The Extra Pass: Suns struggling to stay in postseason picture after recent, disappointing slide

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NEW YORK — No matter how the Phoenix Suns finish the 2013-14 season, the year will be considered an overachievement by every metric possible.

But after spending so much of the season as one of the league’s feel-good stories, firmly entrenched in the Western Conference playoff picture for most of it, falling out of postseason contention and finishing in the lottery as many predicted would be supremely disappointing.

The Suns find themselves a game and a half behind Memphis for the final playoff spot in the West after getting rolled by the Nets on Monday, in a contest where Phoenix brought nowhere near the required effort — something that was evident from the game’s early moments.

“It sure looked like [a difficult night was ahead] right from the start,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said afterward. “The energy level wasn’t where it was in the [previous game, a win in Toronto] — missing easy shots right off the bat, timeouts. They came out of timeouts and didn’t run the play we had on the board, didn’t know where to go. I just didn’t think their heads were in it.”

The final numbers weren’t as bad as they were at the game’s lowest point, when the Nets had built a lead of as many as 23 points in the second half and were threatening to finish the game shooting better than 60 percent from the field — a mark they would have hit easily if not for too many third quarter heat-checks, and some rough shooting from Alan Anderson and Marcus Thornton that dragged the average down.

Phoenix looked out of sync offensively all night long, but the defense was even worse as Brooklyn had amassed 44 points in the paint by halftime while shooting better than 67 percent over the game’s first 24 minutes. The missing cohesion defensively, along with 11 first half turnovers were an indication to Hornacek that his team wasn’t all there in this one.

“That’s all lack of focus,” he said. “If you don’t mentally prepare for the game, thinking about it all day long you’ll have the slip-ups — the lazy passes, not holding a guy off to get open. It’s all the little things in a game that help you win, and we did none of ‘em.”

The Suns haven’t been doing those things consistently in quite some time. Back on Feb. 22, Phoenix was sixth in the Conference standings with a record of 33-21, but eight losses in their last 13 games now have them on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. Hornacek has talked to the team about games that could impact their playoff positioning before, but he’s wary of continuing to do so because it hasn’t yielded the desired results.

“We try not to talk about it, because last time we talked about playoff positioning — just, ‘hey, we’ve got to win this game for playoffs’ — we played kind of like this again,” Hornacek said. “So I don’t know if that was pressure that got to ‘em tonight, but we just didn’t have the effort, for whatever reason.”

Goran Dragic, who’s played at an All-Star level even though he just missed the cut for an appearance in the midesason exhibition, was limited against the Nets by foul trouble and couldn’t get into a rhythm. But he didn’t think the pressure of the playoffs was getting to him or his teammates to the point where it’s impacting their performance.

“We talk about that we want to be a playoff team, of course,” Dragic said. “But I don’t think that because of that we’re losing those games.”

Dragic instead pointed to the teams the Suns have been losing to — playoff teams, to be exact, in five of the eight that have come during this recent slide.

“We didn’t shoot the ball well and our defense has been a problem, but we’ve had a tough stretch,” Dragic said. “We played against teams that are playoff teams. We tried to battle; some games we lost really close, by three or four points. It’s just a tough stretch for us, but we’re not going to complain. We still can make the playoffs. We’ve still got 15 games left to play and hopefully we’re going to regroup and try to get a lot of wins.”

The schedule is difficult to end the season, however, with six of the final eight against teams currently in playoff position in the West.

Phoenix entered the year in rebuilding mode, and the fact that they’ve experienced so much success in spite of that isn’t lost on them. But with a chance at the playoffs having gone from a faint dream to a reality that’s become somewhat expected, missing out on that is going to hurt — especially if it happens because of lackluster efforts like the one we saw against the Nets.

“Some nights you just have a bad night, you flush it down the toilet and go on to the next one,” Hornacek said. “There’s nothing you can do about this one. We’ve got a couple of games at home against teams where we should win if we come out and play, but if we come out and play like we did tonight, we could lose those games, too.”

DeMarcus Cousins on re-signing with Pelicans: ‘I’m very open to that’

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New Orleans Pelicans big man DeMarcus Cousins is still nursing a torn Achilles injury, the one that kept him from being part of his team’s sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the playoffs this year. But he’s getting better, and this summer should be a big one for the 27-year-old. It’s the first time Cousins will be a true free agent, having signed an extension with the Sacramento Kings back in 2013.

