NBA Playoffs: Breaking down the second quarter

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After the first two games, it looked like the Los Angeles Lakers were getting ready to waltz into the NBA Finals. We all know the old saying that a playoff series doesn’t really start until one team loses at home, but Phoenix looked just plain outclassed throughout the first 96 minutes of the conference finals — the final two Laker wins seemed like a formality. Less than a week later, it’s a tie series again. 
There have been plenty of strategies, players, and shots behind Phoenix’s two consecutive victories. But for right now, let’s take a look at one of the high points of the playoffs so far: That insane 41-32 second quarter that featured frenetic action, momentum shifts, and stars and role players alike hitting shot after shot after shot. Here’s a rehashing of the quarter, with some commentary added:
-The Lakers start out the quarter with Kobe and Bynum out on the floor. The Suns go with their bench-only lineup of Dragic/Barbosa/Dudley/Frye/Amundson. Dragic starts the quarter out by setting Dudley up with a drive-and-kick three, which breaks the tie and puts Phoenix up 26-23. 
-Shannon Brown answers with a 20-footer to cut the lead to one. Random note: how many jumpers did the Lakers hit with their feet on the three-point line? It seems like they did it at least five times over the course of the game. In what turned out to be a close game, those things do matter. Watch those toes, Los Angeles. 
-Bynum hits a hook shot for the Lakers, but in the meantime Barbosa, Dragic, and Amundson all get layups. The Suns’ bench unit is doing to the Lakers what the Thunder did in round one — they’re beating them down the court, getting easy baskets, hustling all the time, and frustrating themselves with their athleticism. They don’t play defense as well as the Thunder do, but they make up for it by being much better shooters. 
-After Amundson dunks to put the Suns up six, Kobe finds a soft spot in the zone, spots up, and drains a catch-and-shoot jumper. 27 seconds later, Kobe answers a tough Barbosa jumper by hitting from the exact same spot he’d made from before. 
-With seven minutes to play in the quarter, Channing Frye hits a quick-trigger catch-and-shoot three. Before that shot, Frye had missed his previous 19 attempts from the field. The crowd goes absolutely crazy — huge momentum shift on that play, and all of a sudden Frye looked like he enjoyed basketball again. A minute later, Dudley hits a three to put the Suns up 10. Phil is forced to call timeout. 
-At this point, the Suns were up double-digits, they were making everything they looked at, and the crowd was in the game. The Lakers have yet to lose a home game in these playoffs, and the Suns have to beat them at home to win this series. In short, this was the point in the game where most teams could have folded. We’ve seen it plenty of times in these playoffs. 
But most teams don’t have Kobe Bryant. After the time-out, Kobe hit two tough threes in the span of 34 seconds to keep the Lakers in the game. The Suns kept answering with threes of their own, but Kobe wasn’t backing down either. Time after time Kobe would find a spot, wait for the pass, set up, and drain the jumper over whoever had the audacity to try and contest his shot. Kobe would end up tying the game in the third quarter by utilizing all aspects of his game, but his second-quarter performance was just as effective. He was taking the shots the Suns wanted him to take, and they were finding net every single time. 
Since the Lakers lost (and the Suns were able to take Kobe out of the game with some extreme double-teams in the fourth quarter), there’s no way this will be talked about as one of Kobe’s great games. In fact, this performance will probably be forgotten within 48 hours. But what Kobe did to keep his team in the game in the second and third quarters of game four was special nonetheless. If anybody but Kobe Bryant had been taking those shots, this would not have been a competitive game. 
-If this game had happened in Los Angeles, I don’t see how the Suns would have been able to survive this Kobe performance. Their threes would have been greeted by silence, and the “M-V-P” chants for Kobe may have reached other celestial bodies. But with the crowd behind them in Phoenix, the Suns were able to keep their composure, play with energy, and drain three after three to keep Kobe and Co. at bay. Channing Frye hit two more threes over the rest of the third quarter, Steve Nash hit a three of his own, J-Rich added a putback and a layup, and Amar’e was able to finish the quarter with an easy little pull-up. 
That second quarter wasn’t just one of the most entertaining 12 minutes of the postseason so far — it gave us a look at the blueprint the Suns need to follow to win this series. They need to hit their threes. They need to play with more energy and put the pressure on the older, bigger Lakers. Their bench needs to be a major advantage for them. They need to do whatever they can to keep the Lakers from beating them with their size in the paint and make them beat them from the perimeter, even if Kobe starts to get hot. Doing all those things in front of a hostile crowd will be very, very difficult. But if the Suns can do all of those things, they might just be able to pull off the upset and get themselves into the NBA Finals. 

Pacers’ Myles Turner fined $15,000 for flipping bird at Sixers fans

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Myles Turner had to know this was coming.

Frustrated after fouling Joel Embiid under the basket and being taken out of the game, the Pacers’ big man flipped off some Sixers fans as he walked to the bench.

Saturday the league announced Turner was fined $15,000 for “making an inappropriate gesture toward the spectator stands.” The league, understandably, is not a fan of its players flipping off fans.

That fine is pretty much the going rate for these kinds of incidences.

Embiid went on to score 40 Friday night in a dominant performance, but the Pacers won the game 113-101.

Why are Lakers saving their young core? Reportedly to chase Anthony Davis.

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Anthony Davis is the target at the top of the Lakers’ wish list.

