Suns drop to 0-2, search to explain offensive struggles

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In recent years, the Phoenix Suns have been known for, above all else, having an uptempo and elite offense. Win or lose, and no matter the season’s ultimate result, the team never struggled to score with Steve Nash running a descendant of Mike D’Antoni’s offense.

Through two games in this young season, however, offense has been a huge problem for the Suns, and the primary reason behind both of the team’s losses.

At least in Monday’s season opener against the Hornets, Phoenix was in it until the final possession. But in Wednesday’s loss to the Sixers, it wasn’t close. The Suns scored just 34 points in the first half, and opened the second half on the wrong side of a 19-0 run that lasted over six minutes and put the game in the win column for Philadelphia.

The Sixers led by as many as 34 points on the way to a 103-83 victory, one that dropped the Suns to 0-2 for the first time since the 1996-97 season.

It may not yet be time to panic for Phoenix, but the results of the first two games — especially offensively — are certainly cause for concern.

“We’re struggling mightily right now offensively,” Suns head coach Alvin Gentry said afterward. “It’s so hard for us to get a shot off and so hard for us to get into any kind of rhythm.”

As for what’s causing the team’s struggles, Gentry feels it’s a combination of things. But continually getting off to slow starts isn’t helping.

“What has happened is, we’ve had some good looks early on that haven’t gone in, and I think we’ve probably pressed a little bit,” Gentry said. “But we’ve been a good shooting team, we’ve been a good offensive team. We’ve got to try to get that back.”

Making adjustments on the fly is much more difficult this season thanks to the lockout and the compressed regular season schedule that the delay in a labor agreement ended up causing. With the demanding slate of games, Gentry knows that pushing his team extra-hard in practice isn’t necessarily the answer.

“The practice times are very limited,” Gentry said. “We come in here tomorrow, we can’t really have a hard practice. We’ve got two games the next two days, and three in four nights. It’s just one of those things where we have to be smart about it. We have to get better and we have to try to improve, but we also have to be smart — we can’t come in here and have a two and a half hour practice.”

Just how bad has the Suns offense been so far? Small sample size and all that, but through two games, Phoenix is 24th in offensive efficiency at 90.9 points per 100 possessions. And pace-wise, the Suns are tied for 25th at 90.8 possessions per game. Contrast that with even last season’s numbers, where Phoenix finished 8th in pace and 9th in offensive efficiency — in a year when the team finished out of the playoffs — and it’s clear there are serious issues.

I asked Nash what he was seeing out there as the reason for the team’s offensive struggles.

“I think it’s a combination of a lot of things,” Nash said. “A shortened training camp, a lack of familiarity, and also we’re just not real efficient yet. We’re not making shots, we’re not in sync, and some of it is, I think, a product of a shortened camp. Some of it is we’ve got to get a little tougher at times and not look around and hope things will get better. We’ve got to be a little more determined at times.”

In Wednesday’s game, Nash appeared to be more aggressive from the start, uncharacteristically taking matters into his own hands to try to get the team going offensively. But it didn’t go all that well; Nash finished the first quarter with four points, one assist, three turnovers, and two personal fouls, while shooting 2-of-7 from the field in about nine and a half minutes of action. He said in this particular instance, his heavier than usual offensive usage was a result of the way the defense was playing him.

“I think the way they were playing the pick and roll tonight it was important for me to make ’em pay a little bit,” Nash said. “There was some space and I was getting in the lane, but I wasn’t able to get it done tonight. I think that put a lot of pressure on our offense, because then we couldn’t loosen them up or break them down and create easy opportunities.”

Nash finished with one of his worst statistical games in recent memory, going 2-of-11 from the field with just one assist and six turnovers in just over 17 minutes.

The way the Suns are currently constructed, without any one player who can be relied upon to average 20-plus points per game on a regular basis, there’s certainly more of an onus on Nash to create easy opportunities for his teammates. But at some point, there’s only so much Nash can do. At the end of the day, guys have to start knocking down open shots.

In the opener against New Orleans, the Suns shot 5-of-25 from three-point land, but many of those were wide-open looks, so the team feels those shots will eventually start to fall. Against the Sixers, the looks were there too, but more in the mid-range variety: 50 of the Suns’ 80 field goal attempts were from 10 feet out or beyond. And Phoenix only connected on 30 percent of those attempts.

Like all teams, the Suns would like to get more points in the paint, and easier opportunities at the rim. Their opponents haven’t had any problems in that area, with the Sixers scoring 50 of their 103 points in the paint, and the Hornets getting 42 of their 85 there on Monday.

