HoopsHabit – The 5 Best/Worst Draft Picks in Phoenix Suns Team History

The Phoenix Suns have tortured their fan base more often than not in regards to their draft picks, especially in the last few years. Here’s my in-depth HoopsHabit article on the five best and worst draft picks in Phoenix Suns team history. Suns fans and people who like their NBA history will enjoy this.

OKC Eyes Sweep

After two close games in Oklahoma City that easily could have gone Dallas’ way, the Thunder made a big statement in their 95-79 blowout of the Mavericks on the road in Game 3. Kevin Durant and company left no doubt that this series is over, putting Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs behind early and never letting up for the rest of the night.

So far, the series has been a close, hard-fought battle that translated into two wins for the Thunder because they had home-court advantage and played better down the stretch. Despite finishing with respectable numbers in scoring, Kevin Durant struggled with his shot in the first two games and Dirk Nowitzki was slightly more effective despite stellar defense from Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka. But in Game 3, everything went Oklahoma City’s way, as Durant had a proficient shooting night (11-for-15, 31 points) and the increasingly unforgiving defensive combo of Ibaka and Perkins absolutely shut Dirk down, holding him to 6-of-15 shooting and 17 points. Up until Game 3, Russell Westbrook had been carrying the Thunder offensively, James Harden’s contribution off the bench was essential and OKC’s backline needed to play good defense and contribute on the other end as well. But in Game 3, Durant finally found his shot and silenced the defending champs’ home crowd early, while Ibaka and Perkins roughed Dirk up and frustrated him by making him work for every touch.

It took him two games, but Kevin Durant found his shot and was on fire in Game 3.

Jason Terry’s lackluster performance didn’t help things for Dallas. Terry only put up 11 points, but what’s even worse is that mediocre performance still qualified him as one of only three Mavericks in double figures (Jason Kidd was the third with 12 points). The Mavs have Terry, Vince Carter and Ian Mahinmi coming off the bench along with Shawn Marion and Delonte West in the starting lineup. Because of how strong the Thunder’s staring lineup is, Dallas needs to somehow find an advantage in their depth (which is tough to ask considering that subpar lineup, but they still needed to find a way to do it). But even when OKC’s bench juggernaut James Harden struggled and only put up 10 points, they still had Daequan Cook coming in and hitting three 3’s while Derek Fisher tacked on 10 points of his own. You combine that with Kevin Durant finally shooting well, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka doing their thing and some great team defense on Dirk and it’s no wonder the Mavericks got blown out in a pivotal Game 3.

The Thunder are an extremely dangerous team when their jump shots are falling. I still have doubts about how effective they can be when those jump shots aren’t falling because they tend to keep shooting them anyway instead of driving to the basket, but for now, OKC looks primed for the first round sweep. Rick Carlisle might be able to rally his team to one home victory, but it’s too much to ask of these veterans who have been lackadaisical all year in their title defense to make this series competitive. Now that Kevin Durant seems to have found his shot again, it’s only a matter of time (I give it the 48 minutes it takes to play Game 4) until the Thunder advance and the reigning champs are done.

The defending champs weren’t ready to defend their title and will be sent home empty-handed soon.

Thunderstruck

For the second straight game, the Dallas Mavericks went toe-to-toe with the Oklahoma City Thunder and for the second straight time, they went home empty-handed. OKC grabbed a 2-0 series lead last night in a 102-99 victory, while the Mavs fell into a hole that’s going to be hard to climb out of even with the series shifting back to Dallas. But even with two crushing defeats that left the defending champs thunderstruck after giving the Thunder everything they could handle, don’t count them out just yet.

There were a lot of similarities between Games 1 and 2: Kevin Durant had another poor shooting night, the Mavericks hung around for the entire game before missing some key shots down the stretch, Oklahoma City pulled out a win in the game’s final minute, and physical play drew reactions from some star players. This time around however, it was Kendrick Perkins, not Serge Ibaka, who stepped up offensively for the Thunder with 13 points, all while guarding Dirk Nowitzki on the other end. Kevin Durant ended up with 26 points, but only because he took 17 shots from the field and 16 shots from the line. James Harden and Derek Fisher combined for 26 points to constitute the majority of the Thunder’s bench scoring. But the biggest game-changer of Game 2 was free throw shooting for the Thunder: OKC hit 37 of their 39 attempts at the line.

Russell Westbrook led the way for the Thunder and helped his team take a 2-0 lead.

