Game of the Night: Suns bury Lakers with 22 threes

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What a crazy game in Los Angeles. The Phoenix Suns managed to hand the Lakers their first home loss of the season despite losing their starting center (and the only Phoenix player who would have had a chance of keeping the Lakers off the boards) early in the game, but it was far from easy. Even though the Suns hit 22 of their 40 three-point attempts, one make shy of an NBA record, the Suns needed a crazy three from Hedo Turkoglu and a controversial technical on Lamar Odom to escape Los Angeles with a five-point win.

For the majority of the game, it seemed like the Suns were simply delaying an inevitable Laker blowout. Phoenix’s big men had little hope of keeping the Lakers away from the basket before Robin Lopez went down with a knee injury — after that happened, things just became comical. The Lakers got to the rim seemingly at will for much of the game, using crisp passing, strong drives, and lots of movement off the ball to get easy looks at the rim over and over and over again. Lamar Odom was particularly effective when he put the ball on the floor and went to the basket, and the Suns had no prayer against Pau Gasol when he got the ball near the rim. On top of that, Kobe was being Kobe, whether he was setting his teammates up with crisp passes, making shots from the mid-post, or up-faking his man, stepping through him, and passing off the backboard to himself for a layup.

When the Lakers missed a shot, they would often just get the ball right back again — Channing Frye had no prayer of effectively boxing out Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom kept coming out of nowhere to grab the ball after Laker misses, and the Suns were simply unable to gain possession of loose caroms for most of the game.

After the game, Suns coach Alvin Gentry talked about his team’s inability to keep Gasol off the boards, saying “You know we’ve still got to try and stop the rebounding situation, but Pau is just so long, we have him boxed out, he goes over the back but doesn’t foul…he’s just so long, our guys try to get a body on him and we just couldn’t. It wasn’t that we weren’t trying to win, that we weren’t playing hard and trying to be physical with him, we just couldn’t move him out. And that’s a credit to Pau more than it is a negative to our guys.”

The Lakers’ size advantage was overpowering — the Lakers outscored the Suns by 40 points in the paint, and had 20 offensive rebounds to the Suns’ 22 defensive rebounds. 99 times out of 100, the team that controls the paint like the Lakers did on Sunday will win the game, but that wasn’t the case against the Suns.

How did the Suns overcome the Lakers’ size and strength mismatch? They hit threes. A lot of them. The Suns found themselves open from beyond the arc early and often against the Lakers, and their shooters weren’t afraid to let fly. The Suns did a great job of moving the ball from side to side, staying away from isolation play, spacing the floor, and keeping the Lakers off-balance in both the half-court and transition game. The Laker forwards were able to overpower the Suns when Los Angeles had the ball, but they often seemed a step slow on the opposite side of the floor, either leaving Channing Frye or Hedo Turkoglu open beyond the arc or being forced to switch onto a guard. Lamar Odom had a particularly uneven defensive game — there were times he would go to give help and appear to simply forget that Channing Frye and Hedo Turkoglu love to shoot threes.

Jason Richardson, Channing Frye, and Hedo Turkoglu absolutely killed the Lakers from deep by camping out on the weak side in the half-court and trailing the break — that kind of shooting would be impressive in an empty gym, but it also seemed like the Lakers were giving up open three-point looks because they thought the Suns would eventually start missing and they could simply outscore Phoenix when the Suns started to miss.

Unfortunately for the Lakers, the Suns never stopped missing. During one four-and-a-half minute stretch in the third quarter, the Suns made six straight three-pointers, and it got to the point where the Staples center crowd would begin groaning as the shots were in the air. When asked after the game if he thought the Suns’ three-point shooting would cool down, Kobe Bryant said “that’s what normally happens, but tonight it didn’t. They just continued to make them.”

A stretch like that would have buried most teams, but the Lakers were resilient, and were in the game for most of the fourth quarter thanks to some big threes from Shannon Brown and some missed threes by the Suns. The turning point of the game was a controversial one. With 53 seconds remaining, Lamar Odom made a layup that put the Lakers down by two points. There was some contact on the play, and Odom wanted to get an and-1 call and a chance to bring the Lakers within a point. He didn’t get the call, and was fairly demonstrative to the ref, who slapped him with a technical. After the Suns hit the resulting free throw and Hedo Turkoglu nailed a deep, flat-footed, contested three over Kobe Bryant on the next Suns possession, the game was all but over.

After the game, Kobe called the technical on Odom “disgusting, in that situation.” Odom himself said “It’s tough, you know, it’s tough. There were 55 seconds left. I think that’s why people are questioning it. But a rule’s a rule.”

