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Kerr Dismissed as Suns GM

According to an ESPN.com report, Steve Kerr is no longer the Phoenix Suns general manager:

A source told ESPN The Magazine’s Ric Bucher that the move has to do with Kerr feeling unable to adequately do the job with the financial limitations imposed by Sarver. The Suns have both Amare Stoudemire and Channing Frye as potential free agents this summer.

Kerr, 44, became part of the Suns’ leadership in 2004 and became a minority owner and adviser for Sarver, who eventually named him GM after Bryan Colangelo and coach Mike D’Antoni first held the job under Sarver.

Sarver told the newspaper the Suns will conduct a search for Kerr’s replacement and consider in-house candidates. Kerr will stay on board for the June 24 draft and keep his ownership stake in the team.

“It’s definitely been an interesting three years for both of us and the organization,” Sarver told the newspaper. “Overall, I think he did a very good job to put us on solid ground with players and coaches, getting a defensive emphasis and got the ground laid on teamwork and chemistry. We’re in a pretty good spot moving forward, and a lot of it has to do with moves he’s made. There were some good moves and bad moves, which goes with the job. But overall, I think he’s done a very good job.”

It seems questionable to pin the team’s failure to win a championship on Kerr. The Suns exceeded expectations this year and came within striking distance of uprooting the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. Therefore, this move looks like one that is aimed at retaining Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire for next season.

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Suns win on the strength of fundamentals

The Phoenix Suns played picture-perfect basketball in Game 4.

The Phoenix Suns have made the Western Conference Finals a lot more interesting than most could have hoped for after the Los Angeles Lakers took a commanding 2-0 lead in the series.

Behind the support of its home crowd, Phoenix took Games 3 and 4 against the defending champions after looking weak, uninspired, and apathetic.

I’ve already written about coach Alvin Gentry’s timely decision to have his squad try a zone defense on the Lakers, but in Game 4 on Tuesday night, that defensive scheme wasn’t what won the game for the Suns.

No, it was a return to fundamentals, instead, that sparked the Suns to a series-squaring victory.

When you think about Phoenix Suns basketball, fundamentalism isn’t the first thing that comes to mind for most. They run, they shoot a lot of threes, they have no back-to-the-basket post scorer, and they tend to “relax” on defense. But Tuesday’s game was a good illustration of how an unconventional team like Phoenix can win by embracing the basics of basketball.

This approach to the game manifested itself if three primary ways: (1) a balanced scoring effort; (2) superb bench production; and (3) exceptional shooting discipline leading to streaks.

In the usual Suns game, the offensive production is funneled through Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire, as they effortlessly run the pick-and-roll play for easy points. Throw in the occasional outburst from Jason Richardson, Grant Hill, or Leandro Barbosa, and that’s the typical makeup.

On Tuesday night, though, that wasn’t the case. The team’s leading scorer was Stoudemire, but he put up a modest 21 points. Steve Nash contributed only 15. More importantly, though, the Suns had six scorers in double figures, and everyone who played in the game posted no fewer than 6 points.

Spreading the wealth with that kind of ball distribution allows the whole team to get in to a groove, preventing the Lakers from keying in on anyone in particular on defense. Usually, Phil Jackson can sit back and expect his team will defend Nash and Stoudemire while not having to worry about anyone else. In Game 4, everyone was hitting shots, so it spread the Lakers’ defense thin to the point that it couldn’t keep up.

In a similar vein, the Suns’ bench played brilliant basketball against the Lakers. Led by a gritty performance in relief of Nash by Goran “Enter the” Dragic (8 points, 8 dimes), the Suns drilled the Lakers with 54 bench points and were absolutely on fire from the perimeter. At one point in the game, Channing Frye, Leandro Barbosa, and Jared Dudley hit consecutive threes to ignite the crowd and knock LA back on its heels — it was a meaningful turning point for the game.

The solid play by the reserves allows Nash and Stoudemire to get their well-deserved and much-needed rest without a cause for concern. In the fourth quarter, Gentry even elected to stay with his second unit a few minutes longer than usual because it was playing so well. That’s a good sign for your team.

Lastly, the Suns used the power of momentum to their full advantage. I mentioned above that streak of back-to-back-to-back three-pointers; those weren’t lucky shots. Phoenix spread the floor very well, creating space for the shooters on the perimeter. Each one of those shots was sufficiently open.

