Suns move to 2-0 under new head coach with win over Clippers

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PHOENIX — The Suns said the team needed a “jolt” when it parted ways with Alvin Gentry last week, and replaced him with Lindsey Hunter as the interim head coach for (at least) the rest of this season. Hunter said from day one his first priority would be defense, and he’s been a man of his word, at least through his first two games on the bench.

Phoenix is now 2-0 under its new coach, after a nationally televised 93-88 victory over the Clippers on Thursday.

L.A. dropped its third straight game, and did so for the second straight game without Chris Paul, who was sidelined with a bruised kneecap. Even with the losing streak, the Clippers have lost just 12 times all season against 32 wins, so they’re not exactly going to be in any hurry to rush him back before he’s 100 percent.

In this one, Paul was sorely missed. While the Suns busted it on defense all night long, the Clippers struggled for the most part to get good looks or easy shots. It didn’t help that Blake Griffin aggravated a previous ankle injury by rolling it in the first quarter.

“I really injured it three days ago against Golden State,” Griffin said afterward. “It got better, but I just kind of re-tweaked it. It’s not terrible. To me, ankles are one of those things where you’ve just got to tolerate the pain, so I’ve just got to do a better job.”

Griffin finished with 12 points, eight rebounds, and two blocked shots in 36 minutes. That’s not going to be enough for his team on a night where its All-Star point guard is missing, and he knows it.

“Our offense was stagnant,” Griffin said. “Our defense wasn’t great. We just did a poor job overall, and it starts with me. I’ve just got to do a better job of setting the tone early and being a leader out there. Especially when Chris is not there.”

There were several stretches where the Clippers needed offense, but it was hard to come by against a Suns team that has embraced its new coach’s defensive principles for now. L.A. ranks fourth in the league in offensive efficiency and field goal percentage, but was held under 90 points for just the third time all year, and finished the night shooting 39.8 percent from the field — a mark that wouldn’t be good enough for anything but the league’s worst if averaged over the course of the season.

Jamal Crawford led L.A. with 21 points in 37 minutes off the bench, but should have gotten more opportunities, especially in the final period. But when asked about it afterward, Crawford said he simply was trying to make the plays that made the most sense.

“We have some very capable guys,” Crawford said. “Guys that make plays. I try to step up when my number’s called, but they did a lot of double-teaming. So I had to make the right play and give the ball up and trust in my teammates to make plays, and we did that for a long time.”

The most capable on this night was wearing the home whites. Goran Dragic finished with 24 points, five rebounds, and eight assists for the Suns, while energizing his team throughout.

Without Chris Paul, this loss won’t matter in the grand scheme of things for the Clippers; this is a team that has aspirations of playing deep into the postseason, so there won’t be much in the way of dwelling on a shorthanded loss to a team playing with a renewed spirit under a new head coach.

For the Suns, however, consecutive wins have been very hard to come by this season, so the team will take them no matter how they are earned, and no matter which of their opponent’s stars is forced to sit due to injury.

There’s been a lot of off-the-court turmoil in Phoenix over the past week. But management has been validated to a certain extent by the team’s effort in its first two games under Hunter, and the results have only served to reinforce the thinking — at least internally — that the correct decision was made.

Lakers LeBron James “pissed” about NBA MVP voting

LeBron MVP
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LeBron James, like many of the great players ever, gets his motivation wherever he can find it.

Like, for example, only getting 16 first-place votes for MVP. It was announced Friday that Giannis Antetokounmpo won his second consecutive MVP award, with LeBron second. Of the 101 votes from select media members, Antetokounmpo got 85 first-place votes, LeBron 16. LeBron vented about it on Twitter.

After the Lakers won Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, LeBron talked about how unhappy he was with the voting.

“It pissed me off. That’s my true answer,” LeBron said. “It pissed me off because out of 101 votes I got 16 first-place votes. That’s what pissed me off more than anything. I’m not saying that the winner wasn’t deserving of the MVP, but that pissed me off. I finished second a lot in my career, either from a championship, and now four times as the MVP.

“Like I said, I never came into the league saying ‘I’m gonna be MVP’ or ‘I’m gonna be champion,’ I’ve always said I just want to get better every single day and those things will take care of themselves. Some things are just out of my hands, some things you can’t control, but it pissed me off…

“The voting scale is a little weird to me sometimes… And then I looked at the Most Improved this year, and rightfully so, Brandon Ingram was amazing and I thought he should’ve won it, but did you see the votes Devonte' Graham got? He averaged four points last year compared to 17.5. If that’s not improving, what is? It’s just a weird thing sometimes that, I don’t know how much we are really watching the game of basketball, or are we just in the narration mode? The narrative.”

LeBron is right, sometimes the media voters can get sucked into a narrative for MVP and other awards. However, this year the narrative favored LeBron, not Antetokounmpo — having that kind of season at age 35 and lifting the Lakers franchise back to the postseason after six years, that all had voters leaning toward LeBron.

Why did voters pick Antetokounmpo? Because on offense he scored more points and did it more efficiently than LeBron. While LeBron had his best defensive season since he played in Miami, Antetokounmpo was better on that end of the court as well. Antetokounmpo led his team to more wins than LeBron. And if you want to make the argument about LeBron lifting up his teammates you’re right, the Lakers were +11.4 points per 100 with LeBron on the court this season before the bubble (which is the time frame voters had to consider, bubble games didn’t count toward the award, per league rules). The Buck were +12 per 100 with Antetokounmpo on the court.

(To be transparent: I am one of the NBA’s award voters, and I had Antetokounmpo first and LeBron second.)

