National attention on the way for a Suns team that’s earned it in recent weeks

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Suns owner Robert Sarver made a rare appearance at Alvin Gentry’s pre-game media session before Sunday night’s game against the Rockets, which the head coach traditionally holds in a very relaxed atmosphere in his office.

Sarver was in good spirits and wanted to joke around a little, and with the way his team has played over the past month or so, his mood was completely understandable.

Curious to know the various media outlets that were there in attendance, Sarver walked the medium-sized room, looking at the credentials hanging around the necks of the assembled press, taking them in his hand and reading them aloud.

When he got to mine, since I was one of the few people in the room representing national coverage, Sarver decided to ask some questions. He was very good-natured while grilling me, and there were plenty of laughs while this was going on. But he wanted some answers.

“NBC. How come you don’t show us on anything,” he challenged.

I reminded him I’m here for just about every home game.

“I know. But nationally, nothing. It’s like we’re not in the league right now,” he exclaimed.

It’s coming, I told him. (And that’s true: It was the plan anyway if the Suns were able to beat the short-handed Rockets.)

“Does anything get covered?!”

Plenty gets covered, I told him.

“Where?”

I promised to send him the link — one which will be on its way directly after the Suns took care of business and beat the Rockets 99-86 to move above .500 for the first time all season, and within just a half-game of the eighth and final playoff seed in the Western Conference standings.

Just a month ago, a climb back into the race for a spot in the postseason — especially this quickly — seemed like an impossibility. Back on Feb. 17, Phoenix was a dismal 12-19, had lost four straight and five out of six, and looked more like a team planning a trip to the draft lottery than one interested in making a run to the playoffs.

Since then, however, Phoenix has won 11 of 14, and finds itself relevant and realistically looking at a postseason chance for the first time since training camp. The only team with a better mark is the Chicago Bulls, who went 12-2 during that stretch, but who also have the best record in the league at 37-10.

You could see those stretches coming from that Chicago team. But this run from these Suns wasn’t anywhere close to being expected.

As the players and coaches have been asked to explain the sudden success in recent days, the immeasurable metric of chemistry is the one that comes up again and again.

“I really think the chemistry has just come together,” Gentry said. “And I don’t know how that happens, and I don’t know if anyone can really tell you how that happens. But I think our guys feel really good about themselves.”

One way it happens is that guys who find themselves out of the rotation — whether for one game or for a few weeks — stay ready.  They don’t cause problems in the locker room by griping about playing time that wasn’t earned, or opportunities that weren’t there to be given. They remain professional, and support their teammates who do get those chances on a consistent basis.

“I don’t know where I’ve had a team where it’s been this good,” Gentry said of his bench players not complaining about missed minutes. “Guys, I’m telling you, it’s really tough to sit over there and not play. And you can make it miserable on the coaching staff or on your teammates, and none of those guys do that here. None of those guys do that.

“I think the big thing for them is that they always feel like at some stage, they’ll get an opportunity again.”

Michael Redd, who’s had his fair share of DNP-CDs this season but broke out for 25 points in Sunday’s win over Houston, echoed Gentry’s sentiment, while offering a reason why.

“Because the agenda is winning,” he said. “Shannon Brown’s won two championships, he knows what it takes to win. Grant (Hill) and Steve (Nash) have won. I’ve been in some winning situations. When you have guys who have experienced winning, it kind of permeates throughout the team. And the team kind of follows suit, and guys prepare themselves.

“We genuinely want to see each other succeed, and that’s big.”

The bench unit as a whole has been the key to the Suns recent surge. Early in the season, as Gentry struggled to find the right rotations, the second unit would allow large leads to disappear, and their ineptitude would force the starters to play long minutes, leaving them gassed in the fourth quarters of tight games.

Lately, the consistency has been there to the point where Gentry has found a competent 10-man rotation where the five guys he uses off the bench can each function for 17 minutes or so a night.

