Suns training camp notes: High hopes for Telfair, improvement for Lopez, dealing with Pietrus

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The Phoenix Suns are holding training camp in town this week at Grand Canyon University. Here are some notes from Sunday’s morning and evening practice sessions:

– The Suns were without Grant Hill, Sebastian Telfair, and Markieff Morris for their morning practice session, but had them on the floor for the evening session, once Vince Carter cleared waivers on Sunday afternoon. That left the team with only nine players, so Alvin Gentry drafted assistant coach Corey Gaines into duty to fill that 10th spot. So why Gaines, instead of assistant coach and former Suns star Dan Majerle? “We were trying to get a guy that could walk,” Gentry joked.

– Robin Lopez was a disappointment for the Suns last season, his ability to perform dramatically reduced due to injuries that he seemed slow to recover from. It’s a different story early in training camp, however, as Lopez has said he feels great, and has a lot more bounce in his game. Gentry agreed, and likes what he’s seen from him so far. “Without a doubt, you can see that he’s almost completely different than he was last year. I think athletically, even conditioning, I think his overall personality, everything has kind of changed. I do think that he feels like he’s healthy now, that was a major issue last year. He would not ever say that, but I don’t know. It just seems to me that he’s running better, he’s rebounding better, and he’s finishing better. So we’ll just see how that translates into games.”

– Steve Nash is used to having to mentor a new backup point guard in camp, as it’s something he’s done in the majority of his training camps with the Suns. Sebastian Telfair is this season’s new recruit, and Nash spoke briefly about him after Sunday morning’s session: “He’s someone who has a new opportunity, and a chance to, I think, not only have a big contribution for us, but in a way, kind of resurrect his career,” Nash said. “He’ll get a lot of opportunity to grow and learn, and be a big part of our team.”

Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby was optimistic about what Telfair would bring to the team, saying “This is an important spot for him, and I think he sees it that way. This is his chance to really shine and work with Steve. He came into the league with such high expectations, and they’re hard to ever meet those expectations. I think now he’s settled down, he’s mature, and I think we have a chance to catch lightning in a bottle.”

– Zabian Dowdell hasn’t yet participated in camp due to experiencing pain in one of his knees. It’s unfortunate, because Dowdell contributed at times last season, especially on the defensive end of the floor. He’ll still be given that opportunity, to compete for a lead backup guard role. But with Telfair and Shannon Brown now on the roster he’s going to be at least a step or two behind. Steve Nash sympathizes: “I feel bad for Z because he’s just not able to go right now,” Nash said. “And the season’s so short, hopefully he can get up to speed quickly because he did a lot of good things last year.”

– The Suns had a deal in place to send Mickael Pietrus to Toronto for a conditional second round draft pick, but it was cancelled once Pietrus was found to still be ailing from the knee injury which sidelined him for the last 12 regular season games last year. It’s clear the Suns do not want Pietrus on the team this year, yet Babby was diplomatic in discussing the issue on Sunday.

“We had a transaction that we couldn’t consummate, and we’ll keep working at it,” Babby said. “So he’s still part of this team and will be treated with respect as we try to get him healthy.”

Healthy enough to package out of town in another deal, most likely.

– Marcus Landry was invited to Suns camp, and was expected to be there by Sunday at the latest. But Lon Babby said that Landry hasn’t yet received clearance from FIBA to participate, so the Suns are still waiting. Babby expects Landry to be cleared in the next day or so and to have him in camp hopefully early this week.

Celtics’ Kyrie Irving: “It was a nice streak. But it was time to come to an end.”

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The Celtics established themselves as one of the NBA’s elite teams, a contender for the Eastern Conference title, during their 16-game win streak.

However, that hot streak to start the season will matter as much as Thanksgiving leftovers in the back of the refrigerator in April by the time the playoffs roll around. This is a team that still has work to do.

Which is what Kyrie Irving was getting at in this post-loss quote from Friday night, via Israel Gutierrez of ESPN.

“There’s still a lot to accomplish going forward,” Irving said. “It was a nice streak. But it was time to come to an end.”

This team still needs to get better and more consistent. The Celtics had to come from behind in the fourth quarter in eight of the 16 wins, and while the team defense was impressive the offense still can be hit and miss. Al Horford and Kyrie Irving play well off each other, but this is still the 20th ranked offense in the NBA. They are taking more long midrange jumpers than most coaches want, but the bigger challenge is they have not been finishing around the basket.

Titles are not won in November. Irving gets that. Jayson Tatum will hit the rookie wall at some point (they all do) and he needs to prove he can break through. Al Horford is playing maybe the best ball of his career and needs to keep it up. The Celtics need to keep their defensive focus (the fundamentals are there to have a top five defense). I could go on but you get the point, and so does Irving — there is a lot of work for this team to do.

Boston is off to a fantastic start, but it’s just that.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich: I’ve never seen injury like Kawhi Leonard’s

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Gregg Popovich is a basketball lifer.

He’s the NBA’s most experienced active head coach. Before that, he was the Spurs’ general manager. Before that, he was an NBA assistant. Before that, he was a college head coach and assistant. Before that, he was a college player. Before that, he was a youth player.

The San Antonio coach has seen everything.

Except the right quadriceps tendinopathy suffered by Kawhi Leonard, whom Popovich said more than a week would return “sooner rather than later.” Yet, Leonard still hasn’t played this season.

Popovich, via Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

“Never, never,” Popovich said when asked whether he has seen such a condition hampering one of his players. “What’s really strange is that [point guard] Tony [Parker] has the same injury, but even worse. They had to go operate on his quad tendon and put it back together or whatever they did to it. So to have two guys, that’s pretty incredible. I had never seen it before those guys.”

“I keep saying sooner rather than later,” Popovich said jokingly. “It’s kind of like being a politician. It’s all baloney, doesn’t mean anything.”

The 26-year-old Leonard is one of the NBA’s biggest on-court stars. He might be the league’s best defender, and he has built himself into an offensive force. The Spurs (11-7) have fared fine without him so far, but they’ll need him to accomplish their main goals – this year and beyond.

Hopefully, Leonard’s health is better than it sounds here, because Popovich’s answer sure isn’t encouraging.

Tim Hardaway Jr. calls fallen ref safe rather than defend shot (video)

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The Knicks went on a 28-0 run.

They earned the right to showboat late in their win over the Raptors last night.

Tim Hardaway Jr. called a ref, who slipped on the baseline, safe rather than contest Serge Ibaka‘s 3-pointer. Perfection!

Luc Mbah a Moute sets modern record at +57 in Rockets’ win over Nuggets

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Luc Mbah a Moute is a quietly good player.

He’s an effective and versatile defender. Offensively, he shoots 3-pointers well enough to score efficiently and spread the floor. Most of all, the 31-year-old just understands how to play and plays within himself. His teams tend to perform better when he’s on the floor.

That’s an understatement for Wednesday night.

In a 125-95 win, the Rockets outscored the Nuggets by a whopping 57 points in Mbah a Moute’s 26 minutes. That’s the best single-game plus-minus in the Basketball-Reference database, which dates back to the 2000-01 season. It tops Joe Smith’s +52 in a 2001 Timberwolves win over the Bulls, a 53-point game that also produced a +50 for Wally Szczerbiak and +48 for Terrell Brandon.

Mbah a Moute’s traditional stat line was impressive, though not overly so: 13 points on 5-of-5 shooting with four rebounds, four steals and an assist. He played well, contributing to winning in all the small ways he often does, and the Rockets happened to play excellently around him.

Now, Mbah a Moute tops the leaderboard in single-game plus-minus since 2000-01:

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