Marcin Gortat, Derrick Favors, Paul Millsap

Suns trying to come to grips with recent offensive struggles

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PHOENIX — The Suns dropped their second straight home game on Sunday, falling to a Memphis Grizzlies team it had matched up well against in two earlier meetings this season.

The loss itself, the team’s eighth in its last nine games, is the least of the problems in Phoenix.

Offensively, the Suns have regressed completely over the past two games, to the point where the results have been disastrous. After scoring just 80 points against Utah on Friday, they managed only 81 against Memphis, and the problems, while evident, have begun to demoralize and frustrate the team’s core players.

Jared Dudley, one of the co-captains, broke down what some of the issues have been, and said specifically that the cold shooting has been a result of Phoenix abandoning the offensive strategy in favor of isolations and questionable shots.

“I attribute it to a lot of isolations, bad shot selection, [being] careless with the ball, and bad turnovers,” he said. “You’ve got to move the ball. We’re not a team that can just hold the ball, stick, stick, and then give it to Kobe or LeBron to save the day. Until we figure it out though, we’re going to keep doing these interviews and keep losing.

“It’s not that hard,” he continued. “If you don’t have a good shot, swing the ball, set good screens, roll … we have to play with all five together to have a shot.”

The one-on-one play has been most troublesome, especially on a team that really doesn’t have any players capable of creating good looks for themselves in an isolation set. Suns head coach Alvin Gentry said as much on Sunday.

“We don’t have one on one players, period. It’s detrimental to our team [when that happens],” he said. “Very much so. We’re a much better basketball team when we have three or more passes. We shoot the ball better; the field goal percentage, there’s almost a 22 percent difference.”

What makes the offensive struggles most maddening, besides the breakdown in executing team concepts, is that this is a relatively recent phenomenon. Phoenix averaged over 97 points per game in its previous five before this two-game slide, but over it last seven quarters, has managed to score just 18.6 points per period.

Equally frustrating is the fact that the players seem to know exactly what the problems are, yet have been unable to fix them. Dudley tried to make this point as clearly as possible.

“Everyone’s got to look themselves in the mirror,” he said. “No one’s here babysitting — you know if you’re going 100 percent, you know if you’re shooting bad shots. We can definitely police you, we can definitely say something, which I have. We can argue about it, but at the end of the day we’re all losing together.”

Marcin Gortat, the more-than-occasional beneficiary of easy looks at the rim when the offense is clicking, would like to see more execution out of the team’s pick and roll sets.

“We’ve got to work on our pick and roll offense, I think that’s the main thing,” he said. “That’s the main problem. If we can develop our pick and roll offense, everything’s going to open up for the other guys.

“Last year, we were really successful on the pick and roll. We’d start the game where I’d receive a few easy buckets on the roll, and then the whole team had to clog the paint, and everybody else on our team at the three-point line was open. It has to start somewhere.”

Gortat made it clear that he wasn’t lobbying for additional touches, and said it’s simply the execution on the plays that are being run that needs to improve. But he was on the same page with Dudley that the shot selection is a problem.

“There’s just too many wild shots from the outside; shots that we don’t need,” he said. “And we’ve got to change that. We’ve got to shoot the shots that we can make.”

The frustration is palpable when speaking to these guys; they have the talent to compete on most nights, but not enough to stray from the game plan for extended stretches. Gentry recognizes that this is a critical time for his team, and tried to convey to them that they’ll need to stick together in order to turn things around.

“The message I said to the guys is that we, number one, have got to stay together,” he said. “You can’t fragment right now; that’s the easiest thing to do is to point fingers and go your separate ways. We’re not going to do that.

“We’re in a bad situation,” he continued. “We’re in a bad spot right now. The thing about this league is, the only ones who can dig us out is ourselves.”

LeBron on Cavs’ three-game losing streak: “We got to get out of the honeymoon stage”

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James wipes his face as he looks down after guard Kyrie Irving missed a shot during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Chicago Bulls on Friday, Dec. 2, 2016, in Chicago. The Bulls won 111-105. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
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For a team that is 13-5 and atop the Eastern Conference standings, the Cleveland Cavaliers haven’t been their intimidating selves consistently this season. There have been flashes during a 13-2 start, but mostly they win on talent, or when they flip the switch for a half, but they haven’t looked like a tested team working on building good habits through the first quarter of the NBA season. They have an elite offense, but their defense is surrendering 105.1 points per 100 possessions, 20th in the league.

