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Game of the Night: Suns bury Lakers with 22 threes

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What a crazy game in Los Angeles. The Phoenix Suns managed to hand the Lakers their first home loss of the season despite losing their starting center (and the only Phoenix player who would have had a chance of keeping the Lakers off the boards) early in the game, but it was far from easy. Even though the Suns hit 22 of their 40 three-point attempts, one make shy of an NBA record, the Suns needed a crazy three from Hedo Turkoglu and a controversial technical on Lamar Odom to escape Los Angeles with a five-point win.

For the majority of the game, it seemed like the Suns were simply delaying an inevitable Laker blowout. Phoenix’s big men had little hope of keeping the Lakers away from the basket before Robin Lopez went down with a knee injury — after that happened, things just became comical. The Lakers got to the rim seemingly at will for much of the game, using crisp passing, strong drives, and lots of movement off the ball to get easy looks at the rim over and over and over again. Lamar Odom was particularly effective when he put the ball on the floor and went to the basket, and the Suns had no prayer against Pau Gasol when he got the ball near the rim. On top of that, Kobe was being Kobe, whether he was setting his teammates up with crisp passes, making shots from the mid-post, or up-faking his man, stepping through him, and passing off the backboard to himself for a layup.

When the Lakers missed a shot, they would often just get the ball right back again — Channing Frye had no prayer of effectively boxing out Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom kept coming out of nowhere to grab the ball after Laker misses, and the Suns were simply unable to gain possession of loose caroms for most of the game.

After the game, Suns coach Alvin Gentry talked about his team’s inability to keep Gasol off the boards, saying “You know we’ve still got to try and stop the rebounding situation, but Pau is just so long, we have him boxed out, he goes over the back but doesn’t foul…he’s just so long, our guys try to get a body on him and we just couldn’t. It wasn’t that we weren’t trying to win, that we weren’t playing hard and trying to be physical with him, we just couldn’t move him out. And that’s a credit to Pau more than it is a negative to our guys.”

The Lakers’ size advantage was overpowering — the Lakers outscored the Suns by 40 points in the paint, and had 20 offensive rebounds to the Suns’ 22 defensive rebounds. 99 times out of 100, the team that controls the paint like the Lakers did on Sunday will win the game, but that wasn’t the case against the Suns.

How did the Suns overcome the Lakers’ size and strength mismatch? They hit threes. A lot of them. The Suns found themselves open from beyond the arc early and often against the Lakers, and their shooters weren’t afraid to let fly. The Suns did a great job of moving the ball from side to side, staying away from isolation play, spacing the floor, and keeping the Lakers off-balance in both the half-court and transition game. The Laker forwards were able to overpower the Suns when Los Angeles had the ball, but they often seemed a step slow on the opposite side of the floor, either leaving Channing Frye or Hedo Turkoglu open beyond the arc or being forced to switch onto a guard. Lamar Odom had a particularly uneven defensive game — there were times he would go to give help and appear to simply forget that Channing Frye and Hedo Turkoglu love to shoot threes.

Jason Richardson, Channing Frye, and Hedo Turkoglu absolutely killed the Lakers from deep by camping out on the weak side in the half-court and trailing the break — that kind of shooting would be impressive in an empty gym, but it also seemed like the Lakers were giving up open three-point looks because they thought the Suns would eventually start missing and they could simply outscore Phoenix when the Suns started to miss.

Unfortunately for the Lakers, the Suns never stopped missing. During one four-and-a-half minute stretch in the third quarter, the Suns made six straight three-pointers, and it got to the point where the Staples center crowd would begin groaning as the shots were in the air. When asked after the game if he thought the Suns’ three-point shooting would cool down, Kobe Bryant said “that’s what normally happens, but tonight it didn’t. They just continued to make them.”

A stretch like that would have buried most teams, but the Lakers were resilient, and were in the game for most of the fourth quarter thanks to some big threes from Shannon Brown and some missed threes by the Suns. The turning point of the game was a controversial one. With 53 seconds remaining, Lamar Odom made a layup that put the Lakers down by two points. There was some contact on the play, and Odom wanted to get an and-1 call and a chance to bring the Lakers within a point. He didn’t get the call, and was fairly demonstrative to the ref, who slapped him with a technical. After the Suns hit the resulting free throw and Hedo Turkoglu nailed a deep, flat-footed, contested three over Kobe Bryant on the next Suns possession, the game was all but over.

