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.

Bulls’ Nikola Mirotic out 4-6 weeks with fractured face; Bobby Portis suspended 8 games for punch

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The price to be paid from the fight at Bulls practice Tuesday came into focus Wednesday.

Nikola Mirotic, who suffered a fractured upper jaw and concussion due to a punch from Bobby Portis, will be out at least a month from his injuries, the Bulls announced.

For his part, Portis has been suspended eight games by the Bulls without pay for his actions. He will be able to practice with the team, and can return to action on Nov. 7 against Toronto.

The incident happened during the Bulls practice Monday. This much everyone agrees on: What started as a physical battle for rebounding position around the basket turned into a shoving match between Mirotic and Portis. Also, so far this isn’t unusual, shoving matches happen every once in a while on every team (in every professional sport).

Then Portis punched Mirotic and dropped him, fracturing his face. While the first reports called it a “sucker punch” — likely spin from Mirotic’s agent/camp — Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said he didn’t see it as one. Apparently, neither did Robin Lopez, via Vincent Goodwill of NBC Sports Chicago.

Whether it was a sucker punch or not is moot — you can’t punch and drop a teammate. It crosses the line.

Mirotic may be the Bulls best player, and certainly will be one of their leading scorers this season. Portis has struggled to live up to his early promise and reportedly is frustrated with his role, and by extension Mirotic. That does not mean you can punch the team’s best player in the face. Rather the opposite.

Can you imagine the reaction of any other organization if their best player got punched by a teammate?

The Bulls have to make a decision on what to do with Portis, who has a $2.5 million team option for next season, then would be a restricted free agent in the summer of 2019.

What does Boston do without Gordon Hayward? Five things to watch

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Gordon Hayward’s injury sucked the air out of Quicken Loans Arena on Tuesday night. Cavaliers fans were buzzing, gave Hayward a standing ovation as he was carted off the court, and never got back to booing Kyrie Irving with the same venom, as it seemed petty after what had just happened.

Hayward is in Boston, will soon have surgery to fix things, and start a long road of recovery.

What do the Celtics do the rest of the season? (Or, until he gets back if you want to be an optimistic Celtics’ fan.) How much does this hurt Boston?

• Long-term, not too much changes. That comes with the caveat: So long as Hayward is able to recover and be himself again. With Danny Ainge at the helm, the Celtics have always taken the long view. They have not been in a rush to challenge LeBron James and the Cavaliers for East supremacy this season, thinking more about next season and beyond. That doesn’t change now. By next season Hayward should be back and healthy (*knocking on wood*) and the plan does not change.

• Welcome to the Kyrie Irving show. Boston’s offense could resemble last season’s “turn Isaiah Thomas loose” offense at times because the Celtics are back to having one primary shot creator. Hayward was going to be the glue guy who could be a secondary shot creator, a guy who would keep the ball moving, and the new guy used to playing in Brad Steven’s motion offense. Now, it’s the Kyrie show.

Stevens will try to get Irving and the team to buy into his motion offense (Irving did move well off the ball in the opener) but last season there was a lot of IT isolation plays, and we may see that at points with Irving (one of the games’ best iso shot creators). Irving had 22 points and 10 assists in the loss opening night, and he got them in the flow of the offense without stopping the ball to go isolation. He’s going to be asked to continue to do that and put up similar numbers or better, and to take the clutch shots for this team.

• Small Ball lineups. With or without Hayward, this was always part of the plan — have Al Horford at center, Irving at the point, and a bunch of 6’6” to 6’9” interchangable wings, play fast and shoot threes (count Marcus Morris in that group when he returns). The goal was to space the floor and create driving lanes for Irving and Hayward, but the plan still works for Irving.

It didn’t work ideally late in the opener, but LeBron James and the Cavaliers create unique challenges no other team in the East does. (Jaylen Brown played hard and had a great game, but he can’t stop LeBron down low late in games, only a couple of players in the entire league stand a chance at that.) The real question for the Celtics’ small ball lineup is they have to knock down their threes or defenses will sag off. Brown was 2-of-9, Marcus Smart 0-of-4, and as a team the Celtics shot 25 percent from three for the game. That has to improve for the small ball lineups to thrive.

• Can they get enough stops? This was the biggest question about the Celtics before one of their better wing defenders on the roster went down. They don’t have a classic rim protector (Aron Baynes did a little of that off the bench, but he’s mostly a big body) and their defenders tend to be either young and inexperienced or disinterested.