It’s been worse the last four games. The Cavaliers had to come from behind to beat the Sixers, then got blown out by the Bucks and Clippers. Friday night, Cleveland lost to Chicago, giving the Cavs a three-game losing streak, and LeBron James had enough. He sent a message to his team through the media (from the Associated Press):

“We got to get out of the honeymoon stage,” James said. “You got to play the game, the right way. We’ve got to battle every night like we ain’t won nothing. Last year is last year. After ring night is over with, now it’s a new season and everybody is gunning for us every night and we have to understand that. The honeymoon stage is over. It’s time to play some real ball and be physical, especially in the trenches. Giving up 78 points (in the paint) is ridiculous. We’ve got to man up. Everybody.”

The Cavaliers would be far from the first team to have a championship hangover, and considering the five-decade title drought in Cleveland before that win we should have expected one of those “I can’t get off the couch, I’m just going to lay here and watch golf all day” kind of hangovers. As Gregg Popovich has said before, its human nature to let up after a big win.

However, the blowout loss at the hands of the Clippers Thursday — the only title contending team the Cavs have faced this season — should be a wake-up call. The fact is the Cavaliers are still playing well enough to beat everyone in the East, but their real tests come in the form of the Warriors/Clippers/Spurs out West. Right now it’s hard to picture the inconsistent defense of the Cavaliers lifting them past any of those teams in four out of seven games.

LeBron has been to six-straight Finals for a reason — he does not let up. And he’s going to have to shake this team out of its malaise to get them back to an elite standing.

It’s also the first week of December. It’s we’re having this same conversation the last week of March about the Cavaliers then it’s okay to start looking for the panic button in Cleveland. For now, trust LeBron to be the leader this team needs. Calling them out was just step one.

 

James Harden scores 20 in Rockets’ runaway win over Denver 128-110

Houston Rockets guard James Harden brings the ball upcourt against the Denver Nuggets in the first half of an NBA basketball game late Friday, Dec. 2, 2016, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
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DENVER (AP) — James Harden scored 20 points and the Houston Rockets led from start to finish in beating the Denver Nuggets 128-110 on Friday night.

Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson had 18 points each and Sam Dekkar added 17 points for Houston, which completed an impressive road back-to-back sweep that began with its 132-127 win over Golden State in double overtime on Thursday.

Wilson Chandler had 24 points to lead the Nuggets, who saw their three-game winning streak against the Rockets come to an end. The Nuggets have lost four of their last five and fell to 3-7 this season at home, the high-altitude venue they once routinely dominated.

Up by 10 points at halftime, the Rockets took a 99-84 lead into the fourth quarter and kept the pressure on the rest of the way as part of a sharpshooting display that included converting 17 of 37 3-point attempts against a listless Nuggets defense. Denver made 9 of 30 from beyond the arc.

The Rockets took a 73-63 halftime lead over the Nuggets, who allowed a season high in points over the first two quarters by an opponent.

Houston led by as many as 15 points in the first half, hitting nine 3 pointers, including four by Anderson, to gain early separation with its highest scoring output over the first two quarters this season.

The lack of defensive urgency by Denver was epitomized by Gordon’s fastbreak layup at the halftime buzzer as he drove the length of the court virtually uncontested in the final 3 seconds of the period.

TIP-INS

Rockets: F Trevor Ariza left the game in the final minutes with a leg injury, apparently after coming down awkwardly while going for a rebound. … Houston has made at least 10 3-pointers in 19 consecutive games, the longest streak of its kind in league history. … Houston’s previous high for first-half points was 71 against the Los Angeles Lakers on Oct. 26. … Houston is 7-2 on the road since beginning the season 2-3.

Nuggets: C Nikola Jokic missed the game because of a sore left wrist. … G Gary Harris remains sidelined with a right foot injury. … G Will Barton returned from an ankle injury that sidelined him for the previous two games.

