PBT’s RetroBall: Suns-Sonics ’93 and the night Barkley wouldn’t lose

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Since billionaire owners and millionaire players are bitterly divided over how much money they’ll be splitting over the coming years and have locked us out of actual basketball to talk about, PBT will be regaling you this summer on the weekends withRetroBall. Using the advanced powers of the internet and NBATV, we’ll bring you interesting stories from years gone by. If nothing else, it will provide us an opportunity to make fun of fashion and culture from the past, which is always a giggle.

This week we bring you a reminder that players should not be defined by their post-career caricatures. I have this nightmare. With Charles Barkley the bombastic, heavy-set column that hoists “Inside the NBA” up, there’s a generation of kids that will only know Barkley as the guy in the T-Mobile commercials who hates Golden State/Miami/Dallas/whoever. Barkley was of the Jordan years, and as such, his legacy suffers accordingly. His Finals appearances only reflect a counterpoint to Jordan, yet another great player who couldn’t get past MJ, much like Karl Malone and Clyde Drexler with Portland. It’s a disservice to what Barkley did, especially considering how he did it, that he’s looked at as the foil to Jordan and the guy who banters with Dwyane Wade in commercials.

So with that in mind, I took a look at Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals between Barkley’s Phoenix Suns and the Seattle Supersonics, led by Shawn Kemp, Ricky Pierce, and Eddie Johnson, along with Gary Payton in just his third year in the league, still learning how to become “The Glove.”

Speaking of Malone, the Sonics knocked off Malone and Stockton’s Jazz in the first round, before cementing themselves as true upstarts after downing Olajuwon’s Rockets. The Rockets would win the title the following year (when Jordan took his “break”). The Sonics were the third seed that year, but were tied with the Rockets at 55 wins. It was Kemp’s time.

Barkley, on the other hand, was having his MVP season and Phoenix looked like a team of destiny, if you didn’t factor in the fact that Jordan existed. This was Barkley at his best, and there isn’t a better game to showcase how dominant he could be. His final line? 44 points on 12-20 shooting, 19-22 from the stripe, 24 rebounds (!), 14 offensive, 1 assist, 1 steal, 1 block, 1 turnover.

What follows are my observations from watching the game. I was eleven at the time, so consider these observations from a fresh eye.