“Amazing,” Nash said of the way the bench has played. “Obviously it was a special one (last Thursday) in L.A., (when Phoenix beat the Clippers with Nash and Hill out) but since the All-Star break really, the bench has been really good, and it’s kind of turned our season around.”

Shannon Brown has provided perhaps the most consistent spark off the bench, and he told NBCSports.com that chemistry comes easily when everyone has a hand in the team’s overall success.

“Whenever you come together as a team and win, and win consistently, where everybody contributes, that’s the main goal,” he said. “You want everybody that’s playing to go out there and contribute in the way that they know how, and that’s what we’ve been doing.

“We feel good about ourselves, we’ve got a little win streak going, and we’re making a real conscious effort to try to make it to the playoffs.”

Playoffs were the goal in Phoenix before the season began, a mantra that was recited repeatedly by everyone from top to bottom throughout the organization. After the painfully-slow start the team got off to by going 7-9 in its first 16 home games, it’s once again a topic on the table thanks to this recent run of victories.

Nash was asked after Friday’s game if the results of this homestand were beyond his expectations.

“It’s getting there,” Nash said. “Maybe not even just the home stand, but the season, where we’re beginning to exceed what people thought of us.”

As the Suns continue to exceed expectations, the national media will catch up. Maybe not quite yet, though, considering Phoenix does play its next two games back-to-back on the road in Miami and Orlando. But if the way the Suns have played during this stretch continues, while the qualities of confidence, chemistry and “cohesion” (as Nash likes to say) that have finally started to show themselves on the court remain in plain sight, then Phoenix has a completely legitimate shot at making that coveted trip to the playoffs.

And that will net Mr. Sarver all of the national coverage he desires.

NBA Three Things to Know: Russell Westbrook is back to triple-double ways

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Every night in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, and that was certainly true on the first TNT Thursday night games of the season. 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.

1) Another game, another Russell Westbrook triple-double — but this time he had two 20+ point friends to help. If all you saw was the box score, you’d think this was the perfect opening night for the Oklahoma City Thunder — they won by 21 (105-84), their defense looked dominant in stretches (allowing 17 points in the third quarter), and their stars had big nights. Russell Westbrook had 20 points, 16 assists and 10 rebounds for another triple-double, Paul George had 28, and Carmelo Anthony 22.

However, if you watched the game, you saw a very good team that had some work to do. The Thunder big three combined for 71 points, yet they were just a +8 when on the court as a trio. There was still a lot of them playing next to each other — “you take a turn in isolation, now I go” — and not the ball switching sides into quick action that they need. It’s not all bad, these are three very good isolation players, but to make the whole more than the sum of the parts that’s the next step. Still, the three of them played well, and Stephen Adams was able to set a physical tone. The OKC bench is a bit of a concern, but it’s not like the Knicks could exploit that.

It was a good start for OKC fans, they got a win and their stars racked up impressive numbers. Nothing wrong with that.

For New York, Kristaps Porzingis looked good scoring 31. Beyond that… just watch some Kristaps Porzingis highlights, that’s the best we’ve got for Knicks’ fans.

2) Blake Griffin, Patrick Beverley bring a dose of reality to Lonzo Ball, Lakers’ hype machine. I live in Los Angeles, and I had a Lakers’ fan friend trying to pitch to me how they were good enough to be a playoff team in the West. I just shook my head at the idea, but the Lakers and Lonzo Ball hype machine had been in overdrive all summer, and some Lakers’ fans were not just drinking the Kool-Aid, they were chugging it.

Blake Griffin, Patrick Beverley, and the Los Angeles Clippers woke Lakers fans up to reality Thursday night. They showed those Lakers’ fans what a playoff team in the West looks like. The Clippers cruised to a 108-92 win that wasn’t that close, the Clippers led by 30 at one point.

Griffin had 29 points and played as moved as well as we’ve seen him in a year (get to No. 3 on our list). Patrick Beverley was physical and in Lonzo Ball’s face from the opening tip, ““(I had to) welcome his little young a** to the NBA.” DeAndre Jordan had 24 rebounds, 14 points, and owned the paint. The Clippers defended while the young Lakers struggled on every front on that side — they don’t have a lot of talented defenders, their young players often don’t know where to be, and there was a real lack of effort on that end.

