bledsoe hornacek

Suns improve to 5-2 with win over Pelicans; Hornacek says he’s ‘a little’ surprised by team’s fast start


PHOENIX — At some point if this continues, the surprise will dissipate and turn into some level of expectation. But for now, the Suns are simply enjoying their fast start after improving their record to 5-2 following another hard-fought victory, beating the Pelicans 101-94 for the second time this season.

Phoenix is doing it with effort on both ends of the floor, timely shooting, and above average production off the bench — all of which were on display in the team’s latest win.

Defensively, the Suns rank sixth in the league allowing just 96.7 points per 100 possessions, and they held the Pelicans to 97.2 on Sunday. But the defense wasn’t really the story overall; it was a big run down the stretch that featured the making of some big-time shots.

The Suns held just a one-point lead with about five and a half minutes to play, in a game that was the polar opposite of the wild offensive battle with the Nuggets on Friday. But Phoenix got hot at the right time — they shot just 1-of-12 from three-point distance in the first half, but hit 4-of-6 from downtown in the final period, and made 12-of-17 shots overall in the fourth, good for a mark of 70.6 percent over the game’s final 12 minutes.

With the Phoenix lead at just three with under four and a half minutes remaining, Gerald Green hit a tough three-pointer as the shot clock expired, and had to get around the long arms of Anthony Davis to do so.

“I knew there was two seconds on the shot clock, and I knew if I just pulled up he was going to get it,” Green told me afterward. “But I knew if I gave him a good shot fake he was going to go for it. I was correct. I wanted to jump into him, but he did a great job of avoiding it. Once he moved away, I just used my athleticism to size up the shot, and I knew it was going in as soon as I let it go.”

It was the first of a series of demoralizing shots that the Pelicans bore witness to. Eric Bledsoe unintentionally banked home a 20-footer on the Suns’ next possession, Goran Dragic drilled a three-pointer to push the lead to eight, and Bledsoe hit a dagger of a three for the second straight game to effectively seal it by putting the Suns up 10 with just over a minute left.

But while the game’s outcome had been determined, the Suns weren’t done delivering the highlights.

Bledsoe rose way up to block one of Davis’ shots, and Green hammered home a dunk in the halfcourt set to put an exclamation point on the Suns’ fifth win of the season.

Even before this one was in the books, Suns coach Jeff Hornacek admitted to being, like the rest of us, a bit surprised by his team’s fast start.

“Am I surprised with the start? Maybe a little bit,” he said before tip-off on Sunday. “Just because when you look at our guys, starting with Miles Plumlee who only played 50 minutes last year, to [Goran Dragic] being hurt, to Eric Bledsoe being a backup (previously). You know these guys are good players, but you don’t really know how it’s going to work when you get out on the court.

“So far these guys have been great — Gerald Green coming in and shooting the ball, Marcus and Markieff (Morris) playing well. So it’s probably a little bit of a surprise, but these guys and these coaches, we think we can win every game we go out there.”

It’s a long season, and it’ll be interesting to see how far into it the Suns can impose their will on opponents and continue their winning ways. It’s clear early on, however, that the players have completely bought in to what Hornacek has been selling, and the effort with which they’ve consistently played to this point in the season has not only made for some unexpected success, but it’s also made this Suns team extremely entertaining to watch.

Did we mention LeBron James was dunking all over Knicks? Watch for yourself.

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LeBron James isn’t the only story out of the NBA season opener — Kyrie Irving had 29 points, Kevin Love had 23, Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose were shotmaking.

But mostly, LeBron James was dunking. And racking up a triple-double (19 points, 14 assists, 11 rebounds). But mostly just dunking. Like you see above. Or there is this alley-oop.

Or, there was this putback throwdown.

And we can throw in a block on Courtney Lee just for fun.

Cavaliers moving ball, LeBron James dunking in season opener

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 25:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on in the first quarter against the New York Knicks at Quicken Loans Arena on October 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The Cavaliers were not in mid-season form on opening night — they started the game 3-of-12 from the floor and were 4-of-21 from three in the first half.

But they were showing flashes.

Like the LeBron James dunk above. Or this stretch of ball movement below.

The Cavaliers led the Knicks 48-45 at the half.

Watch LeBron James’ speech after getting his ring in Cleveland

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“At this point, if you’re not from here, live here, play here, dedicate yourself to Cleveland, then it makes no sense for you to live at this point — Cleveland against the world!”

And with that, the Q went nuts.

LeBron James and the Cavaliers got their rings and raised a banner in Cleveland — the first title banner in that city in 52 seasons (although the Indians are trying to have their say on the matter across the street). It was emotional for everyone in the building, and particularly the hometown boy LeBron.

Check out the full ring ceremony.

Best foot forward: 76ers’ Embiid set for long-awaited debut

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) shoots against Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol, of Spain, during the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

PHILADELPHIA (AP) With a dunk contest, half court shots and “Juju on that Beat ” dancing contest finished, Joel Embiid turned back toward Philadelphia 76ers fans at an open practice.

