Lindsey Hunter, Michael Beasley

Michael Beasley, after missing 11 of 13 shots in loss to Dallas: ‘I shot the ball great tonight.’ He was serious.

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PHOENIX — When the Suns signed Michael Beasley as a free agent last summer, they had high hopes that by immersing him in their offense-first system, he’d turn out to be the team’s main scoring threat on a very consistent basis.

It hasn’t exactly worked out that way for Beasley in his first season in Phoenix. He was anointed as “the man” by Alvin Gentry and the previous coaching regime before he was able to meet those expectations on the court, and since he found himself essentially out of the rotation for extended stretches after being unable to live up to that moniker, he’s been struggling with consistency, in terms of both minutes and production.

Under new head coach Lindsey Hunter, however, the directive has changed. Instead of solely coaching to win games on a nightly basis, Hunter is tasked with developing the younger players on the roster, and that includes Beasley. He’ll get his minutes and his chances, but he remains the same inconsistent player he’s been to this point in his five-year NBA career.

Friday night, during the Suns’ loss to the Mavericks, Beasley regressed once again. After dominating and pouring in 27 points while leading his team to a comeback win over the Lakers on Wednesday, Beasley managed just four points on 2-of-13 shooting, with a team-high three turnovers in 28 minutes of action.

The problem isn’t Beasley’s overall inconsistency, which seems to be more in the player’s head than anywhere else. No, the problem is the way that Suns management — and to some extent, their interim head coach — is treating Beasley with kid gloves.

“I just think he was just a little off,” Hunter said after Friday’s loss to Dallas. “I don’t know if he was so hyped or so ready that he just got himself off a little bit, but I’m not worried about him. I’ll take what he did tonight, the shots, I’ll take all of it. I’m looking long-term with Mike, and as long as I see progress with Mike, I’m happy.”

There hasn’t been any progress, at least not any visible to the naked eye.

Beasley is still hesitant at times offensively, even after Hunter has given him the greenest light possible. Before the game on Friday, Hunter explained how Beasley has been instructed not to worry about passing, and just to attack and shoot when he gets the ball in a position to score.

And still, 2-of-13 shooting.

“Some days you can come and play and do everything right, and the ball will not go in for some strange reason,” Hunter said. “And other days you can come and feel like it’s not your day and you can’t miss. That’s the way basketball is. It’s a humbling sport. But you stay even keel, and you put the work in. And if you put the work in, more times than not you’ll be alright.”

The Suns brain trust — president of basketball operations Lon Babby and team GM Lance Blanks — are clearly not ready to give up on Beasley just yet, nor should they. Every opportunity should be given to the players brought in by senior management to succeed. But it shouldn’t be done in a vacuum and with blinders on, and that seems to be some of what is going on with Beasley in Phoenix.

Simply put, the amount of positive reinforcement heaped upon Beasley — even after one of his more dismal performances — seems to be borderline delusional.

“I thought I had a good game, the shots just didn’t fall,” Beasley said, after a performance where he missed 11 of his 13 shot attempts, and led the team with three turnovers, two of which came while attempting to inbound the ball on the baseline after the other team had just scored.

When Beasley was asked what the difference was tonight after putting in such a solid game in Wednesday’s win over the Lakers, he refused to even acknowledge that he took a step back.

“I shot the ball great. I shot the ball great tonight,” he said. “I got shots I wanted, the ball just didn’t fall. That’s it.”

Unfortunately, that’s not it.

Beasley was completely serious when he said “he shot the ball great,” which is the true sign that the team is telling him what he wants to hear in hopes that keeping things positive will help him gain some measure of consistency. It hasn’t thus far, so there’s no reason to think that’s the way to continue to go in the future.

When Beasley was subbed out for the final time on Friday midway through the fourth quarter, he was the only player huddled away from the bench with the entire Suns coaching staff. When asked what was said during that brief meeting, Hunter said it was simply a discussion of reassurance.

“I was just encouraging him, telling him ‘Hey, it’s OK.’ It’s part of the process,” Hunter said. ‘Hopefully one day we’ll be playing for a bigger picture than this, and we’ll be able to look back on this and kind of say wow, it was tough then, but this is the fruit of [that effort].”

The way the Suns are treating Beasley is reminiscent of a classic Twilight Zone episode, where the town folk are all scared of a little boy who can wish destructive things on people with his mind. They all placate him by being overly-enthusiastic while reassuring him that whatever he does, no matter how wrong, that it’s “good,” or “a real good thing.”

