Suns shut down Blake Griffin, win ugly over the Clippers

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As the starting lineups took the floor Friday night in Phoenix for a nationally televised contest between the Clippers and the Suns, the matchup that looked to be far and away the most favorable for L.A. was Channing Frye against Blake Griffin.

Griffin, after all, leads the league in dunks, and is so athletically gifted that the Suns’ entire game plan was built around stopping him from making the kinds of plays he’s become famous for — the flying slams that get his team hyped, and the ones that lead the late edition of SportsCenter.

There was one message on the Suns’ whiteboard in the locker room before the game, and it was this: “Stay between starting bigs and the basket.” Phoenix did this to perfection, and Frye was able to hold his own against Griffin defensively, so the Suns were able to grind out a hard-fought 81-78 victory, the team’s second in as many nights.

“Channing was great,” Steve Nash said afterward. “He battled, he hustled, he took a lot of contact, and made it tough on Blake. He wasn’t able to get straight lines to the basket or spin off for dunks, so he did a great job. It was key for us tonight to try to make it difficult for him.”

Griffin finished with 17 points and seven rebounds, on just 6-of-19 shooting. But through three quarters, he had just 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting, and ended the game by finishing a three-point play with the outcome having already been decided.

Frye was physical with Griffin from the opening tip, and his length made things tough for Blake when he did try to shoot over him. It didn’t help Griffin’s cause that Grant Hill — who did an outstanding job guarding Chris Paul, and held him to just 16 points and five assists on 6-of-15 shooting — was able to come help and double Griffin without any consequences.

The Suns were dismal offensively in the first half, recording season-lows in both first-quarter points (17) and first-half points (32). But while the Clippers had their opponent on the ropes down 11 more than halfway through the second quarter, they allowed Phoenix to close to within three at the half, thanks to giving the reserves a longer leash than usual.

“We had a game last night,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro began, when asked about his rotations in the second. “You want to get them rested, you want to get them to where they can play a lot in the second half because you knew Phoenix was going to make some shots and make a run. Our bench played really well last night, they got kind of a little bit of a momentum, a little bit of a rhythm so I wanted to kind of feel them out a little bit.”

Had Del Negro gone back to the starters a bit earlier, he might have been able to extend the lead to a comfortable margin that the Suns would have had trouble coming back from — especially on a night where Nash admitted he simply didn’t have it. But Paul and Griffin weren’t inserted back into the game until there was just over two and a half minutes left in the half.

“It’s tough to lose a lead like that, but it’s on all of us,” Griffin said.

Despite the fact that the Clips battled back from a double-digit deficit of their own in the second half to tie the game with under three minutes to play, their chance to put this game away was lost by not extending their lead when they had the chance. Phoenix did what it set out to do, and made things difficult for Griffin all night long, keeping him away from the front of the rim, and off of the late-night highlights.

“It was a great win,” Nash said. “Obviously I didn’t have it tonight. A lot of guys stepped up and made big plays, so it was a great team win. Those are the kinds of wins, those ugly wins, that we’ve been missing on our home floor. That was against a good team, so it was very important.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo slashes Celtics, forces Game 7 in Boston

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The Milwaukee Bucks needed a big game from Giannis Antetokounmpo on Thursday night. Boy, did they get it.

After a disappointing in Game 5 in Boston, Antetokounmpo was fearsome in his return to the Bradley Center for Game 6. The Bucks were able to keep their defensive intensity up, and we got the game most of us expected from Antetokounmpo in a return to his home court: complete domination on the biggest stage.

The game started out much the way we’ve seen in this series — sort of kooky. It was another low-scoring affair as the first half closed with Milwaukee leading, 49-38. The Celtics couldn’t get things rolling offensively, and were saved by baskets in the paint in the first quarter. Boston scored just 15 points in the second period, saving themselves with makes from beyond the 3-point line.

The real story of the game came in the second half. Antetokounmpo would not let up from the gas, scoring both as the Bucks center and on the break. Milwaukee’s franchise player matched up against Al Horford all night long, and the battle between the two was intense. Both seemed to want to muscle each other, and for different stretches they both got the better of each other.

Boston battled back, eventually tying the game at 61-61 with 4:21 to go in the third. The Celtics’ charge was led by Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Horford, all three of whom allowed Boston to make up a 14-point deficit. Boston played carefully, allowing their young wings to do the work. Despite not having a fastbreak point until late in the third, they also didn’t have their first turnover of the second half until there was little more than three minutes to go in the same quarter. Antetokounmpo, who couldn’t let Boston’s run continue after the tie, turned on the jets to close the quarter and Milwaukee entered the fourth period with a 9-point lead they would never cede.

