Associated Press

After awful season, Suns pin their hopes on young talent

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PHOENIX (AP) — There was a time, long ago, that the Phoenix Suns were winners playing the most entertaining style in the NBA.

It’s been seven years, though, since the Suns made the playoffs.

Now they’re the youngest squad in the league and maybe, just maybe, they have the makings of success.

“It’s happening in front of your eyes,” ever-optimistic coach Earl Watson said. “If I would say last summer that Devin Booker was going to Boston or anywhere and score 70, everyone thought it was ludicrous. It’s happening in front of your eyes and it’s great to watch.”

The Suns’ optimism starts with Booker, the 20-year-old guard who had some phenomenal scoring outbursts, leading the league with six 20-point quarters, one more than Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook.

But this is a team that won only 24 games. To make sure they didn’t win many more than that, thereby enhancing their draft situation, they sat point guard Eric Bledsoe for the final month of the season.

As a result, Phoenix has the second-worst record in the NBA and is assured a top five pick in this season’s draft.

Here are some things to consider in evaluating the Suns’ odd season:

YOUTH: At one point, Phoenix featured the youngest starting lineup in NBA history.

Spectacularly athletic but temperamental forward Marquese Chriss is 19. So is Dragan Bender, the team’s top draft pick whose season was slowed by injury.

Forward Derick Jones Jr. is 20, guard Tyler Ulis, 21, forward T.J. Warren, 23, centers Alex Len and Alan Williams are 24.

Booker didn’t turn 20 until last October.

What’s uncertain is how fast these young players can improve enough to make this a playoff team or more.

“How long does it take? Good question,” GM Ryan McDonough said. “I don’t know. This is a multi-year process. However, if we’re good over the next couple of years I think we’ll be good for 10 years after that.”

BOOKER: The Suns didn’t know the gem they were getting when they drafted the teenage Kentucky guard as the 13th selection overall.

He averaged 22.1 points per game in this, his second, season, but that stat doesn’t reflect how spectacular Booker can be.

Only four other players in NBA history have scored more than the 70 Booker got in Boston. He is the youngest to score that many and it was a franchise record.

Booker had three quarters of at least 27 points. The rest of the NBA had two.

He plays with an edge, shouting “This is my house!” after sinking a late-game 3-pointer last week against Oklahoma City in a game where the Suns deprived Westbrook of a record-setting 42nd triple-double.

He’s as personable off the court as he is brash on it.

“Once you step between those lines, you turn into a different beast,” he said.

Booker is primed to be the face of the franchise for years to come.

“It’s a big statement to say be the face of the franchise,” he said, “but I think I’m built for it.”

DRAFT PICK: McDonough has been in the league since 2003 and calls it one of the best two or three drafts in that time.

The Suns are loaded with young guards and small forwards but that won’t affect the team’s draft decisions.

If Phoenix gets the No. 1 pick, it could well be UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball.

“We have depth at both of those areas, especially at the guard slot,” McDonough said, “but we’ll take the best available player and if that guy’s as good as we think he can be work the rest of the roster right around him.”

BLEDSOE: Which brings us to point guard Eric Bledsoe.

McDonough said Bledsoe was the team’s best player, as evidenced by the team’s dearth of wins after the decision was made to sit him.

Bledsoe was one of only five players to average at least 21.1 points, 6.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game.

But if Ball comes on board, would this still be Bledsoe’s team?

“I’m not worried about none of that,” Bledsoe said. “I just want to get better, compete for the playoffs and have that lead to a championship.”

THUNDER & WARRIORS: Watson and McDonough point to the lack of success of the Thunder in the first years of Kevin Durant and Westbrook and the Warriors in the early days of Curry and Klay Thompson.

The Thunder drafted James Harden, Watson recalled, and won 50 games.

That’s the plan in Phoenix.

PBT Extra: Pressure falls on James Harden, Rockets’ bench with Chris Paul out

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Chris Paul is out for Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals with a strained hamstring, and that almost certainly will sideline him for Game 7 as well.

That changes the feel of this series.

The Rockets still just have to win one of the next two games to advance to the NBA Finals, and one of those is at home. However, without CP3 a couple of things need to happen. James Harden needs to find his shooting stroke. Gerald Green and the Rockets’ bench needs to step up. And Houston has to keep defending the way they have the last two games.

