Five Takeaways from NBA Sunday: With Bledsoe out, coaching Suns gets harder

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We’re all just coming out of our Christmas food coma, and after a busy weekend the NBA took it easy with just four games. Here is what you need to know out of a Sunday around the Association.

1) It’s not the coaches, it’s the players. So the Suns fired some coaches. Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN had an apt description of the coaching moves in Phoenix Sunday, this is the old “let’s fire the hitting coach” strategy.

The Suns have lost 15 of their last 20 games because their roster has holes and chemistry issues, plus now their leading scorer and playmaker — Eric Bledsoe — is out until after the All-Star break following surgery on a torn meniscus. So how did the Suns’ management respond? On Sunday, the Suns fired assistant coaches Mike Longabardi (defensive coordinator) and Jerry Sichting (offense) and promoted the popular-with-the-players Earl Watson, as well as Nate Bjorkgren to the bench to shake up a Suns team that is out of the playoffs right now even in a down West. Head coach Jeff Hornacek kept his job, although there is a dead man walking feel to that. His contract is up after this season, he’s fought with players, and it’s difficult to imagine he will be back in the big chair in Phoenix.

This move was made by a management team that believes this is still a playoff team. I don’t see it. Suns’ owner Robert Sarver could resurrect John Wooden and make him coach and wouldn’t matter. This roster doesn’t have a clear strength and almost certainly will miss the playoffs for a sixth straight season. Without Bledsoe and his 20 points a night, the Suns are not the same. Brandon Knight will have a lot more on his shoulders, Rodney Hood will have to step up, and the Suns will count on its depth that has been a disappointment so far this season. The fact is management spent big on Tyson Chandler this summer and he has been bothered by nagging injuries and has not looked like near his vintage self. This team is a little below average on offense and a little below average on defense, and the players look lackadaisical at times. Coaching may be part of the issue, but talent and fit are the bigger ones.

The question I have is: what is the plan in Phoenix? What kind of team are they trying to build? There are no clear answers. A couple of years back the Suns were thought to be a rebuilding team that wasn’t going to go full Sixers but was going to take a few years to rebuild through the draft and free agency — then Hornacek led that team to 48 wins (which was still  not good enough for a playoff spot that season). It put the franchise in more of a “we can make the playoffs now” mindset rather than rebuilding the core, and the results have been less than impressive since. It may be time to rethink how they rebuilt this roster, and not just shuffle the coaching chairs around.

2) C.J. McCollum goes off as Portland gets win. No Damian Lillard on the second night of a road back-to-back taking on a rested Kings team — this looked like a scheduled loss for the Trail Blazers. But C.J. McCollum had other ideas — he went off from the midrange, hitting 10-of-17 from three feet out to the arc, and he picked apart a matador (just waving the cape as he drove past) defensive effort from the Kings. McCollum had 35 points, and combine that with the Kings turning the ball over on nearly 22 percent of their possessions, and you have a 98-94 Trail Blazers win.

Usually, it’s the rested team that plays better in the fourth quarter of these games, but the Kings were 3-of-22 shooting in the quarter, and DeMarcus Cousins was 2-of-9. Still, Cousins had 36 points on the night and provided a counter to McCollum.

3) Russell Westbrook, Thunder were dunking all over Nuggets. Russell Westbrook was within one rebound of a triple-double (30-11-9), and he did it while attacking the Nuggets and throwing down dunks at the rim. Heck, even Dion Waiters got in on the act during the Thunder’s 122-112 win.

4) RIP Meadowlark Lemon. For many, he was THE Harlem Globetrotter of the 1960s and ’70s (when that team was as popular as almost any NBA squad). He could consistently hit a half-court hook shot, was a fantastic trick passer, and was exactly the kind of showman and ambassador the sport and the Globetrotters needed. The Hall of Famer passed away this weekend at the age of 83. Our thoughts are with his family and friends.

5) Isaiah Thomas and Carmelo Anthony put on a show. Boston seemed in control of this game throughout second half (although the Knicks made some mini-runs to try to make it more interesting), and the Celtics won 100-91. Through it all Thomas and Anthony were the ones putting up the points and entertaining the fans.