It’s impossible to ignore the Suns’ struggles on offense, especially considering that’s the last place you’d expect to find problems with a team that’s been so prolific in that area in recent years. Nash just hopes things turn around sooner rather than later.

“It’s shown over the two games we’re just struggling offensively to find a connectivity and a rhythm together,” he said. “All you can do is continue to work hard and find a way to be optimistic and positive, and hopefully the breakthrough will come soon.”

Chris Paul scores 29, Clippers beat Jazz 98-93 to force Game 7

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Clippers coach Doc Rivers put it simply when he said Chris Paul willed his team to victory with the season on the line.

Paul scored 29 points and the Los Angeles Clippers forced a Game 7 in their first-round series with a 98-93 victory over the Utah Jazz on Friday night.

The Clippers will host the only do-or-die game of the first round Sunday, with the winner advancing to face the Golden State Warriors.

“It’s just Chris,” Rivers said. “He is as competitive as a human being as I’ve ever been around. When you put that with the talent and the will, that’s why he has performances like this in big games.

“Chris was amazing. He just willed the game for us.”

Los Angeles began to edge away in the third quarter and appeared to be in control when Austin Rivers capped a 9-2 run with a step-back 3-pointer that pushed the lead to 91-77 with 3:58 remaining.

He hit another with 1:29 left to make it 96-86, but Gordon Hayward scored seven straight to bring the Jazz within three before Joe Johnson missed a 3-pointer in the waning seconds.

Paul pushed Los Angeles throughout the night and just wouldn’t let the Clippers lose. The nine-time All-Star dominated and finished with eight assists, three rebounds and two steals. DeAndre Jordan added 13 points and 18 rebounds.

“We do it together,” Paul said. “I came to (Jordan) during one of those timeouts in the fourth and said let’s find a way. We’ve been in these situations time and time again. Some of us since we were kids playing AAU. You’ve just been in that situation. High school basketball. College basketball. It’s the same game, it’s just a lot more people at the games. You just go out there and try to stay in the moment.”

The Clippers overcame a slow start to finish at 49 percent shooting from the field. The Jazz went in the opposite direction, getting sloppy with the ball in the third quarter and making numerous defensive mistakes. They also shot just 41.0 percent from the field and were 7 for 26 from behind the arc.

Hayward led the Jazz with 31 points, George Hill added 22 and Rudy Gobert finished with 15 points and nine rebounds.

“I thought we were competing,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “I’m not sure if we got tired or got tired of missing. They were the more energetic team. Their physicality on the defensive end, we didn’t respond offensively the way that we needed to, or as forceful as we needed to be.

“When you’re not aggressive enough with your frame of mind, I don’t think you shoot the ball as well.”

The Clippers took a 47-45 lead into halftime after closing on an 8-2 run, including a pair of jumpers by Luc Mbah a Moute.

The Jazz jumped out to a 22-13 lead and looked to be on the brink blowing the game wide open before the offense went cold and the Clippers ripped off an 11-0 run. Utah shot just 3 for 13 from 3-point range in the first half and missed several wide-open attempts.

“Some days are diamonds, some days are stones,” Hayward said. “We didn’t shoot the ball well tonight. We got the looks we wanted, which is a positive thing for us. I think that’s the important part, we found the open shots, found the good looks.

“Dug ourselves a hole there and it’s hard to dig out of it. I don’t think we were nervous, we just couldn’t find it tonight.”

TIP-INS

Clippers: Austin Rivers started for the first time this series after missing the first four games with a hamstring injury. … Jordan’s six double-doubles in the first six games are a playoff high. … The Clippers held Johnson to 3-for-9 shooting.

Jazz: Utah is 5-1 all-time when leading a playoff series 3-2. … The Jazz opened the game as the only team in the playoffs ranking in the top three in field goal percentage and 3-point percentage.

GOBERT OK

Gobert was taken out of the game in the fourth quarter after suffering a mild left ankle sprain. X-rays were negative and he’s expected to be fine for Game 7.

PAINT POINTS

The team with the points-in-the-paint advantage won the first five games. That streak came to an end as the Jazz outscored the Clippers 42-36 in the paint.

Report: Magic will offer team president job to David Griffin after Cavaliers’ season ends

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David Griffin has been the man pulling  the strings for Cleveland since LeBron James returned to town — he made the trades for everyone from Kevin Love through Kyle Korver, he fired David Blatt mid-season to bring in Tyron Lue, and he locked up the Cavaliers’ core for years — but apparently that hasn’t been enough. Even with LeBron’s endorsement.