But it takes rare confidence for Barbosa and Dudley to fire off those long-range bombs after Frye’s make. They sensed the opportunity to create some distance between the Lakers and themselves, and they took advantage. They knew they could hit the shots, and they had the power of the crowd behind them as further encouragement.

If the Phoenix Suns can continue to pair this fundamental execution with their effective zone defense, the Lakers have to be careful. Sure, the series is going back to the Staples Center, where the Lakers play much better than they do on the road. That won’t stop the stranglehold that the Suns’ zone has on their paint production, though. If the perimeter players can find their rhythm from the outside like they did in Game 4, the Lakers won’t stand a chance.

It’s the Phoenix offense at its best — with a twist of defensive prowess and fundamental execution.

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Lakers have concerns despite sweep of Jazz

As the Lakers win Game 4 of their series with the Jazz tonight, completing the series sweep, they’ll enter the Western Conference riding a six-game winning streak. Even though they’ve played very well over that span, there’s still a looming concern for the purple and gold as they prepare to face the Suns.

They lack the killer instinct.

Three of the four wins for the Lakers in the semifinals came with fairly comfortable margins, but there was one overarching theme that defined all four of the contests. In each game, LA would get out to a fast start, outpacing Utah by double digits in the first or second quarter. Certainly, it’s a good sign that they start games on the right foot.

That said, lethargy, too, has struck in each game — and it nearly got the better of the Lakers in Game 3. The Lakers would continually fall into second-half lulls, allowing the Jazz to come back within reach of a victory.

For the defending champions to advance to the Finals and defeat the Suns, they will need to avoid succumbing to any such stretches of difficulty. Playing Phoenix, it is likely Phil Jackson will work hard to get the ball inside to Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, who can outmuscle Suns post defenders like Amar’e Stoudemire, Channing Frye, and Louis Amundson. Accordingly, those high-percentage shots will spring them out to appreciable leads early in games.

Phoenix is not an easy foe to put down, however. On the strength of its transition play, early-scoring mindset, and lights-out perimeter shooting, the team can bounce back in a hurry from sizable deficits. At the center of those comebacks will be Steve Nash, who showed his toughness in the Suns’ sweep-ensuring Game 4 against the Spurs.

He will run Derek Fisher ragged, and the Lakers will be running on empty toward the end of the game. That’s where Kobe will need to step in and deliver the final knockout blows. He needs to regain that killer instinct he hasn’t shown so far in the postseason.

You know who has shown that murderous intent so far in the playoffs? The Orlando Magic. They’ve obliterated the competition, making the considerable Hawks look like a D-League team. They continue to pile on the points and don’t stop until the job is done.

So the Lakers have something to learn from their potential Finals counterparts in the West: keep applying pressure until there’s nothing more than charred remains of your opponent.

Otherwise, they may find a way to come back and haunt you.

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Game of the Day: April 3

Phoenix Suns at Milwaukee Bucks — 8:30 PM eastern

The Suns have won 10 straight games, coming off a road win against the comparatively “hot” New Jersey Nets. Tonight they close their road trip in Wisconsin, and getting its 11th consecutive win should prove a challenge for Phoenix.

The Bucks have played great ball since the all-star break (although they’ve cooled down of late, going only 5-5 in their last 10) thanks to a trade-deadline acquisition of John Salmons from the Chicago Bulls. Add him to a roster with two solid young pieces in Andrew Bogut and Brandon Jennings, and you have a pretty solid squad.

However, Phoenix’s roster is no slouch itself. Sporting perennial all-stars Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire, the Suns’ pick-and-roll game is an incredible force to be reckoned with. Factor in Jason Richardson, Leandro Barbosa, Grant Hill, Channing Frye, and a solid second-year showing for center Robin Lopez and you can see why they’re climbing to the top of the Western Conference.

The Suns won the only matchup between these two teams 105-101 on January 11. Nash lead the Suns with a stat-stuffing effort, scoring 30 points, recording 7 rebounds, and dishing out 11 dimes. Amar’e and Richardson also chipped in 23 points apiece. Hakim Warrick, no longer on the team as part of the Salmons deal, lead the Bucks with 21, and Bogut added a double-double of 13 points and 13 boards.

The Bucks hung with the Suns then, and they’re a much better team post-trade. Accordingly, I chalk this one up for the Bucks. They’re significantly better at home, and the Suns (Nash, in particular) will be tired closing out a long road trip. Salmons should have a big scoring game against the “supervisory” Suns defense.

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