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.”

Warriors’ Matt Barnes on facing Kings: ‘I’m trying to kill ’em’

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The Kings were very good to Matt Barnes.

They signed him to a two-year contract worth more than $12.5 million when it seemed he wouldn’t come close to that on the market. Then they waived him, allowing him to receive all his salary and escape basketball hell for the Warriors, who make him much happier.

Yet, he’s going into tonight’s Golden State-Sacramento game with an edge.

Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle (hat tip: CSN Bay Area):

Matt Barnes holding a grudge? Why, I never.

Surging Heat have playoffs in sight after dreadful start

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MIAMI (AP) — They have won 24 times in their last 31 games. They put together the NBA’s longest winning streak this season, a 13-game run that was beyond surprising. They are on the cusp of doing something never accomplished in NBA history.

This Miami Heat comeback tale has been an epic one.

And now comes the toughest part – finishing the job.

None of the other 125 teams in NBA history who started 11-30 or worse made the NBA playoffs. The Heat, with 10 games left on their regular-season schedule, are in position to change that. They held the second-worst record in the league in mid-January, are tied with San Antonio for the best record since, and hold a one-game lead over Chicago and Detroit for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot entering Friday’s games.

“These guys want this so bad,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra – a reluctant coach of the year candidate who cringes when players lobby on his behalf – said Thursday after a loss to the Toronto Raptors. “They want this opportunity to be in the playoffs. We’ve fought, scratched, done everything we possibly can to put ourselves into a position to fight for it.”

More fighting and scratching awaits.

Of Miami’s final 10 games, a stretch that starts Sunday in Boston, eight are against teams still battling for either a playoff spot or playoff positioning. The only two exceptions are a home-and-home next week with New York, which earlier this season was seven games ahead of the Heat in the standings and now are eight games behind Miami (35-37).

“We’ve dug ourselves out of a deep ditch,” Heat center and NBA rebounding leader Hassan Whiteside said.

True, but they’re not on firm playoff footing yet.

Under normal circumstances, Whiteside almost certainly would not have played Thursday. He needed 13 stitches to repair a cut in his right (shooting) hand on Tuesday, and a similar injury two years ago left him sidelined for three games.

Not only did he start Thursday, he led the Heat with 16 points and 14 rebounds. Afterward, he had icepacks strapped to both of his knees, covered his right hand in a clear plastic bag so the stitches wouldn’t get wet in the shower, and had his newly sprained left ankle wrapped.

“He’s a tough dude,” Heat point guard Goran Dragic said.

He hasn’t been the only one.

Factoring in that Chris Bosh‘s on-court tenure with the Heat was declared over when he failed a physical in September, Miami has had at least two players unavailable to play in every game this season because of health reasons. Since Jan. 1, it’s been at least three every game – and often more.

A huge blow came last week when shooting guard Dion Waiters sprained his left ankle. He’s at three missed games and counting, and the Heat offense has struggled since.

“This is that time of the year,” Spoelstra said. “Everybody is feeling it, so this is the mental toughness we have to get to.”

The Heat have no practice Friday, though most players will be in the training room for treatments. Practice resumes Saturday, preceding the flight to Boston. And then Sunday, the 10-game sprint to the finish begins.

“I want our guys to enjoy this,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t feel that we’re putting any undue pressure, but everybody will feel like when they lose that the world is collapsing. This playoff race is still going on. And I think we need a day to get away from it, to decompress and to get back to work on Saturday.”

Remember when Shaq started practice naked? His former Lakers teammates do

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The Lakers are unveiling a statue for Shaquille O’Neal tonight, a perfect opportunity for his former teammates to share their favorite Shaq stories.

Mark Medina of The Orange County Register:

“We had a rule you can’t be late to the center huddle,” said Lakers coach Luke Walton, who played with O’Neal as a rookie in 2003-04. “He got here where he didn’t have time to get his clothes on. So he made sure he was on time in the center circle.”

“I’m just scarred by the one where he ran out into the middle of the court naked before practice,” said former Lakers forward Rick Fox, who played with O’Neal from 1997 to 2004. “I can’t get that image out of my mind.”

“Shaq walked onto the court, put his hands up and said ‘I’m ready to practice,’ said Lakers assistant coach Mark Madsen, who was O’Neal’s teammate from 2000 to 2003. “He had not one inch of clothing on. So he was there in all of his glory.”

“He would start running around looking for guys to hug. Everybody was trying to get out of the way,” mused former Lakers guard Derek Fisher, who played with O’Neal from 1996 to 2004. “That’s’ why when I hit that shot in San Antonio in 2004, that’s why we were so good at sprinting off of the court.”

As much as he toed the line with his wardrobe choices before practice started, O’Neal always practiced with his actual uniform. Fox expressed the views of many saying he’s “not guarding him, not doubling down in the post and digging for the ball” sans uniform. As Madsen mused, “that would’ve been the day I would’ve submitted my resignation papers.”

Want to criticize Shaq for not setting a better tone of punctuality? It’s a fair argument, and you might have had Kobe Bryant on your side.

But Shaq keeping the Lakers loose was instrumental in their high-pressure pursuit of championships. Don’t discount that contribution to their three titles with him.

Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac, probable top-10 pick, declares for NBA draft

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Jonathan Isaac explored bursting through a loophole to declare for the 2016 NBA draft straight out of high school.

Instead, he went to Florida State. Now, he’ll enter the 2017 draft.

Isaac:

If he doesn’t hire an agent, Isaac can maintain college eligibility, but this message seems pretty final. Expect Isaac to remain in the draft, and expect him to go in the top 10.

What I like most about the 6-foot-11 forward: Despite being so lanky, he was an elite defensive rebounder. That shows an underlying technical proficiency and physicality that should serve him well.

And then there are the drool-inducing flashes – his ability to go up and get alley-oops above the rim and a sweet-looking jumper.

He’s still a work in progress, and he deferred a lot at Florida State. But he’s just 19, and he has the tools to do more. I’d love to get him on my team as he learns to assert himself.