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.

After Ricky Rubio’s triple-double, Russell Westbrook promises to “shut that s*** off”

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Ricky Rubio outplayed Russell Westbrook Saturday night in Utah and now the Jazz are up 2-1 in that series.

Rubio did his damage from the midrange — he was 5-of-5 between the key and the arc — on his way to 26 points, to go with 11 rebounds and 10 assists. All series the Thunder have dared Rubio to shoot and to beat them, Saturday he did. It was a stark contrast to Westbrook’s 14 points on 17 shots Saturday with eight turnovers.

When asked about Rubio’s big night postgame, Westbrook was looking ahead to Game 4 and using a little NSFW language (hat tip to Ben Golliver of SI, who loves him some playoff podium video).

There you have it, a personal guarantee.

Rubio struggled some in Game 1, taking 18 shots and mostly the ones the Thunder wanted him to. However, after that he has been better at getting to his spots and taking the shots in rhythm, and it’s worked — he’s averaging 20.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 8 assists per game this series. OKC has been focused on making life difficult for rookie Donovan Mitchell (with limited success) and it’s freed up Rubio to make plays.

More than just slowing the Spanish point guard, Westbrook and the Thunder need to figure out how to get their offense back on track against a Jazz defense that was best in the NBA once Gobert got healthy last season. Oklahoma City lost Game 2 when their big three — Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony — went 0-of-15 in the fourth quarter. In Game 3, OKC averaged 100 points per 100 possessions (well below their season average of 110.2) and Westbrook shot 29.4 percent. Do that again in Game 4 and it will not matter what Rubio shoots, what matters is the Thunder could be looking at a 3-1 deficit. The Thunder need to even this series before it heads back to Oklahoma City.

Gregg Popovich will not coach Game 4 following death of his wife, Erin

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San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will not be on the sidelines again for Game 4 Sunday following the death of his wife, Erin, to a lengthy illness.

Ettore Messina will again coach the Spurs.

Popovich also missed Game 3. His San Antonio Spurs are down 3-0 to the Golden State Warriors in the first-round matchup. None of that matters compared to the loss of a woman he loved and was married to for four decades.

Erin Popovich’s passing has cast a pall over the series, especially with Warriors coach Steve Kerr being very close to the Popovichs dating back to his playing days with the Spurs.

The reaction and sadness about Erin’s passing has reached well beyond this series.

Our thoughts are with the Popovich family in this difficult time.

Anthony Davis’ 47 points, Pelicans sweep Trail Blazers out of playoffs

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Anthony Davis scored 33 of his franchise playoff-record 47 points in the second half, and the New Orleans Pelicans completed a first-round playoff sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers with a 131-123 victory on Saturday.

Jrue Holiday capped his 41-point performance with an 18-foot pull-up jumper that gave the Pelicans a six-point lead with 40 seconds left.

Rajon Rondo added 16 assists, and Davis also had 11 rebounds and three blocks for New Orleans, which is moving on to the second round of the playoffs for only the second time since the NBA returned to the city 16 seasons ago.

C.J. McCollum scored 38 for the Trail Blazers, who responded to a blowout loss in Game 3 by keeping Game 4 close until the final minute. Al-Farouq Aminu scored 27, Damian Lillard added 18 points and Jusuf Nurkic had 18 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out.

Lillard’s difficult driving layup had just tied the game at 60 when the Pelicans briefly pulled away, going on an 11-2 run capped by Davis’ 3.

Soon after, Nikola Mirotic added step-back 3. Davis, who scored 19 in the third quarter, then added a layup while falling down after a hard foul by Aminu, after which Davis flexed both biceps while still sitting on the court.

Holiday’s transition 3 made it 87-72, prompting Portland to call timeout while Holiday walked slowly toward mid-court, nodding and smiling wide as he soaked in the crowd’s adulation.

New Orleans led by 13 to start the fourth quarter, but Portland refused to wilt, opening the period on a 15-4 run that included Nurkic’s hook shot, 20-foot jumper and dunk. McCollum’s transition layup made it 104-102 with nearly nine minutes to play.

Portland got as close as a single point on Aminu’s layup with 5:08 to go, but Davis responded with 12 points over the final 4:56, starting with a layup as he was fouled and a 3-pointer. Holiday scored six points during the final 2:52, starting with his 3-pointer. The pair combined for all but one of New Orleans’ points during that pivotal stretch.

Leading up to Game 4, Lillard spoke of the need for the Blazers to ramp up their intensity and physicality. From the tip, it looked as though they’d done so.

In stark contrast to Game 3, when New Orleans led by 18 in the first quarter, this game was tight and testy.

Anthony and Ed Davis received double technical fouls after bumping one another following one of Anthony Davis’ dunks – and that was just the beginning.

McCollum was called for a flagrant foul when he stormed into the lane behind E'Twaun Moore and grabbed the Pelicans guard by the shoulders to thwart a driving layup attempt. Moore then shoved McCollum and was assessed a technical foul.

And in the final seconds of the half, double technicals were assessed to Rondo and Portland center Zach Collins after Rondo lowered his forehead into Collins’ chest and Collins shoved back.

When halftime arrived, New Orleans led 58-56.

 

 

Twins Marcus, Markieff Morris each fined by league for separate instances

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Twins Marcus and Markieff Morris have a special bond, one that includes doing so much together on the basketball court — playing at the same high school, the same AAU team, then going to college together at Kansas, and even playing together in the NBA for a while together with the Suns (they are now on separate teams).

That includes them both getting fined Saturday by the NBA for recent actions during the playoffs.

Washington’s Markieff Morris picked up a $25,000 fine for “attempting to escalate an altercation and pushing a game official,” the league announced. Here is the play in question, just minutes into Game 3.

Toronto’s OG Anunoby draws a foul knocking Morris to the ground, but Morris starts the incident with an elbow to Anunoby’s back, and he does push referee Kenny Mauer. Considering all that, a $25,000 fine is not that severe.

His twin Marcus Morris picked up a $15,000 for “public criticism of the officiating,” which he certainly did following the Celtics’ Game 3 loss to the Bucks. Here are his comments, and they are NSFW.

That $15,000 fine is pretty much the going rate for ripping the referees after the game.

Markieff outdid his brother on this one… if you consider getting the larger fine the “win.”