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.

Joel Embiid frustrated, wants more post touches, to play back-to-backs

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Joel Embiid remains a frustrated man.

He wants to be unleashed on the NBA, and he feels he’s being held back.

Part of that is not playing in back-to-backs — Embiid started Friday night against Boston but will sit out by plan Saturday night against the Raptors in Toronto. Embiid knows the plan to help protect a body that has played only 31 games in three seasons before this one and was not cleared for most of training camp, but that doesn’t mean he likes it, as he told Jessica Camerato of NBC Sports Philadelphia.

“I just want to feel like an NBA player,” Embiid said.  “I feel like I’m not an NBA player because I can’t play back-to-back.”

I get his frustration, but can you blame the Sixers for treating the guy like he’s made of glass at this point? Hopefully, later in the season, he can be cleared to play on both ends.

His second frustration came from the loss to the Cavaliers on Friday — he wants more post touches. In the video above he is clear, “I didn’t get the ball enough in the post.”

He’s right here. Embiid had three post-ups all game, one in each of the game’s first three quarters (stat via Synergy Sports). Embiid is efficient in the post — he has shot 9-of-12 on those plays overall this season and the Sixers score 1.33 points per possession when he does. Especially against a team going small — the Cavaliers start Kevin Love at center — Embiid should be fed down low.

Instead, look at his shot chart from Friday night.

Part of this is on him with all the threes, but they have to utilize him better. It’s part of the Sixers growing pains that will come this season.

Nets’ national anthem singer kneels to finish performance

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NEW YORK (AP)—  The national anthem singer at the Brooklyn Nets’ home opener took a knee at the end of her performance.

Justine Skye was nearing the completion of the song Friday night when she went to one knee for the finish. There were some cheers, but appeared to be more boos from the crowd at Barclays Center to see the Nets play the Orlando Magic.

NBA players have continued to stand during the playing of the anthems, as required by league rule.

Mavericks’ rookie guard Dennis Smith Jr. misses game with knee swelling

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DALLAS (AP) — Dallas Mavericks rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr. missed Friday’s game against the Sacramento Kings with swelling in his left knee.

Smith, the ninth pick in the NBA draft out of North Carolina State, had 16 points and 10 assists in the Mavericks’ season-opening loss to the Atlanta Hawks.

Smith participated in the Mavericks’ shootaround on Friday morning and was a late scratch. It is not known if Smith will play Saturday for Dallas.

The Mavericks were also missing guard Devin Harris, who was granted leave of absence after his brother died on Thursday.

Watch Lonzo Ball’s 29 point, 11 rebound, 9 assist game Friday night

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This was more of what fans expected from Lonzo Ball.

After a rough first game against the Clippers — with Patrick Beverley in his face all night — Ball found plenty of room to operate against the soft defense of the Phoenix Suns. With room to operate Ball had 29 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists — just one assist short of a triple-double. He helped the Lakers pull away to a lead in the third then hold on for a 132-130 win over the Suns.

Ball wasn’t terribly efficient, 12-of-27 shooting, but he was 4-of-9 from three, he played with great pace, he was decisive, and was finding guys with his passes. It was a step forward, even if it was against a sad defense (Eric Bledsoe can be a good defender, but he has seemed disinterested in recent years).

Ball and the Lakers are going to be up and down this season, the goal is for there to be more ups near the end of the season.