Kurt Helin

PHOENIX, AZ - NOVEMBER 18:  Head coach Jeff Hornacek of the Phoenix Suns reacts on the bench during the second half of the NBA game against the Chicago Bulls at Talking Stick Resort Arena on November 18, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Bulls defeated the Suns 103-97. 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 Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Getty Images

Five Takeaways from NBA Sunday: With Bledsoe out, coaching Suns gets harder


We’re all just coming out of our Christmas food coma, and after a busy weekend the NBA took it easy with just four games. Here is what you need to know out of a Sunday around the Association.

1) It’s not the coaches, it’s the players. So the Suns fired some coaches. Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN had an apt description of the coaching moves in Phoenix Sunday, this is the old “let’s fire the hitting coach” strategy.

The Suns have lost 15 of their last 20 games because their roster has holes and chemistry issues, plus now their leading scorer and playmaker — Eric Bledsoe — is out until after the All-Star break following surgery on a torn meniscus. So how did the Suns’ management respond? On Sunday, the Suns fired assistant coaches Mike Longabardi (defensive coordinator) and Jerry Sichting (offense) and promoted the popular-with-the-players Earl Watson, as well as Nate Bjorkgren to the bench to shake up a Suns team that is out of the playoffs right now even in a down West. Head coach Jeff Hornacek kept his job, although there is a dead man walking feel to that. His contract is up after this season, he’s fought with players, and it’s difficult to imagine he will be back in the big chair in Phoenix.

This move was made by a management team that believes this is still a playoff team. I don’t see it. Suns’ owner Robert Sarver could resurrect John Wooden and make him coach and wouldn’t matter. This roster doesn’t have a clear strength and almost certainly will miss the playoffs for a sixth straight season. Without Bledsoe and his 20 points a night, the Suns are not the same. Brandon Knight will have a lot more on his shoulders, Rodney Hood will have to step up, and the Suns will count on its depth that has been a disappointment so far this season. The fact is management spent big on Tyson Chandler this summer and he has been bothered by nagging injuries and has not looked like near his vintage self. This team is a little below average on offense and a little below average on defense, and the players look lackadaisical at times. Coaching may be part of the issue, but talent and fit are the bigger ones.

The question I have is: what is the plan in Phoenix? What kind of team are they trying to build? There are no clear answers. A couple of years back the Suns were thought to be a rebuilding team that wasn’t going to go full Sixers but was going to take a few years to rebuild through the draft and free agency — then Hornacek led that team to 48 wins (which was still  not good enough for a playoff spot that season). It put the franchise in more of a “we can make the playoffs now” mindset rather than rebuilding the core, and the results have been less than impressive since. It may be time to rethink how they rebuilt this roster, and not just shuffle the coaching chairs around.

2) C.J. McCollum goes off as Portland gets win. No Damian Lillard on the second night of a road back-to-back taking on a rested Kings team — this looked like a scheduled loss for the Trail Blazers. But C.J. McCollum had other ideas — he went off from the midrange, hitting 10-of-17 from three feet out to the arc, and he picked apart a matador (just waving the cape as he drove past) defensive effort from the Kings. McCollum had 35 points, and combine that with the Kings turning the ball over on nearly 22 percent of their possessions, and you have a 98-94 Trail Blazers win.

Usually, it’s the rested team that plays better in the fourth quarter of these games, but the Kings were 3-of-22 shooting in the quarter, and DeMarcus Cousins was 2-of-9. Still, Cousins had 36 points on the night and provided a counter to McCollum.

3) Russell Westbrook, Thunder were dunking all over Nuggets. Russell Westbrook was within one rebound of a triple-double (30-11-9), and he did it while attacking the Nuggets and throwing down dunks at the rim. Heck, even Dion Waiters got in on the act during the Thunder’s 122-112 win.

4) RIP Meadowlark Lemon. For many, he was THE Harlem Globetrotter of the 1960s and ’70s (when that team was as popular as almost any NBA squad). He could consistently hit a half-court hook shot, was a fantastic trick passer, and was exactly the kind of showman and ambassador the sport and the Globetrotters needed. The Hall of Famer passed away this weekend at the age of 83. Our thoughts are with his family and friends.

