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.
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.
Report: Nuggets actively trying to trade Jusuf Nurkic
A player who is sure to move between now and the trade deadline?
Denver’s Jusuf Nurkic.
Sources say that the Nuggets, having acknowledged that Nikola Jokic and Nurkic didn’t click as a pairing, are actively working to find Nurkic a new home that would give him the chance he deserves to be a front-line center.
Nurkic can help a lot of teams. Just not the Nuggets.
Only 22, he’s an intimidating interior presence. He scores well in the paint, and he provides tough defense. He has lowered his high foul rate. If reducing turnovers is the next step in refining his game, that’d be welcome.
It shouldn’t be difficult to find a team that values Nurkic more than Denver does. It’s just a matter of determining which team values him most.
Kenneth Faried can handle the role in certain matchups, but if they trade Nurkic, the Nuggets will need someone to play center when Jokic sits. Still, that’s a small complication in a plan that makes sense overall.
Despite being anchored by 108 minutes of Jokic and Nurkic sharing the court, Denver is in playoff position at 18-25. Simply removing Nurkic from the starting lineup has produced a 9-8 stretch. The Nuggets have moved on with Jokic as a franchise cornerstone. It’s time to get Nurkic to a place he can thrive.
Report: Phil Jackson told Carmelo Anthony he disagreed with Charley Rosen’s criticism
A league source with knowledge of the team’s thinking said before the Tuesday meeting that the Knicks want Anthony to stay “as long as it’s mutual.”
Anthony holds the final say due to his no-trade clause, but he also said he’d consider waiving it if the Knicks want to rebuild. So, Jackson’s opinion matters.
Most likely, the uneasy partnership continues. Anthony remains with the Knicks, because he likes the overall package – living and playing in New York – enough to handle the downsides. The Knicks keep losing, because they’ve committed too much to a declining Anthony and have failed to add quality pieces around him.
It could make sense to rebuild around Kristaps Porzingis, though that would likely mean moving Anthony, Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee. It seems nobody wants to go to that much trouble with Anthony preferring to stay.
NBA Power Rankings week 14: Golden State is setting the bar high for everyone else
The Warriors have solidified their place at the top of these rankings, but from about 10-20 I feel like any team could get hot and make a leap — or get cold and fall fast. Also, Brooklyn is the Bizarro Warriors, having solidified their spot on the bottom of these rankings.
1. Warriors (38-6, Last Week No. 1). This was supposed to be a rough week, a test of the Golden State’s toughness — then they went out and beat the Cavaliers by 35, the Thunder by 21, and Rockets by 17. Golden State now has the top rated offense AND defense in the NBA for the season. And as much as they aren’t trying, they are on pace to win 70 games. So yes, they have set the bar to clear this season, again. Five of their next seven games are on the road.
2. Spurs (34-9, LW 2). The loss of Pau Gasol for a couple months (give or take) is a setback, but this team just keeps on rolling — see the win over the Cavaliers. Is it time we started mentioning this team as a real contender? I still have questions about their athleticism and if that haunts them in a seven-game series against elite teams, but the Spurs just know how to win, and they are going to be there deep into the playoffs. If we get a Spurs/Cavaliers NBA Finals, their Sunday night overtime thriller showed that would be plenty entertaining.
3. Rockets (34-13, LW 3). They have dropped four of their last seven, and while you can understand losses to Golden State and a split with Memphis, losses like Miami sting. More alarming is that in their last seven games that vaunted offense has dropped out of the top 10 in the league (11th for that stretch). It should help that Clint Capela is back from injury and Ryan Anderson should be as well this week. They are on a four-game road swing through the East this week, including the Celtics and Sixers.
4. Cavaliers (30-12, LW 4). They got crushed by the Warriors — in a game they clearly didn’t take all that seriously — and fell to the Spurs on Saturday, meaning they have lost 4-of-6. That said, they have a 2.5 game cushion in the East and LeBron-led teams always seem to have these mini-slumps during the season, then they flip the switch back to “on.” Look for the Cavaliers to get right this week with games against Pelicans, Kings and Nets.
