tuesday start a best-of-7 series. Miami won that first game in impressive fashion.
Chris Paul, now wearing a Thunder uniform, will take on his former team, the Houston Rockets.
• The NBA has released an NBA Finals schedule to teams.

NBA playoffs schedule 2020, first round, by date (all times are Eastern):

Western Conference

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. Play-in winner

Game 1: Aug. 18, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 8:30 p.m. (ABC)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

No. 2 L.A. Clippers vs. Dallas

Game 1: Aug. 17, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD

No. 3 Denver vs. No. 6 Utah

Game 1: Aug. 17, 1:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD

Oklahoma City vs. Houston (4/5 finish order yet to be decided)

Game 1: Aug. 18, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 6 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Milwaukee vs. No. 8 Orlando

Game 1: Aug. 18, 1:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 6 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 1:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 1:30 p.m. (NBATV)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

No. 2 Toronto vs. No. 7 Brooklyn

Game 1: Aug. 17, 4 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 1:30 p.m. (NBATV)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 1:30 p.m. (NBA TV)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD (ESPN)
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD (TNT)

No. 3 Boston vs. No. 6 Philadelphia

Game 1: Aug. 17, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 1 p.m. (ABC)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD (ESPN)
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD (TNT)

Miami vs. Indiana (4/5 finish order yet to be decided)

Game 1: Aug. 18, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 1 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 3:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 6:30 (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

Memphis advances to play-in; Phoenix goes perfect 8-0 but needs help to join them

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Memphis entered the bubble with a 3.5 game cushion as the eighth seed in the West. All Ja Morant and company had to do was hold on to that and they would be in the league’s new play-in series.

They didn’t.

Phoenix entered the bubble as a playoff afterthought, so far back of Memphis — and with so many teams between them — that Devin Booker would have to explode and the Suns would need to be perfect in the bubble.

They were. With a win over Dallas Thursday, Phoenix went 8-0 in the seeding games.

That still may not be enough.

Memphis beat Milwaukee 119-106 Thursday, with that the Grizzlies are assured of a spot in the play-in as at least the nine seed.

That means Phoenix needs Brooklyn to beat Portland later Thursday night. If the Nets pull the upset, the Grizzlies become the eight seed and the Suns would jump to the nine seed. If Portland wins, it is in the play-in against Memphis (with the Trail Blazers as the eighth seed), and Phoenix takes off for Cancun and the offseason.

The Grizzlies and Suns winning means the San Antonio Spurs historic playoff streak ends at 22 seasons, they are now mathematically eliminated.

Thursday’s games came with the promise of playoff-chase drama but ended up the kind of duds we see at the end of a typical regular season when one team has something to play for and the other is coasting and disinterested.

The Grizzlies didn’t win because Rookie of the Year to be Morant put up a triple-double (12 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists).

Rather it was a testament to the Memphis front office building out a solid, balanced roster around their young stars. Memphis got 31 from third-year player Dillon Brooks (a second-round pick they developed), plus 26 points and 19 rebounds from Jonas Valanciunas (acquired in a trade).

The Bucks were without Giannis Antetokounmpo who was suspended one game for headbutting Moe Wagner of the Wizards. That certainly helped the Grizzlies, although it’s unlikely the Greek Freak would have played significant minutes.

Phoenix got 27 points from Devin Booker, plus balanced scoring behind him. Dario Saric added 16 points off the bench.

A lot of fans had hoped to see Booker and the electric Suns in the play-in game, but in the NBA winning games matters — and not just the last eight in the bubble. All of them. The Suns didn’t do enough of that before the coronavirus shut down the NBA for four months.

The Grizzlies did, so they advance.

Adam Silver: Players not in bubble have heard such positive reports, they’ve asked to join

NBA commission Adam Silver and Warriors star Stephen Curry
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
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NBA commission Adam Silver warned that everyone involved must be comfortable with some positive coronavirus tests in the bubble.

So far, there have been none.

Silver, in a Q&A with Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated:

SI: The bubble—sorry, the campus—is operational. Is it what you hoped it would be?

AS: It’s better than what we had envisioned. Players have taken to it in a more spirited way than we thought they would. We knew that this would require enormous sacrifice on everyone’s part, but I think that what is hard to calibrate—and this maybe goes to my experience when I first came into the arena—is the human emotion that comes with being around other people. And I think everyone realized they missed it more than they even understood. There are players either whose teams are not participating, who were unable to engage this summer because of injuries or other issues, who, once they spoke to fellow NBA players, have asked to join the experience down in Orlando.

People generally enjoy being around other people. Basketball players like to play basketball.

The NBA bubble has made those activities – otherwise dangerous due to coronavirus – sufficiently safe.

That surely must be fulfilling for participating players (even if the reason for the whole operation is money, not fulfillment).

Warriors star Stephen Curry admitted his FOMO, and the Trail Blazers – presumably with Trevor Ariza on board – reportedly tried to get Ariza late admission into the bubble.

But I wonder whether there’s a level of “grass is greener on the other side” from the players who asked to join. The bubble participants are away from their families and friends for at least a month, longer if their team advances. That’s easier to accept in theory without actually experiencing it.