Suns trying to come to grips with recent offensive struggles

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PHOENIX — The Suns dropped their second straight home game on Sunday, falling to a Memphis Grizzlies team it had matched up well against in two earlier meetings this season.

The loss itself, the team’s eighth in its last nine games, is the least of the problems in Phoenix.

Offensively, the Suns have regressed completely over the past two games, to the point where the results have been disastrous. After scoring just 80 points against Utah on Friday, they managed only 81 against Memphis, and the problems, while evident, have begun to demoralize and frustrate the team’s core players.

Jared Dudley, one of the co-captains, broke down what some of the issues have been, and said specifically that the cold shooting has been a result of Phoenix abandoning the offensive strategy in favor of isolations and questionable shots.

“I attribute it to a lot of isolations, bad shot selection, [being] careless with the ball, and bad turnovers,” he said. “You’ve got to move the ball. We’re not a team that can just hold the ball, stick, stick, and then give it to Kobe or LeBron to save the day. Until we figure it out though, we’re going to keep doing these interviews and keep losing.

“It’s not that hard,” he continued. “If you don’t have a good shot, swing the ball, set good screens, roll … we have to play with all five together to have a shot.”

The one-on-one play has been most troublesome, especially on a team that really doesn’t have any players capable of creating good looks for themselves in an isolation set. Suns head coach Alvin Gentry said as much on Sunday.

“We don’t have one on one players, period. It’s detrimental to our team [when that happens],” he said. “Very much so. We’re a much better basketball team when we have three or more passes. We shoot the ball better; the field goal percentage, there’s almost a 22 percent difference.”

What makes the offensive struggles most maddening, besides the breakdown in executing team concepts, is that this is a relatively recent phenomenon. Phoenix averaged over 97 points per game in its previous five before this two-game slide, but over it last seven quarters, has managed to score just 18.6 points per period.

Equally frustrating is the fact that the players seem to know exactly what the problems are, yet have been unable to fix them. Dudley tried to make this point as clearly as possible.

“Everyone’s got to look themselves in the mirror,” he said. “No one’s here babysitting — you know if you’re going 100 percent, you know if you’re shooting bad shots. We can definitely police you, we can definitely say something, which I have. We can argue about it, but at the end of the day we’re all losing together.”

Marcin Gortat, the more-than-occasional beneficiary of easy looks at the rim when the offense is clicking, would like to see more execution out of the team’s pick and roll sets.

“We’ve got to work on our pick and roll offense, I think that’s the main thing,” he said. “That’s the main problem. If we can develop our pick and roll offense, everything’s going to open up for the other guys.

“Last year, we were really successful on the pick and roll. We’d start the game where I’d receive a few easy buckets on the roll, and then the whole team had to clog the paint, and everybody else on our team at the three-point line was open. It has to start somewhere.”

Gortat made it clear that he wasn’t lobbying for additional touches, and said it’s simply the execution on the plays that are being run that needs to improve. But he was on the same page with Dudley that the shot selection is a problem.

“There’s just too many wild shots from the outside; shots that we don’t need,” he said. “And we’ve got to change that. We’ve got to shoot the shots that we can make.”

The frustration is palpable when speaking to these guys; they have the talent to compete on most nights, but not enough to stray from the game plan for extended stretches. Gentry recognizes that this is a critical time for his team, and tried to convey to them that they’ll need to stick together in order to turn things around.

“The message I said to the guys is that we, number one, have got to stay together,” he said. “You can’t fragment right now; that’s the easiest thing to do is to point fingers and go your separate ways. We’re not going to do that.

“We’re in a bad situation,” he continued. “We’re in a bad spot right now. The thing about this league is, the only ones who can dig us out is ourselves.”

Jeremy Lin says “at times it kind of sucks” being only Asian-American in NBA

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When Jeremy Lin landed in Toronto — after being bought out and waived by the Hawks, clearing the way for him to sign with the Raptors for the playoff push — the number of cameras and reporters in the Raptors locker room instantly ballooned. Lin remains one of the most popular players worldwide in the NBA, he’s a social media phenom, and there are cameras there to track his every move and send it around the world, particularly back to Asia.

Lin isn’t in the NBA because he’s famous and sells tickets — he’s a quality guard who can help a team, there’s a reason the contending Raptors picked him up — but he inhabits the role of both player and groundbreaker.

Lin talked about that (and Asians in popular culture) with Cary Chow of the Undefeated in an interesting Q&A at The Undefeated, where he said being the only Asian-American in the NBA is not easy.

