Suns overcome another big deficit in comeback win over Nuggets

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PHOENIX — It’s getting to be a habit, and one the Suns are desperately trying to break. But for the third straight game, Phoenix fell behind by double digits early, only to rally late to make it a contest.

Monday night, the team got its second win in three of those tries by coming back from 10 down to get a hard-fought 110-100 win over the Nuggets.

“We don’t want to be one of those teams that has a great reputation of being a really good comeback team,” Suns head coach Alvin Gentry said before this one. “That sounds good, but on the flip side of that, why are you getting down? We’ve got to be more consistent in the way we play, that’s a reputation that I don’t think is a positive.”

The reputation is deserved so far in this young season, with Phoenix coming from 26 points down to beat the Cavaliers at home on Friday, then falling behind by 22 in Utah before pulling within five in the fourth the very next night, when the team ultimately ran out of gas.

The energy seemed limitless, though, against an athletic Denver team that got off to a very fast start.

It was 16-6 before the Suns knew what had happened, thanks to a very active and energetic seven quick points from Kenneth Faried. But that was as many points as Phoenix was willing to spot its opponent this time, as Goran Dragic answered with eight of his team’s next 10 on the way to evening things back up at 18.

“I don’t know what is going on with us, especially at the beginning of the games,” Dragic said, lamenting his team’s slow start once again. “We’re just not focused enough.”

Once the Suns came back, the focus was there the rest of the night, and so was a balanced attack from essentially the entire team that was the reason they were able to hold off these Nuggets.

Marcin Gortat went without a field goal for his third consecutive half, before finally finding his shot in the third quarter and then getting going a bit to finish the night. He, too, says the focus needs to improve from the very start.

“I feel like I’m ready to play, and I’m just missing easy bunnies around the rim,” he said. “Hopefully it’s going to go away. I’ve just got to stay more focused.”

Phoenix was able to control the tempo in the second half, and more importantly, control the basketball. The Suns had just one turnover in the second half to 10 for the Nuggets, and that, along with not getting absolutely killed on the boards by a more athletic Denver front line, made things relatively easy.

With the way Faried dominated inside early, it was worth wondering what might happen if Denver played Faried and JaVale McGee — who also had a strong game with 16 points on 12 shots in 24 minutes — for extended periods at the same time. It would seem to have been too much athleticism and devastation around the rim for the undersized and more, shall we say, fundamentally sound bigs on the Suns roster, yet Denver only went with the duo in brief spurts.

George Karl said afterward that the team is experimenting with lineups at this early stage, but that 20 or 30 games in he’ll have a better idea of what works together and what doesn’t.

What wasn’t working for Denver was its pick and roll defense, something that Dragic was able to exploit late in the game. Phoenix really just had too many performances all around for the Nuggets to deal with, including a breakout 13-point, six-rebound, five-assist performance from Markieff Morris, and yet another solid game from Shannon Brown (19 points, four assists) off the bench.

Brown is no different than the rest of the team, concerned about the consistently slow starts. But he preached patience afterward, which is obviously much easier to do after a quality win like this one.

“We’ve got a lot of new guys,” he said. “We’re still trying to figure out each other. We’ve got some guys that are too unselfish, that are thinking pass first and stuff like that instead of worrying about knocking down a jumpshot and letting the bigs clean up the rebound, or whatever it is. But it’s definitely going to come. It’s still early in the season.”

*****

Notes:

– Kenneth Faried took a scary fall in the fourth quarter, after being what initially was believed to be flagrantly fouled by Sebastian Telfair. It was a forearm from Telfair that upended Faried while he was airborne, causing him to slam hard against the floor right on his back.

It appeared for a moment that Faried may have hit his head, and he was down for a few minutes. But ultimately he walked off on his own, and was subbed back into the game not very long afterward. The officials reviewed the play via instant replay — which they are allowed to do now with all flagrant foul calls — and ruled that Telfair’s play, while still a foul, was not malicious and therefore not a flagrant.

– Goran Dragic has always been one of the nicest, friendliest, and most unassuming players in the game, even before he became a $10 million per-year face of the franchise in Phoenix. But he continued to show that side after Monday’s win, on Veteran’s Day when the team had many soldiers past and present in the building and sitting courtside.

After the game had ended, Dragic followed the rest of his teammates (save for the few that were conducting postgame on-court interviews) into the tunnel, where normally everyone heads straight for the locker room for a brief meeting with coaches and to begin to decompress. Dragic broke protocol, however, when he was stopped by a soldier in his camouflage fatigues who wanted a photo. He immediately obliged, and the soldier couldn’t have been happier or more excited.

“I love you man! You’re the best, Goran,” he yelled, as Dragic jogged toward the locker room after taking the time to pose. Really just a great moment to witness.

Amir Johnson on South Beach: 2006 Pistons ‘let the streets beat us’

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Amir Johnson is a savvy veteran on the young 76ers.

On the 2006 Pistons, he was a scarcely used rookie straight out of high school.

But he was learning lessons he’d apply to his current role.

Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press:

Philadelphia heeded Johnson’s advice. The 76ers won Games 3 and 4 in Miami to take a 3-1 series lead.

The Pistons went 0-3 in Miami during the six-game 2006 Eastern Conference finals. There was little shame in losing to those Heat. They pushed Detroit to seven games in the 2005 conference finals and were – with Dwyane Wade transcendent while Shaquille O’Neal remained in his prime – even better the following year.

But too much partying is a major charge and a somewhat surprising one. The Pistons were led by the same veteran core – Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace – that made the previous two NBA Finals and won the 2004 title. They’d been around long enough to know better.

Gregg Popovich to miss Spurs-Warriors Game 5

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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has missed Games 3 and 4 of his team’s first-round series against the Warriors following the death of his wife, Erin.

Unsurprisingly, he won’t coach the Spurs as they leave San Antonio for Game 5 tomorrow at Golden State.

David Aldridge of NBA.com:

Popovich should take all the time he needs. Ettore Messina is capable as acting coach, and Popovich being with his family now is more important anyway.

This will probably be the final game of the series. Up 3-1, the Warriors are the better team and at home.

LeBron James on Lance Stephenson-drawn technical foul: ‘I gave him a little nudge, and he falls to half court. Come on’

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LeBron James and Lance Stephenson have met in 23 playoff games.

Stephenson has tried to agitate LeBron throughout all of them.

From the choke sign back when Stephenson was still a benchwarmer to the infamous ear blow to the tapping of LeBron’s face the next game, Stephenson has been relentless. And LeBron has mostly kept his cool.

But not last night.

Midway through the fourth quarter of the Cavaliers’ Game 4 win over the Pacers, Stephenson stuck close to LeBron as LeBron went to the Cleveland bench. LeBron pushed Stephenson away and received a technical foul.

LeBron:

I mean, I should never have gotten a tech in the first place. There’s a timeout called, and this guy’s following me to my bench. I gave him a little nudge, and he falls to half court. Come on. But I should know better. I should know better. I’ve been dealing with this since elementary. It’s like I tell you a joke – I tell you a joke and then you laugh, and you get caught. That’s what happened. Lance told me a joke. I laughed. Teacher caught me. Now, I’ve got to go see the principal. That’s what happened.

Stephenson earned that technical foul. He did just enough to bait LeBron, but too much where Stephenson would get a tech. Then, Stephenson exaggerated the contract.

LeBron got got, and he knows it.

He’s also probably savvy enough to remain on greater alert to Stephenson’s antics the rest of the series and avoid responding again.

Where the Blazers, Neil Olshey, and Terry Stotts go from here

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The Portland Trail Blazers were a frustrating team to watch to start the season. They floundered early as players like Moe Harkless and Evan Turner failed to take the next step forward to help the team. The emergence of Zach Collins playing in tandem with a healthy Ed Davis was a good story, but not enough to overcome Portland’s fatal flaws. Most of the talk surrounding the Blazers remained about roster construction — as it has since GM Neil Olshey signed Turner to his massive 4-year, $70 million contract back in 2016.

Then things flipped.

Starting with a win over the Golden State Warriors on February 14, Portland rattled off 13 straight. Harkless was no longer moody, Damian Lillard was playing like a Top 5 MVP candidate, and CJ McCollum hummed right along with him. Al-Farouq Aminu was shooting well, Shabazz Napier was an important rotational piece, and even Turner’s midrange turnarounds felt like a simple change of pace rather than a glaring misfit. Roster talk died down because Portland looked unstoppable, and with a new defensive effort the team felt like a lock to beat whichever squad they faced in the first round.

But the Blazers found themselves outgunned, overmatched, and demoralized as they took on the New Orleans Pelicans after the conclusion of the regular season. Portland got swept, 4-0, in perhaps the most embarrassing playoff sweep in franchise history since their series with the San Antonio Spurs at the turn of the last century.

So here we are, with both the Blazers and fans in Portland back to wondering the same thing: just what can be done to fix this roster and maximize Lillard’s prime?

We have to start with the basic fact that Portland is not going to trade McCollum.

Part of the internal friction for the Blazers is that McCollum is the guy Olshey seems most emotionally attached to. Olshey was fully at the helm of the organization when McCollum was drafted in 2013, and thus McCollum is wholly an Olshey guy. Portland had scouted Lillard long before Olshey arrived 24 days prior to the 2012 NBA Draft. Not that Olshey values one over the other, but there’s an odd, unspoken understanding that Olshey wants to make McCollum work along with Lillard partly as a matter of pride.

So if we move away from the possibility of changing the overall theory of a roster built around those two guards, where does that leave the Blazers? The answer comes with a boggling number of variables.

The key that unlocked Portland’s potential to dismantle most of their opponents after Valentine’s Day was a happy Harkless, one who was dropping 3-pointers from the corners and dishing out assists rather than moping on the deepest part of the bench. That was the big variable that made the switch for the Blazers. But in the playoffs, Portland got a Harkless that was just coming off knee surgery, and he wasn’t as effective.

