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NBA AM: How Suspensions Affect Series

Draymond Green’s suspension is bad for Game 5, but history shows it likely won’t affect the series’ outcome.

Joel Brigham

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Twitter can attempt to #FreeDraymond all they want, but the fact of the matter is that the guy can’t seem to help himself when it comes to throwing low blows. After a certain number of flagrant fouls, suspensions happen. Don’t be mad at the scorekeepers, folks.

Regardless of how you feel about Green’s forthcoming suspension in Game 5 of this year’s NBA Finals, we do know that Green’s absence gives Cleveland a great chance to extend the series. Whether they can win the last two with Green back in the lineup is a completely different story, but for now we’re looking at one of the best players in the league missing a potential series-clinching game on a suspension. The implications of this are pretty huge.

It is not, of course, the first time that a big-name player has been forced to miss an important playoff game due to suspension. Here’s a look at some of the most notable recent NBA playoff suspensions and what kind of an effect that suspension had on the outcome of the series:

J.R. Smith, Cleveland Cavaliers, 2015 – Not that J.R. Smith is any stranger to postseason suspensions (he also was held out of a postseason game in 2013 for getting into it with Jason Terry, then of the Boston Celtics), but it was just a year ago that he found himself smack-dab in the middle of controversy for a nasty elbow that he delivered to the face of Celtics guard Jae Crowder. Considering the Cavaliers had a 21-point lead in the second half of a Game 4 that would eventually complete a second-round sweep of Boston, it was a deeply impulsive and irresponsible thing to do, and it resulted in a two-game suspension to start the Eastern Conference Finals against the Chicago Bulls.

With Kevin Love out for the postseason after separating his shoulder in the Boston series and Kyrie Irving playing at less than 100 percent, Cleveland could have used Smith in those first two home games against the Bulls. Chicago looked great and stole Game 1 on the road with Smith not even in the building, but fortunately for the Cavaliers, they overcame Smith’s suspension and moved on to the Finals anyway.

Zach Randolph, Memphis Grizzlies, 2014 – The Grizzlies without Randolph back in 2014 weren’t so lucky. Granted, it was “just” a first-round series, but four of the first five games in that series were overtime games, and coming into Game 6, Memphis headed home with a chance to clinch against a really tough OKC squad. Down by 17 halfway through the fourth quarter, though, rookie Steven Adams got under Randolph’s skin enough to get the big man to throw a punch. Rules are rules in the NBA, and making malicious contact with another player’s face or head means a one-game suspension, no questions asked. That means Randolph and his 18.2 points and 8.2 rebounds average for the first six games of that series had to miss the deciding Game 7 in Oklahoma City. The Thunder won that game and the series.

Amar’e Stoudemire, Boris Diaw, Phoenix Suns | Robert Horry, San Antonio Spurs, 2007 – While we mostly remember “Big Shot Rob” Horry for the insane clutch shots he seemed to knock down in every NBA Finals he played in, one of the darker spots on his resume includes a nasty body check to reigning two-time MVP Steve Nash during Game 4 of the 2007 Western Conference Finals, which was enough to get himself and a couple of Phoenix Suns suspended in very controversial fashion.

The NBA had a rule that would suspend any player for stepping foot onto the court during an altercation, with the hopeful outcome being that bench-clearing brawls would become a thing of the past. Both Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw got some toes over the line in trying to see what happened with Nash on the sidelines, so upon review the league came down hard and took those two guys out of Game 5, along with Horry, naturally.

With two of Phoenix’s best players out of the lineup, San Antonio cut through the Suns like a hot knife through butter, and Phoenix would never recover in that series. That was supposed to be that year’s pseudo-Finals, but the series took a dark turn after that play and just never recovered.

