Center spot has become black hole for Suns

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Last season, the Phoenix Suns got a solid 20 points and 10 rebounds a game out of the center position. They had a tag team of Robin Lopez — who could defend other true centers plus defend the rim — and three-point specialist Channing Frye.

They shot 56 percent combined and held opposing centers to 50 percent shooting. The production wasn’t All-Star level, but it wasn’t bad. It gave them what they needed, scoring and a defensive presence in the paint.

This season Lopez and Frye are back and… well, um, we’re pretty sure they’re the same guys. The look the same, talk the same. But the production is nowhere near the same, as Paul Coro explains at the Arizona Republic.

Combined, Lopes and Frye:

– have shot 34 percent, worse than any NBA center tandem entering Tuesday except for Minnesota’s Darko Milicic and Anthony Tolliver.

– have taken more shots than two-thirds of the NBA’s center duos.

– are in the bottom 10 for scoring and rebounding – and neither grabs as many rebounds as forward Grant Hill (6.9).

Lopez is now playing less than 20 minutes a game because of his performance. Heck, coach Alvin Gentry rolled out a lineup with Hakim Warrick at center for a while the other night. He’s desperate for anything.

What he needs is the defensive presence in the paint — the Suns are 28th in the league in defensive efficiency. The main problem is rebounding — only one other team in the league gives up a higher percentage of offensive rebounds. The fear of entering the paint against the Suns is not there, and once you’re there help yourself to an offensive rebound or two.

Lopez had back issues last season and they seem to be lingering, if not physically then mentally. He does not look like the same player.

The Suns have a few issues, but right now most of them are on the defensive end. They are issues Lopez in particular but also Frye could help solve. And they had better, or this is going to be a long, dry season in the Valley of the Sun.

Joel Embiid scores over Carmelo Anthony, then they exchange words (VIDEO)

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Joel Embiid gives zero… well, you know where I’m going with that.

Embiid trolls the world and backs down from no man, and that includes Carmelo Anthony. Late in the fourth quarter of the barn burner between the Thunder and 76ers Friday night, Embiid backed ‘Melo down and scored over him, then did a little jawing — which Anthony didn’t appreciate.

I love that Embiid egged on the Sixers crowd after this. He knows his audience.

Embiid talks a lot — A LOT — but he is backing it up.

For example, in the first overtime Russell Westbrook thought he made a drive that was going to win the game, and Embiid rejected him.

If you did not watch this game, go find a replay. This is the new best game of the season.

Rudy Gobert leaves game vs. Celtics with likely knee sprain. Again.

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Rudy Gobert missed 11 games this season due to a bone bruise in his knee. While the Jazz defense suffered as should have been expected with their anchor gone, their offense found a groove without him — and with more Donovan Mitchell and Derrick Favors — resulting in Utah going 7-4 with their star center out.

Now the Jazz will be without him again for a while — he seems to have sprained his left knee just minutes into Friday night’s game against the Celtics when Favors fell back into him. That is the same knee he injured before. Gobert was forced to leave and will not return to the game.

If that diagnosis holds, it will be weeks again the Jazz will be without Gobert.

The Jazz know how to play without Gobert. Favors moves to center and while he’s not near the same defender his offensive skills got them buckets and opened up the floor. The rookie Mitchell, as well as Ricky Rubio at points, took advantage of it to give the Jazz a top-10 offense with Gobert out. They need to find that groove again.

Still, Utah needs Gobert back and himself to really reach the heights they are capable of.

Veteran NBA official Monty McCutchen to be head of referee development, training

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After 25 seasons running up and down the NBA hardwood and refereeing more than 1,400 games, NBA official Monty McCutchen got a promotion.

He officiated his last game Thursday night in Minnesota and will move to a desk at the league office where his new title is Vice President, Head of Referee Development and Training.

“Monty has earned the respect of players, coaches and his peers during an exemplary career as an NBA official,” said Senior Vice President, Head of Referee Operations Michelle D. Johnson (who started on the job in October).  “He understands as well as anyone what it takes to be an outstanding referee and how the league can best support its officials.  With his wealth of insight and experience, Monty is uniquely suited for a leadership role in our officiating program.”

“I’m excited for the opportunity to channel my passion for the officiating profession in a new way,” McCutchen said.  “While I’ll miss officiating games, I’m grateful to continue working with our incredibly talented referee staff as part of an organization so dedicated to excellence and innovation.”

Despite what some fans like to blast on Twitter (especially during the playoffs), NBA officials are the best trained and flat-out best basketball referees in the world (if you don’t think so, watch the college/scab referees from the last lockout of the refs, it was painful). Could they improve? Sure. Hopefully, McCutchen can help do that in his new position.

Kristaps Porzingis officially day-to-day, questionable vs. OKC

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Knicks fans can exhale now.

There was understandable concern after face of the franchise Kritaps Porzingis had to leave the game in Brooklyn Thursday night following a non-contact injury.

Turns out there is nothing to worry about. After the game, Porzingis spoke to the media and was standing on the leg, a good sign. By Friday, after a day of treatment, he was doing well. Officially Porzingis is day-to-day and may sit out Carmelo Anthony‘s return to Madison Square Garden Saturday, but the injury is nothing serious. Ian Begley of ESPN has the details.

Porzingis’ knee was “worked on” on Friday and the discomfort in his knee decreased, league sources told ESPN. It is unclear if Porzingis underwent an MRI or had X-rays to further determine the extent of the injury but sources say he did not undergo significant testing because it wasn’t warranted based on the state of the injury.

Good. We don’t need another star down with a major injury this season.

Especially Porzingis, who has led the Knicks to a 15-13 record (sixth in the East, in the playoffs) while putting up All-Star numbers: 25.5 points per game, shooting 39.5 percent from three, plus grabbing 6.6 rebounds a game. Maybe more impressive is how he has anchored a solid Knicks defense this season with his rim protection. Stay healthy and he should make his first All-Star team this season.