  • We’re obviously biased here, but I’ll still say the “NBA on NBC” opening and their coverage throughout was just lightyears beyond everything else that’s been done. It managed to capture the drama of the moment without dousing it in forced history. You felt like you were watching history be made without being told you were watching history be made.
  • Best part about this game? THIN SHAWN KEMP! (As in, the era before Fat Shawn Kemp.) If you were building the perfect power forward, this 23-year-old version of Kemp was pretty much the perfect model. He was still raw, but was already averaging 18 points and 11 boards with 2 blocks per game. Kemp in the last three games of this series headed into Game 7 had scored 20, 33, and 22 points on Barkley, and had the following field goal percentages: 62%, 72% (in that 33-point game, in a loss!), 67%. He was lithe, he was explosive, and he actually had a turnaround jumper. It’s weird to think of a power forward who is raw but actually has a face-up game. Now if you’re raw that pretty much means you’re a basketball jellyfish. You’re fast and long, but if asked to do anything complex you just bob incoherently.
  • The Suns explode out of the gate, and it’s not even really Barkley, he’s only got six in the first period. (That’s right, Barkley scores 38 points over the final three frames.) No, instead it’s the unlikely combination of Tom Chambers and Mark West. I know! Who saw that coming, right?
  • Chambers is actually in for Cedric Ceballos who went down in this series with a stress fracture in his right foot. Chambers was actually the third oldest player on roster behind Frank Johnson and Kurt Rambis, who got a DNP-CD in this game. No word on if this is because Kahn retroactively enforced one.
  • You want something to blow your mind, forget thin Shawn Kemp. Give a look to thin Oliver Miller. Seriously. I Googled an image of Miller with the Raptors to compare. Here’s Miller with the Suns in Game 7, 1993:
  • source:  And here’s what he looked like seven years later:
  • source:  So you can obviously see the change there.
  • Gary Payton isn’t quite Gary Payton yet, here. He’s still working on developing into the Glove. It’s only his third season, and he’s up against a much better player in Kevin Johnson, who’s in his prime. Johnson absolutely torches Payton in this one. “The Glove” is more like a loose-fitting piece of cloth that one wraps around a hand. More like a hand moo-moo. Johnson’s crossover and change of direction is phenomenal in this game. At one point, Payton gives him a solid three feet of room to try and contain him, Johnson blows by him anyway, then drops in a running hook and-one. It’s a virtuoso performance, but moreso on the defensive side. Johnson is spying constantly like a safety let off the called-play chain. The Sonics thrice try and force the break and Johnson cuts off the outlet pass.
  • In a nice premonition of the Seven Seconds or Less years, the Suns are downright merciless in transition. The break starts immediately, and KJ makes his decision on what to do after two steps and as soon as he’s across the timeline. Most of the time he’s just blowing by defenders and getting in for layups, the Sonics don’t have anyone who can challenge defensively at the rim with the amount of time and energy Kemp’s having to pay Barkley.
  • The Sonics shooters kind of drift in and out of this game. Derrick McKey shows up and lights up the second quarter which puts the Sonics back within range. Then Eddie Johnson takes over the late third and fourth. Sam Perkins has a nice third quarter. But they can’t get consistent performances from anyone (though to be fair, if Eddie Johnson played the whole game like he did in the third quarter, he would have broken Wilt’s record and Barkley would have wound up killing someone in the locker room later.
  • Early on the Sonics are doing a great job on Barkley, sending the double immediately. If he were Dwight Howard, this would be the end of the story. But Barkley actually adjusts to the coverage and starts cutting immediately after passing out of the double, which confuses the Sonics to no end as all their lanes are then in chaos. At one point, Barkley just loops around Majerle low and shoves Majerle into two defenders, which allows Ainge to float him the ball right in the center of the paint for an easy one.
  • Barkley starts to get going in the second, then absolutely destroys the third quarter. He’s everywhere. Kemp’s there with him step for step and Barkley’s just owning him. Kemp makes two hard moves to deny the entry pass and the third time down, Barkley just head fakes him, turns and goes to the basket for an easy dunk. Most of them are not this easy. Barkley’s anticipation is on display here. The Suns were essentially able to play four perimeter guys with Barkley because even then, he’d wind up with the board.
  • Danny Ainge at this point had played in five finals over the past eight years. Remarkably, he never traded Kendrick Perkins in any of them.
  • Ainge is pretty much the “you gotta be kidding me” guy to Seattle. They can handle everyone else, but just when they think they’ve closed off the offense effectively, Ainge lights them up on catch and shoot. It’s more than they can handle.
  • Mark West with a great weak-side recovery to block Payton at the rim. On the block, which was clean, West makes contact elbow-to-head on Payton. Payton just turns and runs back on defense. Today, Payton would have clutched his head and crumpled to the floor, perhaps penning a letter to his mother on his death-bed.
  • Barkley spins around Kemp from about 16 feet baseline. The help defense comes to try and cut off the baseline, while Payton is trying to play his backside to make sure he doesn’t double back for a hook. The result is that Barkley moves in-between the two and double-clutches one-handed while fading away from under the rim, good, and-one. Kemp picks up his fourth foul.
  • Another thing that’s shocking about Barkley, he can handle in transition. Now at 6-6, this isn’t shocking, he’s basically an oversized 3. But he’s dribbling with such authority, it makes you realize how few of today’s bigs can really do that. Except for like, Josh Smith, who chooses not to and instead just now, as I wrote this, took another three.
  • When Eddie Johnson starts going off in the third, Barkley actually tails off on his rotation, springs out and blocks him. Running down the floor, you can see Barkley say, “Enough of this (expletive).”
  • In the fourth, the Suns kick the thing into absolute overdrive. They’re forcing everything, and the Sonics are just reeling. They managed to get the lead down to 9 in the early fourth, before the Suns just have one of those “We are winning this game. We are going to the Finals, we are not losing to Ricky Pierce” runs.
  • At one point Payton goes for a rebound, Barkley snags and starts throwing elbows, resulting in Payton chirping in his ear for a solid five feet. Barkley shoves him three feet back, turns and yells back at him. In today’s NBA, that’s two techs. Here it’s just good clean entertainment.
  • Eddie Johnson at one point tosses it off Majerle’s back inbounding, catches it and nails an 18 foot baseline J. The Sonics had to be killing themselves that they wasted a 34 point Eddie Johnson explosion at age 33. Johnson winds up scoring 34 points on 17 shots in 26 minutes. Twenty-six!
  • Nate McMillan was burly in this game. He couldn’t get his jumper going but his defensive work was pretty stout. The Sonics’ defensive strategy was actually pretty sound. Lots of doubles, lots of traps, lots of zone to cut off the passing lanes. Unfortunately, Charles Barkley does not care what you do.
  • I always make fun of the unnecessary “MVP” chants, but the chants for Barkley at the line for his playoff career-high in points seem really appropriate and make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
  • Chants of “Beat the Bulls” begin as the clock winds down. Oh, Phoenix. You’re always so hopeful.
  • The closer lineup for Phoenix is KJ, Ainge, Dan Majerle, Barkley,and Tom Chambers. And it works. They crush the Sonics, breaking open an 18 point lead to cruise to a double-digit win and a trip to the Finals.
  • Barkley had guaranteed a win. This was everything to him. He truly believed this was his year to make greatness happen. And the Sonics had pushed the Suns to seven games. So when Barkley went out, after an unbelievable game, this: source:

