National attention on the way for a Suns team that’s earned it in recent weeks

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Suns owner Robert Sarver made a rare appearance at Alvin Gentry’s pre-game media session before Sunday night’s game against the Rockets, which the head coach traditionally holds in a very relaxed atmosphere in his office.

Sarver was in good spirits and wanted to joke around a little, and with the way his team has played over the past month or so, his mood was completely understandable.

Curious to know the various media outlets that were there in attendance, Sarver walked the medium-sized room, looking at the credentials hanging around the necks of the assembled press, taking them in his hand and reading them aloud.

When he got to mine, since I was one of the few people in the room representing national coverage, Sarver decided to ask some questions. He was very good-natured while grilling me, and there were plenty of laughs while this was going on. But he wanted some answers.

“NBC. How come you don’t show us on anything,” he challenged.

I reminded him I’m here for just about every home game.

“I know. But nationally, nothing. It’s like we’re not in the league right now,” he exclaimed.

It’s coming, I told him. (And that’s true: It was the plan anyway if the Suns were able to beat the short-handed Rockets.)

“Does anything get covered?!”

Plenty gets covered, I told him.

“Where?”

I promised to send him the link — one which will be on its way directly after the Suns took care of business and beat the Rockets 99-86 to move above .500 for the first time all season, and within just a half-game of the eighth and final playoff seed in the Western Conference standings.

Just a month ago, a climb back into the race for a spot in the postseason — especially this quickly — seemed like an impossibility. Back on Feb. 17, Phoenix was a dismal 12-19, had lost four straight and five out of six, and looked more like a team planning a trip to the draft lottery than one interested in making a run to the playoffs.

Since then, however, Phoenix has won 11 of 14, and finds itself relevant and realistically looking at a postseason chance for the first time since training camp. The only team with a better mark is the Chicago Bulls, who went 12-2 during that stretch, but who also have the best record in the league at 37-10.

You could see those stretches coming from that Chicago team. But this run from these Suns wasn’t anywhere close to being expected.

As the players and coaches have been asked to explain the sudden success in recent days, the immeasurable metric of chemistry is the one that comes up again and again.

“I really think the chemistry has just come together,” Gentry said. “And I don’t know how that happens, and I don’t know if anyone can really tell you how that happens. But I think our guys feel really good about themselves.”

One way it happens is that guys who find themselves out of the rotation — whether for one game or for a few weeks — stay ready.  They don’t cause problems in the locker room by griping about playing time that wasn’t earned, or opportunities that weren’t there to be given. They remain professional, and support their teammates who do get those chances on a consistent basis.

“I don’t know where I’ve had a team where it’s been this good,” Gentry said of his bench players not complaining about missed minutes. “Guys, I’m telling you, it’s really tough to sit over there and not play. And you can make it miserable on the coaching staff or on your teammates, and none of those guys do that here. None of those guys do that.

“I think the big thing for them is that they always feel like at some stage, they’ll get an opportunity again.”

Michael Redd, who’s had his fair share of DNP-CDs this season but broke out for 25 points in Sunday’s win over Houston, echoed Gentry’s sentiment, while offering a reason why.

“Because the agenda is winning,” he said. “Shannon Brown’s won two championships, he knows what it takes to win. Grant (Hill) and Steve (Nash) have won. I’ve been in some winning situations. When you have guys who have experienced winning, it kind of permeates throughout the team. And the team kind of follows suit, and guys prepare themselves.

“We genuinely want to see each other succeed, and that’s big.”

The bench unit as a whole has been the key to the Suns recent surge. Early in the season, as Gentry struggled to find the right rotations, the second unit would allow large leads to disappear, and their ineptitude would force the starters to play long minutes, leaving them gassed in the fourth quarters of tight games.

Lately, the consistency has been there to the point where Gentry has found a competent 10-man rotation where the five guys he uses off the bench can each function for 17 minutes or so a night.

“Amazing,” Nash said of the way the bench has played. “Obviously it was a special one (last Thursday) in L.A., (when Phoenix beat the Clippers with Nash and Hill out) but since the All-Star break really, the bench has been really good, and it’s kind of turned our season around.”

Shannon Brown has provided perhaps the most consistent spark off the bench, and he told NBCSports.com that chemistry comes easily when everyone has a hand in the team’s overall success.

“Whenever you come together as a team and win, and win consistently, where everybody contributes, that’s the main goal,” he said. “You want everybody that’s playing to go out there and contribute in the way that they know how, and that’s what we’ve been doing.

