Suns training camp notes: High hopes for Telfair, improvement for Lopez, dealing with Pietrus

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The Phoenix Suns are holding training camp in town this week at Grand Canyon University. Here are some notes from Sunday’s morning and evening practice sessions:

– The Suns were without Grant Hill, Sebastian Telfair, and Markieff Morris for their morning practice session, but had them on the floor for the evening session, once Vince Carter cleared waivers on Sunday afternoon. That left the team with only nine players, so Alvin Gentry drafted assistant coach Corey Gaines into duty to fill that 10th spot. So why Gaines, instead of assistant coach and former Suns star Dan Majerle? “We were trying to get a guy that could walk,” Gentry joked.

– Robin Lopez was a disappointment for the Suns last season, his ability to perform dramatically reduced due to injuries that he seemed slow to recover from. It’s a different story early in training camp, however, as Lopez has said he feels great, and has a lot more bounce in his game. Gentry agreed, and likes what he’s seen from him so far. “Without a doubt, you can see that he’s almost completely different than he was last year. I think athletically, even conditioning, I think his overall personality, everything has kind of changed. I do think that he feels like he’s healthy now, that was a major issue last year. He would not ever say that, but I don’t know. It just seems to me that he’s running better, he’s rebounding better, and he’s finishing better. So we’ll just see how that translates into games.”

– Steve Nash is used to having to mentor a new backup point guard in camp, as it’s something he’s done in the majority of his training camps with the Suns. Sebastian Telfair is this season’s new recruit, and Nash spoke briefly about him after Sunday morning’s session: “He’s someone who has a new opportunity, and a chance to, I think, not only have a big contribution for us, but in a way, kind of resurrect his career,” Nash said. “He’ll get a lot of opportunity to grow and learn, and be a big part of our team.”

Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby was optimistic about what Telfair would bring to the team, saying “This is an important spot for him, and I think he sees it that way. This is his chance to really shine and work with Steve. He came into the league with such high expectations, and they’re hard to ever meet those expectations. I think now he’s settled down, he’s mature, and I think we have a chance to catch lightning in a bottle.”

– Zabian Dowdell hasn’t yet participated in camp due to experiencing pain in one of his knees. It’s unfortunate, because Dowdell contributed at times last season, especially on the defensive end of the floor. He’ll still be given that opportunity, to compete for a lead backup guard role. But with Telfair and Shannon Brown now on the roster he’s going to be at least a step or two behind. Steve Nash sympathizes: “I feel bad for Z because he’s just not able to go right now,” Nash said. “And the season’s so short, hopefully he can get up to speed quickly because he did a lot of good things last year.”

– The Suns had a deal in place to send Mickael Pietrus to Toronto for a conditional second round draft pick, but it was cancelled once Pietrus was found to still be ailing from the knee injury which sidelined him for the last 12 regular season games last year. It’s clear the Suns do not want Pietrus on the team this year, yet Babby was diplomatic in discussing the issue on Sunday.

“We had a transaction that we couldn’t consummate, and we’ll keep working at it,” Babby said. “So he’s still part of this team and will be treated with respect as we try to get him healthy.”

Healthy enough to package out of town in another deal, most likely.

– Marcus Landry was invited to Suns camp, and was expected to be there by Sunday at the latest. But Lon Babby said that Landry hasn’t yet received clearance from FIBA to participate, so the Suns are still waiting. Babby expects Landry to be cleared in the next day or so and to have him in camp hopefully early this week.

Report: CJ McCollum has been playing through fractured lower back

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CJ McCollum hit two critical free throws late Tuesday to put Portland up three late on Dallas and secure the win.

But he had a rough night overall, shooting 2-of-14 overall. His shooting numbers are down across the board through this restart, not terrible but down from the level the world has seen from one of the games most feared scorers.

Now we know why: A fractured lower back. Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest broke the news.

Sources told NBC Sports Northwest prior to the game that McCollum has been playing with a L3 vertebral transverse process fracture (non-displaced) since last Thursday. In layman’s terms, he has a fracture in his lower back. He has played three games since the injury.

While this injury is not as bad as “a fractured back” sounds, it has slowed other players who had it, including Utah’s Mike Conley.

Portland has had success despite a slowed McCollum, in part because Gary Trent Jr. has stepped up and taken on a larger role on both ends of the court (including drawing a charge on Kristaps Porzingis that sealed the Blazers win over the Mavericks).

That win put Portland in as the eighth seed in the West, a spot they can hold with a win against Brooklyn on Thursday. That would put them in a play-in series — where if they won the reward would be LeBron James and the Lakers. To reach that point and threaten Los Angeles, Portland is going to need a lot out of McCollum. The question is how much does he have to give with this injury?

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.

 

Damian Lillard scores 61 points, win vaults Portland to eight seed

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The Portland Trail Blazers control their own postseason destiny — and they can thank Damian Lillard for that.

Lillard got all the respect he wanted when he tied his career-high of 61 points Tuesday, and the Portland Trail Blazers needed every one of them to beat the Dallas Mavericks 134-131.

Lillard was 9-of-17 from three, plus got to the line 18 times and hit every free throw.

Portland’s win combined with Memphis’ loss to Boston puts the Trail Blazers into the eighth seed in the West — win on Thursday against Brooklyn and Portland is the eighth seed. That is a massive advantage heading into the two-game play-in series, the eighth seed just needs to win one of those two games to advance to the playoffs (and a first-round date with LeBron James). The ninth-seeded team needs to sweep the two games to advance.

Memphis can maintain the nine seed with a win Thursday. Should the Grizzlies lose again (to the Bucks, who have nothing to play for) it opens the door for the Suns or the Spurs to get the nine seed. Or maybe higher.

Portland is not safe just because of the win Tuesday: If it loses to Brooklyn on Thursday and two of Memphis, Phoenix, and San Antonio win, the Trail Blazers will be watching the first round of the playoffs on television like the rest of us. The race in the West is that tight.

It’s hard to imagine Portland losing a critical game, however, with the way Lillard is playing. He said he wants some respect on his f ****** name – and he’s more than earned it.

Watch Devin Booker score 35, keep Phoenix perfect 7-0 and in play-in hunt

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Devin Booker scored 35 points and the Phoenix Suns protected their playoff hopes by beating the Philadelphia 76ers 130-117 on Tuesday to remain undefeated in the NBA restart.

Booker became the Suns’ career leader with his 91st 30-point game, breaking a tie with Walter Davis.

Mikal Bridges added 24 points and Ricky Rubio had 16 points with 10 assists for the Suns, who began the day only one game behind eighth-place Memphis in the Western Conference playoff race.

Phoenix is 7-0 as the only undefeated team in the restart and an unlikely factor in the tight race for a spot in this weekend’s play-in for the final playoff spot.

Phoenix pulled away late after leading only 105-102 following back-to-back baskets by Alec Burks, who led the 76ers with 23 points.

A dunk by Cameron Johnson capped a 10-3 run that stretched the lead to 115-105.

The Suns continued their high-scoring play in the bubble after averaging 120 points in the first six games.

Philadelphia, No. 6 in the East and already assured of a playoff spot, is attempting to prepare for the postseason after losing Ben Simmons to a knee injury.

Shake Milton was Philadelphia’s only healthy starter against the Suns. The 76ers also were without Joel Embiid (left ankle), Tobias Harris (sore right ankle) and Al Horford (sore left knee). Josh Richardson was rested.