Lakers lose to Suns in Nash’s return to Phoenix

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PHOENIX — Steve Nash returned to Phoenix for the first time as a member of the Lakers on Wednesday, after leaving the Suns team he played eight seasons for via a sign-and-trade deal that sent him to Los Angeles last summer.

It hasn’t turned out to be a better situation for Nash with his new team necessarily, just one with higher expectations and more scrutiny under the national spotlight as the failure to reach those goals continues.

After the Lakers blew a 10-point fourth quarter lead on their way to losing 92-86 to a Suns team near the bottom of the Western Conference standings, Nash was left searching to explain what went wrong as he has tried to do so many times this season.

“We got really stagnant,” Nash said of his team’s fourth-quarter offense which manufactured just 13 points in the game’s final 12 minutes. “We got pretty one-dimensional and stagnant and the ball stuck a little bit and we got a little predictable.”

The Lakers looked dreadful in the first half while turning the ball over 12 times, playing sloppily and finding themselves tied with a Suns team at the break that managed to knock down just 18 of its 46 shot attempts.

The third quarter was a thing of beauty for L.A., as the turnovers slowed to just two in the period, while the ball moved to the open man for high percentage shots. Pau Gasol snapped out of his first-half funk to hit three of his four shots in the period, after coming in earlier than normal thanks to Earl Clark picking up his fourth foul less than a minute into the second half. Kobe Bryant had four assists in the period, and the Lakers connected on 65 percent of their shots, including hitting four of five from three-point distance.

The fourth quarter was a disaster, however, and the game seemed to turn when Dwight Howard re-aggravated the shoulder injury that forced him to miss three games a couple of weeks ago. The Lakers led 78-73 with 6:56 to play when Dwight left the game for good with the injury, and were outscored 19-8 the rest of the way.

Michael Beasley played brilliantly offensively for Phoenix, and finished with 27 points on 12-of-20 shooting, 10 of which came in the fourth quarter. Beasley got red-hot, and was able to create his own shot and score from both inside and out with relative ease.

With the game tied at 86, Beasley was able to get all the way to the rim and lay it in to give the Suns the lead for good with 46 seconds remaining. Bryant tried to return the favor on the other end, but his shot rimmed off, and the Suns finished the game at the free throw line to snap the Lakers’ three-game winning streak.

“We’re disappointed because we let one get away,” Bryant said afterward. “But we played well. We played well defensively, outside of the stretch at the end of the ballgame where we let Beasley get to his strong hand, let him get all the way to the rim with no support. That’s not acceptable.”

For the most part, the Lakers talked about missing too many easy shots and the offense not clicking as the reasons for letting this one slip, but the loss of Howard was big, both for this game and for the team’s future. Dwight was in a lot of pain afterward, and while he said he didn’t want to be shut down in order to rest the shoulder, he may not have a choice if he can’t play through the injury.

Despite the loss, this was Nash’s night in Phoenix. He received a strong ovation from the fans during pregame introductions, and an even larger one later in the first quarter during a timeout when the Suns honored him with a video tribute on the scoreboard.

Nash finished with 11 points, two assists, and two turnovers, while shooting just 3-of-8 from the field. He played just OK, but couldn’t do enough to will his team to victory as he had so many times in the past with the Suns. He remains, however, one of the most intelligent players in the game, and did a good job of explaining the issues his new team will face should Howard be forced to miss extended time with the injury.

“It’ll be tough without him,” Nash said. “This team’s built, I think, to play around a center. We’re not athletic or fast elsewhere. We’re experienced and we have some skilled players but it’s all predicated on having that defensive presence and having a big body in the paint on both ends.”

It wouldn’t seem to be able to get much tougher for these Lakers.

Marcus Smart returns, helps Celtics win Game 5 over Bucks

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Marcus Smart returned to the Boston Celtics after suffering a thumb injury earlier in the year, and boy was it just in time.

The Celtics guard came off the bench, doing what he does best: attacking opposing guards, grabbing rebounds, and making hustle plays for his squad. Smart thoroughly annoyed the Milwaukee Bucks, and as Giannis Antetokounmpo failed to make a push in the second half (and as Khris Middleton‘s shooting slowly deteriorated) it was Boston who came out with a win in Game 5, 92-87.

Milwaukee’s offense failed to show up early. According to NBA TV, it was the second-lowest halftime total for the Bucks this season, and the away team scored just 37 points at the break. Milwaukee struggled mightily as a team, shooting just 21 percent from 3-point range. Despite the issues, both Antetokounmpo and Middleton had 11 points by half.