“We feel good about ourselves, we’ve got a little win streak going, and we’re making a real conscious effort to try to make it to the playoffs.”

Playoffs were the goal in Phoenix before the season began, a mantra that was recited repeatedly by everyone from top to bottom throughout the organization. After the painfully-slow start the team got off to by going 7-9 in its first 16 home games, it’s once again a topic on the table thanks to this recent run of victories.

Nash was asked after Friday’s game if the results of this homestand were beyond his expectations.

“It’s getting there,” Nash said. “Maybe not even just the home stand, but the season, where we’re beginning to exceed what people thought of us.”

As the Suns continue to exceed expectations, the national media will catch up. Maybe not quite yet, though, considering Phoenix does play its next two games back-to-back on the road in Miami and Orlando. But if the way the Suns have played during this stretch continues, while the qualities of confidence, chemistry and “cohesion” (as Nash likes to say) that have finally started to show themselves on the court remain in plain sight, then Phoenix has a completely legitimate shot at making that coveted trip to the playoffs.

And that will net Mr. Sarver all of the national coverage he desires.

Magic: Mo Bamba out for playoffs, undergoing post-coronavirus evaluation

Magic center Mo Bamba
David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images
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Mo Bamba contracted coronavirus, fell out of shape, recovered, joined the Magic in the bubble then struggled to contribute on the court.

Now, he’s departing the bubble for good.

Magic:

The Magic are huge underdogs in their first-round series against the Bucks. This doesn’t really change the equation. Bamba had already fallen from the rotation, which is now comprised of Nikola Vucevic and Khem Birch at center.

But it raises thorny long-term questions.

Bamba was the No. 6 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. Though he has underwhelmed so far, the Magic were still hoping he’d grow into a quality NBA player. Bamba at least improved from his rookie season.

His progress has obviously been halted. For how long? Will he face lasting effects?

Everyone is trying to get to the bottom of these difficult questions.

Reported Bulls coaching candidates: Kenny Atkinson, Stephen Silas, Darvin Ham, more

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The Bulls fired Jim Boylen. 76ers assistant Ime Udoka was reportedly frontrunner for the job, but Chicago will conduct a full search.

Who else is in the mix?

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

The broad search is expected to include former Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr., Mavericks assistant Stephen Silas, Bucks assistant Darvin Ham and 76ers assistant Ime Udoka, among others, sources said.

Atkinson is the only former head coach on that list. Like Tyronn Lue for win-now teams, Atkinson is the top available coach for rebuilding teams. (If fired by the 76ers, Brett Brown could supplant Atkinson.) Atkinson had a strong record of player development before Brooklyn shifted priorities.

The Bulls – with Zach LaVine, Coby White, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. and a high first-round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft – could use someone like him.

But Atkinson could have options, and Chicago might not be the most desirable opening.

Udoka, Silas, Ham and Unseld are all rising assistants who have earned head-coaching consideration. Interviews should help determine whether they’re ready for that step.

PBT NBA All-Bubble Awards

Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard and Rockets star James Harden
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
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The NBA will announce seeding-game awards tomorrow.

But the play-in is already set. Other playoff matchups are already set. The final seeding games today are just glorified scrimmages.

So, why wait to name the top performers in the bubble?

Here are our picks using the same format as the league – a Most Valuable Player, two five-player teams (no positions) and a coach:

Bubble MVP

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers) Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)

Kurt Helin: It isn’t simply that Damian Lillard led the bubble in scoring at 37.6 points per game. It wasn’t how he got those points, with ridiculously deep threes and driving layups. It was when he did it that makes him bubble MVP: When the Trail Blazers had a rough outing (as did Lillard) and looked like they might fade from postseason contention, he came back next game and dropped 61. Then 51 the game after that. Then 42 in the final bubble game with the playoffs on the line. Lillard was the ultimate leader and willed his team to the play-in series, and that’s what makes him MVP of the seeding games.
Dan Feldman: James Harden was more consistently good and even sometimes great. But nobody hit higher levels than Lillard, who stepped up in the biggest moments to lead Portland into the play-in with the eighth-place advantage. Lillard set an emotional tone for a team constantly vulnerable of falling from the playoff race, and he delivered on the court with brilliant offense. He wasn’t perfect, but he went to great lengths to ensure the Trail Blazers met their goal. That’s the bubble MVP.