Boston’s defense wasn’t going to be that good before, but how big a step back they take in wins after the Hayward injury will be more about defense than offense. Boston will miss Hayward on this end of the court.

• Young players get a lot of run, team gets to evaluate roster. Just how good is Jayson Tatum, who can make tough, contested shots but needs to find a way to get easy buckets, too? How big a step can Jaylen Brown take? Has Marcus Smart developed to the point the Celtics will pay to keep him next summer? What kind of player can Semi Ojeleye develop into?

There’s going to be more data, more minutes, more eyeball tests to answer these questions now. Brown led the Celtics with 25 points in the opener, and Tatum scored all 14 of his points in the second half. Those were promising stars, but the tests for these young Celtics stars will be season long.

Smart is the biggest question in that list, and he’s going to get the biggest minutes bump with Hayward out. He’s a restricted free agent next summer and is playing for his paycheck now. He’s going to be one guy to watch on this team.

Fake Klay Thompson almost steals show in Golden State

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Klay Thompson was everywhere Tuesday night for the Warriors.

He had 16 points, knocked down four threes, and had six boards. He was also chillin’ in the stands enjoying the game.

Well, that was “fake” Klay Thompson in the seats — fully decked out in a Golden State uniform and sitting almost right behind the team bench at Oracle — but the cameras loved him.

Heck, “fake Klay” even had a take on real Klay’s first-half performance.

I wonder if I can get fake Klay to sign my toaster?

76ers’ Markelle Fultz to make NBA debut close to home in Washington

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Markelle Fultz gets to start the next chapter of his career in a familiar setting.

The No. 1 pick in the draft will make his NBA debut for the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night at the Washington Wizards, about a half-hour from home. Fultz grew up in nearby Upper Marlboro, Maryland, in Prince George’s County and played at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville and will have many friends, family members and former coaches in attendance.

“Being able to have his first game in his backyard, I’m so happy for him,” said Keith Williams, Fultz’s AAU coach, trainer and mentor. “It’s perfect. It couldn’t have worked out better.”

Not wanting to throw Fultz “into the fire,” Sixers coach Brett Brown is easing the 19-year-old in by bringing him off the bench after missing portions of the preseason with shoulder and knee injuries. Fultz will be just the third top pick since 2003 to be active and not start his season opener, joining Anthony Bennett and Andrea Bargnani.

Fultz said he’s OK with the decision to come off the bench and considers opening in Washington “almost the best thing that could happen” to him. Expectations are high on the University of Washington product, so starting in his backyard is a substantial positive for Fultz, who was cut from his high school team as a sophomore and came back to become a blue chip prospect.

“The world’s going to spin pretty quickly here,” DeMatha coach Mike Jones said. “Sometimes things are going to seem like they’re a blur to him. Him being able to get started on that journey here in front of a lot of people that supported him and looked up to him I think is a great thing.”

Fultz will face 2010 top pick John Wall, and Williams hopes Fultz doesn’t feel too many jitters in his first pro game. Because Brown said Fultz “didn’t play” enough in the preseason, perhaps getting to come off the bench eases some of the pressure.

“At the end of the day, I want to do whatever I got to do to help my team win, so if that’s coming off the bench, I’m fine with that,” Fultz said. “Just contribute in any ways I can.”

Fultz is joining a young Philadelphia team featuring Joel Embiid and 2016 No. 1 pick Ben Simmons, who will also be making his NBA debut after missing all of last season with a foot injury. The 6-foot-4, 195-pound Fultz is expected to share the ball-handling duties with Simmons, and there’s plenty of intrigue about how he’ll handle the jump.

“I know he’s a strong, athletic point guard that brings a lot of toughness to the game,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “I like what I’ve seen so far, regardless of limited playing time. But he has great size. He has great size, and you can’t teach that. He’s a strong point guard that’s going to have a bright future.”

Williams thinks Fultz, if given opportunities, could average 18 to 20 points a game as a rookie. After seeing Fultz think the game beyond his age, Jones has high expectations for him.

“He’s capable of being one of the best guards in the NBA,” Jones said. “Every year he’s going to get better and better and better. I know that’s his goal, and I’ve learned through the years to never bet against him. I know that he wants to be the best player he possibly can be, and with each passing month of this season, his rookie year, he’s going to push himself to that.”