Booker puts up triple-double, pushes Suns past Clippers in Game 1

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Modern NBA analytics don’t say, “nobody should ever shoot from the midrange” (despite how some old-school talking heads want to portray it). Rather, what the numbers say is, “only players who are very good from the midrange should take those shots.”

Devin Booker is very good from the midrange.

The Suns’ Booker was 7-of-12 shooting outside the paint but inside the three-point line on Sunday, and that opened up the rest of his game, including passing windows to teammates. He was particularly deadly in the third quarter, when the Clippers played center Ivica Zubac, who has to lay back on the pick-and-roll, and Booker just torched him getting any midrange shot he wanted.

Booker had his first every triple-double — 40 points, 13 rebounds, 11 assists — and became the first Sun since Steve Nash to post a playoff triple-double.

It was all too much for the Clippers and the Suns took Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, 120-114. Game 2 is set for Tuesday night in Phoenix.

The Suns got the win without Chris Paul, who is still in the league’s health and safety protocols but is expected to return later this series (potentially Game 2). The Clippers were without Kawhi Leonard again as he recovers from an ACL sprain. While there is no timeline for Leonard, it is far less likely he plays this series.

Much like in Game 1 of the last round against Utah, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue was forced to go deep into his bench — 22 minutes for Rajon Rondo (who was -14) and 31 minutes combined for Zubac and DeMarcus Cousins — because the Clippers played less than 48 hours after closing out Utah in Game 6. Terance Mann didn’t have the bounce he did two nights before, and he wasn’t alone. (The Los Angeles front office can officially complain to the league, in the East both teams are getting two or three days off before the conference finals, but this is all driven by television and its money talks.)

“We’re built for it. We’re not gonna make excuses,” Reggie Jackson said after the game. “They played extremely well. We’re gonna go, get our rest, watch film, and try to get one in Game 2.”

Give the Suns full marks for capitalizing on those slowed Clippers by running at them, trying to push the pace and wear them down. The Suns finished with 16 fast break points (and a lot more in secondary transition) to the Clippers’ four.

In the half court, the Suns’ quick drives and sharp decision-making on when to kick out, moving the ball to open shooters, sparked the Suns’ offense. A lot of it was Booker, forced into more of a playmaking role with CP3 out and stepping up to the challenge. He had 18 points in the third quarter as he torched Zubac and the Clippers’ pick-and-roll defense, getting good look threes, midrangers, and some shots at the rim. The Clippers had no answers.

It was a Booker-sparked 10-2 run at the start of the fourth — while George was on the bench but Booker on the court — where the Suns really took control of the game (although the Clippers made it interesting).

“Devin definitely took control, he led the team,” Deandre Ayton said after the game. “He made sure we played as a unit and didn’t forget our togetherness on the floor.

“He stole some of my boards, but it’s all good.”

Mikal Bridges scored 14 for the Suns, Jae Crowder 13, and as a team the Suns shot 40.6% from 3.

“This is a different caliber team than the other two teams we faced,” George said. “Little bit more guard play. And so, we’ve got to figure out how to counter, which we will. We’ll figure out another game plan.”

George had 34 for the Clippers, and Reggie Jackson chipped in 24. Cousins provided a little offensive spark with 11.

Lue threw everything against the wall in the first couple of games against Dallas in the first round and Utah in the second round — and the Clippers went down 0-2 in both series. However, by Game 3 Lue and the Clippers figured out what worked and dominated the rest of the way.

It will be much harder for the Clippers to do this series — the Suns are better and more diverse in their attack. Plus, they will get Chris Paul back.

Teams reportedly watching to see if Bulls make stars available; Lakers had internal discussions on it

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It was a talking point going into the season: What teams we thought would be good will struggle, and then pivot to chase Victor Wembanyama in the lottery.

What about the 9-13 Chicago Bulls? They barely look like a playoff team, they miss Lonzo Ball, and even at their best where do they fall in the East? Would they blow it up? With DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic and Zach LaVine, they have players that would interest other teams and could bring quality picks (or young players) back to Chicago. Other teams are watching, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

One of those teams: The Los Angeles Lakers.

That is according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe on the Lowe Post Podcast. He was discussing a potential trade floated by The Ringer’s Bill Simmons where the Lakers send Russell Westbrook and two future first-round picks (2027 and 2029) to the Bulls for DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic.

“The trade I saw on Twitter was Russ and both picks, one with light protections I think for DeRozan and Vucevic. I can tell you 100% for sure that the Lakers have had internal discussions about that very possibility, if it would ever come up. Not that they would do that. Let me be clear.”

None of this matters if the Bulls don’t decide to pivot, and they are not there yet. They may never get to that point. But the Lakers and other teams are surveying what teams might make game-changers available at the deadline, and the way the Bulls are stumbling has other teams keeping an eye on them. Expect the rumors to keep coming.

But for now, that’s all they are, rumors and speculation.

On the bright side for Bucks, Khris Middleton looks good in return

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton initially said that making his 2022-23 debut in his return from offseason wrist surgery felt great.

Then he quickly corrected himself.