5. Jazz (29-16, LW 8). Utah has not had an All-Star representative since 2011, but that should change this week when at least one of (if not both) Gordon Hayward or Rudy Gobert get picked (Gobert having a 25/25 game recently has to help his cause). Utah has won six in a row — and that includes beating Cleveland. As the Clippers fall down the standings due to injury, the Jazz will be the four seed, and their goal should be to hold on to that spot and have home court in the first round.
6. Hawks (26-18 LW 11). They are 9-2 in January and are just half a game back of the Celtics for the three seed, which is why in these rankings they have made the leap — they may be the hottest team in the East. Will that be enough to get Paul Millsap an All-Star nod? He deserves it with his play and numbers, but he’s certainly on the bubble in the East with so many good guards and Joel Embiid playing well. As an aside, nobody seems to think Millsap is really off the trade market, but also nobody thinks anyone will put together an offer that will really tempt the Hawks.
7. Raptors (28-15, LW 6). They have lost three games in a row (and 8-of-14, if you go back), and now they will be without DeMar DeRozan for at least the first two games of this week. No Patrick Patterson is certainly part of that, they are already thin at the four, but more so they miss the Kyle Lowry’s shooting (he has shot 35.6% overall and 25.9% from three in those games), plus they have struggled to contain penetration on drives. Despite his recent struggles, Lowry should be selected as an All-Star reserve by the coaches.
8. Celtics (26-17, LW 7). He’s not going to be a starter like he arguably should have been, but Isaiah Thomas will be picked by the coaches and play in the All-Star Game next month. Thomas averaged 38.3 points a game last week — but the Celtics still lost to the Knicks and Trail Blazers. They miss Avery Bradley. That is why they haven’t moved past the Raptors on these rankings… yet. Not that anyone in Boston will notice or care too much about anything Celtics until after the Super Bowl.
9. Clippers (29-16, LW 5).Chris Paul needed surgery on his right hand and will be out until March, which is a huge blow as they are +15.9 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court (and have been outscored when he is off it, although there is a lot of noise in those numbers). On the bright side, Blake Griffin should return to the lineup this week or next. Still, the goal for the Clippers needs to be not to fall too far then climb back up to the four or five seed in the final month of the season — and stay healthy for the playoffs.
10. Wizards (23-20, LW 12). Is Sidney Lowe their best defender? Maybe he could have boxed out Marcus Morris last week, but either way remember that this team stumbled out of the gate (3-9) and have been good ever since. The Wizards have been particularly strong against the other middle-of-the-pack teams in the East and they need to continue that with the Hornets, Celtics, and Hawks on the schedule this week. The Wizards could use Bradley Beal to break out of his mini-slump.
11. Thunder (25-19, LW 9).Russell Westbrook seemed less concerned that he wasn’t an All-Star Game starter than the NBA Twitterers was, but we all know he’s just going to use that as more motivation (I’d bet on him to win the ASG MVP now). The Thunder are 1-3 on their current road trip and 4-6 through a tough stretch in January (that doesn’t let up until the end of the month, with tough games on the road in Utah and Cleveland this week).
12. Grizzlies (26-20, LW 10). Another team with a couple guys on the All-Star Game bubble: You can make a strong case for both Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. My guess is only one of them makes it in (along with one member of the Jazz, for balance). Of more immediate concern in Memphis is this team has lost 3-of-4 and the defense has been unimpressive in that stretch. Gasol’s offense has been fantastic of late, but he could use some help from Chandler Parsons.
13. Hornets (23-21, LW 17). The good news is they have won three in a row after a rough stretch (an 0-5 road trip where their defense was forgettable). Kemba Walker had a couple huge games in that stretch — will it be enough to get him named an All-Star Game reserve? He deserves it for his season, but with so many good guards and guys like Joel Embiid making a push, I fear that Walker will be the odd man out.