Boston’s attack was balanced, with nine players scoring in the first half but none reaching double figures. Smart was effective off the bench, playing 12 minutes in the first half. Smart’s presence was felt elsewhere on the floor as well; in those minutes he racked up two blocks, two rebounds, and two assists.

The Celtics stalled to start the third quarter, at times going several minutes between baskets. The intensity level was still high, particularly during one tussle with 9:33 left in the third. Eric Bledsoe and Terry Rozier got into a bumping match on the baseline away from the ball, resulting in one player getting pushed into an official. Bledsoe earned a Flagrant 1 for his efforts, and Rozier was assessed a technical.

Milwaukee began to battle back on surprising baskets by Shabazz Muhammad. The former Minnesota Timberwolves wing dropped two 3-pointers to help the Bucks make a run at the Celtics all the way into the fourth quarter.

The critical play of the game came with 80 seconds left. With the shot clock winding down, Al Horford was allowed by officials to shoot a long jumper. The refereeing crew didn’t blow the whistle, and Boston took a second possession after a backtip.

Then, with 28 seconds left as the Bucks were trying to steal or foul the Celtics, came the play Boston fans had been waiting for from Smart. At first it appeared Milwaukee had shot at a turnover as they hustled Smart to the floor on a trap. Thinking quickly, Smart leapt on the lost ball, flipped over, and sent a pass to a wide open Horford for the basket, all but sealing the game.

Milwaukee tried to play the foul game in the final minute or so, but weren’t able to come up with a win. Antetokounmpo finished with just 16 points and Middleton with 23. Horford led the Celtics with 22 points, 14 rebounds, and three assists.

Boston now leads the series, 3-2, as they head back to Milwaukee for Game 6 on Thursday.

Meek Mill gets out of jail, takes helicopter to 76ers-Heat, rings bell pregame

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Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid had been one of the most notable NBA players leading the charge for the #FreeMeekMill movement. The rapper Meek Mill, a Philadelphia native and Sixers fan, has been incarcerated for violating the terms of his probation multiple times.

At the heart of the movement to free Meek Mill is the idea of comparative justice, that he has been unfairly targeted because of his race as an absorber of punishment from the penal system despite it being a decade since he committed his crime. People from Embiid to New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft have made their voices heard on the subject.

Today, Meek Mill was released from prison and was sent a special gift: the opportunity to fly via helicopter, provided by 76ers minority owner Michael Rubin, to Game 5 between the Sixers and Miami Heat.

When he arrived at the game, the rapper rung the ceremonial bell before tip-off.

Not a couple of hours fresh out of the joint.

Russell Westbrook fined $10,000 for confrontation with Gobert, no suspension

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The rule in the NBA is clear and strictly enforced (just ask Amar’e Stoudemire and the Suns): Leave the bench during an altercation and you get suspended for a game.

Monday night, in the fourth quarter of the chippy game Monday where the Jazz beat the Thunder, Russell Westbrook was set to check into the game when there was a little dust-up between Rudy Gobert in Raymond Felton, and Westbrook came in and escalated it. Did he leave the bench, or was he coming into the game and that’s different.

The NBA decided he was coming into the game already — Westbrook got a $10,000 fine and an after-the-fact technical, but no suspension.

OKC needs Westbrook — and an aggressive Westbrook who is knocking down his midrange shot — to have a chance to avoid elimination in Game 5 Wednesday. The Thunder have had their strengths turned against them, and have not shown the versatility to adjust in this series, and if Westbrook and company cannot change that Wednesday their season will end.

Nets hire Pablo Prigioni as assistant coach, Tiago Splitter as scout

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NEW YORK (AP) — The Brooklyn Nets have hired former NBA player and Argentine guard Pablo Prigioni as an assistant coach.

The Nets also announced Tuesday that former Spurs center Tiago Splitter was hired as a pro scout.

Prigioni spent most of his professional career in Spain and won a bronze medal with Argentina in the 2008 Olympics before coming to the New York Knicks in 2012 as a 35-year-old rookie. He spent four years in the NBA with the Knicks, Rockets and Clippers.

Splitter helped San Antonio win the 2014 NBA championship before spending the final two seasons of his seven-year career with Atlanta and Philadelphia. The Nets said Splitter, who also played for Brazil’s national team, will have added duties related to player on-court development.