Griffin did a good job protecting the rim (the most active I have seen him down there in years), that was in addition to Jordan’s usual efforts in that phase of the game. Lou Williams did what he does and gave the team a dozen points off the bench. Danilo Gallinari struggled a little with his shot (3-of-11) but played hard on the defensive end. The Clippers got solid bench games from Austin Rivers and Willie Reed.

The Lakers are still a young team learning to play. Ball has to become more comfortable scoring to open up the passes he wants to make in the half court, but he was just 1-of-6 as a reluctant shooter (and admitted after the game he needs to be more aggressive). More concerning, Brandon Ingram was 3-of-15 shooting, he continues to struggle from everywhere — he was just 1-of-5 at the rim, 1-of-7 in the paint overall, and 2-of-8 outside it. As a team the Lakers shot 35.4 percent in the first half, and for the game were 11-of-42 outside the paint.

As young teams will do, the Lakers let their missed shots effect their defensive effort, and that’s what did them in.

It’s going to be a long season filled with some harsh lessons for the young Lakers. The Clippers were just happy to provide the first one.

3) If you think Blake Griffin doesn’t dunk anymore… we suggest you ask Julius Randle about that. Or, just watch this video. Maybe he doesn’t throw it down as often, but he still brings the power when he goes to the rim.

After months of hype, reality proves harsh for Lonzo Ball, Lakers in opener

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LOS ANGELES — Hollywood is built on hype. The Lakers know hype like no other NBA franchise.

Lonzo Ball has been at the heart of the Lakers’ hype factory summer, and it had been working overtime. From being drafted No. 2, through selling out Summer League games in Las Vegas and winning that league’s MVP, through selling out meaningless preseason games the Lonzo hype in Los Angeles had reached epic proportions.

Thursday night it met reality.

Reality in the form of the Clippers’ Patrick Beverley being in his face from the opening tip, giving him no space or quarter. Reality in the form of Clippers defenders cutting off most of his look-ahead options in transition (although Ball had a few). Reality in the form of his shot not falling — he was 1-of-6 — and reality in the form of his teammates missing when Ball did make a good pass.

Reality in terms of a 108-92 loss where the Lakers were not competitive with Blake Griffin and the guys they share the building with.

“We got blown out, so I didn’t play too well,” Ball said.

“I just had to set the tone,” Beverley said of his physical play from the start. “I told him after the game, due to all the riffraff his dad brings he’s going to get a lot of people coming at him. He’s got to be ready for that, and I let him know after the game…

“(I had to) welcome his little young a** to the NBA.”

That’s cold — and it’s far kinder than what he yelled outside the Rockets’ locker room after the game.

Thanks to a combination of his father, his game, and the yearning of Lakers’ nation to have their next superstar, Ball entered the game with ridiculous amounts of hype — and unrealistic expectations. Magic Johnson was a national champion and a No. 1 pick when he first came to the Lakers, and he said there was far less hype around him.

“It wasn’t even close to this,” Johnson said pregame. “You didn’t have social media, you didn’t have talk shows like this….

“I was known, like he’s known, you know that whole high pick (thing). And the NBA played it up like they’re playing it up now. But it wasn’t even close to this. From the social media standpoint, and ESPN and Fox Sports and all if it, this is so much bigger than I can ever imagine. And then I wasn’t from here. This young man is from here, he wanted to be a Laker.”

Magic also won his first game (then ran over and hugged a surprised Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).

Lonzo’s Lakers got thumped.

