Paul George answers critics with 41, Clippers beat Suns to stay alive, force Game 6

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Segments of NBA Twitter seem to lie in wait for Paul George, ready to pounce on the slightest mistakes.

DeMarcus Cousins has George’s back.

“I don’t know where this trolling bulls*** comes from where the Internet controls the narrative about these players. It’s becoming foolish,” Cousins said. “That’s one of the most special players to ever lace his shoes up. Give this dude his flowers.”

George earned the full bouquet Monday night — 41 points, 30 of them in the second half when he shot 10-of-12, plus 13 rebounds and six assists. Whenever the Clippers needed a bucket in the second half, there was George as Los Angeles pulled away from the hard-charging Suns and picked up a 116-102 Game 5 win on the road.

The Clippers stayed alive, but the Suns still lead the Western Conference Finals 3-2 with Game 6 on Wednesday night in Los Angeles.

Even before an impressive playoff run this year, George had an NBA career nearly any player would envy: six-time All-NBA, four-time All-Defense, seven-time All-Star, and a comeback from a horrific leg injury that could have ended his career. Two years after that moment, he was helping Team USA win gold at the Rio Olympics.

Yet fans seem to focus on his shortcomings more than other stars — George has brought some of that, but not all, on himself with comments and actions. But he has noticed the trend.

“It’s a fact. But I can’t worry about that. It comes with the job, I guess…” George said. “To me, it doesn’t come down to just scoring. It’s just being able to play both ends, rebound, and make plays for others. And so I’m beyond [what some fans think], you know what I mean? I’m beyond that. I am who I am. I wish I could shoot 80%, 75%, on a nightly basis, but it’s not realistic.”

He shot that well in Game 5, 15-of-20 for the game. He got help from Reggie Jackson, who had 23 points, and Marcus Morris, who added 22.

The Clippers were without Ivica Zubac (knee), which forced Tyronn Lue to go small — however, that is where the Clippers have been the most comfortable this postseason. It’s the lineup the Clippers should play more this series.

Los Angeles came out playing zone and it threw Phoenix off — the Clippers raced out to a 7-0 lead that evolved into a 20-5 lead.

“It’s just unacceptable the way we started the game,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “It was a big hole for us. It’s pretty obvious that we can’t play with a show-up mentality. We showed up in the first quarter and they played with desperation, simple and plain.”

Things could not have gone much better for the Clippers in the first half. They attacked the paint (34 points in the paint to the Suns 8), were strong on the glass despite playing small most of the half, and, most importantly, played fantastic and focused defense. They led 59-52 at the break, and it would have been more if not for a defensive lapse leading to a great shot by Booker.

In the third, the Suns made a push, but it was 20 points from George that kept pushing the Clippers out in front. Deandre Ayton, who has been so critical for the Suns all series, was far less impactful (he still had 10 points and 11 rebounds). Part of that was how the Clippers had lessened the impact of Rudy Gobert last series, and part of it was a strong night from DeMarcus Cousins off the bench, with 15 points and some solid play.

“He’s a great player,” Lue said of Cousins. “He went through some injuries, which is unfortunate. But guys forget, he was a max player before he went through all those injuries. Just having the post presence on the floor. He’s a great passer when he catches it down low. He’s tough to handle down there. Him having 15 points off the bench was a huge spark for us to allow PG and Reggie to get some rest and Marcus to get some rest.

Phoenix got 31 points from Devin Booker on 9-of-22 shooting (but 4-of-6 on 3-pointers), and 22 from Chris Paul, plus he had eight assists. It all wasn’t enough.

All playoffs long, when the Clippers have been challenged, their backs against the wall, they have found another gear. It’s how they came from 0-2 down in two series to be in the Western Conference Finals at all. These Clippers — unlike previous squads — can take a punch and come back harder. They are the definition of resilient.

Are the Suns? Their biggest test comes Wednesday night, when the Clippers head home and try to force a Game 7.

Suns promote GM James Jones to to President of Basketball Operations

Phoenix Suns Open Practice
Barry Gossage / NBAE via Getty Images
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James Jones put together the roster that took the Suns to the Finals two seasons ago and had the best record in the NBA last season (64 wins). At 13-6, the Suns sit atop the Western Conference this season.

The Suns have rewarded Jones, giving him the title of President of Basketball Operations on top of GM.

“In the nearly 15 years I have known James, he has excelled in every role he performed, from player to NBPA Treasurer to his roles in our front office, most recently as general manager,” Suns interim Governor Sam Garvin said. “James has the unique ability to create and lead high-performing teams in basketball operations and his commitment to collaborating with our business side, including at the C-level with partners like PayPal and Verizon, is second to none. We are fortunate for his contributions across the organization and this promotion recognizes his commitment to excellence.”

Jones moved into the Suns’ front office in 2017 at the end of a 14-year playing career, then became GM in 2019. The move gives Jones a little more stability during the sale of the franchise. Not that the new owner would come in and fire a successful GM.

“I am grateful for the privilege to work with and support the players, staff and employees of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury,” Jones said in a statement. “The collective efforts of our business and basketball operations have allowed us to provide an amazing atmosphere and best-in-class experience for our fans and community. I remain excited about and dedicated to driving success for our Teams on and off the court.”

