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.

Report: Jimmy Butler ‘isn’t dead set’ on demanding trade from Timberwolves

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Jimmy Butler says he’ll meet with the Timberwolves today – not yesterday, as initially reported.

The far bigger issue: What will happen in the meeting?

David Aldridge of NBA.com:

I’m told, though, that while Butler has serious questions about the direction of the franchise, he’s still willing to hear Minnesota out, and isn’t dead set on demanding a trade elsewhere.

Butler probably wouldn’t demand a trade. That gets players fined. Paul George laid out a far more likely roadmap last offseason: Butler could inform Minnesota he won’t re-sign next offseason. Left to their own devices, the Timberwolves would probably trade him.

But would it get to even that point? That’s the big question looming over the day. If Butler hasn’t yet made up his mind, that would give Tom Thibodeau a chance to convey a plan.

Of course, this isn’t entirely up to Butler, either. If Minnesota must choose between Butler and Karl-Anthony Townswho reportedly won’t sign his rookie-scale extension until the Butler situation is handled – Butler could get dealt regardless of what he wants.

So much could come to a head today, but apparently there isn’t an inevitable outcome. Is Butler leaning a certain way, though? “Isn’t dead set” on demanding a trade isn’t exactly a huge vote of confidence.

Marcus Smart posts heartfelt tribute to mother, who died Sunday

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Marcus Smart delivered one of my favorite quotes after the Celtics beat the Rockets last season:

Smart — when asked if he prides himself in being “a pain in the ass” — chuckled.

“I guess you could say that,” Smart said. “My mom might say that. But nah, I play defense with passion, and defense wins games, and that was proven tonight.”

A deep love is the subtext behind that quip. Smart put it on display again – unfortunately after the death of Camellia Smart, who had been battling cancer.

Smart:

Smart plays with such heart, passion and toughness. If his mother were his role model, he honors her every time he takes the court.

Jimmy Butler says his meeting with Thibodeau, Timberwolves is Tuesday (today)

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There are a lot of questions surrounding Jimmy Butler‘s meeting with Tom Thibodeau and the Minnesota Timberwolves brass: Can the Butler/Karl-Anthony Towns relationship be repaired? Is Thibodeau the guy who could repair it, or is he entrenched on one side of that battle? Will the situation be resolved enough for Towns to sign the max extension to his rookie contract that has been sitting on the table since July? Will Butler asked to be moved?

That meeting had been reported to be Monday, but Butler said on Twitter it’s Tuesday, and did so in a snide way.

Who cares if the reporting (by Jon Krawczynski and Shams Charania of The Vertical) on the day was one off if the substance of the meeting is the same? It’s not some massive error that throws the entire reporting into question. This feels like a high school history teacher testing about the date for the battle of Gettysburg and not why it was a turning point in the Civil War — the substance is what matters more.

Butler doesn’t deny or get into the substance of the meeting, which is what matters.

What comes out of that meeting will have a significant impact on the Timberwolves one way or another this season. Minnesota won 47 games last season and made the playoffs for the first time since 2004, but it’s hard to see how they take a step forward if the locker room remains this fractured (and in a very deep West they need to take a step forward to make the playoffs again this season).

USA rolls past Panama in World Cup qualifying, 78-48

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PANAMA CITY (AP) — U.S. coach Jeff Van Gundy came into the start of this second round of qualifying for the FIBA Basketball World Cup cautioning his players that they would face enormous challenges.

They clearly heeded his words, and the Americans are now closing in on a trip to China next year.

Reggie Hearn scored 12 points, Dwayne Bacon added 10 and the U.S. easily got past Panama 78-48 in a qualifying game Monday night. The Americans have won both of their second-round qualifying games so far, winning them by a combined 87 points.

“It’s just an honor to be able to go to another country and wear this jersey,” said U.S. forward Henry Ellenson of the Detroit Pistons. “It’s just something really special and I love doing it. I was so excited to get the invite. This was a blast and a hell of an experience.”

The U.S. outrebounded Panama 50-34, held the hosts to 31 percent shooting and trailed for only 67 seconds in the early moments. Van Gundy went to his bench early and often, rotating players throughout in part because of a steamy feel inside the arena named for Panama’s boxing legend Roberto Duran.

“I think our greatest strength is our depth,” Van Gundy said. “Again, we’ve pretty much done this throughout. We play 10 or 11 guys, anywhere from 10 or 11 minutes up to the low 20s. We try to take advantage of our depth. Tonight, the crowd was good, but it was warm in there.”

And now, Nov. 29 – the next day of qualifying games in the Americas Region – sets up as enormous.

The U.S. and Argentina are tied atop Group E with 7-1 records and will play that day with outright control of first place in the group standings up for grabs. Uruguay and Puerto Rico will meet that same day, each entering with 5-3 records, meaning the loser there will be three games behind the U.S.-Argentina winner with three games left in qualifying.

The top three teams in Group E are guaranteed spots at the World Cup, which starts in China on Aug. 31.

After the way they played Monday, it seems like only a staggering collapse would keep the Americans from qualifying.

The U.S. used a 16-0 run – needing only about two minutes – in the fourth quarter to turn what was a relatively one-sided game into an even bigger rout. Chasson Randle, Hearn and Travis Trice all made 3-pointers to get that spurt going, and Ben Moore‘s layup with 6:30 left gave the Americans a 73-40 lead.

“It feels great. It moves us that much closer to qualifying,” Hearn said. “It moves us that much closer to the U.S. getting to the World Cup and getting the whole thing.”

The U.S. got an ideal start in a hostile arena, running out to a 16-3 lead as Panama opened 1 for 11 from the field.

The Americans were in control throughout, though there was a brief stretch late in the first half where the U.S. grip on things seemed to slip ever so slightly. Panama got within 31-23 with 2:04 left in the half on a jumper by Tony Bishop Jr. before Hearn and White combined to score the final five points before the break and send the Americans into intermission with a 13-point lead.

When the second half started, the U.S. resumed pulling away. Frank Mason, Dakari Johnson and Bacon scored the first six points of the third quarter, and the Americans’ lead was quickly pushed out to 42-23.