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Deandre Ayton arrives as symbol that Suns are on the rise

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PHOENIX (AP) — Since the heady days of Steve Nash came to an end, there have been few signs of joy from a dwindling fan base that watched the Phoenix Suns tumble to the bottom of the NBA standings and miss the playoffs for the eighth year in a row.

Then came the announcement that Deandre Ayton would go to the Suns with the first overall pick. A huge cheer went up from the several thousand fans at Talking Stick Resort Arena on Thursday night for the draft party. General manager Ryan McDonough, owner Robert Sarver and coach Igor Kokoskov came out of their meeting room to watch and bask in that rare moment of sheer joy from the fans.

“It was a pretty special moment for our franchise,” McDonough said.

Not only that, but McDonough engineered a last-minute trade for swingman Mikal Bridges of Villanova, the 10th pick. It was a spendy move because Philadelphia demanded and got Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick. But the Suns are weary of stockpiling assets. It’s time to cash in, they figured, and did it with that trade.

“We weighed the pros and cons of trading it heavily and carefully,” McDonough said. “We were only going to put it in play if we had a chance to get a special player and that’s how we feel about McKell.”

All four of the Suns’ picks showed up on a crowded dais in Phoenix on Friday – Ayton, Bridges, French point guard Elie Okobo (chosen 31st) and forward George King of Colorado (the 59th selection).

The 7-foot-1 Ayton towered over the others, in a white unbuttoned collared shirt and a sharp blue suit, but he looked and sounded a bit weary from the whirlwind of being the No. 1 draft pick. His only sleep lately, he said, was a couple of hours on the plane ride from New York on Tuesday.

“I’m just excited to finally get a jersey on and be able to play five-on-five again,” Ayton said.

Ayton had been the frontrunner for the No. 1 pick ever since the draft lottery and any doubts were erased when he went through an individual workout with the Suns, the only team which he did so.

McDonough said that Ayton’s workout “in and of itself was as impressive as I’ve ever seen in my 16 drafts in the NBA.”

Ayton is seen as strictly a center, so how does he fit in the modern style of the NBA, when center plays is diminished and players are essentially interchangeable, is a question. Ayton replied that he’s no ordinary center.

“I don’t like it when people think I’m just a guy down low,” he said. “They haven’t watched me shoot the basketball.”

Ayton and Bridges say they got to know each other well at the college awards ceremony in Los Angeles but never figured they’d be on the same team.

“It’s like I’ve known him my whole life,” Bridges said.

Now comes the hard work, molding a team with Ayton, Devin Booker and Josh Jackson. A billboard of those three already has been erected downtown.

The Suns, so bad for so long, seem on the brink of being relevant.

“We’re very hungry,” Ayton said. “I think the great team chemistry and the work ethic that we have, especially us guys coming in, we’re going to bring it to the next level. We’ve got young lets. We can run all day. … We can really start a winning legacy.”

And Ayton is the reason for the sudden leap in optimism, even though he won’t turn 20 until next month.

“I embrace it a lot,” he said of the expectations placed upon him. “Through my career I’ve always had that on my shoulder, the expectations. I represent a whole nation (Bahamas) I just do that the best that I can and just help this community start over and be the best player I can possibly be. I just want to be the best great player.”

Kokoskov says Ayton possesses “a unique talent for the decades.”

Ayton said he wants “to be the best person on and off the court.”

Now the Suns move on to the next phase. Free agency starts July 1 and McDonough wants some veteran players to add to this very young core. He said the team should have $15 million to $20 million to spend.

“We were aggressive last night with the picks and the trade up to get Mikal,” McDonough said. “We’re going to continue to be aggressive for the next couple of weeks in free agency. We’ve got some money to spend and we’re looking to spend it on the best players we can get.”

Kyrie Irving on if he hadn’t chosen Boston, “New York held a special place for me”

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Now Kyrie Irving is just teasing Knicks fans.

While he was reportedly New York’s top free agent target, Irving announced he will re-sign with Boston when he becomes a free agent next summer. He’s not looking around, not shopping his talents, not talking to the Knicks. That’s why he was greeted with some boos when introduced at Madison Square Garden Saturday night.

However, if Irving were going to shop his talents, New York might have won the sweepstakes, Irving said to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

“Every team was under consideration but obviously New York held a special place for me,” said Irving, who grew up about 15 miles away from MSG in West Orange, NJ. “Just being from Jersey and obviously envisioning myself as a free agent and ultimately taking a meeting and playing for (Knicks coach David Fizdale) and a great young core that they have here.

“Thinking about playing with (Kristaps Porzingis). That was a big thing before I made my decision just to plan on re-signing back with Boston. But yeah, of course, New York was a strong consideration.”

The Celtics are in a position to contend for a title this season and few more going forward (at least), which is what Irving said is the key reason he wants to stay. It doesn’t hurt that Boston can offer him five years, $190 million guaranteed, while the most the Knicks can offer is four years, $139 million. That’s a lot of money to leave on the table.

By the way, the Celtics beat the Knicks 103-101 in MSG.

Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, Brandon Ingram all ejected for punches-thrown fight in Rockets win

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LOS ANGELES — By the end, LeBron James‘ home opener as a Laker wasn’t about him.

It was about a rare, actual punches thrown NBA fight that saw Houston’s Chris Paul, and Los Angeles’ Rajon Rondo and Brandon Ingram ejected. All likely to face suspensions.

It was also about another Lakers’ loss, 124-115. The Lakers have started the season 0-2 and been out-executed at the end of both games (they scored just 18 fourth-quarter points Saturday).

