Andrea Bargnani returns, scores season high 36 points to lead Raptors past Suns

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The Toronto Raptors came into Tuesday’s game against the Suns having lost eight straight, the last six of which came with their best player, Andrea Bargnani, sidelined due to injury. The Suns were playing in Phoenix after a five-game, eight-day East coast road trip that concluded just the night before with a loss in Dallas.

Bargnani’s return to the Toronto lineup proved much more effective than the Suns’ return home.

The Raptors erased a 14-point first-half deficit, behind a season high 36 points from Bargnani, to get in the win column or the first time since Jan. 9 by a final of 99-96.

“We needed a W,” Raptors head coach Dwayne Casey said afterward. “To keep our confidence, to keep our ship going in the right direction. We needed a W just to reinforce what we’re talking about.”

On this night, everyone was talking about Bargnani. He logged over 42 minutes of playing time, and scored 27 of his 36 in the second half to take the game over and ensure victory for the Raptors. His third quarter was particularly impressive.

Bargnani dropped 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting in the period, including knocking down four of his five attempts from beyond the three-point arc. He was equally stellar defensively, sending back a shot of Marcin Gortat’s down low, while executing his coach’s halftime instructions on defending the pick and roll to perfection.

As good as Bargnani was, his team wouldn’t have been close enough for his surge to matter without the second quarter play of Leandro Barbosa. The former Phoenix Suns’ Sixth Man of the Year came off the bench for an 11-point second quarter  that kept his team in the game, and helped reduce a double digit lead to just four by halftime.

Barbosa said afterward that he felt the win was a result of the collective will of he and his teammates.

“I think everybody made a commitment that this is the day we’ve got to win,” Barbosa said. “It was a good opportunity. They played last night, it was a back-to-back for them so it was a good advantage for us running up and down so they get tired and we get the victory, and we did it.”

Ironic, isn’t it, that Barbosa would say that running is the way to actually beat his former Suns team? But this is what things have come to in Phoenix.

As Toronto opened up a double-digit lead of its own that reached as many as 12 in the fourth quarter, the Suns did manage to mount an exciting rally that cut the lead to two with under 23 seconds remaining. That effort will go a longer way than it should for a 6-11 team that started the season with hopes of making the playoffs, and one that got stellar performances from Steve Nash (17 points, 14 assists) and Marcin Gortat (21 points, 12 rebounds — his ninth consecutive double-double, the longest active streak in the league).

Interestingly enough, both teams are struggling with their rotations, trying to find out what the best combination of players may be for both the starting and the second units. Toronto inserted Aaron Gray into the starting lineup for the first time this season, and Casey was pleased with his physical presence.

On the Suns side, Alvin Gentry continued his tweaks, getting Hakim Warrick into the game to try to gain the offensive production that Channing Frye has yet to provide this season on any type of a consistent basis. Warrick played 26 minutes and finished with 17 points and four assists — this, after receiving DNP-CDs in the Suns’ previous two games.

Ultimately, each team will have its own perspective on this one. The Suns will likely look at the fact that they were able to rally late on dead legs and almost come all the way back from 12 down in the fourth to get a win. The Raptors, meanwhile, will be thrilled with Bargnani’s return and the team’s ability to overcome its own double-digit deficit on the road to secure a win.

Trouble lies ahead for both clubs, and it’s not going to be an easy season for either of them. But the expectations are lower in Toronto, with a new coach in his first year with a squad no one expected to compete. In Phoenix, the playoffs were the realistic goal that was laid out to start the season. And as Jared Dudley said afterward on Twitter, what’s happening right now isn’t going to get them there.

“Can’t be a playoff team and lose to last couple teams we have played at home,” Dudley wrote. “Gotta figure this out. I believe in this team.”

Notes

– Robin Lopez was ejected in the second quarter for bumping an official while protesting a call. As an aside, the Suns were particularly interested in discussing the officiating on this night, with Gentry leading the way, and Gortat and Nash following right along for most of the night.

– James Johnson tied a career high in rebounds with 10, and Linus Kleiza tied a season high in rebounds with 10 for the Raptors.

– Toronto has now won just three times in its last 13 games, and all three wins have required 30 or more points from Bargnani.