He’s also at the top of the wish list for the Boston Celtics and about 27 other teams, too. But if Davis is put on the trade block — something that is not likely until this summer, New Orleans is working to keep him — the Lakers and Celtics will be at the front of the line.

Which is why, when reports that the Lakers would not include any of their young core in a trade for Trevor Ariza came out, it fit with the Lakers’ long-term thinking. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN discussed this on a special trade season preview broadcast Saturday morning (transcription via Real GM).

“Here’s the line [the Lakers] have to walk: they’re not going to give away picks and their top young players in some deal that makes them incrementally better this season because they have to save all those assets for Anthony Davis, a big trade this summer either pre or post free agency…

“The absolute dream scenario, people talk about (how) they can trade for Anthony Davis or sign a free agent. The dream scenario is they do both.”

The dream is to sign Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant and get Davis, and while that dream may be a long shot the only chance they have is if they still have their core players to throw in a package.

The larger point also is valid — the Lakers are not going to beat the Warriors come the playoffs this season (assuming the Warriors are healthy) and L.A. should keep its powder dry for bigger battles. And Davis will be the biggest of battles.

New Orleans wants to keep Davis, they are actively trying to be buyers at the trade deadline, not sellers. Sources have told me the Pelicans’ plan is to win as much as possible this season and show Davis they are serious, then come July 1 offer Davis a designated veteran contract extension worth $230 million (or a little more, depending upon the cap). It’s roughly $40 million more than any other team can offer guaranteed. If Davis and his agent Rich Paul — the same agent as LeBron James — turn down that contract then the Pelicans will be forced to consider a trade.

If we get to that point, then all bets are off and the Lakers are all in. Until then, the Lakers are wise just to be patient.

Despite fast start in Toronto, Kawhi Leonard reportedly still eyeing return to Los Angeles

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The Toronto Raptors are making their case to Kawhi Leonard this season — Toronto is 23-8, in first place in the East by 2.5 games, and look like a real threat to make the NBA Finals. Leonard, averaging 26.2 points and 8.2 rebounds a game, is a guy who has returned to the MVP conversation.

Still, the Raptors don’t know if he’s staying, or what he’s thinking, because Leonard doesn’t talk about it in a meaningful way.

“It’s been good so far,” Leonard told NBC Sports of the fit in Toronto. “Like I said, we’ve been winning, everyone’s playing well. Can’t complain.”

Nothing he’s done has slowed the speculation and buzz about what Leonard will do as a free agent next summer… which Leonard is working to ignore.

“I don’t buy into reading media, don’t have no social media, so just focus on what’s in front of me,” Leonard said before the Raptors faced the Clippers last week. “At that time it’s either my family or playing basketball.”

A lot of the speculation around the league has remained that Leonard is headed back to Los Angeles next summer, most likely with the Clippers. Here is what Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN said on a special trade season preview broadcast Saturday morning (transcription via Real GM).

“They can’t change the geography. They can’t change the weather in Toronto. Those were always be things against them in this,” said Adrian Wojnarowski. “Home and L.A. has been the focus for Kawhi Leonard through all of this.”

“Just wear a jacket,” Leonard said about the weather. “We’re in a building. We’re not outside playing in the snow. And it’s good scenery.”

Clippers president Lawrence Frank and other Clippers executives have been a fixture at Raptors games this season, doing their part to recruit him early. They are going to make a strong play for him. So will the Lakers, although I have heard from multiple sources he’s not likely to play with LeBron and in that spotlight.

Nobody knows what Leonard will do next summer, or even what he’s thinking. Leonard doesn’t speak much, and when he does it’s in cautious cliches providing little if any insight. As long as that is the case, the speculation will continue.

Why didn’t Lakers trade for Trevor Ariza? Suns owner reportedly blocked it.

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There were eight teams (that we know of) having some level of contact with Phoenix about getting in on a Trevor Ariza trade. The Lakers were one and — as with all things Lakers — were the most talked about.

But the Lakers were never going to pull off that trade because the Suns’ owner, Robert Sarver, didn’t want it to happen, according to David Aldridge of The Athletic.

Sarver — a very hands-on owner when it comes to basketball decisions — is probably still stung by buying out Tyson Chandler and watching him go to the Lakers and dramatically helping their defense (the Lakers are allowing less than a point per possession when Chandler is on the court). And certainly spiting the Lakers will play well with the Suns’ fan base.

However, the best franchises put aside petty thinking and do what’s best for them. If the Lakers had made the best offer (and we don’t know if it was) then take it. If it makes the Lakers better this season, or even the next few seasons, so what? If you’re the Suns, you’re in a rebuilding process and should be focused on the long term.

That said, the Laker trade was always going to be complicated and hard to pull off, LeBron James wasn’t going to be able to call up Suns GM James Jones and make this one happen. The Lakers wanted to land Ariza but also wanted to send out Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and KCP doesn’t fit with what the Suns wanted (a point guard and young players or draft assets). That means a third team was going to have to get involved, maybe Philadelphia, and possibly even a fourth. The Lakers were not going to trade any of their four core young players, making this trade even harder.

What the Suns got in the trade with Washington was what they wanted: A point guard (Austin Rivers, who is not all that good, as evidenced by his 7.1 PER this season, but is better than anyone the Suns have) and a young wing in Kelly Oubre who fits on the timeline of Devin Booker and the other young Suns. Phoenix did reasonably well in this trade.

Could they have done better? Doesn’t matter, if the owner is shooting down an idea then it’s dead. That’s his prerogative.