On the Dallas side of things, Dirk had a much better shooting night and finished with 31 points, but missed two crunch-time shots he’s normally known for making. Jason Terry, who missed two 3-point attempts to send the game to overtime, had a quiet game overall, but the Mavs’ role players stepped up and kept Dallas close throughout the night. Jason Kidd, Delonte West and Shawn Marion all finished in double figures and Ian Mahinmi added nine points as well. The Thunder should be a little on edge with the series heading into Dallas; even with home-court advantage, OKC has barely edged out this dangerous seventh-seed both times and the Mavericks are giving them everything they can handle. With the series shifting south and an angry Dallas team that believes it should have won both games on the menu, the Thunder need to buckle up and prepare for a hostile home crowd. In Nowitzki and company’s minds, a few bounces here and there are all that separate them from having a 2-0 lead. And watching Rick Carlisle’s postgame interviews tells me one thing: the defending champs aren’t going down without a fight.

With that being said. OKC’s 2-0 lead in the series makes it nearly impossible for Dallas to advance. They’ve fallen short twice now and eventually, losing games like this will take a mental toll. And given the pure statistical odds of the Mavs winning four of the next five against this talented and young team, things aren’t looking good. But taking into account how angry the Mavericks are right now, and factoring in Dirk Nowitzki’s postseason mentality, don’t be surprised if Dallas comes out with a little competitive fire in Game 3.

Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs are a little thunderstruck right now but that anger will carry over into Game 3 at home.

Kevin Durant’s Game 1 Buzzer Beater

Kevin Durant once again struggled with his shooting and couldn’t get many to fall Saturday night, but he made the one that counted. Oklahoma City Thunder escaped a Game 1 upset against the Dallas Mavericks in the final seconds thanks to KD’s impossible game-winning jumper. Shawn Marion guarded Durant as well as he possibly could and contested the shot, but it took a friendly hometown bounce and gave the Thunder a much-needed Game 1 win.

The Dallas Mavericks actually looked like the two seed for much of the night. Despite Dirk Nowitzki not really coming alive until the fourth quarter, Dallas was in control for the majority of this back-and-forth game. Jason Kidd was getting his hands on loose balls and disrupting OKC’s offense with steals, finishing the night with seven. Jason Terry and Vince Carter looked pretty good, providing energy and points off the bench (33 points combined). Shawn Marion played great defense on Durant and held him to a 10-of-27 shooting night. But even with all of this, the Thunder wouldn’t be denied, overcoming a seven-point deficit with two and a half minutes to go, right after Nowitzki looked like he had finished OKC off with a big three-point play. Dallas maintained their composure, Ian Mahinmi and Dirk hit big free throws to put their team back up, but the Thunder struck back both times and somehow ended up with the win. Durant’s shot definitely brought back flashbacks of the game-winner he hit against the Mavs earlier in the season, but what can should we take away from this game going forward?

Kevin Durant made the shot that counted the most and gave his team a critical Game 1 win.

The Thunder should feel good about the win, but not too great about the series. They almost dropped a big Game 1 at home to the team that ousted them from the playoffs last year. Even though OKC is the two seed, giving a veteran team with so much playoff experience invites the notion that they aren’t ready or mature enough to do what needs to be done and move on to the next round. Kevin Durant’s shot saved that idea from creeping into their heads, but if Durant’s shooting woes continue, it won’t be long before Dallas starts stealing a game or two. The Thunder’s lack of experience in comparison to Dirk and the reigning champions puts them at a slight disadvantage, so if seventh-seeded Mavs already making it close on the road, what’s going to happen when the games swing back to Dallas?

Fortunately for the Thunder, Durant’s supporting cast stepped up big and were a huge reason OKC was even in the game at the end. Of course there is Russell Westbrook, who finished with 28 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds, but it was a collective team effort that kept Oklahoma City close. James Harden, in his first game back after his concussion, dropped 19 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and was also involved in a few huge defensive plays that turned the tide in his team’s favor. Serge Ibaka had a stellar game, dominating down low with 22 points, 6 rebounds and 5 blocks. Even Kendrick Perkins, who was held scoreless on the night, pulled in 8 rebounds and made the invaluable contribution of guarding Dirk Nowitzki and trying to slow him down.

Going back to the series, this game sends a few mixed signals. On the one hand, Dallas should feel pretty good even though they lost. They competed better than most anticipated and it took an insanely difficult shot from Kevin Durant to win it. Then you remember that Dirk didn’t even come alive until the final quarter. Jason Terry and Vince Carter both looked good, Jason Kidd was a defensive stud creating turnovers, and their advantage of having so much experience and chemistry together definitely was on display as a big advantage over this young Thunder squad. But on the other hand, the Mavs would probably feel much better if they had been able to keep that seven-point lead. And it also should be somewhat disconcerting that they couldn’t pull off the road upset with Durant shooting so poorly. James Harden and Russell Westbrook should definitely be concerns in their ability to attack the basket and get to the free throw line, but Serge Ibaka’s huge performance is also a little worrisome going forward. If he continues to eat up the Mavericks on the inside, they could be in for a long series. So although it’s true that Dallas only needs to get one road win to have a chance to win the series, if Kevin Durant’s shooting picks up again, getting a W in Game 2 might be close to impossible.

