The Extra Pass: Suns struggling to stay in postseason picture after recent, disappointing slide

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NEW YORK — No matter how the Phoenix Suns finish the 2013-14 season, the year will be considered an overachievement by every metric possible.

But after spending so much of the season as one of the league’s feel-good stories, firmly entrenched in the Western Conference playoff picture for most of it, falling out of postseason contention and finishing in the lottery as many predicted would be supremely disappointing.

The Suns find themselves a game and a half behind Memphis for the final playoff spot in the West after getting rolled by the Nets on Monday, in a contest where Phoenix brought nowhere near the required effort — something that was evident from the game’s early moments.

“It sure looked like [a difficult night was ahead] right from the start,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said afterward. “The energy level wasn’t where it was in the [previous game, a win in Toronto] — missing easy shots right off the bat, timeouts. They came out of timeouts and didn’t run the play we had on the board, didn’t know where to go. I just didn’t think their heads were in it.”

The final numbers weren’t as bad as they were at the game’s lowest point, when the Nets had built a lead of as many as 23 points in the second half and were threatening to finish the game shooting better than 60 percent from the field — a mark they would have hit easily if not for too many third quarter heat-checks, and some rough shooting from Alan Anderson and Marcus Thornton that dragged the average down.

Phoenix looked out of sync offensively all night long, but the defense was even worse as Brooklyn had amassed 44 points in the paint by halftime while shooting better than 67 percent over the game’s first 24 minutes. The missing cohesion defensively, along with 11 first half turnovers were an indication to Hornacek that his team wasn’t all there in this one.

“That’s all lack of focus,” he said. “If you don’t mentally prepare for the game, thinking about it all day long you’ll have the slip-ups — the lazy passes, not holding a guy off to get open. It’s all the little things in a game that help you win, and we did none of ‘em.”

The Suns haven’t been doing those things consistently in quite some time. Back on Feb. 22, Phoenix was sixth in the Conference standings with a record of 33-21, but eight losses in their last 13 games now have them on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. Hornacek has talked to the team about games that could impact their playoff positioning before, but he’s wary of continuing to do so because it hasn’t yielded the desired results.

“We try not to talk about it, because last time we talked about playoff positioning — just, ‘hey, we’ve got to win this game for playoffs’ — we played kind of like this again,” Hornacek said. “So I don’t know if that was pressure that got to ‘em tonight, but we just didn’t have the effort, for whatever reason.”

Goran Dragic, who’s played at an All-Star level even though he just missed the cut for an appearance in the midesason exhibition, was limited against the Nets by foul trouble and couldn’t get into a rhythm. But he didn’t think the pressure of the playoffs was getting to him or his teammates to the point where it’s impacting their performance.

“We talk about that we want to be a playoff team, of course,” Dragic said. “But I don’t think that because of that we’re losing those games.”

Dragic instead pointed to the teams the Suns have been losing to — playoff teams, to be exact, in five of the eight that have come during this recent slide.

“We didn’t shoot the ball well and our defense has been a problem, but we’ve had a tough stretch,” Dragic said. “We played against teams that are playoff teams. We tried to battle; some games we lost really close, by three or four points. It’s just a tough stretch for us, but we’re not going to complain. We still can make the playoffs. We’ve still got 15 games left to play and hopefully we’re going to regroup and try to get a lot of wins.”

The schedule is difficult to end the season, however, with six of the final eight against teams currently in playoff position in the West.

Phoenix entered the year in rebuilding mode, and the fact that they’ve experienced so much success in spite of that isn’t lost on them. But with a chance at the playoffs having gone from a faint dream to a reality that’s become somewhat expected, missing out on that is going to hurt — especially if it happens because of lackluster efforts like the one we saw against the Nets.

“Some nights you just have a bad night, you flush it down the toilet and go on to the next one,” Hornacek said. “There’s nothing you can do about this one. We’ve got a couple of games at home against teams where we should win if we come out and play, but if we come out and play like we did tonight, we could lose those games, too.”