LeBron had an unbelievable season, at any age, and for a playoff run this season I would rather have had LeBron than Antetokounmpo even before the games tipped of. Other players around the league respect Antetokounmpo, but not the way they respect LeBron or other players who have gotten it done in the playoffs. That’s understandable. That’s also not the award — it’s an NBA regular-season award.

But LeBron is going to find his fuel where he can, like saying earlier this season people were calling him washed when nobody said that. Or saying the Lakers won the No. 1 seed when nobody said they could do it when, again, not exactly sure who said that.

If LeBron wants to use the MVP voting for fuel, go for it. It’s just bad news for Denver.

 

 

Anthony Davis scores 37 as it was all too easy for Lakers in blowout win

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It was all too easy for the Lakers.

Too easy for them to get out in transition, or even run on made baskets and beat Denver down the court.

Too easy for Anthony Davis to rack up 37 points.

Too easy for an attacking Lakers team to get key Nuggets players — including Nikola Jokic — in foul trouble.

Too easy for the Lakers’ defense to bottle up the Nuggets guards in the pick-and-roll, never letting Denver’s offense get on track after the first quarter.

And the “too easy” list goes on and on. It resulted in a 126-114 Lakers’ win where the Lakers led by 27 at one point and never felt truly threatened in the second half. The Lakers now lead the Western Conference Finals 1-0 with Game 2 on Sunday.

“Even in that first quarter, we didn’t guard anybody… Nuggets’ coach Mike Malone said, trying to target his team’s troubles in Game 1. “There was little defense.”

Add to that this Laker offense is relentless and will punish mismatches and mistakes in a way that other Staples Center team rarely did. Denver lear

After an even first quarter, what changed was that the Lakers started locking down on defense — the Nuggets had seven second-quarter turnovers, which led to the Lakers getting out in transition on plays like this.

But the Lakers were running on everything, including made shots, and beating Denver down the court for buckets.

Denver scored 41 points over the second and third quarters combined, with an 88 offensive rating. Part of the frustration from the Nuggets was the foul calls, which they thought bent toward the Lakers, but also Los Angels was the more aggressive team. The Lakers simply outhustled the Nuggets down the court time after time.

L.A. went on a 19-3 run from the end of the first half to early in the second, never looking back from there. Los Angeles was led by the 37 from Davis, while LeBron James had 15 points and 12 assists. As a team, the Lakers were 11-of-26 from three (42.3%).

Denver had 21 points each from Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, and both played far fewer minutes than normal due to foul trouble. Michael Porter Jr. had 14, and the game was such a blowout that by the end Bol Bol was in and had a bucket.

Denver needs to consider this a game spent to learn more about their opponent and how they will have to play the rest of the series. Not exactly a game to flush completely, but it’s pretty close.

The Lakers need to remember that Denver has come back twice in playoff series already, the Nuggets learn from their mistakes and improve. Things are not always going to be this easy.

But the Lakers could not have asked for a better start.

Watch the Alex Caruso to LeBron James alley-oop

LeBron Caruso
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One of the keys to Denver having a shot in the Western Conference Finals: Keep the Lakers out of transition.

That did not go so well to start.

Denver had seven second-quarter turnovers, which allowed the Lakers to get out an run and the result was this highlight, Alex Caruso to LeBron James for the monster alley-oop.

The Lakers added more points per 100 possessions in transition than any other team in the league, and the Lakers have started a higher percentage of their offense in transition than any other team in the playoffs (16.5% of their plays start that way, stats via Cleaning the Glass). Denver has improved halfcourt defense this postseason, but their transition defense has struggled in the playoffs. That is potentially a bad combo for the Nuggets.

 

Report: Heat tried to trade Goran Dragic away in Jimmy Butler deal

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The Miami Heat are not in control of the Eastern Conference Finals — just two wins from the NBA Finals — without the combination of Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic. They are the shot creators, the two penetrating into the paint, breaking down the Celtics’ defense, then kicking out to shooters. Butler is an All-NBA player, and Dragic is playing like the All-NBA player he was six years ago.

That pairing almost never happened.

Michael Lee at the Athletic told the story.

What’s hilarious about the Dragic-Butler partnership – a bromance that has found them bonding in the bubble over bottles of Michelob Ultras, cups of Big Head coffee, and singing the “Bad Boys” theme song from “Cops” – is it nearly didn’t happen. The initial three-team trade [Heat president Pat] Riley facilitated to get Butler involved sending Dragic to Dallas. Dragic would’ve teamed up with his Slovenian little homie, Luka Doncic, but would’ve said farewell to what he intended to do with the Heat.

The Mavericks had no interest in taking on Dragic – a 30-something hobbling on a surgically-repaired knee whose best years were way in the rearview – so the Heat had to get more creative, while remaining stuck with seemingly damaged goods. Again, nothing went according to plan.

We knew this at the time, consider this a reminder. Also, don’t blame Dallas on this one. Dragic played 36 games last season, had knee issues, and had looked like a shell of the All-NBA player he used to be, and on top of it he was getting paid $19.2 million. There were not a lot of teams looking to get in the Dragic business before this season started.

Instead, Dragic stayed, got healthy, accepted a sixth-man role (until the playoffs, before that Kendrick Nunn started and Dragic was the change of pace off the bench), and found his stride.

In the bubble, Dragic has taken off as the second scoring/shot-creating option in the Heat offense. Erik Spoelstra, as he does, has put Dragic in positions to succeed.

And, after these playoffs, get paid this offseason when Dragic is a free agent.