Dallas has the experience and veteran mentality capable of still pulling off this upset. But that loss hurts a little bit, especially if they can’t get a much-needed win in Game 2. Because the Thunder’s talent, speed and the revenge factor of losing to the Mavs last year gives them a pretty big advantage, which is why I still stand by my prediction that OKC will win in five games. So even though Kevin Durant hasn’t been shooting well recently, the Thunder are still the favorites to win this series thanks to a great supporting cast. If the Mavericks don’t get a win in this upcoming critical road game, the Thunder might just roll right on to the second round.

Dirk Nowitzki shone in the fourth quarter and Jason Terry played well all night. Do the Mavs have what it takes for the upset?

Western Conference Playoff Predictions

It’s finally that time of year: the 2012 NBA Playoffs! The matchups are set, so let the debating begin! With games starting tomorrow, here are my playoff predictions. Eastern Conference predictions are soon to follow, but for now, let’s take a look at the first round matchups in the Western Conference.

#1 San Antonio Spurs vs. #8 Utah Jazz – Everyone is loving the Spurs right now. Maybe because the Thunder didn’t finish the season on a strong note, maybe because people were throwing Tony Parker in the MVP conversation as San Antonio took over the one spot in the West, and maybe a combination of all those things. But let me remind you: just like this year, the Spurs had one of the best records in the NBA and entered the playoffs as the top seed in the West last year. And they lost in six games to the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. Now it did take a particularly dangerous Memphis team to do it, but the point is, the Spurs are not safe just because they can rack up regular season wins. The Jazz aren’t as dangerous as that Grizzlies team was last year, but they’ve been playing well recently and their youth could either guide them to victory (like the Grizzlies) or it could be their downfall due to a lack of playoff experience. Although I still think San Antonio is overrated, the Spurs will advance, if only because Utah doesn’t quite have the firepower to dethrone them. But don’t be surprised if this series is actually competitive thanks to Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap’s youth and athletic ability in the paint against Tim Duncan.

Prediction: San Antonio in 6 games

Tony Parker has an advantage over Devin Harris and will use it to lead the Spurs to the second round.

#2 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. #7 Dallas Mavericks – The Mavericks ousted the Thunder from the playoffs last year and you’re not going to tell me Oklahoma City has forgotten it. The fans are going to be fired up in OKC and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook should be able to sort out their recent struggles against this unimpressive Mavericks squad. Jason Kidd is a good defender but I don’t think he can hang with Westbrook’s athleticism for a seven-game series. The same goes for Shawn Marion guarding Kevin Durant. Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry might be able to sneak in a win or two at home, but the Thunder are just too good for the aging Mavs, even if James Harden doesn’t return at full speed. If OKC can get offensive production out of Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, Dallas is in serious trouble. The Mavs have plenty of playoff experience, but have never looked like a quality contender this year, so the nod has to go to KD and Westbrook to clean their game up and move on to the next round.

Prediction: Oklahoma City in 5 games

Durant and the Thunder have struggled recently, but Dallas doesn't pose enough of a threat to unseat the scoring champion and his team.

#3 Los Angeles Lakers vs. #6 Denver Nuggets – The first two series won’t be extremely competitive, but with Ron Artest (I’m still refusing to call him Metta World Peace) sitting out, the balanced Nuggets have a chance against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee will have to play extremely good defense against Andrew Bynum to have any chance. We all know Kobe will likely get his 20-30 points every night, but if Denver can limit Bynum and possibly frustrate him (we’ve all seen what happens when Bynum gets riled up), the Nuggets will make it competitive. Danilo Gallinari will be another factor in the series: if he shoots the ball well, Denver is dangerous. The final major factor in this series is Pau Gasol. If Gasol has big games, he might be able to make up for any poor performances from Bynum, especially if LA’s bench doesn’t mess things up. This should be a good series, but I’ve got to give the edge to the Lakers. Overcoming Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol is a little too much to ask of this balanced Nuggets team.

Prediction: Los Angeles in 6 games

Will Kobe be able to lead LA to the finals once again? It all starts with a brutal first-round matchup against the very balanced Nuggets.