Jason Terry, Dallas Mavericks, 2006 – Mavericks fans would rather just pretend like 2006 never happened, which might be for the best considering all the awfulness they experienced in that year’s playoffs. Terry, in a scrum for a loose ball during Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals that year, sent a below-the-belt fist-bump to San Antonio Spurs swingman Michael Finley. The refs missed it during the game but dished out the suspension after reviewing the footage. Terry did what he did, and it cost him a game.

That game just so happened to be Game 6, which the Mavericks lost, sending the series to a Game 7. Dirk Nowitzki’s herculean efforts saved them and pushed them to their first-ever Finals appearance, which would have been great had they not undergone one of the league’s most historic playoff collapses. Before all of that, though, the Terry suspension stung.

Larry Johnson, New York Knicks | Alonzo Mourning, Miami HEAT, 1998 – Anybody who grew up watching basketball in the early 1990s loved watching Zo and LJ play together for the Charlotte Hornets, but by 1998 they both had moved onto different teams that just so happened to face up against each other in the Eastern Conference Finals. With mere seconds to go in Game 4 of that series, Johnson and Mourning got tangled up in a way that led to actual, horrifying haymakers getting thrown. None of the punches actually landed, which is great news for the health of both of these gigantic men’s brains.

However, it wasn’t great news for their availability in Game 5, and since Mourning was so much more important to his team (Miami had no viable backup center that season), the Knicks cruised to a 17-point win Game 5.

Patrick Ewing, Allan Houston, Larry Johnson, John Starks and Charlie Ward, New York Knicks, 1997 – The Knicks were the bad boys of the ‘90s and constantly found themselves mired in controversy following on-court boxing matches. The year before the big Zo/LJ fight, the Knicks and HEAT once again faced each other, this time in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

It got ugly in the fourth quarter of Game 5, when Charles Oakley showed his frustration, down 10 in the fourth quarter with just a couple of minutes left to play, by shoving around Mourning enough to get himself ejected. A few moments later, all hell broke loose when HEAT forward P.J. Brown body-slammed Knicks point guard Charlie Ward into photographers’ row, as that led to just about every Knicks star clearing the bench (they had been sitting because the game was out of hand) and injecting themselves into the fray.

Ewing, Houston, Johnson, Starks and Ward all received one-game suspensions from the league, who actually had to stagger the missed games just to give New York a puncher’s chance the rest of the series. Some players were suspended for Game 6, and others for Game 7. Remarkably, no HEAT players were given any sort of suspension.

It’s no wonder those teams were at it again just a year later, even deeper into the playoffs.

Derek Harper, New York Knicks, 1994 – In the first year after Michael Jordan’s first retirement, the Bulls bumped up against an extremely motivated New York Knicks team, but somehow New York’s Derek Harper ended up in a fight with a Bulls reserve named Jo Jo English. It cleared the benches (right in front of Commissioner David Stern, no less), but only Harper and English received suspensions. New York lost Game 4 of that series without their starting point guard, but would go onto to win the series in seven games.

***

In all of these games, the team that lost the better player(s) lost the first game in which they were suspended, which bodes well for Cleveland in Game 5 of this year’s NBA Finals. What doesn’t often happen, however, is a suspension completely turning around the momentum of a playoff series. It has happened before, but more often than not the shorthanded team takes it lumps and then gets back on track.

Knowing this year’s Warriors, it wouldn’t be surprising if that’s exactly what ends up happening in these Finals.

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NBA DAILY

NBA Daily: Pelicans Might Be Better Off Without DeMarcus Cousins

Without DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis has excelled. It might not be a coincidence.

Moke Hamilton

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Forget Kawhi Leonard, the most interesting storyline of this NBA summer is going to be DeMarcus Cousins.

By now, if you’ve wondered whether the New Orleans Pelicans would be better off without the talented big man, you’re certainly not alone.

Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers.

On Saturday, the Pelicans pulled off an improbable sweep of the third-seeded Blazers in the first round of their best-of-seven playoff series. And while the immediate question that comes to mind is what to make of the Blazers, a similar question can be (and should be) asked of the Pelicans.