Griffin doesn’t have a contract past the end of this season in Cleveland.

However, the Orlando Magic plan to offer him one, reports Brian Windhorst of ESPN.

The Orlando Magic intend to offer their president of basketball operations position to Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin, multiple sources said.

The Magic can engage Griffin in contract talks at the conclusion of the Cavs’ season, sources said.

Griffin’s contract with Cleveland is up at the end of the season, and he and the team have not held meaningful discussions on an extension.

One of two things is happening here.

First, this could be a leak out of Griffin’s agent in an attempt to get the Cavaliers to pony up. The threat of competition might get Cleveland to up its offer, or at least to move more quickly than the very deliberate pace they are on now.

Second, the Magic are serious while the Cavaliers are ready to move on. To a degree what LeBron wants LeBron gets in Cleveland, but there could be dynamics pushing the Cavaliers to move on from Griffin. The fact there have been not substantial talks with Cleveland suggests a rift.

The Cavaliers can work out a deal quickly. The question is will they? It’s going to be an interesting summer on the lake.

Avery Bradley scores 23, Celtics eliminate Bulls 105-83

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CHICAGO (AP) — Avery Bradley scored 23 points, and the hot-shooting Boston Celtics pounded the Chicago Bulls 105-83 to win their first-round series 4-2 on Friday night.

The top-seeded Celtics simply torched Chicago to finish off a tougher-than-anticipated series and advance in the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Boston regrouped after dropping the first two games at home and will meet Washington in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Game 1 is Sunday.

Bradley finished one point shy of a playoff career high he set in Game 5. He nailed three 3-pointers and the Celtics hit 16 of 39 from long range.

Gerald Green scored 16 and Isaiah Thomas had 12 before heading home to Washington state for his sister Chyna’s funeral on Saturday. Her death in a car accident the day before the playoff opener dealt a blow to the Celtics. But Boston rallied around its star player and regrouped when it looked like the series might slip from reach.

Jimmy Butler led Chicago with 23 points. But the Bulls never really found their rhythm over the final four games with point guard Rajon Rondo sidelined by a broken right thumb.

Dwyane Wade shot just 1 of 10 in a two-point effort that could be his final appearance for the Bulls. He has a $23.8 million option on the two-year deal he signed last summer to leave Miami and come home to Chicago.

The Celtics led by 13 at the half and outscored the Bulls 34-18 in the third quarter to put this one away. Things got so bad that loud boos started ringing through the United Center.

TIP-INS

Celtics: Bradley said he was planning to attend Chyna Thomas’ funeral. That hinged on the flight options and whether the Celtics were playing on Sunday. “If I’m not able to be there I’m going to make sure I’m supporting him however I can to let him know I’m here for him during this time,” Bradley said.

Bulls: Hoiberg said there is no structural damage in Butler’s right knee. He also had this response when asked what soreness means: “Uh, that it hurts.” … New Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky, the No. 2 pick in the draft, got a rude welcome from the Chicago crowd. He was booed when he was shown on the videoboard in the third quarter.

“Fire Hoiberg” chants break out as Bulls eliminated from playoffs

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The problems with the Chicago Bulls — the ones that led to a mediocre season and a first-round exit from the playoffs after being up 2-0 on the Celtics — are certainly not all coach Fred Hoiberg’s fault. Blame starts with the roster that GarPax put together.

However, Hoiberg didn’t have the respect of his stars, his rotation management was bizarre at points, and there just seemed to be no consistent structure. What kind of team where the Bulls trying to be? What was Hoiberg doing to get them there?

As the Bulls were being eliminated by the Celtics Friday night, “Fire Hoiberg” chants broke out at the United Center.

Bulls fans are understandably frustrated, but they are not going to get this wish. Not this summer.

Hoiberg was the handpicked replacement for Tom Thibodeau, the guy Gar Forman and John Paxson — the Bulls front office brain trust — had their eye on and plucked out of the college coaching ranks. They bet big on him, and to admit that was a mistake after two years could endanger their jobs. So Hoiberg will stay.

What the Bulls roster will look like next season is another, more vexing question. Will Dwyane Wade be back? Jimmy Butler? With the seeming lack of a plan by GarPax, it’s all just speculation where they might go.

Whatever happens, Hoiberg will be coaching Chicago next season. Sorry Bulls fans.