#4 Memphis Grizzlies vs. #5 Los Angeles Clippers

On paper, it doesn’t take a genius to assert that the four/five matchup will be the most competitive, but in this case, the fourth and fifth seed actually do deserve to be where they’re at and should give the audience one hell of a first-round playoff series. On the one side, you’ve got playoff and crunch-time champion Chris Paul along with the athletic freak-of-nature Blake Griffin, and on the other you’ve got Rudy Gay, a resurgent Zach Randolph and the rest of Memphis’ role-playing lineup. This series will come down to how much Mo Williams and Randy Foye contribute, whether or not Mike Conley can put up big numbers on offense and whether or not the Grizzlies’ impressive defense can hold CP3 when it matters most. Earlier in the week, I had the Clippers winning in seven, but after seeing them stumble over the finish line and concede home-court advantage to Memphis, I’m taking the Grizzlies in seven. LAC’s supporting cast disappeared this week and Chris Paul missed a game with a mild groin injury. If that injury continues to bother him and if their supporting cast doesn’t pick their game up, this series is too easy for the Grizzlies.

Prediction: Memphis in 7 games

I wanted to give Chris Paul and the Clips the edge, but if Memphis has home-court, we might see more postseason magic from Zach Randolph.

Injury Report – 3/24/12

Derrick Rose – Rose returned to practice but was limited and is unlikely to play tonight in the Bulls’ contest with the Raptors. Rose has missed the past five games for Chicago with a pulled groin but is still listed as day-to-day. Chicago has been successful without their star point guard on the court, but I’ve already written about how much D-Rose means to the Bulls and that sentiment grows with the playoffs looming.

Brook Lopez – Lopez’s ankle injury has been reevaluated and the New Jersey center will be out for at least another two weeks, putting his return date in mid-April. Because the Nets are not exactly contending for anything, they may consider just sidelining him for the rest of the year.

Kyle Lowry – Lowry’s bacterial infection that sent him to the hospital will keep him sidelined for an indefinite period of time. Lowry was initially projected to return in two to four weeks but The Houston Chronicle reports that his return could still be weeks away. This is a critical stretch for the Rockets, who currently hold on to the number eight seed in the West.

Kevin Martin – Martin’s MRI showed a tear in the labral of his right shoulder, an existing injury he aggravated February 2 and then became a major problem March 11 after running into a screen against the Cavs. Although he is listed as day-to-day, expect him to miss a more substantial amount of time now.

Michael Pietrus – Pietrus left Boston’s matchup with Philly yesterday on a stretcher in the first half. He was hospitalized and was diagnosed with a closed head injury after landing hard on his back in a collision with Lou Williams. The game was delayed for 10 minutes while medical trainers looked on. Fortunately, it was reported this morning that Pietrus was lucky enough to avoid a serious head injury, though he may have a concussion. Pietrus could return to the court sometime this season.

Pietrus was hospitalized after landing hard on his back. His neck seemed to whiplash.

Andrew Bogut – Despite reports that Bogut could make a late-season return, Golden State’s new center will not be making his debut for the Warriors this season. In fact, Bogut may not even be ready to play for Australia in the Summer Olympics.

Al Horford – Horford will not play for the remainder of the regular season, but could possibly return during the postseason. Atlanta’s skilled big man tore his pectoral muscle January 11 and has not played since.

Eric Gordon – Gordon is set to return to practice next week. Although the Hornets didn’t give an expected return date, this is a good sign for New Orleans’ injury-plagued guard.

Tony Parker – Parker missed the Spurs’ game yesterday with a mild hamstring strain he sustained in Wednesday’s victory over Minnesota. For now, consider him day-to-day.

Stephen Curry – Curry’s ankle is set to be reexamined by the Warriors’ medical staff this weekend. His status for next week and perhaps the rest of the season will depend on what the medical staff determines, as the Warriors have said they will not play Curry until he is 100 percent.

Anderson Varejao – Varejao is expected to return to practice in one or two weeks after sitting out since February 10 with a wrist injury. However, the Cavs are starting to slip away from playoff contention, which means they will not rush Varejao’s return.

Rodney Stuckey – Stuckey missed yesterday’s game with a strained toe injury. It was the second game he has missed for the Pistons, but he is still listed as day-to-day.

Danilo Gallinari – After suffering a fractured left thumb against the Mavericks, Gallinari could miss up to four weeks. This is a tough break for Denver’s talented small forward, who already missed considerable time earlier this season and was just getting back into rhythm. However, the Nuggets should be okay and do not need to rush his return thanks to Wilson Chandler and JaVale McGee.

Nikola Pekovic – Pekovic’s ankles, which have been a recurring problem over the past few weeks, might keep him sidelined for Sunday’s game against the Nuggets. Pekovic is hopeful to return for Minnesota’s matchup with Denver, but T-Wolves fans shouldn’t hold their breath until he has played (and stayed) on the court for an entire game.