Without question, Cousins is one of the most gifted big men the NBA has sen in quite some time, but it shouldn’t be lost on any of us that Anthony Davis began to put forth superhuman efforts when Cousins was absent.

Ever heard the saying that too many cooks spoil the brew?

That may be pricisely the case here.

Sure, having good players at your disposal is a problem that most head coach in the league would sign up for, but it takes a special type of player to willingly cede touches and shots in the name of the best interests of the team.

We once had a similar conversation about Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, mind you. Those that recognized that Westbrook’s ball dominance and inefficiency took opportunities away from Durant to be the best version of himself once believed that the Oklahoma City Thunder would have been wise to pitch Westbrook to New Orleans back when Chris Paul was still manning their perimeter.

For what it’s worth, with Cousins in the lineup, he averaged 18 shots per game. In the 48 games he played this season, the Pelicans were 27-21. With him in the lineup, Davis shot the ball 17.6 times per game and scored 26.5 points per contest.

In the 34 games the Pelicans played without Cousins, Davis’ shot attempts increased fairly significantly. He got 21.9 attempts per contest and similarly increased his scoring output to 30.2 points per game.

Aside from that, Cousins’ presence in the middle made it a tad more difficult for Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday to have the pace and space they need to be most effective. With both Davis and Cousins, the Pelicans struggled to consistently string together wins. Without Cousins, they improbably became the first team in the Western Conference to advance to the second round.

That Cousins tore his achilles tendon and is just a few months from becoming an unrestricted free agent combine to make him the most interesting man in the NBA.

* * * * * *

With Chris Paul having decided that the grass was probably greener with James Harden and Mike D’Antoni than it was with Doc Rivers and Blake Griffin, the Clippers fulfilled his request to be trade to the Houston Rockets and re-signed Griffin to a five-year max. deal. In doing so, they both gave Griffin a stark reminder of what life in the NBA is like and provided a blueprint for teams to follow when they have a superstar player with whom they believe to have run their course.

The glass half full perspective might be that Davis has simply become a better, healthier, more effective player and that with Cousins, he would have another weapon that could help catapult the Pelicans ever further toward the top of the Western Conference. But the half-empty glass might yield another conclusion.

At the end of the day, although he still hasn’t appeared in a single playoff game, Cousins is regarded as a game-changing talent and is one of the few players available on the free agency market this summer that could justify an annual average salary of $30 million. In all likelihood, the Pelicans will re-sign him for a sum that approaches that, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best move.

In the end, the Clippers traded Griffin for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, a first round pick and a second round pick. All things considered, it was a great haul for the Clippers when you consider that, just a few months prior, they could have lost Griffin as a free agent and gotten nothing in return.

Remarkably, after seeing Griffin dealt to Detroit, in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on a collision course with the Golden State Warriors. Their health a constant concern, the team will have to deal with the pesky perimeter defense of Holiday and Rondo and versatility and two-way effectiveness of Davis.

Nobody gave New Orleans a chance against Portland, and for sure, not many people are going to believe in their ability to score an upset over the defending champions. But believe it or not, New Orleans has become a different team. And they’ve done so without Cousins.

Indeed, believe it or not, the Clippers gave us a blueprint for what a team should do when it has a superstar who might not be the best long-term fit for their program.

And if the Pelicans were wise, they’d be smart to follow it.

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NBA Daily: Rookie Contributors Lifting Playoff Teams

This year’s impressive rookie class has translated their regular season performances to the playoff stage.

Dennis Chambers

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This past NBA season had the luxury of an incredibly entertaining and high-powered rookie class. Every other day it seemed like the feats of either Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, or Ben Simmons were dominating the discussion about how advanced the league’s crop of newbies appeared to be.

As a result, the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race was a much more heated discussion than the year before.