After the game, Kobe called the technical on Odom “disgusting, in that situation.” Odom himself said “It’s tough, you know, it’s tough. There were 55 seconds left. I think that’s why people are questioning it. But a rule’s a rule.”

After the game, both coaches were in awe of Phoenix’s hot shooting. Phil Jackson said in his post-game press conference that “Our philosophy is that [the three-pointers] even out over time, but they didn’t tonight. A team’s going to make a certain percentage of threes. If they make ten in a ball game that’s a high number; this team averages 9, so that’s a really high number. The real issue is about those other 80 points they got in the paint.”

Suns coach Alvin Gentry was of the opinion that Sunday’s outcome was more the  result of Phoenix’s insanely hot shooting rather than anything the Lakers did wrong. When asked about the Lakers, who have dropped their last two games, Gentry went into a comic outrage, saying “It’s one game! We made 22 threes, and still had to hold them off at the end! People are talking like their season is over!” before breaking into a wide smile. The Lakers were a little nonchalant defensively against the Suns and gave Phoenix more good looks than they should have had, but the fact the Lakers were in this game up until Phoenix’s 22nd three is a far more significant long-term takeaway than their two straight losses. The Lakers are good. Scary good. But for one night, Phoenix’s near-historic shooting allowed them to be just a little bit better.

Three things we learned Thursday: Memphis, Marc Gasol just win every close game

Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) shoots between Portland Trail Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu, from left, center Mason Plumlee, and forward Jake Layman (10) in the second half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
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Here’s what you missed Thursday around the NBA while you were drinking homemade glow-in-the-dark beer with jellyfish genes in it (no, you try it first, I insist)…

1) Don’t play Memphis in a close game, they just find a way to win.
Last week, when Mike Conley went down with a back injury and was going to miss six weeks (give or take), we questioned if Memphis could keep their heads above water. They promptly went out and lost to a very good Toronto team.

Since then they have won five in a row, capped by an impressive 88-86 win over Portland Tuesday. Impressive because:

• Memphis is now 12-0 in games that were within 3 points in the final minute. You get in a close game with Memphis, you lose. (Statistically, we know some of that is luck, that there will be some regression to the mean, but that stat has propelled a team has been outscored by nine points this season, one that should be 12-12, to the 16-8 record they have.)

• Memphis trailed Portland 79-68 with less than five minutes to go, and still won.

Marc Gasol had 36 points and has been an absolute beast since Conley went down, doing whatever it takes to win.

• Toney Douglas — a guy the Grizzlies just picked up off the street this week, basically — comes in and is clutch down the stretch for them, including hitting the game-winning free throws with 0.5 seconds left (Damian Lillard tried to argue the call, to no avail).

The schedule gets tough for Memphis the next couple of weeks — Golden State, home-and-home with Cleveland, then Boston and Utah looming not long after — but do not doubt the Grizzlies. No team is as resilient as this bunch.

2) Bulls prove Spurs aren’t perfect on the road. It was bound to happen, the San Antonio Spurs were 13-0 on the road, they were going to stumble at some point. That point turned out to be Thursday night in Chicago, where the Spurs came out of the gate like they went out and had a big pregame meal of Lou Malnati’s pizza — 32 points on 30.6 percent shooting in the first half for San Antonio. The Spurs didn’t defend poorly, for example Kawhi Leonard held Jimmy Butler to no first-half points — in fact, midway through the first quarter Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez had scored almost all the Bulls’ buckets — but the San Antonio offense was dreadful. Throw a little credit to the Chicago defense if you want, but this was more San Antonio stumbling than a Chicago return to the Thibodeau era.

The Bulls were up 12 at the half and were able to hang on despite a strong second 24 minutes from Leonard (17 of his 24 came in the second half) and get the win. Dwyane Wade had 20 points and hit a couple of key buckets late to stabilize Chicago. For a Bulls team that is going to be in a playoff battle all season — they are the seven seed right now, one game ahead of the Pacers in ninth — these kinds of wins at home can prove huge.

3) What is it with Minnesota and second half? On the road, the Minnesota Timberwolves had played the Toronto Raptors even for the first 24 minutes — it was 59-59 at the half. And yet, there was a sense of dread for Timberwolves fans because all season their young team has just come apart in the third quarter — and then Toronto opened the second half on an 11-2 run. Minnesota, to their credit, crawls back into it, but midway through the fourth the Raptors go on a 17-4 run sparked by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and the Raptors pull away for the 124-110 win. The Timberwolves lost another game because they can’t defend well.