Hornets coach Steve Clifford returns Wednesday after 21-game absence

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Hornets coach Steve Clifford returned to practice Tuesday following a 21-game absence due to headaches caused by sleep deprivation. He will coach the Hornets on the bench Wednesday night against the Wizards.

Clifford said Tuesday when he began experiencing intense headaches back in early December it scared him so bad he decided to take a medical leave of absence. Medical tests revealed nothing wrong internally, but Clifford said doctors told him he needed to dramatically change his lifestyle and work habits – and get more sleep.

Clifford, who last coached Charlotte on Dec. 1, says he feels rested and plans to delegate more to his assistant coaches moving forward.

The 56-year-old Clifford returns to the sideline Wednesday when Charlotte hosts Washington, the start of a five-game homestand for the struggling Hornets (17-25).

Charlotte was 9-12 under associate head coach Stephen Silas during Clifford’s absence.

 

Jonathan Isaac in sermon: I invited my Magic teammates to hear me preach, but none came

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Jonathan Isaac hasn’t played in a few weeks due an ankle injury.

But the Magic rookie hasn’t stayed out of the spotlight.

He delivered a sermon Sunday at his church, which put the speech online. In the talk, he mentioned his teammates.

Isaac:

I invited my teammates. Right? I invited my teammates, and that was the scariest thing I’ve ever had to do yet. None of them came, but I took the step, and I invited them. When Doc told me, “You should invite your teammates,” I was frozen. I froze. I said, “What? I’m the rookie. I’m the youngest person on the team. I can’t tell them that I’m about to preach. What? They don’t serve the lord. What are they going to think of me? What are they going to say about me? What are they going to say behind my back?” I want to be a part of this team. I want them to love me, truly. I typed the message up, and I deleted it. I typed it, and I deleted it. I typed it, and I deleted it. And finally, I was like, “You know what? This isn’t about me. I’ve got to take myself out of the equation. I’ve got to do what god is telling me to do.”

The Lando:

This is interesting on a couple levels.

I think it’s generally worth knowing what drives players. Religion is clearly an important part of Isaac’s life. That has anchored many athletes, but it can also create a burden, as Dwight Howard discussed.

Religion can also unite teams – or divide them. While coaching the Magic, Doc Rivers – himself very religious – ended team prayers once he noticed Muslim player Tariq Abdul-Wahad appear uncomfortable during the Christian prayers. A former teammate said David Robinson caused a rift in the Spurs’ locker room due to his proselytizing.

There’s also something to be said for teammates backing each other. Attending Isaac’s church for a day can be about supporting him, not adhering to his religion.

Of course, his teammates are under no obligation to attend. They’re co-workers, not necessarily friends. Maybe they just didn’t want to spend there free time with Isaac. Maybe they were busy. Maybe they felt uncomfortable going to church. There’s a whole range of possible reasons for each teammate, the way it affects team dynamics – on and off the court – varying accordingly.

Based on his sermon and follow-up statement, Isaac is going about this the right way. It can be nerve-wracking to ask people to join in something. That can be a meaningful experience in and of itself.

For the Magic, this provides another lens for which to assess their chemistry and camaraderie.

Three Things to Know: Anthony Davis gives Celtics fans 45 reasons to drool over him more

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. And we didn’t even get to 

1) Anthony Davis shows why Celtics’ fans drool over him, drops 45 in Pelicans win. There are executives and fans with 29 NBA teams who covet Anthony Davis and fantasize about would look like in their uniform. It’s just that Boston fans and executives are the loudest and least subtle about it. That despite the fact that Davis — a top-five NBA player who makes an impact at both ends of the floor — has three years on his contract after this one (the last one a player option) and the Pelicans are not trading him for the foreseeable future because they are not stupid (the feeling around the league is the Pelicans will re-sign DeMarcus Cousins next summer and go all-in with that combo). That didn’t stop Boston media from peppering Davis with questions Tuesday that basically amounted to little more than “so, just how badly do you want to come here and when can we expect you?” Davis dodged them all. As he should.

