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Three questions the Phoenix Suns must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season: 24-58, missed the playoffs for the seventh straight season

I know what you did last summer: In a quiet offseason, the Suns drafted Josh Jackson No. 4, re-signed Alan Williams, signed Alex Len to a qualifying offer and signed T.J. Warren to a contract extension.

THREE QUESTIONS THE SUNS MUST ANSWER:

1) Will Devin Booker and Josh Jackson justify Phoenix’s faith in them? Right off the bat, the Suns assured Booker and Jackson they wouldn’t be traded for Kyrie Irving. Booker and Jackson are valuable players, to be sure, but – especially evidenced by the package the Celtics surrendered – so is Irving.

To a degree it makes sense. Booker is under team control another three years, Jackson another five, and it’d likely take major financial sacrifice by either player to leave soon after that. Irving is locked up just two more seasons until unrestricted free agency. Not close to winning, Phoenix should prioritize the long-term, which means valuing younger, cheaper players like Booker and Jackson.

But Booker and Jackson aren’t even close to the caliber of Irving. Will get they ever get there? It’s far from certain.

Booker is a weak defender whose volume scoring comes at only moderate efficiency. Jackson was the No. 4 pick, and despite plenty of hype he could go higher, that looked about right to me. His jumper is unreliable, and he was old for a freshman.

Again, Booker and Jackson are very valuable. But that’s due in large part to their contract status and age. As they get older, their value will become more directly tied to their performance on the court.

The Suns, at least with Booker, were probably correct to bet on their current players, given the team’s distance from winning even if it had Irving. But for that bet to pay off, Booker must improve and Jackson must hit on the higher end of his projections.

There’s still time – see everything above – but the upcoming season is the opportunity at hand.

2) How patient will owner Robert Sarver be? The Suns have gone a franchise-long seven years without making the playoffs, and they’re unlikely to reach the postseason this year. How desperate is Sarver to return to the playoffs (or, maybe more accurately, return to earning playoff revenue)?

He seemingly signed off on this plan, even extending general manager Ryan McDonough this summer. But Sarver wouldn’t be the first owner with overly ambitious ideas of what his team can accomplish. Even if Sarver is completely realistic about this roster, living daily through losing is another thing.

Phoenix has a nice group of players on rookie-scale contracts: Devin Booker, Josh Jackson, T.J. Warren, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender. Another high lottery pick in 2018 and maybe even 2019 and patience could put this rebuild over the top.

But if Sarver gets antsy, the plan could turn in a hurry.

3) What will T.J. Warren show? Warren is the litmus test for this team in a number of ways.

With a four-year, $47 million extension, Phoenix has more money tied into Warren than any other player. In the simplest terms, the more a team pays a player, the more important he plays well. But with so few moves to evaluate this offseason, McDonough could face greater scrutiny for the Warren deal.

Warren is good at weaving his way close to the basket and making close-range shots. But his shooting reliability ends before the 3-point arc, and he lacks all-around skill. He has also missed 42, 35 and 16 games in his three-year career.

The progression of Warren, a combo forward, will affect how Phoenix evaluates Jackson, Chriss and Bender. Which of those players are long-term pieces (and at which positions)? Warren is already paid like one, though it’s unclear whether he belongs or whom he can play with.

If the Suns have a chance of being surprisingly competitive this year, Warren could be the swing piece. Booker is in a league of his own. Eric Bledsoe, Jared Dudley and Tyson Chandler are the known quantities when healthy. Warren – older and more polished than Jackson, Chriss and Bender – is somewhat of a variable.

How Warren fares could say plenty about Phoenix’s season and long-term direction.

Watch all of LeBron James’ 46 points in Game 6

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There is going to be a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals Sunday because of LeBron James.

George Hill had a strong game (20 points), Jeff Green and Larry Nance Jr. had their moments, but it was all about LeBron — 46 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists in 46 brilliant minutes.

Rather than try to describe his game to you — including the dagger threes late — just watch.

And enjoy. There are still some people out there (mostly on Twitter, it seems) who just want to tear LeBron down for some reason. I pity them. Not just because they are wrong, although they are. Rather, it’s because they are depriving themselves of enjoying one of the greatest players ever to lace them up. LeBron can bully people in the paint, hit step back threes, is as gifted a passer as the game has seen, and just plays a smart, high-IQ game we have got to watch grow over the years. If you can’t enjoy that, you don’t love basketball.