 

Watch Donovan Mitchell drop 43, upstage LeBron return as Cavs top Lakers

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CLEVELAND (AP) — As a kid growing up in New York, Donovan Mitchell idolized LeBron James. On Tuesday night, he upstaged him.

Mitchell scored a season-high 43 points and Jarrett Allen returned from injury to add 24, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 116-102 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in James’ only visit home this season.

With Anthony Davis missing the final three quarters because of illness, the Cavs improved to an NBA-leading 11-1 on their floor, their best start at home since 2015-16, when James led them to a championship.

Mitchell, who has Cleveland fans dreaming of another title run, took over in the second half and scored 29 points with the kind of performance James had routinely during his 11 seasons for the Cavs.

“You always want to spoil the homecoming,” Mitchell said with a smile.

With Cleveland leading by 12 in the fourth, Mitchell buried a 3-pointer from the left wing to finish the Lakers. After dropping the shot, the All-Star guard strutted around the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse floor nodding his head as James helplessly watched.

“He’s Mitchell,” James said. “He’s a special kid.”

Darius Garland added 21 points and 11 assists for Cleveland.

James finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds, losing for just the third time in 20 games against the Cavs.

Dennis Schroder and Russell Westbrook added 16 points apiece as Los Angeles had its four-game winning streak stopped.

Davis went out after eight minutes with flu-like symptoms. The eight-time All-Star had scored 99 points in his previous two games and had been playing as well as he has in several seasons after being plagued by injuries.

Davis didn’t attempt a field goal and scored just one point before leaving.

“It got progressively worse as the day went on,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “His temperature was 101 and some change. A-D wanted to try to play, but he felt too weak. He’s drained and dehydrated.

“That’s a huge loss, obviously, with the way he’s been playing lately.”

Without Davis clogging the middle, Allen, who missed the last five games with a bruised back, made his first 10 shots and helped the Cavs take a 57-49 halftime lead.

“Next man up,” James said when asked how he reacted to losing Davis. “That’s a tall task – literally and figuratively.”

The Cavs welcomed James back with a video tribute during an early timeout. After a montage of clips, including some from 2016, James waved to the crowd and then blew kisses to show his appreciation.

The warm scene was in contrast to what happened almost exactly 12 years ago, when he came back with the Miami Heat and was met with boos and worse on a night James has said he’ll never forget.

James said he was caught off guard by the tribute.

“It’s always love coming back here,” he said. “The memories I have here will never be forgotten.”

 

Ben Simmons targeting Friday vs. Hawks to return from calf strain

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
Adam Hunger/Getty Images
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Ben Simmons has missed the Nets’ last three games with knee pain tied to a left calf strain, and he will be out Wednesday, too, when Brooklyn takes on Charlotte.