It’s not going to be easy (especially on the road in Game 6), but the Rockets still have a real opportunity to advance to the NBA Finals.

Watch all of LeBron James’ 46 points in Game 6

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There is going to be a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals Sunday because of LeBron James.

George Hill had a strong game (20 points), Jeff Green and Larry Nance Jr. had their moments, but it was all about LeBron — 46 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists in 46 brilliant minutes.

Rather than try to describe his game to you — including the dagger threes late — just watch.

And enjoy. There are still some people out there (mostly on Twitter, it seems) who just want to tear LeBron down for some reason. I pity them. Not just because they are wrong, although they are. Rather, it’s because they are depriving themselves of enjoying one of the greatest players ever to lace them up. LeBron can bully people in the paint, hit step back threes, is as gifted a passer as the game has seen, and just plays a smart, high-IQ game we have got to watch grow over the years. If you can’t enjoy that, you don’t love basketball.

LeBron James is a force nature, scores 46, wills Cavaliers to win forcing Game 7

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What more can be said about the brilliance of LeBron James?

We can point to his 46 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists Friday night in a win-or-go-fishing elimination game. We can point to how he lifted the team up when Kevin Love went down after a blow to the head (more on that later). We could talk about how this is his seventh 40+ point game of the playoffs, the last guy to do that since Michael Jordan in 1989 (when Jordan was 25 and had yet to win a title).

Or, we can just show you his back-to-back dagger threes in the fourth quarter over Jayson Tatum.

That is art on a basketball court.

LeBron got a little help Friday night at home, and with that the Cavaliers won Game 6 109-99, forcing a Game 7 back in Boston on Sunday night.

“It feels good just to play for another game, and like I’ve always said ‘Game 7’ is the best two words in sports,” LeBron said. “And for us to be on the road in a hostile environment where we have had no success up to this point, we should relish the opportunity and have fun with it.”

LeBron was nothing short of brilliant (remember 10-12 years ago people were trying to say he was afraid of the big moment, damn that sounds silly now). He is historically brilliant in Game 7s, but he can’t do it alone.

George Hill, the second best shot creator on the team, had 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting. Jeff Green had 14 off the bench, and Larry Nance Jr. had a timely 10 points and 7 rebounds.

Nance’s play was crucial because Kevin Love went down 5 minutes into the game after banging heads with Jayson Tatum while setting a screen.

Love’s was being checked for a concussion and his status for Game 7 is not known. (If he does have a concussion, it’s unlikely he clears the league protocol in time to play in two days.)

Despite LeBron and all of it, the Celtics had their chances in this one.

Boston got off to a fast start because Jaylen Brown had 15 first-quarter points and the Celtics shot 61 percent as a team, none of which seemed sustainable but it got them out to a 25-20 lead after one. Then the Cavaliers came on in the second with a 20-4 run behind LeBron, and once they had the lead the Cavaliers never let it go.

Boston will look back on not grabbing rebounds — Cleveland grabbed the offensive rebound on 36.6 percent of their missed shots, a very high percentage — and the fact the Celtics missed nine free throws and think things could have been different.

Boston is going home, where they are 10-0 these playoffs and for some reason inexplicable even to Brad Stevens, they play much better. The Celtics have a great defense, smart players, and a real chance.

The Cleveland Cavaliers have LeBron James. That may be enough.

“We have one more game to be able to compete for a championship, what more can you ask for?” LeBron said.

Kevin Love being evaluated for concussion, out for second half

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It happened just five minutes into the game — Cleveland’s Kevin Love and Boston’s Jayson Tatum banged heads.

Love was in the midpost and part of his job was to set a screen for George Hill, who was racing out to the arc. In doing so, Love and Tatum banged heads and it wasn’t pretty.

Love spent a few minutes on the ground, went straight to the locker room, and has not returned to the game.

Tatum did not leave the game.

There still is no official word on if Love has a concussion. If he does, he will go into the league’s mandated concussion protocol — which means to be cleared he has to be symptom free through a series of physical tests — and it would be a challenge for him to be back for a Game 7, if there is one.

And their likely will be one. After struggling in the rest of the first quarter without Love, the Cavaliers have gotten solid performances out of Hill, Jeff Green, and of course, LeBron James has been brilliant. The Cavaliers have a comfortable 15-point lead late in the third quarter.