All-Bubble teams

First team

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers) Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)
Devin Booker (Suns) James Harden (Rockets)
T.J. Warren (Pacers) Devin Booker (Suns)
Luka Doncic (Mavericks) T.J. Warren (Pacers)
James Harden (Rockets) Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)

Second team

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Jayson Tatum (Celtics) Luka Doncic (Mavericks)
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks) Michael Porter Jr. (Nuggets)
Kawhi Leonard (Clippers) Kawhi Leonard (Clippers)
DeMar DeRozan (Spurs) Paul George (Clippers)
Kristaps Porzingis (Mavericks) Kristaps Porzingis (Mavericks)

Kurt Helin: It was difficult leaving Antetokounmpo off the first team, he played brilliantly but his team was in cruise control (plus he took himself out of the last game by headbutting Moe Wagner). A few players such as Fred VanVleet and Michael Porter Jr. also almost made the cut.

Dan Feldman: Lillard, Harden, Booker and Warren were first-team locks. Antetokounmpo was absolutely dominant when he wanted to be, which was limited with the Bucks locking up the No. 1 seed early. Derrick White, DeMar DeRozan, Chris Paul, Gary Trent Jr. and Fred VanVleet were among the contenders for the final second-team spots.

Coach of the Bubble

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Monty William (Suns) Monty William (Suns)

Kurt Helin: Every young team talked about it heading into the restart (and developing teams not invited to the restart begged for the same opportunity): Using the bubble games as a chance for a young core to grow and take a step forward. Except teams like Sacramento and New Orleans didn’t do that. Phoenix, behind Monty Williams did — they became the story of the bubble at 8-0. Devin Booker exploded and got himself in MVP talk, Deandre Ayton played brilliantly, and the Suns came from six-games back of Memphis to almost make the playoffs. Williams set the Suns up to be a playoff team in the West next season.

Dan Feldman: Phoenix went 8-0! That alone is pretty darned impressive, and the context reflects even more favorably on Williams. The Suns entered the bubble with the lowest playoff odds among the continuing 22 teams. Needing to make up 2.5 games and – more significantly – jump four (!) teams, Phoenix could have easily arrived unmotivated and ripe for distraction. Instead, Williams had the Suns playing fearlessly, cohesively and joyously. Williams even leaned heavily on his young players rather than his veterans, taking excellent advantage of a player-development opportunity and positioning Phoenix to ascend next season.

Bulls fire coach Jim Boylen

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Maybe the Bulls, despite a report otherwise, never actually planned to keep Jim Boylen for financial reasons. Maybe they did plan to keep him but saw the intense negative reaction to that report among Chicago fans.

Either way, Boylen is gone now.

Bulls release:

Chicago Bulls Executive Vice President – Basketball Operations Arturas Karnisovas announced today that Jim Boylen has been relieved of his duties as head coach.

MICHAEL REINSDORF: “No one could question Jim’s passion for our team and our organization. We sincerely appreciate his tireless efforts and contributions during his time with the Bulls, and we wish him and his family the very best.”

ARTURAS KARNISOVAS: “After doing a comprehensive evaluation and giving the process the time it deserved, I ultimately decided that a fresh approach and evolution in leadership was necessary. This was a very difficult decision, but it is time for our franchise to take that next step as we move in a new direction and era of Chicago Bulls basketball. Jim is a great human being that cares deeply about this organization and the game of basketball. I want to thank him for his professionalism and commitment to the franchise.”

A formal coaching search will begin immediately.

76ers assistant Ime Udoka was reportedly frontrunner to become Chicago’s next coach. A full search could yield other candidates. However, the Bulls must overcome a reported poor reputation among coaches and possible financial limitations in these economic times.

Chicago still has other problems, but Boylen was one. His tenure began with a near-mutiny when he took over for Fred Hoiberg during the 2018-19 season. To his credit, Boylen improved while on the job. But coming from such a low starting point, he often looked in over his head.

His players continued to dislike him. His signature coaching move was ill-timed timeouts. His record was just 39-84 (.317).

Firing him should have been obvious, especially once the Bulls hired Arturas Karnisovas as team president. Let Karnisovas hire his own coach.

Chicago’s roster is lacking, though not necessarily hopeless.

Zach LaVine is more near-star than All-Star – not an ideal centerpiece – but the 25-year-old could continue to improve. Youngsters Coby White, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. have had too many downs to feel great about their futures, though enough ups to at least be intrigued. Veterans Otto Porter, Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky have underwhelmed but have prior records of success.

A new coach will have pieces to work with.

Karnisovas has more work ahead to upgrade those pieces.