Harkless said in exit interviews on Sunday that team brass reiterated to him how important he’s going to be to them next season, and they aren’t blowing smoke. Harkless is young, cheap, and versatile. He’s a better passer and dribbler than Aminu, whose contract expires after next season, and he’s a better pure shooter from deep. The problem is relying on Harkless, who admits to being moody and letting that emotional variance affect him on the court.

This puts us back to the question of Turner. For as much as Olshey likes to talk as though he slow plays the league, it was an extreme reach not only to pay Turner his contract but to sell the public the logic behind it. After McCollum and Lillard were trapped to death in the playoffs a few years ago, Olshey grabbed Turner as a third ball handler, one who could let Lillard and McCollum run around screens off-ball to reduce turnovers. At least, that was the story.

It didn’t really work all that well given the symbiotic nature of the game of basketball. Last season, Aminu’s shooting dipped and opposing defenses simply helped off of him and onto Portland’s main dribblers. That made Harkless and Allen Crabbe invaluable as shooters, not only as scorers but as sources of gravity to open up passing lanes.

There was as similar issue this season as Aminu’s shooting percentages rose while Harkless sat on the bench in the middle of the year. Without Harkless or Crabbe to anchor the 3-point line, that left Portland with just one shooter outside of Lillard and McCollum in Aminu. Teams drifted toward Aminu, leaving Turner as the open shooter on the 3-point line. He shot 32 percent from deep, and Portland went from 8th in 3-point percentage to 16th in a year.

Turner adapted his game over the course of this season the best he could to compliment Portland’s system and needs. He’s just not useful enough at top clip. This explains the position the Blazers have been in the entirety of Turner’s contract — it’s going to be impossible to move him without attaching significant assets and in the process, delaying the progress of the team. No trade involving Turner will return the wing Portland needs. That’s just not how it works when you’ve got an albatross contract in 2018.

And so, after their sweep at the hands of the Pelicans, the conversation in Portland swiftly moved to speculation that coach Terry Stotts could be on the hot seat. The reality of Portland firing Stotts, if they are considering it, is of a major setback.

Stotts is beloved by his players, most of all Lillard, the franchise cornerstone. Stotts was a genuine Coach of the Year candidate this season for his role in developing guys like Napier and Pat Connaughton, who were useful at different parts of the season. Stotts pushed Nurkic to be more aggressive, a major factor in their late-season success. He rehabilitated Harkless. Reaching back even further, Stotts masterminded an offense that turned Mason Plumlee into the third creator on offense for Portland before the Nurkic trade last year. He’s been excellent, and firing him would be a colossal mistake.

I’ll put it this way: when Lillard had his “where is this going” conversation about the Blazers with owner Paul Allen, that talk wasn’t about Stotts. It was about Olshey’s roster construction.

The conversation about Stotts is a bit ridiculous, although it’s understandable given Olshey is both above him organizationally and a bit more financially annoying to fire after a recently-signed extension. But unlike Stotts, Olshey has not exceeded expectations in his position. Despite some clever draft day trades and the rumored rejection of a max contract bid offered by Chandler Parsons‘ camp two summers ago, the fact is Olshey is the one who has hampered the team, while Stotts has done the best with what he’s been given.

And so here we are, with the same questions about the Blazers roster nearly two years down the line and with an embarrassing playoff sweep in their possession. McCollum and Lillard are firmly cemented, perhaps more so thanks to their defensive improvement and the team’s win total. The Blazers can’t move their pieces thanks to poor fiscal management, and they’re in danger of losing valuable contributors like Davis, Napier, and eventually Aminu because of it.

It appears Portland’s only way forward is to do what they’ve always done, although it won’t be by their own volition, much as Olshey would like to spin it that way. Olshey, who said as much during exit interviews, will look for value in the draft and build a team that functions as a unit. I would assume that he’ll also need to ask owner Allen to tempt the repeater tax as he tries to re-sign Davis this year and Aminu the next. Olshey will need to hope Harkless is more consistent, and that he can find yet another shooter in the draft or via an exception signing or trade. All of these things are pretty big ifs, particularly in the light of Lillard’s public urgency and the results of Olshey’s bigger misfires.

The end to the season in Portland was disappointing, because of their sweep but also because they didn’t do enough to change our minds about their flaws and roster issues. That burden lies squarely with Olshey. Portland’s GM says he wants to stay measured in his approach, but moves like signing Turner, trading Crabbe for an exception, and swapping Plumlee for Nurkic were anything but. Those are big swings with mixed results.

Portland’s roster isn’t good enough to sustain large dips, and its plodding, “calculated” approach to roster management has put the Trail Blazers in a place similar to what you’d expect from a front office with a more flamboyant, laissez-faire style. Big contracts, an overpaid supporting cast, and an inconsistent bench rolled into a cap hit scraping $121 million.

The roster theory is understandable, but the execution in Portland is lacking. Eventually, the Blazers — and Olshey — are going to have to stop being measured and simply measure up.