– Toronto had lost 14 straight to Phoenix before Tuesday’s win. The Raptors last beat the Suns in February of 2004.

– Leandro Barbosa said there was no advantage to playing his former Suns team, that whatever knowledge he had of their old system is no longer there.

“I think that’s gone,” Barbosa said. “Last year was tough for me just to come and see my friends. It was tough. But that’s gone. I miss them and everything, but this is my team now. I came to play and win.”

Hornets coach Steve Clifford returns Wednesday after 21-game absence

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Hornets coach Steve Clifford returned to practice Tuesday following a 21-game absence due to headaches caused by sleep deprivation. He will coach the Hornets on the bench Wednesday night against the Wizards.

Clifford said Tuesday when he began experiencing intense headaches back in early December it scared him so bad he decided to take a medical leave of absence. Medical tests revealed nothing wrong internally, but Clifford said doctors told him he needed to dramatically change his lifestyle and work habits – and get more sleep.

Clifford, who last coached Charlotte on Dec. 1, says he feels rested and plans to delegate more to his assistant coaches moving forward.

The 56-year-old Clifford returns to the sideline Wednesday when Charlotte hosts Washington, the start of a five-game homestand for the struggling Hornets (17-25).

Charlotte was 9-12 under associate head coach Stephen Silas during Clifford’s absence.

 

Jonathan Isaac in sermon: I invited my Magic teammates to hear me preach, but none came

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Jonathan Isaac hasn’t played in a few weeks due an ankle injury.

But the Magic rookie hasn’t stayed out of the spotlight.

He delivered a sermon Sunday at his church, which put the speech online. In the talk, he mentioned his teammates.

Isaac:

I invited my teammates. Right? I invited my teammates, and that was the scariest thing I’ve ever had to do yet. None of them came, but I took the step, and I invited them. When Doc told me, “You should invite your teammates,” I was frozen. I froze. I said, “What? I’m the rookie. I’m the youngest person on the team. I can’t tell them that I’m about to preach. What? They don’t serve the lord. What are they going to think of me? What are they going to say about me? What are they going to say behind my back?” I want to be a part of this team. I want them to love me, truly. I typed the message up, and I deleted it. I typed it, and I deleted it. I typed it, and I deleted it. And finally, I was like, “You know what? This isn’t about me. I’ve got to take myself out of the equation. I’ve got to do what god is telling me to do.”

The Lando:

This is interesting on a couple levels.

I think it’s generally worth knowing what drives players. Religion is clearly an important part of Isaac’s life. That has anchored many athletes, but it can also create a burden, as Dwight Howard discussed.

Religion can also unite teams – or divide them. While coaching the Magic, Doc Rivers – himself very religious – ended team prayers once he noticed Muslim player Tariq Abdul-Wahad appear uncomfortable during the Christian prayers. A former teammate said David Robinson caused a rift in the Spurs’ locker room due to his proselytizing.

There’s also something to be said for teammates backing each other. Attending Isaac’s church for a day can be about supporting him, not adhering to his religion.

Of course, his teammates are under no obligation to attend. They’re co-workers, not necessarily friends. Maybe they just didn’t want to spend there free time with Isaac. Maybe they were busy. Maybe they felt uncomfortable going to church. There’s a whole range of possible reasons for each teammate, the way it affects team dynamics – on and off the court – varying accordingly.

Based on his sermon and follow-up statement, Isaac is going about this the right way. It can be nerve-wracking to ask people to join in something. That can be a meaningful experience in and of itself.

For the Magic, this provides another lens for which to assess their chemistry and camaraderie.

Three Things to Know: Anthony Davis gives Celtics fans 45 reasons to drool over him more

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. And we didn’t even get to 

1) Anthony Davis shows why Celtics’ fans drool over him, drops 45 in Pelicans win. There are executives and fans with 29 NBA teams who covet Anthony Davis and fantasize about would look like in their uniform. It’s just that Boston fans and executives are the loudest and least subtle about it. That despite the fact that Davis — a top-five NBA player who makes an impact at both ends of the floor — has three years on his contract after this one (the last one a player option) and the Pelicans are not trading him for the foreseeable future because they are not stupid (the feeling around the league is the Pelicans will re-sign DeMarcus Cousins next summer and go all-in with that combo). That didn’t stop Boston media from peppering Davis with questions Tuesday that basically amounted to little more than “so, just how badly do you want to come here and when can we expect you?” Davis dodged them all. As he should.

