Call it ugly, Suns don’t care, they are one win from Finals after 84-80 win over Clippers

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LOS ANGELES — To win a ring, a team has to win ugly sometimes.

The Phoenix Suns can check that box — it’s not going to get uglier than Game 4 Saturday night. Calling this game a rock fight would be an insult to rock fights.

In a game where the Suns shot 36% as a team, were 4-of-20 on 3-pointers, went scoreless for nearly four minutes in the fourth quarter, saw their two All-Star guards shoot 14-of-44 combined, and the team had an offensive rating of 90.7, Phoenix gutted out a dramatic win over the Clippers in a defensive struggle (with some cold shooting).

“It was an ugly game from the start if you look at it offensively, but we dug in and got stops,” Devin Booker said. “That’s how you win playoff games.”

Phoenix escapes Los Angeles with an 84-80 Game 4 win, giving the Suns a commanding 3-1 series lead as they head home to Phoenix for Game 5 on Monday.

Teams up 3-1 in a conference finals are 40-3.

“Our poise was tested tonight in how we responded to their third quarter when our shots were going in and out and in and out…” Suns coach Monty Williams said, laughing at all the misses. “We competed at the highest level I have seen from us all season.”

Deandre Ayton, who has been the Suns MVP this series, was the guy showing the most poise and anchoring the defense.

Defensively he was a force, with four blocks and far more possessions where he made the Clipper ballhandler think twice about attacking. Offensively, it wasn’t his 19 points, it was the nine offensive rebounds that kept plays alive and kept the Suns in the game (he finished with 22 total rebounds and four blocked shots.

“I was just trying to control the game with my effort on both ends of the floor,” Ayton said.

Now it is the Clippers’ poise that will be tested.

“We played well defensively but didn’t play well offensively,” Reggie Jackson said. “The shots that didn’t fall tonight, we feel will fall in the next game.”

A rainstorm of shots did not fall for the Clippers — they were 0-of-12 in the fourth quarter on shots to tie or take the lead (via ESPN Stats & Info).

The Clippers — playing their 13th game in 25 days, with their best player sidelined, forcing key guys to take on more minutes — looked like a team that lost its legs. They shot 5-of-31 from 3 (16.1%) and a lot of those, particularly early in the game, were clean looks. Paul George shot 5-of-20 overall and 1-of-9 from 3, on his way to a team-high 23 points. Reggie Jackson was 8-of-24 for 20 points. Luke Kennard and Nicolas Batum combined to go 1-of-10.

Phoenix opened the game on a 14-2 run, with Chris Paul looking much sharper than two nights before, and running a pick-and-roll with Ayton that was getting clean looks. The Suns also were playing faster, not letting the Clippers settle in on defense.

The Suns led 29-20 after one quarter, then in the second did a good job of tightening up their defense and funneling drives into Ayton, who was a wall. The Clippers tried to shoot over the top of the wall but were 4-of-22 on 3-pointers in the first half, with George and Jackson a combined 6-of-22 overall. Los Angeles doesn’t have a margin for error to cover that, and they trailed by 14 at the half, 50-36.

Los Angeles rallied in the third by forsaking the three and attacking the rim. The Clippers shot 8-of-15 in the paint, plus got fouled and went to the line 11 times (hitting 7). In the third, Los Angeles only took three shots from beyond the arc. It was a three-point game after three.

Then came the ice-cold fourth quarter. The teams combined to start the quarter 2-of-20 shooting, and there was a stretch of more than 3:30 where neither team scored a bucket and the game remained stuck at 71-70. CP3 kept getting to his midrange spots, but like everyone else in this game could not knock them down. Nothing seemed right.

Except for the Suns’ resilience.

Now Phoenix is one win away from its first NBA Finals since 1993. And they don’t care how that final win looks.

When will LeBron James break Kareem’s all-time scoring record?

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LeBron James is trying not to think about it too much.

“The only time I’ve kind of like thought about it is when someone, you know, been posting on social and it went through my scroll, through my feed, and I’ve seen it,” LeBron said at Lakers’ media day. “And every single time I’m kind of in awe of it, like, wow.”

The wow is breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time NBA scoring record.

It was a record thought almost untouchable at 38,387 points, but now LeBron sits just 1,326 points shy of breaking it — health willing, he should pass Kareem this season.

When? Well, that takes a little math and speculation.

LeBron scored 30.3 points a game last season, but the two seasons prior to that it was closer to 25 points a game. If we split the difference and land at 27.5 points per game, it would take 48-49 games. We have to assume that 37-year-old LeBron (turning 38 just before the New Year) will sit out at least a couple of those first games, pushing this back a few games.

Considering LeBron could slide back in scoring to close to 25 a game again, the smart bet is he breaks Kareem’s record in late January or early February. The Lakers have a five-game East Coast road trip that includes Boston and New York starting Jan. 28 and running through Feb. 4, and that’s about the window.

“To sit here and to know that I’m on the verge of breaking probably the most sought-after record in the NBA, something that people say will probably never be done, I think it’s just super like humbling, for myself,” LeBron said. “I think it’s super cool.

“And you know, obviously Kareem has had his differences, with some of my views and some of the things that I do. But listen, at the end of the day, to be able to be right in the same breath as a guy to wear the same [Lakers] uniform, a guy that was a staple of this franchise along with Magic and Big Game [James Worthy] over there for so many years, especially in the 80s, and a guy that does a lot off the floor as well. I think it’s just super duper dope for myself to be even in that conversation.”