This is how the Suns approach Beasley’s dismal performances. And like that episode of the Twilight Zone, things are going to end badly in Phoenix if the team doesn’t change its course of action where Beasley is concerned.

Three Things We Learned, Cavaliers/Warriors edition: What can we take away from Monday to NBA Finals?

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 16:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers holds his face after being fouled by Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on January 16, 2017 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The NBA goes big on Martin Luther King Jr. day — as they should — but if you missed the action because you were busy counting to 100,000 for no reason, we’ve got you covered with the key takeaways from the biggest game on the schedule.

And we’re doubling our usual three things we learned to six for a day.

Six things from Warriors’ thrashing of Cavaliers that could play out in NBA Finals.
 Nothing that happens in the regular season guarantees anything come the NBA playoffs, let alone the Finals. Last season’s 73-win Warriors were just the latest in a long line of teams to prove that. Which means we need to be careful reading much into Golden State’s thrashing of Cleveland on Martin Luther King Jr. day. The Finals are a little less than six months away — both of these teams will be different by then (the Cavaliers hope to have a healthy J.R. Smith and Kevin Love by then, for example).  Remember, in January one year ago the Warriors thrashed the Cavaliers on national television, and how did the following Finals turn out?

However, when these teams meet some strategies are tested, little things in the game that we could see — or teams will need to at least account for — come the Finals meeting we all expect. Here are six things from Monday’s game that could well play out in June in the NBA Finals.

1) In the four straight wins the Cavaliers had in this series prior to Monday, they were very aggressive in defending Stephen Curry — they trapped him off picks, were physical, tried to pressure him into decisions to give up the ball, then when Curry tried to make the playground passes that worked against other teams the Cavaliers help defenders made steals and were off in transition the other way. All of that made Curry passive — remember the guy floating on the perimeter taking just 11 shots on Christmas Day?

On Monday night Curry took that pressure in stride, attacked Kyrie Irving from the opening tip (remember Curry’s first possession he blew right by him), used his handles to create space, used his gravity to draw defenders to him, then he whipped smart passes around the floor. In the first half, Curry had 10 assists and zero turnovers. For the game Curry had 20 shots. If he can match that, or even come close, in the Finals, the Cavs are going to struggle to slow this offense down. Like every mortal team has.

2) In January 2016 the Warriors thrashed the Cavaliers on national television, and that was a critical step in the Cavaliers deciding they needed to let David Blatt go, hire Tyronn Lue, and make changes that put them on Golden State’s level. With Monday’s loss, one thing that was evident was the depth of playmaking options the Warriors have and how that can be difficult to guard. Cleveland has two playmakers right now, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James. Cavs’ GM David Griffin has talked about wanting to add playmakers, LeBron has called for a backup point guard, but it’s clear whatever position they could use to add another playmaker or two heading into the trade deadline.

3) Can Kevin Durant guard LeBron? Chris Haynes of ESPN with an interesting stat:

The Cavaliers were on the last night of a six-game, 12-day road trip — they were not at their best. LeBron clearly wasn’t. However, if KD can even do a reasonable job on LeBron — or can switch on to him without getting torched — the Warriors will be a lot more comfortable and have more options on defense.

4) How did Warriors handle Kyle Korver? They went right at him and made him play defense, which has never been a strong suit (to put it kindly). The Warriors have enough playmakers that whoever Korver was guarding just went at him, and it worked — particularly during the stretch that saw the Warriors first push their lead north of 20. Korver didn’t have a great shooting night, by June he likely is far more comfortable, but if the Warriors can expose him on the other end it will be hard to keep Korver on the court for extended periods.

5) When JaVale McGee checked in for the Warriors, Tyronn Lue countered with Channing Frye. JaVale is not a strong defender, doesn’t step out away from the basket if he can help it, and the Cavs saw an advantage. JaVale’s offense covered that in this game scoring inside, but it’s something to watch.

6) DeAndre Liggins is a good defender, but he’s more focused on-ball than off, and in the fourth quarter Klay Thompson torched him a few times making Liggins chase him off screens away from the ball. You can be sure Steve Kerr noticed and filed that away.

