Game of the Night: Suns bury Lakers with 22 threes

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What a crazy game in Los Angeles. The Phoenix Suns managed to hand the Lakers their first home loss of the season despite losing their starting center (and the only Phoenix player who would have had a chance of keeping the Lakers off the boards) early in the game, but it was far from easy. Even though the Suns hit 22 of their 40 three-point attempts, one make shy of an NBA record, the Suns needed a crazy three from Hedo Turkoglu and a controversial technical on Lamar Odom to escape Los Angeles with a five-point win.

For the majority of the game, it seemed like the Suns were simply delaying an inevitable Laker blowout. Phoenix’s big men had little hope of keeping the Lakers away from the basket before Robin Lopez went down with a knee injury — after that happened, things just became comical. The Lakers got to the rim seemingly at will for much of the game, using crisp passing, strong drives, and lots of movement off the ball to get easy looks at the rim over and over and over again. Lamar Odom was particularly effective when he put the ball on the floor and went to the basket, and the Suns had no prayer against Pau Gasol when he got the ball near the rim. On top of that, Kobe was being Kobe, whether he was setting his teammates up with crisp passes, making shots from the mid-post, or up-faking his man, stepping through him, and passing off the backboard to himself for a layup.

When the Lakers missed a shot, they would often just get the ball right back again — Channing Frye had no prayer of effectively boxing out Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom kept coming out of nowhere to grab the ball after Laker misses, and the Suns were simply unable to gain possession of loose caroms for most of the game.

After the game, Suns coach Alvin Gentry talked about his team’s inability to keep Gasol off the boards, saying “You know we’ve still got to try and stop the rebounding situation, but Pau is just so long, we have him boxed out, he goes over the back but doesn’t foul…he’s just so long, our guys try to get a body on him and we just couldn’t. It wasn’t that we weren’t trying to win, that we weren’t playing hard and trying to be physical with him, we just couldn’t move him out. And that’s a credit to Pau more than it is a negative to our guys.”

The Lakers’ size advantage was overpowering — the Lakers outscored the Suns by 40 points in the paint, and had 20 offensive rebounds to the Suns’ 22 defensive rebounds. 99 times out of 100, the team that controls the paint like the Lakers did on Sunday will win the game, but that wasn’t the case against the Suns.

How did the Suns overcome the Lakers’ size and strength mismatch? They hit threes. A lot of them. The Suns found themselves open from beyond the arc early and often against the Lakers, and their shooters weren’t afraid to let fly. The Suns did a great job of moving the ball from side to side, staying away from isolation play, spacing the floor, and keeping the Lakers off-balance in both the half-court and transition game. The Laker forwards were able to overpower the Suns when Los Angeles had the ball, but they often seemed a step slow on the opposite side of the floor, either leaving Channing Frye or Hedo Turkoglu open beyond the arc or being forced to switch onto a guard. Lamar Odom had a particularly uneven defensive game — there were times he would go to give help and appear to simply forget that Channing Frye and Hedo Turkoglu love to shoot threes.

Jason Richardson, Channing Frye, and Hedo Turkoglu absolutely killed the Lakers from deep by camping out on the weak side in the half-court and trailing the break — that kind of shooting would be impressive in an empty gym, but it also seemed like the Lakers were giving up open three-point looks because they thought the Suns would eventually start missing and they could simply outscore Phoenix when the Suns started to miss.

Unfortunately for the Lakers, the Suns never stopped missing. During one four-and-a-half minute stretch in the third quarter, the Suns made six straight three-pointers, and it got to the point where the Staples center crowd would begin groaning as the shots were in the air. When asked after the game if he thought the Suns’ three-point shooting would cool down, Kobe Bryant said “that’s what normally happens, but tonight it didn’t. They just continued to make them.”

