Posted on: December 26, 2010 7:22 pm
LOS ANGELES – The best game of the weekend at Staples Center wasn’t on Christmas Day, but the day after. And it didn’t involve Kobe Bryant, LeBron James or Dwyane Wade, but rather a budding superstar whom one of the top coaches in the NBA called “the best athlete in the league” on Sunday.
His name, of course, is Blake Griffin. And he does things like this.
In front of a rare sellout crowd at Staples – for a Clippers game, that is – Griffin stole the holiday weekend show with his 18th consecutive double-double as L.A. beat the Suns 108-103. Griffin had 28 points and 12 rebounds, but that wasn’t the miracle. The miracle was that the Clippers figured out how to close out a tight game with Griffin sitting on the bench after fouling out with 2:52 left.
After some nervous moments down the stretch, including a shot-clock violation in the face of the Suns’ improved defense after last week’s trade, the Suns cut the Clippers’ lead on Mickael Pietrus’ corner 3-pointer with 22.5 seconds left. But Pietrus, who came from Orlando with Marcin Gortat and Vince Carter in the trade that sent Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and Earl Clark to Orlando, still giveth and taketh away. His turnover, forced by Eric Gordon as the Suns were angling for a 3-pointer to send the game to overtime, let the Clippers survive without their athletic and emotional leader.
“He’s the best athlete in the league right now,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. “As a big guy, if guys are going to throw lobs and stuff like that, there’s nobody that’s even remotely close right now. You have to make him into a basketball player. You have to make him make basketball plays, not athletic plays. In the first half we let him make all of these athletic plays. And with Grant [Hill] guarding him, we made him make basketball plays. I’m pretty sure if you look at the time Grant guarded him, I don’t think he got a basket.”
The Clippers (9-22) are a .500 team over their last 10 games, and with Griffin’s talent and attitude, there is reason to believe this team is heading for better days.
“They’ve got good young players and they’ve done a good job with them,” Gentry said. “I think you’ll continue to see them get better over time. They got off to a rough start, but it’s not so much that. Are you getting better? Are you building up? You can see that they’re getting better.”
The driving force is Griffin, a freakish athlete who has an emotional edge to go with his talent. He refused to back down from Hill, a savvy, 38-year-old veteran who was a year away from his freshman season at Duke when Griffin was born. After absorbing a hard hip-check from Pietrus on his way to the basket in the fourth, Griffin stood over the bodies that had fallen in his wake like bowling pins and screamed. He ran to the defense of teammate Al-Farouq Aminu, who moments earlier had been pulled down by Pietrus on a transition layup attempt.
Gentry is right about Griffin’s athleticism, and the rookie is something else the Clippers have lacked for too long: a superstar with attitude, and by that I mean a good attitude.
Posted on: May 29, 2010 8:12 pm
PHOENIX -- In responding to Ron Artest's assessment of Steve Nash's quasi-guarantee of forcing a Game 7 in the Western Conference finals, Suns coach Alvin Gentry launched into a light-hearted defense of Nash and channeled his inner Herm Edwards.
"I don't really understand that," Gentry said before Game 6 Saturday night. "What's he supposed to say? We're supposed to try to win the game. We think we're going to win the game."
Then Gentry paused, smiled, and said, "You play ... to win ... the game. Hello?"
It was a classic moment about an hour before Game 6, one that lightened the mood with the Suns facing elimination and one that inadvertently caused my worlds to collide. I covered the Jets when Edwards was the coach, and was in the press conference room when Edwards launched into his "play-to-win-the-game" diatribe in 2002. As his team was playing out the string in a lost season, Edwards was asked how he planned to keep his players from quitting. Given Gentry's light-hearted Herm moment Saturday night, it's worth revisiting the original rant. One of the iconic moments of my career, and one that I can take absolutely no credit for. Like Artest Thursday night at the buzzer, I was just in the right place at the right time.
Gentry's version was done in fun, and was sparked by questions about Artest's comments at practice Friday in which he said Nash's statement showed "no respect." Artest expanded his analysis to say that Gentry didn't respect him because he was leaving him open to shoot the entire series.
For the record, after the Suns lost Game 5 on Artest's wild putback of Kobe Bryant's airball at the buzzer, Nash said, "They held home court. We'll go back and do the same and we'll come back here for Game 7."
As Gentry said, what else was he supposed to say?