Ball finished the night 1-of-6 from the floor, his one basket a three-pointer in the middle of the second quarter. Ball sat the fourth quarter of the blowout. In half court, Clippers defenders were playing off Ball and daring him to shoot. He couldn’t drive around Austin Rivers a couple times in isolation. Ball did pull down nine rebounds, and he had four assists — he could have had more, but his teammates were missing. The Lakers were 11-of-42 outside the paint and desperately missedKentavious Caldwell-Pope’s outside shooting and floor spacing (he is suspended the first two games of the season due to a DUI). Look at the Lakers’ shot chart.

The problem with the young Lakers is those missed shots on offense got into their head on defense and they didn’t give the same effort on that end. It showed. Blake Griffin finished with 29 points on 23 shots, was 3-of-6 from beyond the arc, and had 12 boards in an impressive performance. DeAndre Jordan had 14 points and 24 rebounds, and Danilo Gallinari had 11.

It was a good win for a Clippers team with playoff aspirations. They played hard, meshed well for a lot of new faces, and played pretty good defense for stretches.

After it was over, the Lakers chalked it up as a learning experience. They will have a lot of those this season.

“It was good for (Lonzo),” Lakers coach Luke Walton said of the rough first night. “Beverley is as good as anyone, if not the best, at the point guard position of getting into other people and getting under their skin. I thought Zo kept his composure.”

He needs to keep his composure because the hype and pressure aren’t going away. Not in Los Angeles. Not with Lakers fans, who consider contending for a title their birthright.

“That’s what happens when you play in L.A.,” Ball said. “Everybody expects you to do well, and if you don’t they’ll get somebody else to do it…

“The good thing about the NBA is we have 81 more (games). We’re 0-1. It’s only one loss, tomorrow we can bounce back.”

The good news for Ball is the defense he faces should be a little softer Friday night against the Suns.

Watch Lonzo Ball’s first points as a Laker (VIDEO)

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LOS ANGELES — Lonzo Ball‘s welcome to the NBA was a bit rough. Patrick Beverleyas he said would happen before the game — was in Ball’s space and physical with him from the start. Clippers defenders got back and cut off those push the ball ahead passes Ball loves. In his first quarter as a Laker Ball 0-of-3 from the floor, missed two free throws, and didn’t pick up an assist.

But in the second quarter, Ball got his first bucket as a Laker. After Beverley and Blake Griffin miscommunicated on a screen, Ball got a clean look at a three and knocked it down. The Staples Center crowd erupted.

It was a rough first night for Ball in the NBA, with the defense focused on him. He’s got game, he can adapt, but there are going to be some rough learning experiences this season.

Fake Klay Thompson, James Harden, and Kobe Bryant emerge (PHOTO)

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Tuesday night was the start of the new NBA season and with the games came more of what we love from the NBA sphere: weird stuff you only see from the best fans on earth.

During the Golden State Warriors’ home opener against the Houston Rockets, a fan behind the bench came dressed as Klay Thompson complete with uniform, beard, and haircut.

This did not go unnoticed on social media, and Steve Kerr was even asked about the doppelgänger after the game. For the record Kerr said, “I thought it was a perfect metaphor for our conditioning level.”

Yikes, sweet coach burn.

In case you missed it, this is what that fan looked like:

Warriors would have won if coach put me in the game.

A post shared by Daws (@bigdawstv) on

That is YouTuber Big Daws, who of course was given free tickets to the game by SeatGeek. That video now has more than two million views and comes complete with a SeatGeek discount code. As is everything in 2017, even something you think is just a fun Halloween costume is actually an ad.

Culture begets culture and soon followed a new doppelgänger in Sacramento. Again, the Rockets were involved in this one as as a fan came dressed up as Houston guard James Harden. No word yet on whether this guy has a popular YouTube channel or what his offer code is, but here’s what he looked like:

This cultural phenomenon had folks looking for other NBA lookalikes around them this week, and someone came up with this Kobe Bryant twin:

This really is the best league. I can’t wait for that Big Daws guy to shave his goatee and cosplay as Ryan Anderson at a Rockets game.

Anyway, please stop by in the comment section below to get 15% off your next visit to NBCSports.com/NBA by using the code DOPPELGÄNGER at checkout.