A stretch like that would have buried most teams, but the Lakers were resilient, and were in the game for most of the fourth quarter thanks to some big threes from Shannon Brown and some missed threes by the Suns. The turning point of the game was a controversial one. With 53 seconds remaining, Lamar Odom made a layup that put the Lakers down by two points. There was some contact on the play, and Odom wanted to get an and-1 call and a chance to bring the Lakers within a point. He didn’t get the call, and was fairly demonstrative to the ref, who slapped him with a technical. After the Suns hit the resulting free throw and Hedo Turkoglu nailed a deep, flat-footed, contested three over Kobe Bryant on the next Suns possession, the game was all but over.

After the game, Kobe called the technical on Odom “disgusting, in that situation.” Odom himself said “It’s tough, you know, it’s tough. There were 55 seconds left. I think that’s why people are questioning it. But a rule’s a rule.”

After the game, both coaches were in awe of Phoenix’s hot shooting. Phil Jackson said in his post-game press conference that “Our philosophy is that [the three-pointers] even out over time, but they didn’t tonight. A team’s going to make a certain percentage of threes. If they make ten in a ball game that’s a high number; this team averages 9, so that’s a really high number. The real issue is about those other 80 points they got in the paint.”

Suns coach Alvin Gentry was of the opinion that Sunday’s outcome was more the  result of Phoenix’s insanely hot shooting rather than anything the Lakers did wrong. When asked about the Lakers, who have dropped their last two games, Gentry went into a comic outrage, saying “It’s one game! We made 22 threes, and still had to hold them off at the end! People are talking like their season is over!” before breaking into a wide smile. The Lakers were a little nonchalant defensively against the Suns and gave Phoenix more good looks than they should have had, but the fact the Lakers were in this game up until Phoenix’s 22nd three is a far more significant long-term takeaway than their two straight losses. The Lakers are good. Scary good. But for one night, Phoenix’s near-historic shooting allowed them to be just a little bit better.

Chris Paul shimmied on Stephen Curry, and Curry is okay with that

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In Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals, Stephen Curry was feeling it and broke out the shimmy after draining a step-back three over James Harden.

In Game 5 Thursday night, Chris Paul hit a ridiculous three over Curry and returned the shimmy favor.

How did Stephen Curry feel about that? As your mom used to say, if you’re going to dish it out you had better be able to take it.

First, can we just admit neither Curry nor CP3 can shimmy like Antoine Walker?

The question for Paul and Curry is which one will be shimmying after Game 6 (especially considering CP3’s hamstring issue)?

Rockets have sucked Warriors into their style of game, then been better at it

Associated Press
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Through an 82-game regular season, the Golden State Warriors averaged 322.7 passes a game — the ball flew around the court with energy, found the open man and he buried the shot. For the season, 63.1 percent of the Warriors’ buckets were assisted. It was egalitarian. It was modern NBA basketball. It was “the beautiful game.”

The Houston Rockets, on the other hand, averaged 253.3 passes per game, fewest in the NBA. What they did lead the league in was isolation sets — 14.5 percent of their offense was the old-school style that the Warriors shunned. It worked for the Rockets, they scored an impressive 112 points per 100 possessions on those plays, but it looked more like a 1990s slog than a Mike D’Antoni offense.

In Game 5, the Warriors had 257 passes and 56 percent of their buckets were assisted (the first time that number got over 50 percent in a couple of games). In turn, isolations were the third most common kind of play the Warriors ran in the game (which was better than they did in Game 4, but still not who they normally are). Add in post-ups, which are essentially isolations just down on the block, and you get 25.7 percent of the Warriors plays in Game 5 being one-on-one.

The Warriors have been sucked into the Rockets’ game, and Houston is better at it.

The Rockets are up 3-2 in the Western Conference Finals and in the last two games have been the better clutch team. The better fourth quarter team. The team imposing their style on the game when it matters. For years the versatility of the Warriors allowed them to win regardless of the style of play — slow it down and be physical, play fast and up-tempo, whatever teams tried to do — but not against these Rockets. Not in this throwback, isolation-heavy style.

