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.

Report: Tampering investigation stems from Magic Johnson’s TV interview

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In April, new Lakers president Magic Johnson went on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and discussed then-Pacers forward Paul George:

We’re going to say hi, because we know each other. You just can’t say, “Hey, I want you to come to the Lakers,” even though I’m going to be wink-winking like [blinks repeatedly]. You know what that means, right?

Now, the Lakers – at Indiana’s request – are being investigated for tampering.

Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times:

The investigation, which has been going on since May, stemmed from comments Magic Johnson made on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” that angered Pacers owner Herb Simon, according to several NBA officials who were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

This doesn’t mean the Pacers believe Johnson tampered with his televised comments. It seems as if that was the last straw following numerous rumors about George going to Los Angeles.

However, there’s a case Johnson’s televised remarks alone would constitute tampering. The Collective Bargaining Agreement prohibits “assurances of intent, or understandings of any kind (whether disclosed or undisclosed to the NBA), between a player (or any person or entity controlled by, related to, or acting with authority on behalf of, such player) and any Team (or Team Affiliate)” – and even attempts to solicit assurance of intent or understanding – when the player is still under contract with another team. Johnson sure appeared to do that.

But it’d be shocking if Johnson or the Lakers were punished for the interview alone. Indiana probably needs more evidence.

Then again, the arbitrary way the NBA enforces tampering, who knows?

Report: Nerlens Noel hires Rich Paul as agent, looking for big deal from Mavericks

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It’s been a rough year for restricted free agents (and plenty of unrestricted ones). After NBA teams spent like drunken sailors on shore leave last summer, this time around — with the cap not rising as much as had been expected — the market got tight quickly, and few questionable contracts were handed out. A year ago the Brooklyn Nets were making the Miami Heat pay big to retain Tyler Johnson and the Trail Blazers pay big to keep Allen Crabbe. This year teams were not biting the same way on restricted free agents.

Which left guys like Nerlens Noel, who expected to be maxed out by the Mavericks (or someone), still looking for a deal. Noel was frustrated enough to switch agents, picking up Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, according to Michael Scotto of Basketball Insiders.

Paul is LeBron James‘ agent, and in recent years has done well getting Tristan Thompson and Eric Bledsoe good contracts as extensions to their rookie deals. In both cases, he showed a fearlessness in holding out longer and being willing to push the envelope. That had to appeal to Noel.

But it doesn’t change the underlying dynamics at play — and not just with Noel. Paul also represents restricted free agents this summer Shabazz Muhammad — who has yet to sign a deal — and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who had to take a one-year deal with the Lakers for $18 million (well below his max). Throw in Noel’s injury history, and teams were not eager to jump in with a big offer for the athletic big man.

At this point, no team has the money to offer Noel a max contract right now — the Bulls have the most available money at $17.3 million, the Sixers and Suns have about $15 million and $14 million. Noel’s max is $24.7 million a year. Dallas is playing hardball because they can — without another offer on the table, Noel’s only real threat is to sign the qualifying offer (about $6 million) and play the season for that, then become an unrestricted free agent next summer. That’s possible, but a guy with Noe’s history of injuries may want to be careful betting on himself like that.

With Paul in the negotiations, expect them to drag out. That’s about the only sure thing.

Remembering Notre Dame, Laker legend Tommy “the hawk” Hawkins

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Tommy Hawkins passed away recently at the age of 80.

The former NBA player was the first black athlete to earn All-America honors in basketball at Notre Dame (he still holds the school’s total rebounds record), was drafted in the first round, and went on to have a 10-year NBA career playing for the Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers as well as the Cincinnati Royals. Los Angeles fans may also remember him as the long time director of communications for the Los Angeles Dodgers after his playing days ended.

The NBA put together this well done video look back at Hawkins’ career.

Celtics’ Brad Stevens said early September tests will show if Thomas ready for camp

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Isaiah Thomas said he expects to be ready for the Celtics’ training camp next month. The guard’s All-NBA season came to an early end in the playoffs when he aggravated a labral tear in his right hip initially suffered back in March. At least the injury did not require surgery.

Players are also about the worst judges of when they will recover from an injury. They pretty much all think they are invincible and will be healthy faster than doctors predict.

Coaches tend to be more pragmatic. Take Boston’s Brad Stevens, who told Chris Mannix on The Vertical Podcast that tests in a couple of weeks will show if Thomas is ready for camp.

“He has another follow-up and another scan in the early part of September. Obviously, it’s been a lot of appropriate rest, a lot of rehab. There have been some good strides here certainly in the last month or few weeks, but we’re not going to know that until after that early September timeframe.”

The Celtics are understandably going to be cautious with Thomas, while Thomas wants to prove he is healthy and has no ill effects from the injury as he enters a contract year (one where he expects to get PAID). Also, the Celtics could use him in camp as they start to figure out how he and Gordon Hayward can share playmaking duties.

Still, from the outset, the timelines have suggested he should be ready for camp in late September. Coaches are just cautious on these things by nature.