There have been rumblings that the Pelicans might not want or need Cousins back. They played incredible small ball against the Blazers, although they fell apart while matched up against the Golden State Warriors in the second round. Cousins, meanwhile, is one of the best centers in the NBA and should demand a sizable salary. Signing Cousins would put the Pelicans deep into the luxury tax without other moves to cut money from the books.

Then there’s the question of whether Cousins wants to be back in New Orleans. He’s said all the right things, but Cousins recently unfollowed the Pelicans on Instagram and it caused folks around the NBA to shift their biases every so slightly on his re-signing in Louisiana.

Still, Cousins says he would gladly return to New Orleans. Speaking to The Undefeated, Cousins maintained that he was going to look out for himself but that he did not hold any grudges, and he would be happy to be a Pelican.

Via The Undefeated:

Are you open to re-signing with New Orleans if the deal is right?

Oh yeah, for sure. This is my first time in free agency, but I’ve been around this business long enough. I know how things work. I’m not out here trying to hold a grudge or anything like that. I’m going to make the best decision for me, and I believe teams are going to do the same thing.

What’s your mindset, your view of how to approach free agency? Do you feel like you owe it to yourself to do your due diligence and hear what everybody has to say?

Yeah, like I said I don’t plan on rushing through this process. I’m going to make the absolute best decision for DeMarcus Cousins. We’ll see what that is. As of right now, I don’t really know. I can’t answer that. Would I like to go back to New Orleans? I’m very open to that. I love what we created. I love what was created after I went down. I would love to be part of it. But I’m going to do what’s best for me, and I feel they’ll do the same.

These are basically the things you expect to hear from a pending free agent, but the NBA is a business and obviously Cousins made reference to that several times.

The “grudge” part is the most interesting part to me. Why would Cousins hold a grudge against the Pelicans? Or is this a reference to the fact the Kings have significant cap space this summer?

I’m mostly kidding about that, but the NBA is crazy. Where Cousins ends up is anyone’s guess, and it’s hard to get true free agents to sign there, even with Anthony Davis on board. The Pelicans are in a position like many other teams in the NBA, where the harsh reality is you need to pursue the best talent you have available to you.

This summer is going to be wild, man.

Could Kansas City be potential expansion city for NBA?

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Most talk around expansion or team movement revolves around one city: Seattle. Obviously, the league hurts from not having the Sonics among its ranks, and the move of the team during the last decade was one of the messier business storylines of that era.

As a resident of Seattle, it always strikes me how odd it is a metro area of this size — one that’s still focused on basketball — doesn’t have an NBA team. It just feels weird, even considering the context of Howard Schultz, Clay Bennett, and Key Arena. “Soon but not that soon” is the general feeling about getting an NBA team here in Washington.

Then again, some other cities may be in the mix, too.

According to a rumor from SEC Network’s Jarrett Sutton, at least one NBA executive thinks that Kansas City is another potential spot for expansion.

Via Twitter:

Kansas City does have the advantage of already being a sports town, a top 33 TV market, and it has an NBA-sized arena in the Sprint Center. KC is also the host city for the Big 12 tournament.

Still, the city hasn’t had an NBA team since the Kings left in 1985, and Adam Silver has said that expansion isn’t really on the docket for the league in the near future.

The question is also whether the NBA needs more teams or fewer. Some folks have started to take the stance that they would actually prefer contraction away from markets that never seem to compete. I’m not sure if that’s realistic, but re-arrangement by teams moving also seems less likely in this day and age, too, especially after the last-ditch effort to keep the Kings in Sacramento in 2013.

When will Seattle get an NBA team? Will Kansas City get a team? Will it be in tandem? This is fun speculation at this point, but we won’t get our answer for some time.

Warriors eager to get back on the court, respond from loss

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) One good beating per series is plenty for Draymond Green and Golden State.

The Warriors got it in Game 2 at Houston, and now the defending champions plan to do what they seem to do best: bounce back with brilliance.

As the Western Conference finals showdown shifts to Oracle Arena for Sunday’s Game 3, tied at one game apiece, the Warriors have spent the past few days discussing their Game 2 troubles and what they’re striving to do in order not to be dominated again.

It’s time to play.

“I think we’re at our best when we feel threatened,” Green said Saturday. “Game 1 we felt threatened, we came out with a sense of urgency. Game 2 we maybe didn’t feel as threatened and the sense of urgency wasn’t there. I think you’re allowed one of those a series. We’ve had our one, now it’s time to lock in for the remainder of the series.”