After the game, both coaches were in awe of Phoenix’s hot shooting. Phil Jackson said in his post-game press conference that “Our philosophy is that [the three-pointers] even out over time, but they didn’t tonight. A team’s going to make a certain percentage of threes. If they make ten in a ball game that’s a high number; this team averages 9, so that’s a really high number. The real issue is about those other 80 points they got in the paint.”

Suns coach Alvin Gentry was of the opinion that Sunday’s outcome was more the  result of Phoenix’s insanely hot shooting rather than anything the Lakers did wrong. When asked about the Lakers, who have dropped their last two games, Gentry went into a comic outrage, saying “It’s one game! We made 22 threes, and still had to hold them off at the end! People are talking like their season is over!” before breaking into a wide smile. The Lakers were a little nonchalant defensively against the Suns and gave Phoenix more good looks than they should have had, but the fact the Lakers were in this game up until Phoenix’s 22nd three is a far more significant long-term takeaway than their two straight losses. The Lakers are good. Scary good. But for one night, Phoenix’s near-historic shooting allowed them to be just a little bit better.

Zion Williamson sitting out Pelicans-Wizards (rest)

Pelicans big Zion Williamson
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The Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams in the bubble. New Orleans has gone 1-3 at Disney World and fallen to 13th in the Western Conference.

Still (barely) hanging in the race to make the play-in, the Pelicans must face the Wizards without Zion Williamson.

Pelicans:

The Pelicans are treating Williamson carefully – and they should. He’s their 20-year-old franchise player with major health concerns.

But New Orleans still has its highest ceiling now with Williamson on the floor. He’s an offensive force. His interior scoring and gravity create efficient looks for himself and teammates.

Williamson has been woeful defensively, and the Pelicans have bigs – Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes – to take Williamson’s minutes. New Orleans can go small, too.

The Pelicans should still beat Washington, even without Williamson. Ideally, this will have Williamson ready for a closing stretch against the Spurs, Kings and Magic without sacrificing today’s game.

Yet, this is really just proof New Orleans isn’t as ready to launch as it appears during Williamson’s most exciting moments. His availability remains murky. His team has run hot and cold. I wouldn’t assume a win over the Wizards – though it’s a game the Pelicans need to preserve their fading playoff hopes.

Rumor: Next NBA season could begin in March

Wizards guard Bradley Beal and 76ers center Joel Embiid
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The NBA could reportedly delay the start of next season – currently planned for Dec. 1 – if fan attendance becomes foreseeable.

How long would the league wait?

Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

one plan includes starting in March if the NBA feels they can get fans in the arena by then, as well as not lose personnel and viewership to the Summer Olympics.

I understand the temptation to delay. The coronavirus pandemic has made it more difficult for NBA teams to turn a profit.

But this plan would invite all sorts of complications:

  • What if there’s no vaccine, cure or comparable solution by March? Then, the league would have wasted months getting practically no revenue – rather than reduced revenue – without reaching a more favorable point. (However, maybe owners could also reduce costs with a lockout.)
  • Starting the season in March would radically alter the NBA’s calendar. Shifting back to an October – or even December – start date would mean even more upheaval, potentially for several years.
  • The Tokyo Olympics are scheduled for July and August 2021. The Olympics have been a powerful tool for the NBA and its players expanding their global reach.

These are unique and trying circumstances. Coronavirus is a massive and confounding variable. Everything should be on the table.

Do I predict next season will begin in March? No. But apparently the possibility is being considered, which is something.

Magic center Mo Bamba had coronavirus

Magic center Mo Bamba
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Mo Bamba has fallen behind Khem Birch as the Magic’s backup center (to Nikola Vucevic). At the NBA’ resumption at Disney World, Bamba has played in only two of Orlando’s four games, receiving just four and six minutes. Magic coach Steve Clifford cited the 22-year-old’s conditioning.

Bamba wants you to know the full story: He had coronavirus.

Josh Robbins of The Athletic:

Bamba received word of his positive test on June 11

The illness temporarily robbed him of his senses of smell and taste, made him unusually fatigued and caused muscle soreness.

“Part of me is reading the temperature of the room and just knowing that there are definitely going to be questions, and sometimes you’ve just got to address them with honesty,” Bamba said. “In this case, I think it’s best for them to have that context and have that understanding of what, exactly, is going on.

“I want people to know that I’m still working as hard as ever, if not even harder, and I’ll get through this.”

Bamba thought he had endured the worst by the time the Magic entered the NBA bubble on July 7. But the false positives required him to have an additional three-day in-room quarantine while his teammates practiced together on July 9, July 10 and July 11.

I appreciate Bamba being so forthcoming. It was easy for people to suspect he didn’t train properly during the hiatus. Though medical privacy should also be valued, transparency often alleviates the worst suspicions.