"We expect to win the game," Gentry said. "If that's guaranteeing it, then write it down, that we guarantee we're going to win the game. We're supposed to try to win the game. ... You guys really have run out of angles."
As for his strategy to concentrate on Bryant at the expense of leaving Artest open throughout the series, Gentry said good-naturedly, "Do you think Ron knows who I am? Listen guys, it has nothing to do with disrespecting Ron. It has everything to do with respecting Kobe."
Informed of Gentry's comment in the locker room before the game, Artest said, "I guess it's both. Respect and disrespect. Who knows? It's OK. We'll get our respect back."
Not to add fuel to the fire, but the Suns -- as they should -- absolutely believed Game 6 would not be their last of the season. On a white board in the Suns' locker room before the game was the following line: "Poker game @ 1 p.m. on Sunday on da PLANE."
You play poker to win the game, too.
Posted on: May 28, 2010 6:35 pm
Edited on: May 28, 2010 6:42 pm
PHOENIX -- The last time Kobe Bryant walked out of U.S. Airways Center, he was “jovial” – which is to say, he was spitting mad. The Lakers’ defense had faltered badly in Game 4, and Bryant was none too pleased that such a lapse would come at a crucial time in the Lakers’ championship defense.
So he fumed in the postgame interview room, railing stone-faced about how the Lakers had lost their defensive urgency and how they needed to get it back – and fast. The defending champs had succumbed to a barrage of 11 3-pointers, 49 percent shooting and 18 offensive rebounds in losing Game 4 115-106.
There was another defensive lapse in the second half of Game 5 at Staples Center – or “lapses,” as Bryant called them – when the Suns erased an 18-point deficit in the third quarter and an 11-point deficit in the fourth. Everyone will remember the chaotic, improbable finish, with Ron Artest catching, landing, and shooting the game-winner at the buzzer off Bryant’s air ball. But the other 47 minutes, 56.5 seconds of Game 5 provided a lot more clues as to how Game 6 might turn out Saturday night in Phoenix.
The Lakers did a much better job handling the Suns’ 2-3 zone, despite the fact that their shooting percentage declined from 50 percent in Game 4 to 42 percent in Game 5. They did it with dribble-penetration and ball-reversal, which made it easier to get the ball into the post, where Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom either kicked it out of the collapsing zone, worked their hi-lo interior passing Magic, or went to the basket. The Lakers’ triangle offense still wasn’t nearly as crisp against the zone, but it was more efficient than it had been since Suns coach Alvin Gentry adopted the strategy early in Game 3.
But Bryant had made it clear after Game 4 that he didn’t want the focus on offense, “which doesn’t win championships.” That’s why it’s worth noting a key tactical shift for the Lakers’ defense, and a greater commitment to rebounding and running the Suns off 3-point shots – with Bryant himself, unsurprisingly, leading the charge.
The Lakers’ defensive effort, the kind prescribed by Bryant after Game 4, began showing up midway through the third quarter as the Suns were trying to cut the deficit into single digits. Artest, who later would go from goat to hero in a matter of seconds, blocked Amar’e Stoudemire’s shot and then stole the ball from Steve Nash leading to his own layup that made it 67-51 Lakers with 6:13 left in the quarter. The teams exchanged baskets for the next two minutes, a breakneck pace the Lakers want to avoid, when Bryant put a stop to it himself.
Stoudemire, seeing a different look with the Lakers switching on pick-and-rolls, lost the ball out of bounds for his fourth turnover. On the Suns’ next trip, Bryant soared in the lane and blocked Stoudemire’s shot – a statement play from the “jovial” Bryant, who got his third block of the night. It was 73-56 Lakers, but they couldn’t sustain the defensive effort – sure to be a point of emphasis in Game 6.
“We had a mental lapse,” Bryant said. “Mental lapses – transition defense and giving up 3-point shots and great looks. But the defense had been steady pretty much all night, except for that spurt when we enabled them to get back into it.”
There were more statements from Bryant, who aggressively closed out on Jared Dudley at the 3-point line and forced him instead into an off-balance runner that he missed with the Lakers leading 83-72 early in the fourth. After the Suns cut it to 88-83, Bryant got his fourth block, this time on Goran Dragic, and grabbed the defensive rebound with 6:24 left.
“Defensively we were terrific,” Bryant said. “We did a great job. We had a stretch where we enabled them to get back in the game, but for the most part we did a good job.”