“I talked to the guys, fights happen in sports, but we’ve got to keep our composure,” Lakers’ coach Luke Walton said. “We somewhat did, but they made a lot of shots down the stretch. (James) Harden made a couple ones, one possession with a rebound on one, we missed a switch on a high pick-and-roll…

“We didn’t execute well enough to win that game down the stretch.”

The Rockets did, bouncing back with some fight after a punchless loss to New Orleans in their opener.

“We had to win a game… ultimately the most important thing is to win the game,” said James Harden, who finished with 36 points on 19 shots. “All the commotion going on, that’s what I tried to go do.”

With it being LeBron’s home debut, the L.A. crowd was fired up from the start. The game was entertaining, back-and-forth and getting physical at points, but nothing out of the ordinary.

That was until in the fourth quarter when Houston’s James Ennis clotheslined Josh Hart who was driving the lane. Ennis got a flagrant one.

“The clothesline, three minutes prior to (the big fight), I saw that. Zero idea how that’s a flagrant one,” Walton said. “(Ennis) clotheslined a guy, he picked him up off his feet and slammed him on his back, and that’s a flagrant one. To me, if I’m a player or a teammate, and that’s a flagrant one, then we can play a little more physical.”

It did get physical after that and a few minutes later is when things spilled over into the fight.

Los Angeles’ Brandon Ingram was particularly frustrated with Harden drawing foul calls (welcome to a big club, Brandon) and after Harden drew another with 4:13 left in the game Ingram let his frustration go and pushed Harden. That was a quick and deserved technical, which there was jawing, which is when Lance Stephenson stepped in to pull Ingram out and protect him from himself (yes, Stephenson was the level head… it was weird to type that).

Usually in an NBA “fight” that’s when things calm down.

Saturday night, that’s when things went crazy.

Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo — two guys who don’t like each going back most of a decade — were jawing after the play when CP3 took his finger and pushed Rondo in the face — and Rondo responded by throwing a punch.

Paul insists Rondo spit on him, which provoked his reaction. Rondo and the Lakers vehemently deny this. (On the video you don’t see Rondo intentionally spitting, but did spittle fly out of his mouth while yelling? Who knows.)

That’s what (Paul) is saying. And as a man, the only thing you can do is react,” Harden said. “Stand up for yourself.”

Once that punch was thrown it was mayhem on the court.

Which is when Ingram came sprinting back into the scene and threw another punch. He was quickly pulled out of the pile, but the damage was done. He was going to be ejected and could face the longest suspension of anyone because he was the third man into the fight (and instigated everything shoving Harden).

Once everything settled down, the ejections came — Ingram, Rondo, and Paul were all gone. Kiki VanDeWeghe, the NBA’s lead disciplinarian, was in the building and saw everything first hand. Expect the suspensions to come down Sunday, before the Rockets play the Clippers on Sunday night.

For the Rockets, it’s a win to build on, although they may have to do that without Paul for a game or two.

For the Lakers there were positives — Lonzo Ball had a strong night and was 4-of-8 from three, and the offense looks good when they run (in the halfcourt, there’s work to do) — but they need more consistent shooting and improved defense to the close games they will find themselves in a lot in the West.

“I’m not disappointed at all,” LeBron said postgame. “I knew we were going to have some early struggles. Nobody said this was going to be easy….

“We got a long way to go to get to the Rockets, to get to a lot of teams in the Western Confererence, they’ve just been together for so long.”

C.J. McCollum breaks Bryn Forbes ankles, drains three, Blazers bench LOVES it

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Bryn Forbes was going to be the third-string point guard for the Spurs, but injuries to Dejounte Murray and Derrick White thrust him into the starting lineup.

Saturday night, C.J. McCollum schooled him. Broke Forbes ankles then drained the three over the top of him.

But the best part of this is the bench reaction.

Damn, that’s cold.

McCollum had 24 and Damian Lillard had 29, and the Blazers beat the Spurs 121-108.

Watch J.J. Redick’s game-winning three, it lifts 76ers past Magic 116-115

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — JJ Redick hit a 3-pointer with 17 seconds left to lift the Philadelphia 76ers over the Orlando Magic 116-115 on Saturday night. You can see the video above.

Redick had his best game since moving to Philadelphia’s bench at the start of the season, scoring 31 points on 10-of-20 shooting, including eight 3-pointers.

Aaron Gordon had a chance to tie it with 10 seconds remaining but missed his second free throw, and a desperation heave by Terrance Ross missed the net entirely.

Joel Embiid had 32 points and 10 rebounds for the 76ers, including 19 points by halftime. He did it with an outside game in the first half but was more of a force down low after intermission.

Dario Saric scored 13 points and Robert Covington had 12 as the 76ers improved to 2-1 this season.

Evan Fournier had 31 points to lead Orlando. Nikola Vucevic added 27 points and Gordon had 20.

Ben Simmons left the game after the first quarter with a tight back, meaning Philadelphia had to lean that much more on Embiid and Redick.

With Simmons out, Markelle Fultz was given an opportunity to play extended minutes and run the offense. Fultz finished with eight points on 4-of-11 shooting and added seven assists with only one turnover.

However, with the game on the line, 76ers coach Brett Brown opted to use T.J. McConnell at the point and kept Fultz on the bench.

High scores have been common in the early part of the NBA season as teams are pushing the pace and trying more shots, especially from deep.

Both teams shot lights out from 3-point territory. The Sixers, paced by Redick, shot 17 of 34 (50 percent) while the Magic, led by Fournier’s six 3-pointers, shot 16 of 29 (55.2 percent).

Thirteen players attempted shots from beyond the arc, eight for Orlando and five for Philadelphia.