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

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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.

Report: Dion Waiters signing one-year, $2.9 million contract with Heat

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 28:  Dion Waiters #3 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts during the first half against the Golden State Warriors in game six of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 28, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 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 J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
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If there’s anyone who won’t fear replacing Dwyane Wade with the Heat, it’s Dion Waiters.

For better or worse.

 

Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press:

This is presumably for the $2,898,000 room exception. At that price, it’s hard to argue with taking a chance on the talented 24-year-old. For a brief stretch in the playoffs, Waiters put it all together and looked like the complementary scorer and defender the Thunder desired.

But that was surrounded by more sober assessments of his value.

Oklahoma City didn’t extend Waiters’ contract before the season and yanked his qualifying offer last week. This must be a disappointing outcome for Waiters, but at least he can hit the market again in a year.

Erik Spoelstra and the Heat have a reputation for boosting the stock of wayward talented players. Just look at Hassan Whiteside, who became the first player in NBA history to go from a minimum salary one season to the max the next.

Waiters must play with more purpose on both ends of the floor. Too often, it appears he’s just drifting until his next opportunity to jack up a shot — which he does frequently and inefficiently.

Joining Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook for a season reduced Waiters absurdly high usage, but he’s still a gunner. One benefit of Wade leaving — easing the tension between point guard Goran Dragic and a ball-dominant shooting guard — has been reduced.

At least Miami can turn to Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson in the backcourt if Waiters sees this as an opportunity to hunt his own shot without abandon once again.

Waiters has ability as a shooter and ball-handler. He’s strong enough to defend well. There is upside for the Heat here and little downside.

But there’s a reason Waiters had to settle for the room exception even as he’s entering his athletic prime.

Report: Celtics-76ers trade talks on Jahlil Okafor have grown ‘stale’

DALLAS, TX - FEBRUARY 21:  Jahlil Okafor #8 of the Philadelphia 76ers takes a shot against Zaza Pachulia #27 of the Dallas Mavericks in the first half at American Airlines Center on February 21, 2016 in Dallas, Texas.  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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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The Celtics were reportedly interested in Jahlil Okafor, but they aren’t willing to give up much.

You know where that leads.

Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald:

It’s possible the Celtics and Philadelphia could revisit talks for Jahlil Okafor, but, according to sources, those talks appear to have grown “stale.”

The 76ers still want to trade Okafor or Nerlens Noel, but Philadelphia also doesn’t want to sell low. With Al Horford, Amir Johnson, Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Zeller already at center, it’s unlikely Boston surrenders enough to tempt the 76ers.

Sure, the Celtics could use a young interior scorer like Okafor. But he’d be more of a luxury than a need — which influences Boston’s offer.

It’s hard to envision what would freshen these trade talks, which means Philadelphia probably needs to find a new trade partner.

Report: Trail Blazers signing C.J. McCollum to four-year max contract extension

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 11:  C.J. McCollum #3 of the Portland Trail Blazers dribbles the ball against the Golden State Warriors during Game Five of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs on May 11, 2016 at Oracle Arena 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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Four years ago, C.J. McCollum was playing at Lehigh.

Two years ago, he was barely in the Trail Blazers’ rotation.

Now, McCollum — the reigning Most Improved Player — is set to receive a huge payday.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

McCollum will earn $3,219,579 next season in the final year of his rookie-scale contract. His extension will kick in for the 2017-18 season.

The Trail Blazers could offer McCollum just a four-year extension, because they already made Damian Lillard their designated player with a five-year extension. They could have re-signed McCollum to a five-year deal as a restricted free agent next summer, but they chose this route.

If this is a true max contract, Portland also runs the risk of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement significantly changing McCollum’s max. In max extensions, the salaries are slotted once the cap is set the following offseason. It’s also possible the extension is written now with set salaries based on the projected max, protecting the Trail Blazers in the event of an unexpected max leap. (If McCollum’s salary is set to a number higher than where the max winds up, the salary is amended downward to the max.)

Portland also cuts into its 2017 flexibility, because McCollum will immediately count against the cap at his 2017-18 salary (projected to be about $24 million) rather than what would’ve been his cap hold ($8,048,948). If the Trail Blazers waited, they could have used that $16 million or so difference in cap space then re-signed McCollum with Bird Rights.

So, why go to all this trouble?

Portland locks up a talented 24-year-old through his prime.

The NBA is short on high-end shooting guards, and McCollum was likely to receive considerable interest as a free agent. He could’ve leveraged that into a shorter offer sheet, allowing him to hit unrestricted free agency — meaning potentially an even bigger payout and/or departure — sooner.

McCollum also complements Lillard well. They share playmaking responsibilities in the backcourt, rarely leaving the Trail Blazers without either player on the court. McCollum’s 3-point shooting also makes him a threat when playing with Lillard.

Not long ago, Lillard noted Portland was already playing without an All-Star when so much attention was paid to the Clippers losing Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. But All-Star berths are far from the only one to measure stature.

Now, the Trail Blazers have two players paid like stars, and they’ll depend on Lillard and McCollum to lead the team into the foreseeable future.

Michael Jordan: ‘I can no longer stay silent’ on racial issues

CHARLOTTE, NC - MARCH 01:  Charlotte Hornets owner, Michael Jordan, reacts after a call during their game against the Phoenix Suns at Time Warner Cable Arena on March 1, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  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 Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Michael Jordan might have never said “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

But that quote has defined him politically.

Whether the perception has been fair or not, he’s clearly trying to change it.

Jordan in The Undefeated:

As a proud American, a father who lost his own dad in a senseless act of violence, and a black man, I have been deeply troubled by the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement and angered by the cowardly and hateful targeting and killing of police officers. I grieve with the families who have lost loved ones, as I know their pain all too well.

“I was raised by parents who taught me to love and respect people regardless of their race or background, so I am saddened and frustrated by the divisive rhetoric and racial tensions that seem to be getting worse as of late. I know this country is better than that, and I can no longer stay silent. We need to find solutions that ensure people of color receive fair and equal treatment AND that police officers – who put their lives on the line every day to protect us all – are respected and supported.

“Over the past three decades I have seen up close the dedication of the law enforcement officers who protect me and my family. I have the greatest respect for their sacrifice and service. I also recognize that for many people of color their experiences with law enforcement have been different than mine. I have decided to speak out in the hope that we can come together as Americans, and through peaceful dialogue and education, achieve constructive change.

“To support that effort, I am making contributions of $1 million each to two organizations, the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s newly established Institute for Community-Police Relations and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

You can read Jordan’s full statement here.