LeBron James is a force nature, scores 46, wills Cavaliers to win forcing Game 7

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What more can be said about the brilliance of LeBron James?

We can point to his 46 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists Friday night in a win-or-go-fishing elimination game. We can point to how he lifted the team up when Kevin Love went down after a blow to the head (more on that later). We could talk about how this is his seventh 40+ point game of the playoffs, the last guy to do that since Michael Jordan in 1989 (when Jordan was 25 and had yet to win a title).

Or, we can just show you his back-to-back dagger threes in the fourth quarter over Jayson Tatum.

That is art on a basketball court.

LeBron got a little help Friday night at home, and with that the Cavaliers won Game 6 109-99, forcing a Game 7 back in Boston on Sunday night.

“It feels good just to play for another game, and like I’ve always said ‘Game 7’ is the best two words in sports,” LeBron said. “And for us to be on the road in a hostile environment where we have had no success up to this point, we should relish the opportunity and have fun with it.”

LeBron was nothing short of brilliant (remember 10-12 years ago people were trying to say he was afraid of the big moment, damn that sounds silly now). He is historically brilliant in Game 7s, but he can’t do it alone.

George Hill, the second best shot creator on the team, had 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting. Jeff Green had 14 off the bench, and Larry Nance Jr. had a timely 10 points and 7 rebounds.

Nance’s play was crucial because Kevin Love went down 5 minutes into the game after banging heads with Jayson Tatum while setting a screen.

Love’s was being checked for a concussion and his status for Game 7 is not known. (If he does have a concussion, it’s unlikely he clears the league protocol in time to play in two days.)

Despite LeBron and all of it, the Celtics had their chances in this one.

Boston got off to a fast start because Jaylen Brown had 15 first-quarter points and the Celtics shot 61 percent as a team, none of which seemed sustainable but it got them out to a 25-20 lead after one. Then the Cavaliers came on in the second with a 20-4 run behind LeBron, and once they had the lead the Cavaliers never let it go.

Boston will look back on not grabbing rebounds — Cleveland grabbed the offensive rebound on 36.6 percent of their missed shots, a very high percentage — and the fact the Celtics missed nine free throws and think things could have been different.

Boston is going home, where they are 10-0 these playoffs and for some reason inexplicable even to Brad Stevens, they play much better. The Celtics have a great defense, smart players, and a real chance.

The Cleveland Cavaliers have LeBron James. That may be enough.

“We have one more game to be able to compete for a championship, what more can you ask for?” LeBron said.

Kevin Love being evaluated for concussion, out for second half

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It happened just five minutes into the game — Cleveland’s Kevin Love and Boston’s Jayson Tatum banged heads.

Love was in the midpost and part of his job was to set a screen for George Hill, who was racing out to the arc. In doing so, Love and Tatum banged heads and it wasn’t pretty.

Love spent a few minutes on the ground, went straight to the locker room, and has not returned to the game.

Tatum did not leave the game.

There still is no official word on if Love has a concussion. If he does, he will go into the league’s mandated concussion protocol — which means to be cleared he has to be symptom free through a series of physical tests — and it would be a challenge for him to be back for a Game 7, if there is one.

And their likely will be one. After struggling in the rest of the first quarter without Love, the Cavaliers have gotten solid performances out of Hill, Jeff Green, and of course, LeBron James has been brilliant. The Cavaliers have a comfortable 15-point lead late in the third quarter.

NBA Finals schedule drops, Game 1 Thursday, May 31

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We don’t know where the NBA Finals will be played, but we know when.

Next Thursday the eyes of the NBA world could be focused on Oakland or Houston, and the following Wednesday that may shift to Boston or Cleveland. All four of those teams still have a chance to make the NBA Finals.

What we know is the dates for the games. Here is the schedule:

Game 1, Thursday, May 31, at 9 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 2, Sunday, June 3, at 8 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 3, Wednesday, June 6, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 4, Friday, June 8, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 5, Monday, June 11, at 9 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 6, Thursday, June 14, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 7, Sunday, June 17, at 8 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Games 5, 6, and 7 are if necessary. All games will be broadcast on ABC.

There were no surprises here. The date of the start of the NBA Finals has been set since before the season started (it always is, to help broadcast partners and international media plan). The game pattern follows the same as last year, when the NBA changed it to make sure there was at least one day off in addition to travel days when the venue switches cities.