Despite the way it ended for the Suns, Game 5 was the first time in the series that the road team dictated its tempo and style. The Lakers survived with a little luck, with consistent – if not always effective – effort on the defensive end, and with Artest showing far better instincts on the last play than he’d shown moments earlier when he launched an ill-advised 3-pointer when the right play was to run out the clock and wait for the Suns to foul.
Despite the shift in venue, expect a carbon copy of Game 5 Saturday – without the ending, of course. For five games, the Suns and Lakers have felt each other out, and now it’s clear how they’re going to attack each other and try to stop each other.
“We know what they want to do now,” Stoudemire said. “They’re going to switch the screen-rolls and try to take me out the game. We still need Steve to be aggressive.”
By switching on pick-and-rolls, thus doubling Stoudemire and leaving a big man on Nash, the Lakers turned the Suns’ prolific passer into more of a scorer in Game 5. Nash was up to the task, ripping off one difficult and clutch shot after another in the closing minutes. Nash will be a scorer if he needs to be, but the Suns can counter the Lakers’ strategy by simply setting another screen for Nash and forcing the Lakers to make another decision. If there’s an open man to be found, Nash will find him. And as is always the case with the Suns, if they shoot the ball at a high percentage, they usually win.
“Whatever they throw at us, I think there’s something we can do to use our abilities,” Nash said. “They had a big guy on me. I tried to be aggressive, and the next game I’ll do the same. Or if they change it, we’ll go to whatever else they’re giving up.”
Before he’d even left the arena Thursday night, Nash was already moving pieces around on the chess board in his mind. And you can bet that Bryant, albeit more quietly this time, was doing the same thing.
Posted on: May 24, 2010 6:44 pm
PHOENIX -- For the Lakers, talking about the Celtics is taboo, to say the least. Andrew Bynum tried it, and Phil Jackson accused him of a brain -- um -- malfunction. Lakers fans chanted, "We want Boston!" during Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference finals at Staples Center, and Kobe Bryant chided them for being "disrespectful to the team that we're playing."
But discussing the Celtics' surprising blitz though the postseason -- evicting LeBron James from the second round and getting his coach fired, and now breezing to a 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals? That's fair game.
So Bryant was asked on the practice floor Monday how much Boston's ruthless dismantling of the Magic has surprised him.
"Honestly? Zero," Bryant said.
And the Cavs?
"I just thought it was great defense," Bryant said. "I just wasn’t surprised by it. You give them a series to prepare, and they're going to be prepared like you wouldn't believe. They're going to home in on things that you do and take those things away from you. And if you can't make adjustments ... throughout a series, you’re going to have problems."
Yes, even when the Celtics were struggling with a .500 record after Christmas, Bryant saw this coming.
"They started the season off the right way," he said. "Once they stepped back and let [Rajon] Rondo do what he does, that team started taking off. They're a great defensive team -- defense, rebounding, that’s how they punch their ticket. That’s how they go about doing it."
Just don't ask him about playing the Celtics. Not yet. And no more "We want Boston!" chants until this series is over.
"It makes no sense," Bryant said. "No sense."
That must be how the Suns feel trying to defend Bryant. In Game 1, they limited his supporting cast by not double-teaming him, and Bryant scored 40 points. In Game 2, they pressured him when he had the ball and Bryant dished out 13 assists. In Game 3, they played zone on nearly every possession in the second half, and Bryant hurt them both ways -- scoring 36 points and handing out 11 assists.
"You know Kobe’s going to score, there’s no doubt about that," Jason Richardson said. "He’s going to get his 30-plus points or whatever it is. But when he’s doing that, you don’t want him to have 10 or 11 assists because that means he’s getting people involved. We've got to figure out a way. Are we going to let him score or are we going to let him be a distributor? We've got to pick our poison, which one we want. Because you know that any given time he can score, so I don’t think we want him to be a distributor, too."
Suns coach Alvin Gentry has wrestled with how to defend Bryant and also how to combat the Lakers' size advantage. Bryant is going to do what he does, but the best strategy by far that the Suns have employed against L.A.'s front court was Amar'e Stoudemire's aggressiveness in taking the ball to the basket and getting to the foul line in Game 3. Did it work because he was able to get Bynum and Lamar Odom in foul trouble? Or did he get them in foul trouble because the strategy was working? That will be the next stylistic adjustment in a series that could still take a few more strategic twists and turns.