Tuesday night Davis gave Celtics fans a first-hand reminder why they want him so badly — he dropped 45 on the Celtics and led the Pelicans to a big win in the Boston Garden (his second 45+ point game, he did the same thing to the Knicks Saturday).

After a performance like that, Celtics fans would even be willing to trade Terry Rozier for Davis. Well, some of them would, not all. Some would construct a trade around Daniel Theis and think it was a fair swap.

Davis had help in this one, and not just from DeMarcus Cousins (who had 19 points and 15 rebounds). Jrue Holiday had 23 points, seven assists, and played fantastic defense on Kyrie Irving down the stretch (Irving had 27 points, but on 8-of-24 shooting). Davis, Cousins, and Holiday all had key buckets in the overtime session.

This win puts the Pelicans three games over .500 for only the second time this season, and now they head into a soft week in the schedule where (if focused) they should be able to pad their record a little. They need to. While right now the Pelicans are the six seed in the West, they are just one game ahead of the nine-seed Clippers — the race for the playoffs is on. New Orleans needs every win it can get.

2) Aaron Afflalo throws a punch (and misses) at Nemanja Bjelica, both men were ejected in actual, almost, NBA fight. Orlando’s Afflalo and Minnesota’s Bjelica had been going at it for a while in this game — both had already picked up a technical and things were getting chippy. Then midway through the second quarter, as the two men went for a rebound on a Jamal Crawford jumper, Bjelica just ran headlong into Afflalo as the Magic player looked like he was pass blocking.

That’s when a fight broke out and Afflalo threw a haymaker, which didn’t connect, then Bjelica gets him in a headlock.

Both men were ejected. Obviously.

That’s a lot closer to a fight than whatever happened in the secret tunnels of Staples Center between the Rockets and Clippers.

Afflalo is getting suspended for this — his punch was wild and didn’t connect, but that was a punch. Bjelica may miss a game or two as well for his role.

Orlando went on to upset the Timberwolves behind 32 points from Evan Fournier, snapping a five-game Minnesota win streak.

3) Nikola Jokic had a monster night, dropping 29 points and grabbing 18 boards. This year, the center position for the All-NBA teams feels wide open. (The league still makes people pick a center for this award, which is outdated for today’s game, but that’s the rules.) Joel Embiid is in the conversation for one of those slots (so long as he plays enough games), as is DeMarcus Cousins. LaMarcus Aldridge plays more center than power forward now and has to be mentioned. So does Karl-Anthony Towns, who has started to finally focus more on the defensive end.

Just don’t sleep on Nikola Jokic.

Denver’s best player had maybe his best game of the season Tuesday night, carving up Dallas to the tune of 29 points, 18 rebounds, and seven assists. Dallas threw a variety of defenders at him and it just didn’t matter.

Much like was mentioned with the Pelicans above, the Nuggets need to rack up wins. Just 1.5 games separates Oklahoma City at the five seed and the L.A. Clippers at the seven seed. Five teams for four spots. There’s half a season to go, and injuries will likely ultimately determine who is in and who is out, but Denver can’t afford to look past anyone, and scrappy teams like Dallas can be a tough out. This was a good win for the Nuggets on Tuesday, and Jokic is why they have it.

Watch Anthony Davis score 42 points in OT win over Celtics (VIDEO)

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New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis is on a bit of a tear.

Davis scored 48 points to go along with 17 rebounds on Sunday as the Pelicans beat the New York Knicks at MSG. Then on Tuesday night, Davis again went for 40+, scorching the Boston Celtics at TD Garden to the tune of 45 points, this time with 16 rebounds.

Alongside DeMarcus Cousins, who scored 19 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, Davis was the deciding factor in Tuesday’s game, helping to get early buckets in the extra time period.

The final result was impressive, and good news for the Pelicans as they continue to solidify their playoff position going into the All-Star break.

Watch the full highlights from Davis’ scoring outbreak in the video above.