The fourth quarter was much of the same, with the matchup between Antetokounmpo, Horford, and Horford’s backup in Aron Baynes. Several times, Antetokounmpo ran full speed after starting with the ball on the opposite free-throw line, going right at either Horford or Baynes. But the Bucks star wasn’t completely selfish. He managed to stave off tunnel vision, at times finding teammates on his spins to the bucket.

A lot of talk was made about Antetokounmpo’s poor performance in Game 5, a career playoff-low of 16 points on just 10 field goal attempts. The Greek Freak made sure that didn’t happen again, finishing the game with 31 points on 13-of-23 shooting, adding 14 rebounds, four assists, and two steals.

Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton were amped up as well. Both finished with 16 points, and as a team the Bucks scored 25 points on the break, with 50 points coming from the painted area, topping Boston in both regards.

For the Celtics, Tatum led the way with 22 points on six-of-14 shooting, adding three rebounds and three assists. Terry Rozier continued his playoff emergence, scoring 18 points while nabbing seven rebounds and dishing out five assists. Boston shot just 27.8 percent from the 3-point line.

Game 7 now heads back to Massachusetts, where we will see if Antetokounmpo can keep his foot to the floor and drive the Bucks past the second-seeded Celtics on Saturday.

Stephen Curry back in full practice mode for Warriors

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) Stephen Curry resumed full practice with contact and could play for the defending champion Golden State Warriors as soon as Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals Saturday night against New Orleans.

Curry looked strong as he practiced Thursday wearing a protective brace over his sprained left knee, which has sidelined him since the injury March 23 – the same day he returned from a six-game absence because of a hurt right ankle.

Coach Steve Kerr is calling Curry questionable for Saturday. That could change if the two-time NBA MVP still feels fine Friday and is fine after one more day of full practice before the Pelicans visit Oracle Arena to begin the best-of-seven series.

“Steph practiced at 100 percent, he did everything, he looked good,” Kerr said. “What we have to do is see how his body responds the rest of the day, put him through another practice tomorrow. I think he needs to string together two good days but it was very positive today. … I think it’s been coming along pretty well. When we were in San Antonio and I was asked a question about how he was doing, I think I was able to give an answer, `He’s doing great but we haven’t ramped him up yet.’ I think today was an important day because it’s the first time he’s actually gone live action and he was allowed to go through practice. And he appears fine.”

Curry went through his usual shooting work with Kevin Durant from various spots after practice, cutting and exhibiting his fancy footwork and dribbling skills. The Warriors have played well without their floor leader, eliminating the San Antonio Spurs in Game 5 of the first-round series with a 99-91 win Tuesday night.

The Pelicans will present a different, faster pace for the Warriors, so getting Curry back to push the ball and direct the offense would be important. Andre Iguodala, the 2015 NBA Finals MVP, started in the first round in his place while Quinn Cook handled point guard duties late in the regular season with Curry out.

“We’re excited. I know he’s very eager to play,” said Klay Thompson. “He’s a competitor, so sitting out I know kills him. We can’t wait for him to get back whenever that is.”

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

PBT Extra: How big a threat are Pelicans to Warriors?

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Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and the New Orleans Pelicans were the surprise of the first round of the NBA playoffs. We knew they were good, but they looked dominant on both ends sweeping the three-seed Portland Trail Blazers right out of the postseason (and into a somber period of reflection).

New Orleans looked like the best team in the West in the first round and now they take all that momentum to Golden State where… let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

In this PBT Extra I discuss how the Pelicans have found an identity, but the matchups against Warriors are dramatically more challenging than what they saw in Portland. And that’s before Stephen Curry returns to the fold.

The Pelicans are a great story, but the pecking order in the West is real for good reason.

Nuggets’ Mason Plumlee undergoes surgery to fix core-muscle injury

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DENVER — Denver Nuggets center Mason Plumlee underwent surgery to fix a core-muscle injury.

The team said Plumlee had the procedure performed Thursday morning by Dr. William Meyers in Philadelphia.

Plumlee is expected to return to basketball activities this summer and be ready for training camp in the fall. He averaged 7.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists for a Nuggets team that narrowly missed out on the postseason.

The 28-year-old Plumlee was acquired by Denver as part of a deal in February 2017 that sent center Jusuf Nurkic to Portland. Plumlee signed a three-year, $41 million deal with the Nuggets last September.