That, and how much zone the Suns want to play. It worked in the second half Sunday night because Bynum and Odom were limited by fouls and the Lakers weren't hitting from the perimeter; they uncharacteristically launched 32 attempts from 3-point range, making only nine.
"I like seeing it a lot when they don’t go in," Gentry said of the Lakers' trigger-happy night beyond the arc. "The zone is good when the shots are not going in. ... It also gave us an opportunity to win, and that’s the only thing that concerns me. I'll do anything. We’ll play any way if it helps us win."
That's one of many reasons why too much Boston talk from the Lakers wouldn't be a wise idea. There are still a few things for the defending champs to figure out between now and then.
Posted on: May 23, 2010 8:14 pm
PHOENIX -- In the coaches' pre-game news conferences Sunday night -- also known as night at the improv -- Phil Jackson and Alvin Gentry revealed little in the way of strategic clues for Game 3 of the Western Conference finals. That's OK. Jokes are better anyway.
For our opening act, we had Jackson, who was asked about center Andrew Bynum's comments Saturday in which he spoke about looking forward to playing the Celtics.
"It was a moment, what we call a brain fart in our business," Jackson said, suggesting that the swelling in Bynum's knee had spread to his brain. "He wasn't thinking very clearly right there."
As for his contract status, Jackson was asked if he'd noticed a column by Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times suggesting that the Lakers should pay Jackson whatever it takes to keep him next season. He also was asked to respond to a tweet from his girlfriend, Jeanie Buss, who wrote about Jackson making her lasagna and called hiim "a keeper" -- which some construed as a bit of subtle lobbying for her father, Dr. Jerry Buss, to pay her man.
"She should," Jackson said. "But it's her dad who I really have to please."
Next up, Gentry, who said his team was in good spirits facing a must-win game on its home court after falling behind 2-0 in L.A.
"I do think they've played about as well as they can play," Gentry said. "I sure as hell hope so, anyway."
No team has come back from a 3-0 deficit since the NBA's best-of-7 playoff format.
"If something happens and we don't win the game," Gentry said, "we know we're in deep, deep trouble."
The Lakers lost Games 3 and 4 at Oklahoma City in the first round, and also struggled to close out the Rockets in the conference semifinals last season. The tendency to ease off the pedal when the going is good is something that Jackson is aware of, but hasn't seemed overly concerned about since the Lakers took a 2-0 lead Wednesday night.
"We've grown significantly as a basketball club," said Jackson, insisting that Bynum was the only one looking ahead to the Celtics. "... We're not thinking that. If you do, you're going to wind up right back here playing them [in Game 6]. There's no doubt this team is a great team on their home court."
Posted on: November 11, 2009 11:50 am
Edited on: November 11, 2009 2:01 pm
The Suns have risen again -- there, I said it, I couldn't help myself -- by matching the franchise's best-ever start at 7-1. It's early, but they've gone from being a dysfunctional team on the verge of blowing up to one of the best stories early in the 2009-10 season.
GM Steve Kerr readily admits that he's to blame for the failed Shaq experiment, but he's erased that mistake and reinvigorated the roster faster than many thought possible. He resisted the temptation to blow it up and start over, something that would've clinched Steve Nash's departure and devastated the organization's ability to remain financially viable. With a meddling owner, Robert Sarver, whose proverbial eggs are in the ruinous banking and real estate baskets of the economy, this was no time for a rebuilding project. So Kerr signed Alvin Gentry, a Mike D’Antoni disciple, to a three-year deal, re-signed 37-year-old Grant Hill, and signed Nash to a two-year, $22 million extension.
"The most important thing to us was that we had good leadership and good mentors for all our young guys," Kerr told me. "So re-signing Grant and signing Steve to the extension was by design. First, they're still really good players. In Steve’s case, he's still an All-Star and in Grant's case, he’s still close to it. So not only do we have two good players, but they're as professional as they come. So we feel like we're making this transition towards the future in a really healthy way."
Here's what else you need to know about the resurgent Suns:
At 37, Hill is averaging 13.2 points per game and a team-high 8.6 rebounds. He and Jason Richardson (5.2 rebounds per game from the two-guard spot) have answered Gentry's call for the wing players to make up for Phoenix's lack of front-line size by crashing the boards.
Amar'e Stoudemire is still feeling his way after offseason eye surgery, but he's averaging 19 points and 8.5 rebounds while vowing to commit himself on the defensive end. Nash is, well, Nash; he already has five games with a dozen or more assists, including the 20 he dished out against Philadelphia on Monday night.