5) Isaiah Thomas and Carmelo Anthony put on a show. Boston seemed in control of this game throughout second half (although the Knicks made some mini-runs to try to make it more interesting), and the Celtics won 100-91. Through it all Thomas and Anthony were the ones putting up the points and entertaining the fans.

Reports: Suns fire two assistant coaches in bench shake up

during the NBA game at Talking Stick Resort Arena on December 23, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona.  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.

It looks like Jeff Hornacek’s job in Phoenix may be safe. For now.

But not so for two of his key assistants — they are gone in a bench shake up as Suns’ management tries to right a troubled ship that has gone 5-15 in the last 20 games. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports and Marc Stein of ESPN have the details.

As Stein quickly corrected that’s spelled Bjorkgren, he’s a former D-League coach. Watson, the former NBA player, was popular with the Suns’ players but had a secondary role. That is about to change.

Suns management felt it needed to do something after a disappointing start to the season where they are once again out of the playoff chase (Phoenix had not made the playoffs for the past five seasons). Sunday, owner Robert Sarver and GM Ryan McDonough sat down and discussed with players what they saw as the reasons for the Suns’ troubles. This was the resultant move.

I’m not sure it will make much of a difference short-term. That’s mainly because the team’s leading scorer, Eric Bledsoe, is out with a torn meniscus that will require surgery and will sideline him at least six weeks. They will struggle to replace his 20 points a game and playmaking skills, no matter who is calling the shots from the bench.

Add to the Bledsoe injury Tyson Chandler looking older fast, and Markieff Morris being a disappointment which put him on the trade block, and it’s hard to see how any coaching change would make a big difference right now. It’s hard to see the Suns staying in the playoff mix, and that is not on the coaching staff.

Russell Westbrook rallies Thunder past Nuggets, 122-112

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) goes up for a dunk as Denver Nuggets guard Gary Harris (14) watches during the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game in Oklahoma City, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015. Oklahoma City won 122-112. (AP Photo/Alonzo Adams)
Associated Press
Leave a comment

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Russell Westbrook had 30 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds, and the Oklahoma City Thunder rallied from an 11-point, second-half deficit to beat the Denver Nuggets 122-112 on Sunday night.

Kevin Durant recorded his eighth double-double of the season with 26 points and 10 assists for the Thunder, who have won 10 of their last 12 games but were coming off a Christmas Day loss at home to the Chicago Bulls.

Oklahoma City shot a season-best 57.8 percent from the field. The Thunder trailed as late as the 8:13 mark of the fourth quarter before taking control with an 11-2 run that included seven of Enes Kanter‘s 21 points.

Dion Waters then capped a 6-0 spurt with a steal and dunk that put the Thunder ahead 117-108 with 2:07 left.

Kenneth Faried had 25 points and 11 points for the Nuggets, who have lost five of their last six games. Denver has lost six straight trips to Oklahoma City.

The Thunder started slowly for the second straight game, falling behind 8-2. Oklahoma City eventually pulled ahead, but by no more than two points in the first half. Denver closed the half on a 13-7 run and led 61-51 before a layup by Westbrook at the buzzer.

Kostas Papanikolaou‘s 3-pointer to start the second half extended Denver’s lead to 11 points, but Westbrook and Durant fueled a 20-9 run that pulled Oklahoma City even at 73-all with 5:07 left in the third quarter.

Durant fed rookie Cameron Payne for a corner 3-pointer in the final minute of the quarter and the Thunder led 91-90 heading into the fourth.

Randy Foye gave the Nuggets their last lead at 97-96 with 8:13 left. Kanter answered by tipping in a missed jumper by Serge Ibaka, then dunked after taking a feed from Westbrook and made the ensuing free throw, giving Oklahoma City its biggest lead to that point at 101-97. Consecutive dunks by Westbrook and Ibaka, who had 19 points, made it 107-99 with 5:09 left.

Will Barton scored 19 points and Joffrey Lauvergne added 18 for Denver.


Nuggets: Coach Michael Malone said Danilo Gallinari and Emmanuel Mudiay, both out with ankle sprains, probably won’t return to action until at least Jan. 2 . After the Nuggets’ loss in San Antonio on Saturday, Malone met former Denver coach Doug Moe for the first time and offered him an “open invitation” to visit the team in Denver. Moe coached the Nuggets from 1980-90 and took them to the Western Conference finals in 1985 . Will Barton was called for a technical foul with 1:53 left and Denver trailing by nine points . Foye and Jameer Nelson each are only four shy of reaching 1,000 3-pointers for their careers.