Having been in the spotlight for as long as LeBron has — remember he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high schooler — he can be very practiced, very polished with the media. His brand is smooth, as are his dealings with the press in general.

However, when talking about passing Abdul-Jabbar, it felt like LeBron’s guard was down. He was raw, more reflective and genuinely moved.

“You guys always see me use my hashtag #thekidfromakron and that those are the moments where I really think about that kid from Akron. Walking those streets and, you know, playing basketball when I had actually had a basketball and the hoop, or actually just walking around and air dribbling and shooting into it and invisible hoop you know, and counting 5…4…3…2…1 and, you know, making game-winning shots.

“I’m not going to put too much pressure on it throughout the season. But I think it’s a pretty historical moment when it gets here and you know, as long as my family and friends are all there that’s that’s the most important for me.”

LeBron’s family will undoubtedly be there, and the whole world will be watching. Longevity and LeBron’s ability to be great into age 38 (and beyond) is part of his GOAT argument — and there is no better cornerstone of that argument than being the game’s all-time leading scorer.

Suns fall to hot shooting Adelaide 36ers from Australia, 134-124

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The Adelaide 36ers may be from Australia’s National Basketball League, but they are professional players — leave them wide open and they will hit shots.

Phoenix treated Sunday like their first preseason game (it was) and the 36ers hit 24 3-pointers on their way to an upset of the Suns, 134-124. The 36ers were the aggressors all night long, playing team basketball and putting Phoenix on its heels.

It’s just preseason. One preseason game is not a bellwether for the season, there should be little more than raised eyebrows in Phoenix. However, with their last game being a crushing 33-point loss to Dallas which eliminated them from the playoffs a season ago, this was not the palate cleanser that Phoenix fans were hoping for.

Craig Randall — you may remember him from the University of Memphis and Tennessee-Martin — scored 35 points while Robert Franks added 32. The 3-point shot is the great equalizer in basketball and the 36ers were on fire.

 

The last NBA team to lose to an International squad before Sunday was the Thunder in 2016 to Real Madrid. The year before, Turkish power Fenerbahce beat Brooklyn in the preseason. It does happen.

Reserve point guard Cameron Payne led the Suns with 23 points, while Deandre Ayton looked solid and dropped 22, as did Mikal Bridges, who also had 22. Devin Booker had 13 points and Chris Paul dished out 12 dimes.

With the size of Ayton and the athletic slashing of Bridges, the Suns scored 64 points in the paint, more than doubling the 36ers. But math was not on the Suns’ side, as they traded twos for threes and kept falling behind.

This is great for the NBL and its efforts to grow the brand — the 36ers will now take on the Thunder later this week.

It’s a shrug and move on game for the Suns. Expect a more focused effort from the team next game.

Heat, Tyler Herro agree to four-year, $120 million extension (with $10 million in incentives)

Miami Heat Media Day
Eric Espada/Getty Images
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Tyler Herro was frustrated — he saw players he felt he was better than getting paid.

Now he has a contract he will have to live up to.

The Heat have signed Herro to a four-year, $120 million extension of his rookie contract, with up to $10 million in incentives) a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and now confirmed by the team.

Herro went to Twitter to confirm the deal himself.

“Tyler is an impact multi-faceted player and we are excited to have him signed for the next five years,” Heat President Pat Riley said in the statement announcing the signing. “His improvement every year since we drafted him has led to this day. We believe he will continue to get better.”

This is a straight four years, no options for either side.

Signing an extension takes Herro off the table for any trades to upgrade the Heat roster this season. Herro had been at the heart of the rumors about the Heat and Kevin Durant, as well as other teams.

Herro’s new contract extension is a big bet on the wing taking another step forward this season and beyond. The deal is a little larger than expected (the conventional wisdom had Herro coming in close to the $107 million RJ Barrett got with the Knicks). Ira Winderman of the Sun Sentinel and I have discussed Herro’s price before and didn’t quite picture it this high, but with the rising cap over the next few years this deal may not look out of line.

Miami stepped up and paid the reigning Sixth Man of the Year high-level starter money — now he has to earn that job and that paycheck.

Mostly, he has to improve on defense so Eric Spoelstra can trust him at the end of games and deep into the playoffs (while Herro has had big playoff games, his role shrunk deeper in last postseason because of his defense).

Herro puts up numbers — 20.7 points a game on 39.9% from 3 last season — and is the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, but does this new deal move him up in the Heat offensive pecking order with Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler? Probably not in crunch time (and if Kyle Lowry bounces back this season, there could be games where Herro is option No.4).

This locks up part of Miami’s roster going into the season, but they are still on the look for depth at the four. Don’t consider this roster settled.

 

Watch Celtics shooters look sharp in easy preseason win over Hornets

Charlotte Hornets v Boston Celtics
Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images
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It’s just one meanless preseason game, but for a franchise that could use some good news the Boston Celtics will take it.

The Celtics’ shooting looked in mid-season form in their preseason opener against the Hornets on Sunday — 57.1% overall and 22-of-47 from 3 (46.8%). Boston just couldn’t seem to miss, especially early.

Jayson Tatum had 16 points in 22 minutes, while Jaylen Brown was the leading scorer with 24 points in 24 minutes.

The one unexpected bright spot was a strong game from Mfiondu Kabengele, who is currently on a two-way contract with the team. He ended up with 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting and showed some hustle.

Kelly Oubre led the Hornets with 17 points, while LaMelo Ball had 14 points, seven rebounds and four dimes.

It’s just one preseason game, don’t read much of anything into it. But the Celtics will take the good news where they can find it.