At least 54 NBA players have tested positive for coronavirus. Does that number already include Bamba? It’s unclear.

After going quiet during most of the shutdown, the league has announced the number of players who’ve tested positive since June 23. Maybe Bamba continued to test positive on June 23 or later. Or perhaps he’s an additional case from the quiet period. There definitely were some cases in that timeframe.

False positives are an issue – an unavoidable one. It’s unfair Bamba was stuck in his hotel room, not training, longer than necessary. But the NBA can’t risk allowing a potentially contagious player into the bubble. Better to err on the side of safety.

The No. 6 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, Bamba improved steadily from an underwhelming rookie season. He still needs more work to become a quality NBA player. This is a setback, and one that makes him unlikely to contribute much the rest of this season. Hopefully, he’ll be able to pick up next season where he left off when this season got suspended.

Three Things to Know: What’s next for 76ers without Ben Simmons?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out every day in the bubble — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) What’s next for 76ers without Ben Simmons?

“This one stings, for sure.”

That was 76ers coach Brett Brown, who has had to deal with a lot of injuries to players during his tenure in Philadelphia. But this one hurts a little more because of the timing. The Sixers will be without Ben Simmons for a while after he suffered a subluxation of the left patella — his kneecap essentially dislocated then popped back into place — against Washington.

The 76ers were adjusting to playing Simmons at power forward during the restart in Orlando. Now there are just questions.

How long will Simmons be out? That’s the big one and the answer is nobody knows for sure. The Sixers are evaluating treatment options. As Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes notes, Allen Crabbe had the same injury earlier this year and missed 11 days (three games), but he had no damage to the ligaments or rest of the knee. That’s the most common outcome for this injury and it would have Simmons back around the start of the playoffs. However, if there is any ligament damage, Simmons could be out much longer. (The early reports were the MRI came back clean, but that doesn’t tell us much about the real level of damage other than it wasn’t severe.) Philadelphia has always been cautious when it comes to bringing its stars back from injury.

Who starts for Philadelphia while Simmons is out? That’s one Brown has to decide by today (Friday) and the game against Orlando. He could plug Al Horford back into the starting lineup — the Sixers were +1.4 points per 100 possessions this season with Embiid and Horford on the court together without Simmons (it was -0.7 with all three and the floor spacing was a mess). Or, Brown could keep Horford on the bench and go with another wing such as Matisse Thybulle or Furkan Korkmaz.

Philadelphia seems locked into the six seed in the East (they are one game back of five seed Indiana with four to play, but the Pacers beat the Sixers last Friday and have the tiebreaker, so it is in practice a two-game lead).

Philadelphia is 6-5 this season without Simmons, and while they can plug other players into the four they will not have Simmons’ elite defense, nor his passing skills, and the new player will not be the same threat in transition. Philadelphia is just not the same threat in the East without Simmons.

2) Portland is in control of ninth seed in West after win, New Orleans loss

There is going to be a play-in series in the West — and Portland is going to be in it.

That much seems obvious after Thursday’s action, where Jusuf Nurkic was dunking on Bol Bol and Portland was picking up a 125-115 win over Denver.

That win has Portland half a game back of  Memphis for the eighth seed in the West — and the 0-4 Grizzlies face a tough game against the Thunder Friday. The West could be tied by Saturday morning.

Portland looks to be a lock for the play-in.

Can anyone else crash that party? Sacramento earned it’s first win in the bubble on Thursday, knocking off Zion Williamson and New Orleans, meaning now both the Kings and Pelicans sit 2.5 games back of the Grizzlies with four to play. Both need to win out and hope Memphis continues losing to have a chance to get into a play-in with Portland.

The undefeated-in-the-bubble Suns and the Spurs both sit two games back of the Grizzlies and with a chance to make a play-in. Just as with the Kings/Pels, the Suns and Spurs essentially need to win out and count on the Grizzlies continued stumbles to have a chance.

Memphis controls its own destiny. But without Jaren Jackson Jr., and with Ja Morant struggling from three, a sharp turnaround is needed.

3) Milwaukee wraps up No. 1 seed in East

This was expected, but the Bucks made it dramatic. Miami led this game by 23 points in the first half, but both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton turned it on — both finished with 33 points each — and Milwaukee came back to get 130-116 win. With that, the Bucks officially wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the East.

While this is good for the Bucks — who now get an easy first-round playoff matchup against Brooklyn or Orlando — they know they will be judged on the playoffs. This is a Finals-or-bust team. And Milwaukee fans don’t want to think about the options for bust.

Milwaukee has eased into games in the NBA restart, not worrying about wins now and rather being healthy and firing on all cylinders when the games matter. They have that luxury with the lead they built up in the East, but they need to flip the switch eventually. As they did coming back on the Heat.