Minnesota shows flashes of the kind of brilliance that has everyone thinking they might be a contender in a few years. But we all expected too much too soon from this group. Those impressive stretches are followed by ones where they play like a young team, they don’t defend well, and they throw those good efforts away. Not that they were going to beat a good Toronto team on the road, but the Timberwolves can be frustrating to watch. Patience is hard, and Minnesota fans are being asked to show a lot of it. We can debate if it’s time to bring Ricky Rubio off the bench and let Kris Dunn sink or swim, but that’s not the core problem. Ultimately, the Timberwolves are young and playing like it. They don’t know how and aren’t putting in the effort to defend well yet. Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, they can be the core of a contender eventually, but there is a lot of learning to do along the way. Tom Thibodeau can teach them. But it’s going to require patience.

Watch Joel Embiid completely erase Anthony Davis’ layup

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Anthony Davis is languishing in New Orleans, but at least Thursday night’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers pitted The Brow against The Process. That is, Joel Embiid.

When the two multi-talented big men met on the floor in New Orleans, Embiid got the better of Davis on at least one play.

With the ball on the left wing, Davis was able to get a step on Ersan Ilyasova out of the triple-threat position. As Davis dribbled toward an open lane, Embiid slid over to add some extra protection:

Great timing and court feel from Embiid, who has looked like a strong candidate for Rookie of the Year.

Spurs fall to Bulls 95-91 after winning first 13 road games

Chicago Bulls guard Dwyane Wade (3) is defended by San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game in Chicago, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/David Banks)
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CHICAGO (AP) — Dwyane Wade scored 20 points, and the Chicago Bulls handed San Antonio its first road loss after a 13-0 start, hanging on to beat the Spurs 95-91 on Thursday night.

San Antonio fell one win shy of matching the NBA’s best road start set by the Golden State Warriors last season. The Spurs cut an 18-point deficit midway through the third quarter to four in the closing minutes, only to come up short.

Kawhi Leonard scored 24 for San Antonio. Patty Mills added 16 points, hitting 4 of 6 3-pointers. Former Bull Pau Gasol had 13 points and 10 rebounds in his first game in Chicago since signing with San Antonio in the summer, but the Spurs lost a road game for the first time since Oklahoma City knocked them out in the Western Conference semifinals last season.

Jimmy Butler scored all of his 13 points for Chicago in the second half. Rajon Rondo added 12 points, nine assists and 10 rebounds, and Chicago picked up the win after dropping three in a row and six of nine.

The Spurs hadn’t dropped a regular-season road game since Denver beat them on April 8. But after a big push down the stretch, they came up short in this one.

The Bulls led 65-47 midway through the third following a surge by Butler, who scored seven in a 54-second span after missing his first six shots. But the Spurs jumped back into it in the closing minutes of the quarter.

They went on an 11-2 run that Mills finished with a 3 to cut it to 72-66 just under a minute into the fourth.

Things got real tight when Gasol nailed a 3 to pull San Antonio to within 88-84 with 3:24 left. Doug McDermott then hit three free throws after being fouled by Tony Parker, and the teams basically exchanged baskets the rest of the way.

TIP-INS

Spurs: Parker had eight points and five assists after missing a game because of a bruised left knee. … For the second straight game, the Spurs set a season low for first-quarter scoring. They had 17 points after managing 19 at Minnesota on Tuesday night.

Bulls: F Doug McDermott scored eight points after being sidelined because of a concussion since Nov. 11. … Butler had scored 20 or more in 15 consecutive games, the longest streak by a Bulls player since Michael Jordan did it in 24 straight during the 1995-96 season.

 

Parker returns to Spurs’ lineup against Bulls

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CHICAGO (AP) San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker returned to the lineup Thursday night against the Chicago Bulls after missing a game because of a bruised left knee.

The seven-time All-Star did not play at Minnesota on Tuesday night after knocking knees with a Milwaukee Bucks defender the previous night. He started against the Bucks after missing two games with a thigh contusion.

Parker came into Thursday averaging 9.4 points and 4.4 assists.

Chicago’s Doug McDermott returned to the rotation after missing nearly a month because of a concussion.