14. Pacers (22-21, LW 14).. The loss to the Lakers last week is the kind of game a team in a tight playoff race needs to win. As for the loss to Utah, that was just George Hill salt in the wound. Indiana is home for three of its next four, which is good because this team struggles to defend consistently on the road and is 6-16 away from the Fieldhouse, but is 16-6 at home.
15. Bulls (22-23, LW 13). Dwyane Wade is tweeting out apologies to fans for the team’s effort, and the front office is trying to find new homes for Rajon Rondo and Nikola Mirotic. Like TNT, the Bulls know drama. While the front office looks at roster tweets, the question becomes can Jimmy Butler get this team into the playoffs. They need wins against teams like Orlando, Atlanta, and Philly this week to do so, but who knows what we’ll get from the inconsistent Bulls.
16. Pistons (21-24, LW 19). The up-and-down Pistons are up again, having won three in a row — maybe all the trade rumors woke this team up (don’t look for Reggie Jackson to be moved unless some team comes up with a huge offer). Stanley Johnson has played better (and gotten more consistent run) of late, but the play of the week belonged to Marcus Morris.
17. Nuggets (18-25, LW 23). Nikola Jokic is not going to be an All-Star this year, but keep having months like he has this January — averaging 23.4 points and 10.7 rebounds a game — and we will be talking about him a year from now. If I were going to keep an eye on a guy who could get moved at the deadline, it’s Jusuf Nurkic — he doesn’t fit with Jokic but he would have real value on other rosters.
18. 76ers (15-27, LW 25). When Joel Embiid plays — particularly with new starters T.J. McConnell and Nik Stauskas — the Sixers are a good team. The big question around the Sixers is will the coaches put Joel Embiid in the All-Star Game? My guess is no, they are a little old school because of his minutes restriction. Plus if he goes, a deserving player such as Kemba Walker stays home. But Embiid in New Orleans would be fun. #raisethecat
19. Bucks (20-23, LW 13). Kris Middleton can’t get back soon enough. The Bucks have dropped five games in a row, they have the worst net rating in the NBA in that stretch, and it’s not one end of the court — in those five games the Bucks had the second-worst defense and fourth-worst offense in the NBA. It’s going to be a tough week to turn that around with the Rockets, resurgent Sixers, Raptors, and Celtics on the schedule.
20. Trail Blazers (19-27, LW 16).. You wonder how a team with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum can be out of the playoffs in the West (if they started today), then you see they got crushed by the Hornets and lost to the Sixers thanks to Robert Covington and you see the inconsistency that plagues this squad. Portland starts a five-game homestand and this is where they need to start their push to secure the eight seed (not sure they can make up the 7 games for seventh) — if it doesn’t happen now it may never.
21. Knicks (19-26 LW 20). Carmelo Anthony’s run of seven consecutive All-Star Games will come to an and this season, but that’s the least of the drama around him the past week. At least with all the Anthony trade rumor talk we stopped discussing about Derrick Rose going AWOL (he’s had a few strong games lately). It’s been a hard-luck run for the Knicks, whose last three losses have come by a total of six points. But New York has had a run of close losses all season.
22. Pelicans (17-27, LW 18). Anthony Davis is an All-Star starter for the game in his town, which is nice. It’s about the best thing you can say for the Pelicans in a week they let the Nets score 143 on them. The Pelicans are home this week and need to rack up wins to stay in the playoff chase, but with their games being against the Cavaliers, Thunder, Spurs and Wizards it’s not going to be that easy.
23. Timberwolves (16-28, LW 22). In the key stretches of games last week, Tom Thibodeau went to a lineup of Kris Dunn, Tyus Jones, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, and Karl-Anthony Towns — and it worked. The youth movement beat the banged-up Clippers and the Nuggets. The Wolves have won 5-of-7 and are just 2.5 games out of the playoffs, if they are serious about making a run at that spot they need wins against teams like the Suns, Pacers, and Nets this week.