Thunder: The Nuggets were on the second night of a road back-to-back and so will the Thunder’s next two opponents: Milwaukee on Tuesday and Phoenix on Thursday . Official Bill Kennedy called offensive goaltending on a second-quarter alley-oop from Westbrook to Steven Adams, then appeared to acknowledge that he blew the call . As has become their habit this season for Sunday games, the Thunder wore their alternate orange jerseys.


Mike Conley, Jeff Green lead Grizzlies past Lakers, 112-96

MEMPHIS, TN - DECEMBER 27: Mike Conley #11 of the Memphis Grizzlies goes for the lay up during the game against the Los Angeles Lakers on December 27, 2015 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Mike Conley scored 19 points, Jeff Green added 17 and the Memphis Grizzlies led from start to finish for a 112-96 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday.

Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph added 16 points apiece, while Courtney Lee contributed 13. Conley and Gasol both connected on 7 of 11 shots and Randolph missed only one of his eight attempts as Memphis shot close to 60 percent for the game before finishing at 56 percent.

Kobe Bryant, playing in only the first and third quarters, scored 19 for the Lakers, with 14 in the opening quarter. Larry Nance Jr. had 17 points and 11 rebounds, while Jordan Clarkson scored 12 points and D'Angelo Russell finished with 10.

Memphis snapped a two-game skid, while Los Angeles lost its third straight and fifth in the last six.

Memphis outscored the Lakers in every quarter except the fourth, when the lead reached 25 before reserves closed out the game. The Grizzlies used their inside game to hold a 44-28 advantage in the paint.

Bryant scored 14 of the Lakers’ 23 first-quarter points, but Los Angeles already trailed by nine.

The Memphis lead would reach 59-46 at the break as four Grizzlies were already in double figures, led by 12 points from Gasol and 11 by Conley.

Memphis shot 56 percent for the half, while the Lakers were limited to 36 percent. Los Angeles finished the game at 38 percent.

The Grizzlies extended the lead to 22 in the third period before carrying a 92-74 advantage into the fourth. Nance had 13 in the quarter for the Lakers.


Lakers: Bryant has more points against the Grizzlies than any other player. He also holds the record for most points scored by an NBA player at the FedExForum, when he had 60 on March 22, 2007. . Nance, a rookie from Wyoming, recorded his first career double-double. . Julius Randle had 13 rebounds, marking the 26th time this season he has led Los Angeles in rebounding and the 17th game with more than 10 boards.

Grizzlies: With his first field goal, Gasol passed Shareef Abdur-Rahim (7,801 points) for 4th on the Grizzlies’ scoring list. . Memphis is 8-2 this season on the second night of a back-to-back. . Mario Chalmers scored 11 points and had seven assists.


Toronto Raptors to get Jonas Valanciunas back on Monday

D'Angelo Russell, Jonas Valanciunas

The Toronto Raptors are getting healthy again. DeMarre Carroll was back in the lineup for their last game.

Now comes the good news that big man Jonas Valanciunas will return on Monday against the Bulls, as reported by Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun.

Head coach Dwane Casey said after practice on Sunday that starting centre Jonas Valanciunas will play against the Bulls on Monday after missing 17 games with a broken finger on his non-shooting hand.

Toronto already boasts the NBA’s fourth-best offence and now returns its most efficient scorer, who averaged 12.7 points and 9.3 rebounds in 14 games before getting hurt, on 55.6% shooting.

Toronto was 11-6 without Valanciunas, but they will be better with him — on the season, they are nine points per 100 possessions better when he plays than when he sits. To go into more detail, when Valanciunas is on the court the Raptors shoot five percentage points higher from three, they assist on a higher percentage of their shots, Toronto’s defense is a little better, its offense is 6.1 points per 100 possessions better. He is their anchor inside.

At 19-12, the Raptors are the current four seed in the East, but they have done much of that without two key players. If you’re looking for a team that could break out of the pack to become the two seed in the East, keep your eyes on a healthy Raptors squad.