Tuesday night Davis gave Celtics fans a first-hand reminder why they want him so badly — he dropped 45 on the Celtics and led the Pelicans to a big win in the Boston Garden (his second 45+ point game, he did the same thing to the Knicks Saturday).

After a performance like that, Celtics fans would even be willing to trade Terry Rozier for Davis. Well, some of them would, not all. Some would construct a trade around Daniel Theis and think it was a fair swap.

Davis had help in this one, and not just from DeMarcus Cousins (who had 19 points and 15 rebounds). Jrue Holiday had 23 points, seven assists, and played fantastic defense on Kyrie Irving down the stretch (Irving had 27 points, but on 8-of-24 shooting). Davis, Cousins, and Holiday all had key buckets in the overtime session.

This win puts the Pelicans three games over .500 for only the second time this season, and now they head into a soft week in the schedule where (if focused) they should be able to pad their record a little. They need to. While right now the Pelicans are the six seed in the West, they are just one game ahead of the nine-seed Clippers — the race for the playoffs is on. New Orleans needs every win it can get.

2) Aaron Afflalo throws a punch (and misses) at Nemanja Bjelica, both men were ejected in actual, almost, NBA fight. Orlando’s Afflalo and Minnesota’s Bjelica had been going at it for a while in this game — both had already picked up a technical and things were getting chippy. Then midway through the second quarter, as the two men went for a rebound on a Jamal Crawford jumper, Bjelica just ran headlong into Afflalo as the Magic player looked like he was pass blocking.

That’s when a fight broke out and Afflalo threw a haymaker, which didn’t connect, then Bjelica gets him in a headlock.

Both men were ejected. Obviously.

That’s a lot closer to a fight than whatever happened in the secret tunnels of Staples Center between the Rockets and Clippers.

Afflalo is getting suspended for this — his punch was wild and didn’t connect, but that was a punch. Bjelica may miss a game or two as well for his role.

Orlando went on to upset the Timberwolves behind 32 points from Evan Fournier, snapping a five-game Minnesota win streak.

3) Nikola Jokic had a monster night, dropping 29 points and grabbing 18 boards. This year, the center position for the All-NBA teams feels wide open. (The league still makes people pick a center for this award, which is outdated for today’s game, but that’s the rules.) Joel Embiid is in the conversation for one of those slots (so long as he plays enough games), as is DeMarcus Cousins. LaMarcus Aldridge plays more center than power forward now and has to be mentioned. So does Karl-Anthony Towns, who has started to finally focus more on the defensive end.

Just don’t sleep on Nikola Jokic.

Denver’s best player had maybe his best game of the season Tuesday night, carving up Dallas to the tune of 29 points, 18 rebounds, and seven assists. Dallas threw a variety of defenders at him and it just didn’t matter.

Much like was mentioned with the Pelicans above, the Nuggets need to rack up wins. Just 1.5 games separates Oklahoma City at the five seed and the L.A. Clippers at the seven seed. Five teams for four spots. There’s half a season to go, and injuries will likely ultimately determine who is in and who is out, but Denver can’t afford to look past anyone, and scrappy teams like Dallas can be a tough out. This was a good win for the Nuggets on Tuesday, and Jokic is why they have it.

Watch Anthony Davis score 42 points in OT win over Celtics (VIDEO)

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New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis is on a bit of a tear.

Davis scored 48 points to go along with 17 rebounds on Sunday as the Pelicans beat the New York Knicks at MSG. Then on Tuesday night, Davis again went for 40+, scorching the Boston Celtics at TD Garden to the tune of 45 points, this time with 16 rebounds.

Alongside DeMarcus Cousins, who scored 19 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, Davis was the deciding factor in Tuesday’s game, helping to get early buckets in the extra time period.

The final result was impressive, and good news for the Pelicans as they continue to solidify their playoff position going into the All-Star break.

Watch the full highlights from Davis’ scoring outbreak in the video above.