Jones has made several moves that set the culture in Phoenix, including hiring Monty Williams as coach then, after an undefeated run in the bubble (that left Phoenix just out of the playoffs), he brought in Chris Paul to take charge at the point.

Report: Leaders in Lakers’ locker room think team ‘only a couple of players away’ from contending

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There’s a sense of optimism around the Lakers: They have won 5-of-6 and are expected to have both Anthony Davis and LeBron James healthy Monday night, plus Russell Westbrook has found a role and comfort level off the bench and other players are settling into roles. They may be 7-11, but it’s early enough there is a sense this could be turned around.

That is echoed by “locker room leaders” who think the team is just a couple of players away from being a contender in the West (where no team has pulled away), reports Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

There is belief shared by leaders in the Lakers’ locker room, sources said, that the team is only a couple of players away from turning this group into a legitimate contender. But acquiring the right players could take multiple trades.

Let’s unpack all of this.

• “Leaders in the Lakers’ locker room” means LeBron and Davis (both repped by Rich Paul). Let’s not pretend it’s anything else.

• If the Lakers don’t make a move to significantly upgrade the roster, how unhappy will those leaders become? How disruptive would that be?

• It is no coincidence that McMenamin’s report comes the day the Lakers face the Pacers, a team they went deep into conversations with this summer on a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade, but Los Angeles GM Rob Pelinka ultimately would not put both available Lakers’ first-round picks (2027 and 2029) in the deal and it fell apart. Turner said the Lakers should “take a hard look” at trading for him. The thing is, the Pacers are now 11-8, not tanking for Victor Wembanyama but instead thinking playoffs, so are they going to trade their elite rim protector and sharpshooter away? Not likely. At least not without an overwhelming offer, and the Lakers’ two picks may not get there anymore.

• While Westbrook has found a comfort level coming off the bench (and not sharing the court as much with LeBron), he is still a $47.1 million contract that no team is trading for without sweeteners. To use NBA parlance, he is still a negative value contract, even if it feels less negative than a month ago.

• Are the Lakers really a couple of players away from contending? While they have won 5-of-6, three of those five wins came against the tanking Spurs, the others were against the so-injured-they-might-as-well-be-tanking Pistons, and the Nets before Kyrie Irving returned. The Lakers did what they needed to do and thrived in a soft part of the schedule, but that schedule is about to turn and give the Lakers a reality check on where they really stand. After the Pacers, it’s the Trail Blazers (likely still without Damian Lillard), then an East Coast road trip that includes the Bucks, Cavaliers, Raptors and 76ers. The next couple of weeks will be a better marker for where the Lakers stand, and if they can build off of the past couple of weeks.

Dallas Mavericks near agreement to sign Kemba Walker

Oklahoma City Thunder v New York Knicks
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Looking for help spacing the floor and with secondary shot creation behind Luka Doncic, the Dallas Mavericks are turning to Kemba Walker.

Marc Stein was first with the news the sides were close to a deal, but since then multiple reports — plus comments from team owner Mark Cuban — confirmed it is happening.

This will be a veteran minimum contract (all the over-the-cap Mavericks can offer). To create the roster spot, the Mavericks will waive Facundo Campazzo, who was signed a few weeks ago and has barely touched the court for the team.

Walker averaged 11.6 points and 3.5 assists a game playing solidly in stretches for the Knicks last season, but the concern was his staying on the court — he appeared in just 37 games due to ongoing knee problems. Walker spent the offseason working on getting past those, but the Knicks traded him to Detroit for picks, but the Pistons were stacked at the point guard spot (at least before the season and injuries hit Cade Cunningham), so they bought out his $9.2 million for this season.

Walker worked to convince teams he still had plenty in the tank, but it was always going to take a situation where a team reached a certain level of desperation. Enter the Mavericks.

Doncic calls Antetokounmpo ‘the best player in the NBA right now’

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It was a matchup of two of the NBA’s top five players and two guys high in the way-too-early mix for MVP this season: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic.

Doncic carried the Mavericks again with 27 points on 10-of-20 shooting plus 12 assists.

Antetokounmpo was a force of nature with 30 points on 11-of-19 shooting plus 11 rebounds, plus he had more help around him leading the Bucks to a 124-115 win.

There is a mutual admiration society between these two players, and after the game Doncic called Antetokounmpo the best player in the NBA. Via Jack Maloney at CBS Sports.

“Enjoy [competing against him] is hard because I want to win, so it’s hard to go against a guy like that,” Doncic said after the Mavericks’ fourth consecutive defeat. “He’s the best player in the NBA right now. He’s almost impossible to stop. It’s really fun to see him play, but it’s not that fun to go against him.”

Antetokounmpo had praise for Doncic as well.

“That’s a great compliment and I appreciate that,” Antetokounmpo said. “When you play against the best players in the league, being able to say something like that feels good. No matter wins or losses, just being respected by your peers, it’s always a good feeling.”

We have many years of these two players testing each other, and someday it may be Antetokounmpo calling Doncic the best in the NBA.