At times it kind of sucks. At other times it’s amazing. Amazing because you get to challenge everyone’s viewpoints and perspectives. I’m rooting for so many more Asians to come in. Last year, when I was with Brooklyn and we had Ding [Yanyuhang] on the summer league team, I was like, ‘Dude, please make the team. We’d have so much fun together during the season.’

On the feeling that he has to represent an entire race.

Yeah. At first it was something I ran from and really struggled with. Now I embrace it way more and am more equipped to handle it. I’m not perfect, but I kind of know who I want to be at this point in my career, so I keep trucking along and doing things the right way and stay above all the distractions.

Lin has handled his fame deftly over the years. He has challenges and opportunities not open to other players, and that’s the balancing act. It takes someone smart, but also grounded and balanced to pull it all off. The Raptors got all that, along with the extra cameras around the team.

Mostly, though, the Raptors got a player who is going to help them make a deep playoff run.

 

Rudy Gobert re-energized ahead of Jazz at Thunder

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — Rudy Gobert didn’t hide his disappointment at not making the NBA All-Star Game for the first time despite averaging 15.2 points and 12.9 rebounds while leading the league in field-goal percentage.

But coming off the 10-day break, the Utah Jazz center says he’s re-energized heading into Friday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“Just recharge, completely — mentally, physically,” Gobert said. “For me, I was able to get a little bit of sun and feel a lot better when I get back.

“The next two months, I feel like, will be a lot better.”

The Jazz, who have won 13 of their last 16 games, come out of the break sixth in the Western Conference but with one of the NBA’s easiest schedules down the stretch.

Utah plays just eight of its final 25 games against teams that are above .500.

One of those, though, is Friday night’s game in Oklahoma City, which sits third in the West after winning 11 of 13 before the break.

The Thunder, on the other hand, have one of the league’s most challenging schedules moving forward. Oklahoma City plays 17 of its remaining 25 games against teams above .500 including each of the first five out of the break.

The Thunder have won the first two meetings between the teams, including a 122-113 win on Dec. 10 in Oklahoma City.

An Oklahoma City win would clinch the season series for the Thunder after Utah eliminated Oklahoma City in the first round of the playoffs last season.

The Thunder’s Russell Westbrook has a streak of 10 consecutive triple-doubles. During that stretch, he’s averaged 21.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 13.5 assists.

Utah is hopeful backup point guard Dante Exum, who has missed the last 17 games with a left ankle sprain, will be able to return against the Thunder.

“I think when he’s playing well, he can have a big impact for us and having him back soon is going to help us a lot,” Gobert said.

The Thunder could have forward Markieff Morris available for the first time. Morris signed with Oklahoma City over the All-Star break after being waived by New Orleans following his trade from Washington on Feb. 7.

Morris was averaging 11.5 points and 5.1 rebounds for the Wizards this season before suffering a neck injury in late December that has kept him out since. Morris was cleared to play two weeks ago.

“We got a big piece in Markieff that we’re excited for, and we’re going to be ready for the second half after this break,” Oklahoma City’s Paul George said.

Thunder coach Billy Donovan said, “We’ll see,” when asked Thursday if Morris would play against the Jazz.

The Thunder also figure to have both starting forward Jerami Grant and backup point guard Dennis Schroder back after each missed the last two games before the break, Grant with an ankle injury and Schroder after the birth of his child.

Friday’s game is the start of a back-to-back for both teams, with the Jazz hosting Dallas on Saturday and Oklahoma City hosting Sacramento.

 

Raptors fans welcome DeMar DeRozan back with loud, standing ovation

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DeMar DeRozan was the greatest Raptor ever. He was an All-Star, he presided over the best seasons in franchise history, and he’s the one guy who re-signed and stood up for a city that has an inferiority complex around its basketball team.

Toronto fans understood the trade that brought Kawhi Leonard to the team — it’s an upgrade on the court — but their love for DeRozan is real.

They showed that on Friday night when DeRozan returned to Toronto for the first time as a member of the Spurs — he got a raucous ovation upon his introduction.

Early in the game he gave them a taste of what he did for them for years, getting the and-1 bucket on the drive.

Marcus Smart hits halfcourt shot at practice, celebrates with a back flip

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The celebration is more impressive than the shot.

After a tough loss to Milwaukee on Thursday, the Celtics traveled to Chicago to take on the Bulls on Saturday. Friday they had a practice in the Northwestern University facility.

It’s there Marcus Smart drains a halfcourt shot. Impressive. But not nearly as impressive as the backflip celebration.

I did not know Smart had that in him.