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.

Why is Robin Lopez holding this dog during his exit interview? (VIDEO)

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What did Chicago Bulls center Robin Lopez have to say during his exit interviews? I can’t really tell, it’s all a bunch of white noise. All I see is him holding his giant, shaggy dog named Muppet while speaking to reporters.

I can’t get over it, really. Why hasn’t someone thought of this before?

Lopez is the perfect candidate to do this if you think about it, given his propensity to be a little off-kilter.

Via Twitter:

Lopez was mostly talking about taking away positives from a weird Bulls season in which they struggled all year until miraculously making the 8-seed before challenging top-ranked Boston in round 1.

Clippers, Jazz prepare for Game 7 in Los Angeles

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LOS ANGELES  (AP) – Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul was adamant the sun would not set on Paul Pierce‘s NBA run in Salt Lake City on Friday night.

“I looked over at ‘Truth’ during one of (those) timeouts and I said ‘You’re not ending your career in Utah,’ ” said Paul, referring to Pierce’s popular nickname. “We told him that. We just said we want to keep this thing going for him. Paul was big tonight. Like the 3 he hit over there on the wing, and stuff like that. Just his energy and his voice in those different timeouts I think was huge for us.”

With a crucial 98-93 victory over the Utah Jazz in Game 6, the Clippers will attempt to extend the career of the 39-year-old Pierce, who is retiring at season’s end, and capture the series Sunday in Game 7 at Staples Center.

The winner advances to the second round to meet the Golden State Warriors in a best-of-seven affair beginning Tuesday at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif.

Paul, whose two late free throws sealed the win against the Jazz, led the charge by scoring 29 points, dishing eight assists and allowing the Clippers to avoid elimination in the opening round for the second straight season. The Portland Trail Blazers bounced them last season in six games, aided by injuries to Paul and Blake Griffin.

And as Paul loathes to hear, the point guard has never guided a team past the second round.

“This is what we talked about before (Game 6),” said Paul, who has become the Clippers’ main force offensively with Griffin out of the playoffs again, this time with an injury to his big toe. “Doc (Rivers) said to go out there and give yourself a chance. We knew we couldn’t win both games (Friday), and we wanted to give ourselves a chance.”

Utah will have another opportunity to end Pierce’s career on Sunday despite missing a chance on its home court. After the Jazz won Game 5 on Tuesday at Staples, All-Star forward Gordon Hayward made it clear he didn’t want to return for a Game 7.

Hayward, though, is humming a different tune now.

“We’ve come a long way from where we were three years ago,” Hayward told the Salt Lake Tribune. “If you had told me at the beginning of the year you’d be in a Game 7 against the Clippers in L.A., I’d have been like, ‘Bring it on.’ ”

The Jazz will be forced to bring their best with center Rudy Gobert hobbling again. Gobert, who sustained a hyperextended left knee in Game 1 that kept him out of the lineup for two games, sprained his ankle in the second half of Game 6 and was forced to the bench because of it during critical stretches.

Gobert said the ankle wouldn’t hinder him Sunday.

“I sprained it on somebody’s foot,” said Gobert, who finished with 15 points, nine boards and three blocks, according to the Tribune. “I tried to run through it, but that didn’t work out. I’ve had a lot of sprained ankles before. I will be good.”

PBT Extra: Can Toronto threaten Cleveland, LeBron James in second round?

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There are a few reasons to think the Toronto Raptors can push and maybe even upset the Cleveland Cavaliers in their second round playoff series that starts Monday. For one, they went six games last playoffs and this is a deeper, more versatile Raptors team with Serge Ibaka as the power forward/center, P.J. Tucker coming off the bench, and the emergence of guys like Norman Powell. The Raptors have a great backcourt in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. And, the Cavaliers were not a focused or good defensive team in the first round.

On the other side of the ledger, the Cavaliers have LeBron James.

I break down this series in the latest PBT Extra.

Three things to watch: Boston Celtics vs. Washington Wizards

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1. How much will these teams’ disdain for each other color the series?

Back in January, the Wizards wore all black for a figurative funeral while arriving for a game against the Celtics then buried Boston in a 123-108 win.

But the Celtics are still alive and ready for the next stage in a rivalry that has included:

Both teams appear primed for more hijinks. The Wizards taunted the Hawks throughout their first-round series, and Boston crossed the line with the Bulls.

2. Which team is actually better?

The Wizards outpaced the Celtics in my adjusted-for-playoff-rotation rankings before the postseason began. But getting a clear picture of who’s in the teams’ playoff rotations and counting the first round turns the tables.

Here’s both teams’ offensive, defensive and net ratings from the regular season to counting only lineups (regular season and first round) comprised of five players projected to be in the teams’ rotation this series:

1. Boston Celtics

  • Offensive rating: 112.4 to 116.2
  • Defensive rating: 109.8 to 110.4
  • Net rating: +2.6 to +5.8

4. Washington Wizards

  • Offensive rating: 111.7 to 115.6
  • Defensive rating:  110.0 to 110.5
  • Net rating: +1.7 to +5.1

Even with the flaws in these numbers – small sample sizes and no control for competition – the question of which team will put a better team on the floor in this series isn’t everything. Boston has home-court advantage, and that matters.

The complete updated playoff-rotation-adjusted ratings will be released Monday, after the first round ends.

3. How will the MVP-vote-getting point guards match up?

Both the Celtics and Wizards are reasonably deep, but good luck keeping your eyes off their star point guards. Isaiah Thomas and John Wall both received fifth-place MVP votes, tributes to their importance to their teams.

Thomas is Boston’s lone reliable scorer, and that brings a heavy fourth-quarter burden – which he has answered all year. Even when opponents know he’ll get the ball, they haven’t stopped him. Wall also drives Washington’s offense, though he does it with a more balanced passing and scoring attack throughout the game.

But Wall’s primary argument for superiority over other big-name point guards – including Thomas – is his defense. The 6-foot-4 Wall will have an opportunity to show that against the 5-foot-9 Thomas. Likewise, Thomas has a chance to pester Wall enough to show the defensive gap isn’t too wide.