With the impressive campaign these NBA freshmen put together, it should come as no surprise that on the on bright stage of playoff basketball, three of the aforementioned crop are helping lead their team’s in tight first-round battles.

Donovan Mitchell has been the leading scorer for the Utah Jazz through two games in their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jayson Tatum is stepping up for the Boston Celtics to help fill in the void of Kyrie Irving as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks. Ben Simmons is nearly averaging a triple-double through three games for the Philadelphia 76ers in their matchup with the Miami HEAT.

Lottery pick talents are expected in today’s NBA to come in and have some level of impact for their clubs. Usually, they play the role as a foundational building block that shows flashes of promise with an expected up-and-down first season. While these three playoff contributors haven’t been perfect all year long, under the pressure of the postseason, they’ve stepped up their play and appear to be avoiding the learning curve.

With that, let’s highlight further what Mitchell, Tatum, and Simmons have been able to do thus far in the postseason.

Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

All season long Mitchell threw the entire scoring load of Salt Lake City on his back for the Jazz and helped carry them to a 5-seed in the Western Conference when early season projections suggested they should head towards in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s injury.

However, the 13th pick out of Louisville had no intentions of missing out on the postseason. And from the looks of his production so far, who can blame him?

Through the first two games of the Jazz-Thunder series, Mitchell yet again placed his name in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Mitchell’s 55 points in his first two playoff games broke Jordan’s record of 53 for most points scored by a rookie guard in that scenario.

Mitchell’s 27 points in Game 1 and 28 points in Game 2 led the Jazz to even the series and steal home court advantage from the Thunder. While he hasn’t been responsible for setting up the team’s offense, tallying just five assists through those two games, Mitchell is fulfilling the role of Gordon Hayward as the team’s primary scorer.

In a series against a team that features the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, Utah needs Mitchell to go out there and get as many buckets as he possibly can.

So far, he appears to be welcoming the challenge.

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

When it was announced that Kyrie Irving would be lost for the entire postseason due to injury, the Boston Celtics’ hold on the 2-seed seemed a lot less intimidating than it once was in the Eastern Conference.

However, three games into the first round series against the Bucks, the Celtics hold a 2-1 lead. A lot part of that has to do with the role Tatum has been able to step in and play right away with the Celtics down their main scorer and playmaker.

Throughout the first three games of the series, Tatum 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.3 steals. The third overall pick in the 2017 draft started the series off with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals to help Boston start off the matchup with a 1-0 lead.

At just 20 years old, Tatum is matching his age number with his usage percentage thus far against Milwaukee. For some perspective, Jaylen Brown managed just 12 minutes a night for the Celtics last season as a rookie when the playoffs rolled around.

Granted, injuries and missing players are helping in Tatum being on the court as much as he has, but the rookie is earning his time out there on the court.

Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

The perceived frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons has taken control in his first ever playoff series.

For starters, Simmons is averaging nearly a triple double over his first three games against the HEAT; 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.7 assists.

On top of his triple double ways, Simmons has upped arguably his biggest weakness so far in the playoffs, shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe. During the regular season, Simmons struggled from the line, hitting only 56 percent of his attempts.

With the offensive prowess of Simmons obvious, it’s the job he’s doing on the defensive end of the court against an aggressive and tough Miami squad that’s elevating his play to the next level.

Simmons’ ability to switch all over the defensive end of the court has placed his responsibilities from Goran Dragic to Justise Winslow to James Johnson, and seemingly everywhere in between.

Now with Joel Embiid back in the fold for the Sixers and Simmons, the rookie point guard has his defensive partner on the floor to help ease the workload on that end. A two-way performance each night will be imperative for Simmons in helping lead the young Sixers past the experienced HEAT team.

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Pelicans Role Players are Key to Success

The supporting cast in New Orleans is a big part of their playoff surge, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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The New Orleans Pelicans have taken a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series again the Portland Trail Blazers. While surprising to some, the Pelicans only finished one game behind the Blazers in the standings. The Pelicans have the best player in the series in Anthony Davis and the defensive duo of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday have stifled Portland’s backcourt.