Instead of scurrying off to the locker room, Embiid stuck around for selfies with fans sitting on all sides of the court, stretching mobiles high over his 7-foot-2 frame to squeeze as many fans as he could into each snapshot .

Embiid even entertained in 1-on-1 games – against little kids.

Embiid has the joyous personality of a kid himself. Social media posts include him crushing on Rihanna or teasing an Australian-born teammate that he’ll get deported if Donald Trump is elected president of the United States. The 76ers posted a Vine last season of Embiid throwing down a between-the-legs dunk at warmups that blew up NBA-centric Twitter feeds and offered fans a fleeting look at the potential ahead.

“Philadelphia’s going to love him,” coach Brett Brown said.

The city has waited 29 months to love the 22-year-old Embiid for his impact on the court.

The Sixers have stripped the bubble wrap off Embiid and the No. 3 overall pick of the 2014 draft is set to make his debut Wednesday night against Oklahoma City after two foot surgeries, countless days of rehab, gallons of Shirley Temples and inherited expectations that he is the savior for a woebegone franchise that has made a farce of competitive basketball.

Embiid, who grew up playing soccer and volleyball and didn’t play basketball until 2011, is no longer the raw project out of Kansas. He’s grown 3 inches and beefed up to about 275 pounds to better handle the daily grind of battling the NBA’s biggest big men.

“Where I was three years ago, I’m not even close to what I am right now,” Embiid said. “My game has gotten so much better. The past three years, if you watch the game tape, I’m not the same guy.”

Embiid had a fantastic freshman season with the Jayhawks, averaging 11.2 points and 8.1 rebounds. He blocked 72 shots to earn Big 12 defensive player of the year honors.

He might have been the No. 1 overall pick in `14 – a spot that went to Minnesota’s Andrew Wiggins – had he had not suffered from a balky back and needed surgery for a stress fracture in his right foot shortly before the draft. Embiid, who knew only his native Cameroon before college, failed to really adjust to life without daily organized basketball. His weight ballooned, and he was booted from a road trip because of a petulant attitude. Part of his weight gain was blamed on a junk food diet washed down with that mix of ginger ale and a splash of grenadine garnished with a maraschino cherry commonly known as a Shirley Temple .

His personal life was rocked in October 2014 when his 13-year-old brother Arthur died in a car crash in Africa.

“It’s been really hard,” Embiid said.

Embiid was expected to anchor the rebuild in 2015 for a Sixers organization that had scorched their roster and abandoned a competitive season in hopes of gobbling lottery picks. But a second surgery of the navicular bone on the right foot in August 2015 cost him his sophomore season.

Embiid was devastated but handled his time off with greater seriousness in his workouts and a mission to return as a dominant center. The 76ers even shipped Embiid to a sports science facility and sports medicine hospital in Qatar to rehab.

“When I left college, I felt I wasn’t ready for NBA life,” Embiid said. “But since I’ve been in the league, the support I’ve had around me from (former president) Sam Hinkie, the coaching staff, they’ve just been on me. That’s what I usually need. When somebody’s on me, I can usually do better.”

The Sixers played it safe this year and held Embiid out of summer league. Brown, in his fourth season, entered training camp with a cautious plan to limit Embiid’s minutes and games when the schedule is packed.

Embiid, well, he left his training wheels in the dust.

He averaged 11.6 points over all seven preseason games. Embiid played 20 minutes a game as the preseason ended and Brown said he would consider playing his starting center more often. Brown would ideally lessen Embiid’s load early and help him avoid the same fate of other centers who had careers curtailed by foot injuries, like Yao Ming and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

In the preseason, Embiid flashed some wow moments that had his teammates hooting and hollering on the bench. But Embiid sometimes tried too hard to be the showstopper and was a turnover machine.

“At times, he just reminds me of a yearling, trying to find his balance,” Brown said. “He wants to score. He wants to dominate. How about the passion he plays with? You can’t coach that. And he has `it.”‘

So who plays with him? The Sixers have had more key players out with injuries under Brown than they have had competing for playing time.

Ben Simmons, the No. 1 overall pick this year, is sidelined indefinitely with a broken bone in his right foot. Nerlens Noel, the No. 6 pick in the `13 draft, is out at least a month after surgery on his left knee. Starting point guard Jerryd Bayless is sidelined with a ligament injury in his left wrist. Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia’s leading scorer and rebounder, is restricted as he recovers from surgery on his left knee.

The Sixers went 10-72 last season and have won 27 games in Embiid’s two seasons on the bench.

“Having to sit on the bench and watch us lose almost every night has been hard,” Embiid said.

Embiid took note of the hype that happened across the street during one of his visits to the Philadelphia Eagles sideline. Carson Wentz went from unknown rookie to whipping fans into a “Wentzamania” frenzy with his quick start.

“I think it’s our turn,” Embiid said.