One of the byproducts of a soul-searching, 46-win, non-playoff season was the development of some reliable depth. Leandro Barbosa, Goran Dragic, Louis Amundson, and Jared Dudley form a versatile and effective second unit. Dudley already has made 11 3-pointers, nearly a third of his total in 68 games last season with Charlotte and Phoenix. The Suns have high hopes for first-round pick Earl Clark, whose locker has been strategically placed next to Hill's.
After wandering aimlessly through the first four years of his career in New York and Portland, Channing Frye has been a revelation. The Suns knew he could shoot when they signed him to a two-year, $3.8 million deal. They didn’t know he'd shoot with this kind of range. Frye is 22 for 50 from 3-point range and says the Suns' coaches "get mad when I don’t shoot."
Kerr, not a bad marksman himself back in the day, recalls being blown away in August when Frye showed up for workouts and pickup games.
"His first couple of years in New York, he was great from 21, 22 feet," Kerr said. "That would've been fine for us, too. What happened was, he came in and started working out and playing pickup games and was draining 3s from the wing and the top. We were like, 'Wow, this is more than we bargained for.'"
Frye's hard work paid off. He was up at 5 a.m. for weeks at a time during the early part of the summer, working on ball-handling and mid-range shots on the move from 6-9 a.m. He was back in the gym from 5-6 p.m. to shoot "nothing but 3s." Now he’s hitting nothing but net.
It’s way too early to draw conclusions, but through eight games, the Suns are back to playing the style that made them so entertaining and successful under D'Antoni. It's not exactly seven seconds or less, but Phoenix is getting 39 percent of its attempts in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock, according to 82games.com. That's comparable to the 43 percent achieved in 2006-07, the last time they got past the first round.
The Suns are averaging a league-high 110.9 points per game -- 114 per 100 possessions -- which is virtually identical to the 110.2 and 114 in '06-'07. Yes, defense is still an issue. Phoenix is allowing 105.8 points per game, which is sixth-worst in the league and nearly three points more per game than in D'Antoni’s next-to-last season before bolting for New York.
After a 4-1 road trip that included wins over Miami and Boston, the Suns return home Wednesday night to face the struggling Hornets. Then, it's off to L.A. to face Kobe and the Lakers on the back-end of a back-to-back.
The Suns ultimately will struggle against teams with size, and their style still doesn't translate to playoff success. But given the cards Kerr dealt himself when he reached for Shaq, Phoenix's resurgence is nothing to scoff at. At least the Suns are relevant and fun again.
Having played for Phil Jackson, Kerr believes that basketball teams take on a certain "life force." After a lifeless 2008-09, the Suns have been resuscitated.
"We got panned by a lot of people for not going young and breaking it up and starting over," Kerr said. "But we've seen a lot of teams do that and fail, too. If you go too young in this league, then you’re rudderless. You have guys fighting over shots and minutes, no hierarchy, no totem pole, and that's a recipe for disaster."
Posted on: March 23, 2009 9:28 am
"If he gets 25 and 11," Suns coach Alvin Gentry said when informed of Shaq's plans, "he can do anything he wants."
That's cool, I guess. One halftime post isn't going to hurt anybody. But I'm concerned about the 37 Tweets Shaq posted to between 1:57 a.m. and 2:19 a.m. I'd say that's evidence the Big Shaqtus needs Twitter detox.
Shaq, please, step away from the BlackBerry.
Posted on: February 20, 2009 12:24 pm
Amare Stoudemire didn't get traded, but the Phoenix Suns will still have to find a way to live without him. Stoudemire underwent surgery Friday to repair a partially detached retina in his right eye and will miss about eight weeks, the team said in a news release.
“We are very glad to hear that Amare should have a 100 percent recovery relative to his vision and his long-term prognosis is excellent,” Suns president Steve Kerr said. “Obviously, it is very disappointing to lose him at this time. We are all very excited about the progress the team is making, but Amare’s health and the health of all our players is our number one concern.”
It's not clear whether the injury affected the Suns' ability to move Stoudemire at the trade deadline. In the Suns' first two games after the All-Star break, they totaled 282 points in back-to-back victories over the Clippers under new coach Alvin Gentry. Stoudemire had 42 points and 11 rebounds Wednesday night in a 142-119 victory.