“I should actually say good,” Middleton said Friday night after the Bucks’ 133-129 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. “If we got the win, I think I would have been (feeling) great. It felt really good to be back out there with the guys competing and playing,”

Middleton, 31, had 17 points and seven assists while playing 26 1/2 minutes in his first game since spraining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee April 20 in Game 2 of the Bucks’ first-round playoff series with the Chicago Bulls. That injury caused him to miss the entirety of the Bucks’ Eastern Conference semifinal with the Boston Celtics, a series Milwaukee lost in seven games.

The 6-foot-7 forward then had surgery on his left wrist in the summer, having played through the injury late last season.

“Pretty impressive how kind of seamlessly he got back into the game on both ends of the court,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.

Middleton said Friday at a post-shootaround availability that he might need some time to readjust, but the three-time All-Star didn’t show any signs of rust in his first game back. He shot 6 of 11 and went 3 of 4 from 3-point range.

“Just relying on my experience,” Middleton said. “Just (trying) not to rush and let the game come to me. Don’t try to do too much the first game back and try to fit in and play off my teammates.”

The most important thing is that Middleton felt just fine physically.

“Hopefully tomorrow when I wake up, I feel the same also and I won’t feel too sore or whatever,” he said.

The Bucks had gone 15-5 in Middleton’s absence. Milwaukee is second in the Eastern Conference, behind only the Boston Celtics.

Middleton’s teammates believe his return should make them even better.

“It takes us to a whole different level,” Bucks forward and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We scored 129 points and we had a bad first half. That says a lot.”

Lakers coach Darvin Ham knows how much Middleton means to the Bucks’ title hopes. Ham was an assistant coach on Budenholzer’s Bucks staff from 2018-22, including their 2021 championship season.

“Giannis is the heart and soul and the engine, and Khris is like the steering wheel,” Ham said before Friday’s game. “He’s the GPS in terms of understanding what to do. Giannis is the focal point but Khris is the master of putting guys where they need to be. He’s like that quarterback.”

The Bucks aren’t going to overexert Middleton as he returns to the floor for the first time in about 7 1/2 months. Budenholzer said Middleton probably won’t play Saturday at Charlotte.

“We’ll talk about it on the plane, but my guess is he will not play a back-to-back,” Budenholzer said.

Middleton’s just happy he’s back on the floor at all.

“Just a range of emotions,” Middleton said. “(I’ve) been through a lot these last couple months. Happy, sad, anxious, nervous. To finally get out there and play and get a lot of those nerves past me felt pretty good.

LeBron James passes Magic Johnson for sixth all-time in assists

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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Magic Johnson is one of the greatest, most creative passers the game has ever seen.

Friday night, LeBron James passed Magic for sixth all-time in assists in the NBA. For LeBron, doing that in a Lakers’ jersey like Magic wore was special.

It happened with 8:41 remaining left in the game, LeBron found Anthony Davis for a 3-pointer on the right wing.

LeBron finished the night with 11 assists and 28 points, which along with a monster 44-point night from Anthony Davis led the Lakers to an impressive win over the Bucks in Milwaukee.

 

 

 

Jimmy Butler returns, hits clutch shots to lift Heat past Celtics

Miami Heat v Boston Celtics
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BOSTON (AP) — Bam Adebayo scored 28 points, Tyler Herro had 26 and the Miami Heat completed a split of two games in Boston, beating the Celtics 120-116 on Friday night after Jaylen Brown banked in a long 3-pointer to force overtime.

Heat leading scorer Jimmy Butler returned to the lineup and had 25 points in 36 minutes after missing the previous seven games with a sore right knee. He added 15 rebounds.

“Obviously having JB back is big time for us,” Herro said. “He helps us in so many different ways.”

Kyle Lowry chipped in with 20 points before fouling out in OT for the Heat, who sent Boston to just its second loss in 16 games.

“My team welcomed me back and let me do what I do,” Butler said. “It was a big `W’ for the team.”

Brown sent the game to overtime by banking in his long 3 with 1.7 seconds to play in regulation. He finished with 37 points.

“It felt good coming off my hand,” Brown said. “I know we wanted to get a shot up off the rim as fast as possible, just in case we missed we could get a rebound, a tip out.”

The Celtics had won 10 straight at TD Garden.

Boston star Jayson Tatum scored just 14 points on a cold shooting night, going 5 of 18 from the floor, including 0 of 7 on 3-point attempts. He had 49 points in the Celtics’ 134-121 victory on Wednesday night.

“That’s the biggest thing about the league; you’re not going to stop anybody from just scoring,” Adebayo said. “I feel like (we’re) making him take tough shots every time we play him and living with the result.”

Butler hit a clutch jumper over Al Horford, making it 110-107 with 5.1 seconds left in regulation before Brown took a pass near midcourt, dribbled to his right and nailed his shot.

In OT, the teams were tied twice before Butler nailed a foul-line jumper over Horford with 1:45 left, but Brown hit two free throws to tie it.

Adebayo nailed two free throws and, after Tatum misfired on a 3, Butler hit a jumper to seal it.

“Jimmy made two tough, tough baskets,” Brown said. “That’s just a credit to his work and his skill and his development. He gets going in games like this; on the road in a hostile environment. … Tonight, two shots that in our defensive scheme we could live with, but Jimmy a big-time player made both of them.”

Unlike Wednesday, when shots were open more and both teams were making them effectively (each shot over 50%), defense was tighter and it resembled more of the postseason matchup last season between the pair that went seven games before Boston captured the Eastern Conference title.