24. Mavericks (15-29, LW 26). They have won 4-of-6 with Seth Curry in the starting lineup (he has shot 56 percent in that stretch), including thrashing the hapless Lakers. The Dallas offense is clicking, and that has made them a difficult out, which is good because we don’t want to see Dirk Nowitzki go out any other way (yes, I know he may well play another year, the point is valid).
25. Kings (16-27, LW 21). Losers of five in a row and it’s hard to see bright playoff prospects for this team after losing Rudy Gay for the season with a torn Achilles. The phantom call on DeMarcus Cousins on Dwyane Wade didn’t help matters. Sacramento has started off 0-2 on an eight-game road trip may for good sink Vivek Ranadive’s playoff dreams for another season.
26. Suns (15-29, LW 27). They may be hovering near the bottom of the West, but things like Eric Bledsoe’s 40 points against the Raptors, or Devin Booker’s game winner against the Knicks, give us a reason to watch this team. Booker now has 20 or more points in nine straight games.
27. Heat (14-30, LW 29). They are on a three game winning streak, and it speaks to where the Heat are that all that does is make me wonder if it helps Goran Dragic’s trade value (he had a strong game against the Rockets 21/8/8). Or, to better phrase the question, will it drive up the trade value to what Pat Riley thinks he should get? Dion Waiters dropped 33 last week in a win, just wanted to point that out.
28. Magic (18-28 LW 24). This team’s offense (already not striking fear into teams) stumbles badly without Evan Fournier in to provide spacing. Orlando can sell they are just 4.5 games out of the playoffs, but we all know they are not making it and need to make moves at the trade deadline thinking long term (such as unclogging the front court logjam).
29. Lakers (16-31, LW 28). Sunday, the Dallas Mavericks handed the Lakers the worst loss in franchise history (49 points). D’Angelo Russell is out for a couple weeks and it showed that game, they lacked his organization of the offense and the ball movement he sparks. Looking for a bright side? The Lakers lead the NBA in bench points per game at 49.6, which is the most since the league started tracking that stat in 1971.
30. Nets (9-34, LW 30). No Jeremy Lin for another month or so as the Nets cement their place at the bottom of these rankings. Which makes Boston fans happy (they swap draft picks this year). The Nets snapped their 11-game losing streak by hanging 143 on the Pelicans — in their last five games the Nets have averaged 110.9 points per 100 possessions, top 10 in the NBA. Of course, they have given up 119.9, so things are not good, but the offense is putting up points.
“It’s unsportsmanlike, it’s childish, it’s inappropriate,” Popovich said. “There’s no place for it.”
“I think they got off easy,” Popovich said.
“What if that shot costs a playoff game because somebody does that?” Popovich continued. “Maybe that affects a coach being fired. Maybe a franchise winning a series. So if you think about it, maybe it’s worth it for 5 or 10 thousand to go do that.”
For the league to send a sterner warning about such antics, Popovich suggested steeper fines of $250,00 for the team and $50,000 to $75,000 for an offending coach.
“Everybody would sit their ass down,” Popovich said.
Regardless of circumstances, it’s notable that Popovich sided with the NBA against a fellow coach – especially over an incident that didn’t directly involve the Spurs. Most coaches, even those who share Popovich’s opinion, would stay out of it. Popovich and Lowe are both represented by the same union, which ostensibly tries to protect coaches’ paychecks. It’s one thing to criticize the highly unpopular president. It’s another to lash out at someone with whom you have a shared financial partnership.
Beyond that, Popovich is right. Coaches encroaching onto the court should be eliminated. Popovich’s claim of it being unsportsmanlike rings a little hollow, considering his own behavior. But coaches toeing the sideline to distract players detracts from the quality of the game and is unsafe. There are plenty of reasons to loath the behavior beyond it offending sensibilities.
That said, Popovich has the wrong plan to eliminate it. His proposed fines would be overly punitive to lower-paid assistant coaches – and still worth the tradeoff in certain situations.
The better solution: Call technical fouls, which the league acknowledged should’ve happened with Lowe. That eliminates all cost-benefit analysis and punishes teams directly within the game if they cross that line.