If the Warriors can’t change that dynamic nothing else will matter, and they will be watching the Finals on television for the first time in four years.

For the Rockets, imposing their will and style starts with their defense. Since the first game of the season — which was against these Warriors back in October — the Rockets have switched everything on defense. It was assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik’s plan, his counter to the ball movement of Golden State and the many teams trying to emulate their style. Everybody in the NBA is switching more on defense, but nobody was doing it as much or with the gusto of the Rockets. For example, Utah switched a lot against Houston in the last playoff round, but with Rudy Gobert at center they tried to switch less with the big men, wisely preferring to keep Gobert back as a rim protector. That opened opportunities for the Rockets to attack.

Houston switched everything. All the time. Even when logic dictated they shouldn’t. Big man Clint Capela has the athleticism and instincts to guard on the perimeter, so they let him. Other teams try to tag out quickly from the mismatches switching can create (scram switches behind the play are trendy now), but the Rockets tend to live with the switch and just send help. What the Rockets became doing this all season is smooth and proficient with switching, and it has shown in this series.

Kevin Durant is supposed to be the counter to this — he is the Warriors best one-on-one player, and switch or no there is no good matchup to defend him. So the Warriors lean on him in these situations, they get him the rock a lot.

Durant had 10 isolations and six post-ups in Game 5 — 16 of his 29 plays were mano-a-mano contests. KD can excel at them, but as the Warriors start to slow it down and hunt out those mismatches they move the ball less, and they play into Rockets’ hands. They have slid into Houston’s style. Part of this was missing Andre Iguodala, both a good defender and a guy who keeps the ball moving on offense. Without him decisions change — there was a fourth-quarter play where Stephen Curry drove past his man, got into floater range, the Rockets brought help off the man from the corner, but now that is Kevon Looney, and Curry looked then decided to take the floater rather than make that pass to a non-shooter. Curry’s shot hit the back of the rim and bounced out.

The Rockets have slowed the game down, muddied it up, and they are comfortable playing this way. The Rockets have thrived in this style despite the fact James Harden has struggled (Chris Paul has had a couple of big fourth quarters). The Warriors can beat 28 other teams four times in seven games playing this style, too, because they have the talent. Just not Houston. The Rockets have plenty of talent too, their bench guy Eric Gordon is knocking down seemingly every shot he takes, and this series is being played on their terms.

Houston is just better at this style.

Golden State is not dead in this series — they go home for Game 6 and are expected to get Iguodala back. More importantly, the health of Chris Paul and his hamstring are up in the air.

But the Warriors need to get back to being themselves — playing faster, sharing the ball (despite pressure), and using that to get the open threes or driving dunks they use to bury teams. It will not be easy — the Warriors played their game for stretches in Game 4 at home, but like a cheesy horror movie villain, these Rockets refuse to die. They are relentless, and they’re aggressive with their switching. The Rockets are incredibly good, and they know who they are. They have been themselves this series (just with more missed threes).

If the Warriors don’t get back to being themselves, if they keep trying to beat the Rockets at Houston’s game, they will be on vacation in Cabo before June for the first time in years.

Chris Paul injures right hamstring, status unclear for Game 6 vs. Warriors

AP
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Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul played the part of the hero for the home team on Thursday night as Houston beat the Golden State Warriors in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals to take a 3-2 series lead.

Now, the question is whether Paul will be able to play in Game 6 on Saturday night.

After a game in which the Rockets were not particularly offensively impressive, Paul came up with some clutch baskets despite struggling overall. Paul got the better of the Golden State defense several times from beyond the arc, including one instance in which he gave a shoulder shimmy to Stephen Curry, allowing the Warriors guard a dose of his own medicine.