And for the Warriors that starts on the defensive end against Chris Paul, James Harden and Co., because when they get stops it allows Golden State to get going in transition and find open looks from 3-point range that weren’t there during a 127-105 Game 2 defeat Wednesday night at Houston. That was largely because the Rockets had ample time to set their defense following made baskets.

Houston is making sure not to get too high from its impressive result. The Rockets lost Game 1, 119-106.

“Feels like Game 2 was a week ago now. That’s how it is in the playoffs,” Paul said. “I heard somebody say when you lose a game in the playoffs, you feel like you’re never going to win again, and when you win, you feel like you’re never going to lose again. We’ve done a great job all year staying even-keeled.”

The task gets tougher for the Rockets at one of the league’s most imposing venues.

Golden State has won an NBA record-tying 15 straight postseason home games, matching the Chicago Bulls’ mark from April 27, 1990-May 21, 1991.

“The Warriors at Oracle are a different story for sure,” Stephen Curry said.

Coach Steve Kerr spoke last week to former Warriors coach Mark Jackson about Golden State’s resiliency over years now.

Just as they did in losing once in each of the first two rounds, the Warriors hardly looked strong in Game 2. Kerr insists that rebounding from a bad loss is hardly about coaching, patting his chest to note that his players take it upon themselves based on their passion to respond from defeat.

“It’s a series. We’re not going to knock them out in one game,” Kevin Durant said. “Bad games happen throughout playoff series, throughout a season, throughout a career. So just move on, keep getting better and see what happens next game.”

And the Warriors aren’t worried about Curry rediscovering his shooting rhythm after making only two 3-pointers – one in each game – so far this series.

It might just take one to fall for the two-time MVP to start feeling it again. Or not even one.

“I only need one, that’s all I need,” Curry said. “Actually I might not need any because hopefully that first one that I shoot in Game 3 goes in, so I don’t really need any.”

Golden State, which realized it wouldn’t go a record 16-1 like last postseason’s remarkable run to a second title in three years, responded from defeats in the first round to San Antonio and then against the Pelicans in the Western Conference semifinals.

“It’s not just this year it’s the last four years,” Kerr said. “It shows you the resilience of our team. I was talking to Mark Jackson last week and I said, `When I knew how tough this team was, I think it was 2013 when Mark was coaching and they lost at the buzzer to Denver on the road in Game 1, Andre Miller hit a shot. The Warriors came back and won Game 2. They lost a heartbreaker in the next round to San Antonio at San Antonio, they had an 18-point lead with about five minutes left. A devastating loss, came back and won Game 2 on the road. I remember as a broadcaster watching those two games that showed what kind of guts these guys have. Mark agreed. We’ve both been blessed to coach the group. It’s not something that you coach, it’s just something that’s in them. Steph, Draymond, Andre (Iguodala) and Klay (Thompson), those are guys who have been here for a while, so then you add KD to that, a guy who’s seen everything in the playoffs. We’ve got a pretty resilient group.”

Mike D’Antoni knows what his Rockets are up against now that the series shifts to the Warriors’ imposing home court.

“We always talk about having a short memory, especially in bad times, but you have to have a short memory also in good times. Play with the same desperation. Play with the same force that we played offensively and defensively, knowing that they’ll have more of a force on their side,” D’Antoni said. “But we have to control what we can control, and make sure we’re aggressive.”

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Scottie Pippen on LeBron James, Michael Jordan: “It’s not a fair comparison”

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The battle has, stupidly, raged on between supporters of Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Both sides seem to believe their preference is irrefutably the choice for the best player in NBA history.

And because they did not play in the same era, the question will never be answered. No doubt in 50 years they will write columns about Jordan vs. LeBron, just like their fathers, and their father’s fathers before them.

James has certainly seemed to take a bit of a leap in the eyes of the NBA community this season, likely because of his wonderful performance at age 33. He’s also single-handedly won two playoff series this year. It’s been incredible.

But LeBron rising above Jordan has also brought out some more reasonable takes. Former Chicago Bulls legend and Jordan running mate Scottie Pippen spoke up recently about the debate, giving a measured analysis that I think is pretty strong.

In short, Pippen basically said you can’t compare the two because of the eras, the style, and the fact they just don’t play the same position (if LeBron even has a position, that is).

Via Twitter:

That sounds right to me.