Blake Griffin, Channing Frye, Grant Hill

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.”

Report: 76ers supporting, not blaming, Jahlil Okafor

Jahlil Okafor
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76ers rookie Jahlil Okafor fought a man in a Boston street.

The team has released a short, vague statement. CSN Philly:

“We are aware of the report and we are currently working to gather additional information. Until that time, we will have no further comment.”

But what do the 76ers really think?

Chris Broussard of ESPN:

I spoke with somebody close to him. They’ve talked to the 76ers. They’ve talked with the NBA.

The Sixers are very supportive of Okafor. They understand the situation, but they have to do their due diligence and look into it.

The Sixers are supporting him. They’re not blaming him. If they have to discipline, it still won’t sully him in their eyes.

Again, I’m told that they’re very supportive of him.

If the 76ers really support Okafor, they’ll do so publicly. Leaking their support anonymously doesn’t really move the needle.

I also find this report a little dubious, because Broussard only said he talked to someone close to Okafor. If the 76ers’ viewpoint came filtered through an Okafor rep, there could be a lot of spin – though it’s possible Broussard also spoke with someone from the team.

What choice do the 76ers have but to support Okafor, anyway? He’s a promising young player on a team that desperately needs hope. It seems he made a major mistake, but it’s not a career-ender. And as long as the 76ers are keeping him, they might as well stand by him.

However – based on what we’ve seen, which is obviously not everything – this incident should “sully him in their eyes.” He appeared to be the aggressor, and the team should be concerned by that. Perhaps, further investigation has provided extenuating circumstances, but absent new evidence, the 76ers should view him less favorably – and be proactive about helping him correct any underlying issues.

That’s the support Okafor needs from them.

Celtics president Danny Ainge on Brad Stevens: ‘He’s a keeper’

Brad Stevens

Celtics coach Brad Stevens has never finished a season with a winning record. He’s over .500 this year only because Boston came back to beat the lowly 76ers. He has never won a playoff game.

But Stevens – who signed a six-year, $22 million contract in 2013 – has plenty of job security.

Celtics president Danny Ainge, in a Q&A with Chris Forsberg of ESPN:

You’ve joked about it before, but are you ready to give him another six-year contract yet?

Ainge: [Laughs] Yeah.

You have to start thinking about that. Sure, we’re only in Year 3, but you can’t risk letting a good coach get away.

Ainge: No, listen, he’s a keeper. He’s great. He’s great to work with. Like I said, I think he’s going to be — if he stays in this game long enough — he’s going to be one of the great coaches.

I tend to agree with Ainge’s assessment. Stevens has looked like an excellent coach so far – implementing a sound defense, creating space on offense and communicating clearly with his players.

But Stevens has benefited tremendously from low expectations, arriving in Boston after Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen retired. Expectations sunk even lower when the Celtics traded Rajon Rondo last season.

That’s when Stevens appeared to do his best work, guiding a starless team to a 24-12 finish.

Expectations will keep rising, though. Some expected the Celtics to break out this year, but they’re just 8-7. Stevens faces the difficult task of managing a rotation full of pretty good – but no great – players. This might be his hardest NBA assignment yet.

Stevens has done plenty to earn praise from his boss. But to actually get a contract extension, he’ll have to keep meeting higher and higher expectations.

I believe Stevens is up to the challenge, but I’m not completely certain of it. He wouldn’t be the first coach to impress early in his tenure and then fizzle. Just look at how many Coach of the Year winners lost their jobs a short time later.

Again, I think Stevens will meet any reasonable expectations he faces. He just must actually do it to get a longer deal.

League executives, players wince watching this Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant

Over the last few days, we’ve written in more detail about Kobe Bryant‘s shooting troubles. He’s jacking up threes his fastest pace ever, he can’t create space to get off clean shots, he’s hitting 31.1 percent overall and 19.5 percent from three. There are flashes of vintage Kobe, but they are fleeting (and mostly because poor shot choices are falling). Byron Scott is still in Kobe’s corner, saying they just need to get the veteran better looks.

However, talk to people around the league about Kobe and you hear some variation of the phrase “hard to watch.” After 20 seasons, more than 55,000 minutes on the court, and coming off two major injuries, Kobe clearly is not the same player everyone admired for so long.

Over at the Los Angeles Times Mike Bresnahan and Broderick Turner got a number of sources to wince about Kobe for a story — except nobody wanted their name attached to attacking a legend of the game.

“Man, I don’t want to see Kobe go out like this, looking this bad and not able to do what he once could do,” said a retired guard who faced Bryant. “He doesn’t have anything else to prove to anybody. He was one of the greatest. I know he’s owed that $25 million, but he should just walk away now. He ain’t got it anymore.”

“He’s one of the few players in NBA history to have gotten everything possible out of his body. Now his body has nothing left to give,” (an Eastern Conference executive) said. “But that’s life in the NBA, in professional sports. At some point, the body just can’t do it anymore and Kobe’s body can’t do it anymore.”

One West scout said Bryant looked “disinterested” at times. A current player in the West went a step further.

“Yeah, I’ve seen him play and it’s disgusting,” he said. “He’s one of the best of all time. But he really hasn’t played that much in the last two or three years. He’s got nothing left. It’s sad to watch because he used to be so great, and I mean great.”

Kobe is not going to walk away mid-season, and nobody wants an injury to force him out of the game.

But it’s hard to see how anything is going to dramatically change. Kobe may shoot a little better than his current but it’s not likely going to change in a meaningful way. Which will just make things hard to watch for a full season.

Spurs to give Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili Friday night off in Denver

Manu Ginobili, Harrison Barnes, Tim Duncan
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The Spurs are 12-3 and comfortably in second place in the West, they have the best defense in the NBA allowing just 93.8 points per 100 possessions, and they have a top-10 offense to go with it.

So, time to start making sure guys are rested.

That is the first night of a back-to-back, with former Spurs’ assistant coach Mike Budenholzer and his Atlanta Hawks coming to San Antonio on Saturday. Popovich is saving his two veterans for that game.

Duncan and Ginobili have looked like they found the fountain of youth this season. Duncan is taking on less of the offense but has been very efficient in those moments. Ginobili has the impact he did a few years back in his bench role.

What Gregg Popovich cares about is them playing like that come the postseason. So they will rest on Friday.