The truth is, the Pelicans have been a good team all season long. A lot of attention and recognition has been given to Davis, Rondo and Holiday this season and playoffs, and rightfully so. But New Orleans wouldn’t be where they are without the important contributions of some of their role players.

Take E’Twaun Moore, for example. Moore bounced around the NBA early in his career, with stops in Boston, Orlando and Chicago before finding long-term stability contract wise with the Pelicans. He’s primarily been a bench player with them before this season, his second in New Orleans, his first as a full-time starter.

He’s given the Pelicans a huge boost, especially from the three-point line. He’s put up 12.5 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field, both career-highs. He’s shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range.

“I think it’s just our style of play,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “We play fast and open. Coach [Gentry] gives us a lot of freedom, a lot of confidence. That’s why my game is up, my shooting is up.”

It’s not just offensively though. Moore has always been one of the more underrated defensive guards in the league. Paired up alongside Rondo and Holiday, the trio form a solid wing defensive unit. They’re a big reason for Portland’s offensive struggles.

Moore is the type of role player that every playoff contender needs to succeed. He knows that his role may change from game to game. Some nights he may be asked to score a little more. Other nights his defense is going to be called upon. Whatever it may be, he’s always ready to do what’s asked of him.

“I bring the energy. I bring a spark,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “It’s knocking down shots, playing defense, getting out in transition. Just trying to be a spark.”

The Pelicans bench has also been a huge factor all season long. Their depth took a major hit early in the season with the injury to Solomon Hill. Hill has since returned to the lineup, but his absence paved the way for other players such as Darius Miller to step up.

This is Miller’s second stint with the Pelicans after spending two years overseas. Drafted 46th overall in 2012, he didn’t play much his first three years in the NBA. In 2014, he was cut by the Pelicans only about a month into the season. This year was different, he was thrown into the rotation from the get-go.

“This is a huge opportunity,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I just come in and try to work every day, try to get better every day. My teammates have done a great job of putting me in situations where I can be successful.”

Miller has given the Pelicans a capable stretch four in the second unit who can slide over to small forward if need be. He’s averaging a career-best 7.8 points per game, the most out of any of New Orleans’ reserves. He’s their best three-point shooter off the bench, connecting on 41.1 percent of his long-range attempts.

While he acknowledges that he’s enjoying his best season yet as an NBA player, he’s quick to praise his teammates for allowing him to flourish.

“I just try to bring a spark off the bench. I come in and try to knock some shots down,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “My teammates do a great job of finding me when I’m open, I just try and knock down shots and compete.”

Sometimes time away from the NBA helps players grow and mature. The NBA game is fast paced and it can take awhile to get used to it. While some players have begun to use the G-League as a means of preparing for the league, Miller took an alternate route of heading to Germany.

For him, it’s a big reason why he’s been able to make an easier transition back to the NBA. His contract for next season is non-guaranteed, but he’s probably done enough to warrant the Pelicans keeping him around. He’s a much different and much-improved player. If not, he’s sure to draw interest from other teams.

“It was a lot to learn for me personally,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I had to learn a lot of different things like how to take care of my body, how to manage my time, a whole bunch of stuff like that. The time overseas really helped me to mature and grow up and learn a few things.”

These Pelicans have most certainly turned quite a few heads since the playoffs began. We shouldn’t deal too much with hypotheticals, but it’s interesting to wonder what this team’s ceiling would’ve been had DeMarcus Cousins not been lost for the season due to injury.

This is a confident bunch, however. They’ve beaten both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets during the regular season. They’ve already shattered a lot of expert predictions with their performance in the first-round. The Pelicans feel like they can hang with anyone out West.

“As far as we want to go,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like we’ve competed with all the best teams in the league this whole season. We just got to come out, stay focused and do what we do.”

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