 

Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade lead Bulls to 111-105 win over Cavaliers

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James, front left, talks with Chicago Bulls' Dwyane Wade before an NBA basketball game Friday, Dec. 2, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
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CHICAGO (AP) — LeBron James wasn’t holding back.

Cleveland’s superstar had plenty to say after the Cavaliers gave up 78 points in the paint on the way to another loss. The condensed version was this: It’s time to start playing like a championship team again.

Jimmy Butler scored 26 points, Dwyane Wade had 24 and the Chicago Bulls beat James and the slumping Cavaliers 111-105 on Friday night.

Taj Gibson added a season-high 23 points and 11 rebounds for Chicago. Rajon Rondo had 15 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds as the balanced Bulls handed the Cavaliers their third straight loss.

“We got to get out of the honeymoon stage,” James said. “You got to play the game, the right way. We’ve got to battle every night like we ain’t won nothing. Last year is last year. After ring night is over with, now it’s a new season and everybody is gunning for us every night and we have to understand that. The honeymoon stage is over. It’s time to play some real ball and be physical, especially in the trenches. Giving up 78 points (in the paint) is ridiculous. We’ve got to man up. Everybody.”

James manned up to the tune of 27 points and 13 assists, a championship-level performance on a night when he showed up dressed as a World Series champion: He arrived at the arena in a Cubs uniform to honor a World Series bet with buddy Wade.

Kyrie Irving added 20 points and eight assists, but the Cavaliers matched their longest losing streak in a year.

Chicago dominated Cleveland 78-60 in the paint, outrebounded the Cavaliers 49-33 and came out on top despite shooting 3 of 18 on 3-pointers. It was a big turnaround for the Bulls coming off a loss to the Lakers.

“I think we know what we’re capable of if we play basketball the right way and do what we’re supposed to do,” Butler said.

DOWN THE STRETCH

The Bulls used a strong third quarter to turn a one-point halftime deficit into an 88-80 lead. And they withstood several pushes in the fourth to knock off the defending NBA champions.

Kevin Love nailed a 3 to cut the lead to 103-99 with about 4 minutes left, but the Bulls hung on.

Wade drove for a layup to make it 107-101 with 2:39 remaining. Nikola Mirotic then stole the ball from James, leading to a putback basket for Wade.

Mirotic came up with another big play when he blocked a 3 by Irving with 1:11 left to cause a shot-clock violation.

KING CUB

James clearly wasn’t thrilled about having to wear a Chicago Cubs uniform after he rooted hard for his hometown Cleveland Indians in the World Series. But he was a man of his word, honoring the wager he made with Wade, his good friend and former Miami Heat teammate.

James wore a No. 23 Cubs jersey with his last name stitched across the back, a Cubs hat partially covered by a Cubbie-blue hoodie, pinstripe pants and long baseball socks. James’ uniform even had the 2016 World Series champions shoulder patch.

“I actually thought he looked good,” said Wade, who was waiting for James when he arrived at the arena and took a picture of his ex-teammate. “He actually did look like a baseball player.”

The two hugged before tipoff and had some playful moments during the game.

James patted Wade on the backside as they ran down the court together after he hit a tough fadeaway jumper over his pal in the third quarter. Wade returned the favor after burying a 3 in James’ face moments later.

TIP-INS

Cavaliers: G/F Mike Dunleavy Jr. missed his second consecutive game because of a concussion.

Bulls: Rondo’s triple-double was his first with the Bulls and the 29th of his career. … Butler has 12 straight games with 20 or more points. … With the Bulls playing four times in five days, coach Fred Hoiberg said Wade won’t travel to Dallas for Saturday’s game. … Hoiberg said F Doug McDermott (concussion) could be cleared for contact shortly and might practice with the D-League’s Windy City Bulls.

 

Watch Kawhi Leonard sink game winner to lift Spurs past Wizards

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Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: the Spurs ramped up their defense and execution in the third quarter, with their bench sparking a run that gave them the lead, then they held on and got the game-winning shot from their star on a clever play.

LaMarcus Aldridge set the screen that freed up Manu Ginobili to be the playmaker, then set another that got Kawhi Leonard a clean look at the game winner. Aldridge had 19 points on the night, but it’s those things that do not show up in the box score that gets the Spurs wins.

Plus, they just make shots under pressure.