Isaiah Thomas’ big fourth quarter carries Celtics past Hornets 108-98

Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) raises his arms as he celebrates after hitting a 3-pointer against the Charlotte Hornets during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Boston, Monday, Jan. 16, 2017. Thomas had 35 points as the Celtics defeated the Hornets 108-98. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
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BOSTON (AP) — Isaiah Thomas scored 17 of his 35 points in the fourth quarter, and the surging Boston Celtics beat the Charlotte Hornets 108-98 on Monday night for their ninth victory in 11games.

It was Thomas’ 25th straight game with 20 or more points. He’s been putting up big final quarters of late – scoring 20 or more three times this season. No other NBA player had done it more than once entering Monday.

Al Horford had 22 points, while Kelly Olynyk and Jae Crowder added 15 apiece for Boston, which has won all three meetings with Charlotte this season.

Kemba Walker scored 24 points and Marvin Williams had 21 for the Hornets, who lost their fifth straight – all on the road.

Thomas scored 13 straight points, pushing Boston ahead 93-83 with his 3-pointer from the left wing with 7 1/2 minutes left.

Boston led 80-71 entering the final period.

TIP-INS

Hornets: Entered averaging the second-fewest turnovers in the league at 12.1 per game. They had 11.

Celtics: G Avery Bradley returned after missing four straight games because of a strained right Achilles. He scored five points on 2-of -9 shooting. … Thomas scored a team-record 29 points in the final quarter of a victory against Miami on Dec. 30 to finish with 52.

INSPIRING WORDS

Celtics rookie Jaylen Brown addressed the crowd before the game on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Without notes, he quoted King in saying: “The day our lives begin to end, the day we become silent about things that matter.”

NICE CATCH

New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount sat courtside behind a basket and made a two-handed grab of a ball flying out of bounds.

SPORTS TRANSITION

It was the nightcap of a hockey/basketball doubleheader, and 6-foot-4 Celtics guard Marcus Smart entered TD Garden wearing a winter jacket and hat. He paused and stood seemingly unnoticed as a group of youngsters and parents – most wearing Boston Bruins colors – walked down a hall to meet some of the hockey players.

Smart smiled when a media member said, “I don’t think anyone noticed you.”

Later, 6-foot-9 Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara headed past folks walking in for the basketball game.

 

Clippers guard Chris Paul leaves game with sprained thumb, more tests coming

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The Clippers have now won seven games in a row, but if they don’t have Chris Paul in the lineup that streak is going to turn around very quickly (remember just a couple of weeks ago when he missed seven games with a hamstring strain?).

Which is why Paul leaving the game with what the team has called a sprained thumb is potentially troubling news. Paul was trying to get over the top of a Joffrey Lauvergne screen when he ran into Russell Westbrook who had pulled up to take a three, Paul’s hand hitting Westbrook’s hip and seemingly getting caught up in his shorts. Paul walked off the court and went straight to the locker room, making it seem worse than the team said it is so far.

From the press release from the Clippers:

X-rays during the game were negative, but further tests still need to be done to determine the extent of the injury, which occurred in the second quarter after Paul jammed his left hand on Russell Westbrook’s right leg.

The Clippers held on without Paul for the comfortable win over the Thunder, 120-98.

The Clippers are the four seed in the West but could fall down that ladder if Paul is out for any stretch of time. Starting Saturday The Clippers have 10-of-11 games on the road — and the one home game is the Warriors. That’s going to be a tough run of games even with Paul.

Kevin Durant scores 21, Stephen Curry 20 to help Warriors cruise past Cavs (VIDEOS)

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Pretty much everything the Warriors did Monday against the Cavaliers worked — transition buckets, pull-up threes, drive-and-dish plays, curls off screens, you name it and the Warriors got enough space to get a shot they wanted. Then they knocked them down. Which is why the Warriors won going away.

Stephen Curry had a big night with 20 points and 11 assists, which you can see highlights of above. It was a big night for Curry’s confidence: In the Cavaliers four-straight wins against the Warriors, Cleveland trapped Curry off picks, were physical, and when Curry tried to make the playground passes that worked against other teams Cavaliers’ help defenders made steals and were off in transition the other way. Monday night Curry took the pressure in stride, used his handles to create space, used his gravity to draw defenders to him, then he whipped smart passes around the floor. Curry had 10 assists and zero turnovers in the first half.

Kevin Durant benefitted from some of those passes and had 21 points on the night, and he chipped in three blocks.