However, he plans to return on Friday (Dec. 9) against the Hawks.

Simmons was adjusting to a new role in Brooklyn. In Philadelphia he was a point-forward with the ball in his hands playing off Joel Embiid (at least at first), but in Brooklyn the ball needed to be in the hands of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the halfcourt. Simmons is playing more small-ball five, and is asked to be aggressive and attack when he gets the ball — not shoot jumpers — and to push the rock in transition. It took a while for Simmons to settle into that space, but he seemed to in games against Philadelphia (11 points, 11 assists), Toronto (14 points, six assists) and Indiana (20 points). Then the injuries hit.

Brooklyn sits at 13-12, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense for the season. While there are doubts about the ceiling for this team, it has a talent level that should be better than this record, it’s just been beset by injuries, controversy causing Kyrie Irving to miss time, and a coaching change. The Nets have yet to hit their stride.

But they could have a clean injury report on Friday night, and maybe that can be the start of this team getting on a run.

Suns, Hawks reportedly show interest in Kuzma trade, Wizards see him as cornerstone

Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyle Kuzma was the kind of quality, two-way role player the Lakers needed around LeBron James and Anthony Davis to win the 2020 NBA title (the type of player the Lakers wish they had now).

In Washington, his role has been elevated — he’s a 20-point-a-game scorer (20.6 points per game this season, to be precise) who is a key part of generating offense, not just playing off the stars of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis. As he told Shams Charania of The Athletic:

“As soon as I got traded, I was ready to be more,” Kuzma told The Athletic.

It’s been enough to draw the interest of a couple of teams looking for a trade, Charania adds. The Wizards are not necessarily interested in moving on, however.

Several teams, such as the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have expressed trade interest in Kuzma, according to league sources. By the same token, the Wizards have shown interest in Hawks forward John Collins, and the sides seriously discussed a potential deal last offseason, league sources added…

However, the Wizards’ front office, led by general manager Tommy Sheppard, has made clear that it views Kuzma as a cornerstone moving forward as the franchise has seen him thrive since the mega-trade in the 2021 offseason. The Westbrook trade provided future flexibility and assets for the Wizards, who have been known to be aggressive and active in research across the league.

Kuzma has a $13 million player option for next season that he will unquestionably opt out of, making him a free agent in search of a healthy raise (north of $20 million a year, although expect something more in the ballpark of the four-year, $104 million Jalen Brunson contract). If the Wizards are willing to pay they likely can keep him (they have his Bird rights). But if Washington isn’t sure it wants to pay market value, or if management sees a shifting path for future seasons, it should consider trading Kuzma at the deadline.

If he becomes available, far more teams than the Hawks and Suns would be interested, quality two-way forwards are in demand around the league. Kuzma would have some leverage over where he gets sent because he can leave as a free agent (teams would offer up less if they believed Kuzma would only be a rental for this season).

Magic send Jonathan Isaac to G-League for practice, rehabilitation

2022-2023 Orlando Magic Media Day
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There was a time when it was thought Jonathan Isaac might be the Magic’s next big star.

However, he has not stepped on an NBA court since he was in the bubble (Feb. 8, 2020), then he tore his ACL in August of that year (which came on the heels of missing much of that season with an injury to the same knee). Last March he had a setback and another procedure, and at this point he has missed two full seasons plus the start of this one.

Isaac is still working toward recovery and the Magic have assigned him to the Lakeland Magic of the G-League to get in some practice.

Because NBA teams barely practice during the season — the schedule of games nearly every other day plus travel and recovery doesn’t permit more than film sessions and walk-throughs — these kinds of baseball-style minor league rehab assignments are more and more common.

The story from the Magic’s official website notes this will be the first time Isaac will play 5-on-5 with other players during his rehab, which is a significant step forward.

There is no timeline for his return, but the Magic have him under contract this season for $17.4 million and two more fully guaranteed years at the same price. There is no reason for the franchise to walk away, even if some around the league question if his knees will ever let him back on an NBA court again.

The Magic have found their next star in Paolo Banchero and have built a promising young core, something Isaac — an elite defender before his injuries — should fit in well with. If he can get healthy and back on the court.