But Paul appeared to injure his right hamstring on a play with 51 seconds to go in fourth quarter as he was shooting a floater in the lane. After his shot, Paul remained on the ground and down at the Houston end of the floor as possession changed sides. Paul left the game some 30 seconds later, and was unable to finish the game.

The Rockets point guard had already been battling a right foot injury and had to get lots of treatment just to be able to play in Game 5. It’s not entirely surprising that Paul injured himself on his right side. A weakened link in the kinetic chain tends to force other muscles and joints to compensate for injured areas. When overused or improperly used, the chance for a new injury in another part of the kinetic chain — say, up the leg and into the hamstring — is entirely possible.

That seems like what happened to Paul on Thursday night, but we will have to wait for official word from the team before we know whether he will be playing on Saturday. Hamstring issues can the nagging and despite lots of treatment there is also the swelling that will occur when Paul has to fly to Oakland.

As expected, Chris Paul said he will be good to go (players are the worst at providing a timeline for their injuries).

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni says that Paul will be evaluated tomorrow and will be continuing to get treatment but he is not worried about someone being able to fill Paul’s shoes. That’s certainly the right thing to say for D’Antoni but we know how Game 6 might go if CP3 is unable to play.

Chris Paul plays the hero as Warriors devolve to iso ball in Game 5 loss

AP
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I personally thought a Western Conference Finals game couldn’t get any uglier after I watched Game 4 between the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets.

Boy, was I wrong.

Thursday night’s Game 5 matchup between the Rockets and the Warriors two teams produced three heinous quarters of NBA playoff basketball, made even more unbearable by the fact that we know how good these two teams can be when they’re really humming.

Much as it was in Game 4 it was Houston’s defense that was on display, ironically forcing the Warriors to play much in the way the Rockets do when they lose. Golden State battled the shot clock with isolation ball much of the game, with Kevin Durant getting the ball at the top of the arc as some of the league’s top players — including a two-time MVP in Stephen Curry — widened the floor in a 1-4 flat set for the 7-foot wing.

To their credit, both Curry and Durant were in good shooting form through the first half but as the periods ground on they started to slow. Draymond Green was Draymond-y, scoring 12 points while grabbing a game-high 15 rebounds with four assists. Statistically, it’s hard to understand how the Warriors lost. Golden State shot better from the field, from the arc, and from the charity stripe. But their scoring was concentrated and their offense predictable at just the wrong moments.

Houston’s attack was nothing to shake a stick at, either. James Harden‘s scored just 19 points on 5-of-21 shooting, and as a unit the Rockets doled out 12 assists. Incessant switching and a tendency to hound the ball on defense allowed Houston to force a whopping 18 turnovers from Golden State. It was the most important statistic of the game for the Rockets, who scored 18 points on those turnovers despite being outpaced in 3-point shooting, points in the paint, and in fastbreak buckets.

Then, the fourth quarter happened. Everything changed, and as we are wont to do, the game felt much cleaner. Both teams had their energy up, they traded baskets, and the lead went back-and-forth.

Enter Chris Paul.

Houston’s point guard was the savior, scoring 20 points on a piddly 6-of-19 shooting performance. But Paul’s box score did not tell the tale of his impact on the game. Several times with the shot clock winding down, Paul came up with big beyond-the-arc buckets, at one point hitting one over Curry, giving him back a shoulder shimmy much the way the Warriors point guard did in Game 4.

Paul’s leadership pushed Houston forward, but his commitment during Game 5 might get overlooked after the Rockets point guard was forced to check out of the game after a play with 51 seconds remaining. On a floater in the lane, Paul appeared to hurt his right hamstring. Unable to play, Paul had to watch the final minute from the Houston bench, and his availability for Game 6 is currently up in the air.

It was ugly and it was gritty, but the Rockets beat Golden State on Thursday night, 98-94, to take Game 5 and a 3-2 series win as the Western Conference Finals heads back to Oakland.

Now, we look toward Game 6 in California on Saturday, May 26 at 6:00 PM PST.