Three reasons the Suns beat Warriors — and are legit contenders


It was no fluke.

Unquestionably, the Suns got some breaks on the way to the NBA Finals last season — every team does — but they earned their trip last summer. They brought back largely the same very talented, balanced roster this season, but there were doubters. Few picked them to make it back to the Finals, but more of us should have. The Suns may not roll out a top-five player in the league every night, but they do roll out a versatile, high IQ team with a couple of All-NBA level players and few weaknesses. It’s a team that finds ways to win.

That’s what the Suns did Tuesday night against the Warriors — they found ways to win, 104-96. Here are the three keys to Phoenix beating Golden State — and it’s three reasons the Suns can return to the NBA Finals this year.

Defense. Defense. Defense.

The Phoenix Suns came into this game with the third-ranked defense in the NBA — Tuesday they used it to hold Stephen Curry and the second-best offense to a 100 offensive rating for the night (12.4 below their season average). The active Suns’ defenders forced the Warriors into 23 turnovers — 24% of Golden State possessions. Turn the ball over almost one-in-four trips down the court and you’re likely to lose.

Phoenix threw its All-Defensive Team-level defender in Mikal Bridges at Curry — along with a lot of other players in the form of double- and triple-teams — and it held Curry to 4-of-21 shooting overall and 3-of-14 from 3.

“Steph missed some shots, but I think the respect Mikal has for Steph and our team defense [worked],” Suns coach Monty Williams said postgame. “We showed him bodies tonight, we tried to make it as tough on him as we could.”

The Suns were active and focused on defense all night, had Deandre Ayton protecting the rim, and became the first team to hold the Warriors under 100 points this season.

That defense can carry into the postseason. It’s for real.

The Suns are Clutch

The Suns came into this game 8-1 in clutch games — within five points in the final five minutes — with an insane +47.8 net rating in those minutes.

They were better than that in this game. The Suns had a +59 net rating in the final 5:19 against the Warriors Tuesday. Golden State shot 2-of-8 in those minutes (both buckets in the final :44 seconds, when the game was already decided), Phoenix hit 5-7.

Chris Paul‘s teams are historically good in the clutch. It’s a combination of factors: He makes smart decisions, he rarely turns the ball over, and he can create space and knock down midrange jumpers.

Some fans tend only to think of some of CP3’s handful of epic playoff clutch meltdowns, but those are the outliers, not the norm (even in the postseason, but especially compared to the regular season). In this game, he had a bucket, three assists and a steal in the final five minutes, plus found open shooters and controlled the flow of the game. He is the best floor general in the game — arguably the best ever — and he took over the end of this game like he has so many others.

We know what CP3 does translates to the postseason because we saw him do it with this same team a season ago.

Depth and Versatility

The Suns lost Devin Booker to a hamstring injury in the first half Tuesday — the team’s leading scorer at 23.9 points a game was out.

In stepped Landry Shamet, with a bit of help from Chris Paul and some shooting from players such as Jae Crowder and Cameron Johnson. It seems every game some other Suns role player is stepping up, making a key play. The Suns’ bench got better this offseason with the addition of Shammet and JaVale McGee (who backs up Ayton), but it’s the quality of player.

And their versatility. Want to play fast? The Suns will slow a team down. Want to grind it out, the Suns speed you up. Phoenix can play big, play small, play inside or bomb threes. Whatever an opponent wants to do, the Suns can force them out of it and beat them with another style. The Suns’ system may be their biggest strength, and that goes back to coach Monty Williams (who deserves credit for keeping his team focused through the Robert Sarver investigation, not letting it become a distraction).

That versatility and bench will be put to the test Sunday when the Suns and Warriors have a rematch. But they are also among the reasons the Suns can win again, and will be around when we are deep into the NBA playoffs.

Watch Anthony Davis score 37, spark Lakers to key win against Thunder


LOS ANGELES (AP) — Anthony Davis had 37 points and 14 rebounds, Dennis Schröder added 13 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter and the Los Angeles Lakers got a vital victory for their playoff hopes, 116-111 over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday night.

Lonnie Walker scored 20 points in an impressive return to the rotation for the Lakers, who won their third straight to move even with Minnesota in seventh place in the Western Conference standings despite the injury absences of LeBron James and D’Angelo Russell.

“It was a must-win game for us,” said Davis, who made 15 of his 21 shots. “We had to come out and get this game, and we came out offensive and defensively just playing extremely well. … We’ve got to .500, and now it’s time to get on the other side.”

With Davis leading the way on both ends of the court, Los Angeles (37-37) reached .500 for the first time this year. The Lakers started the season 2-10, but they’re 12-6 since the trade deadline with a rapidly cohering roster and the looming return of the NBA’s career scoring leader.

“This team is locked in and connected,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “The vibe and the spirit have been great. Guys are really trying to figure out how we can be better. That’s what you want. … Guys are competing because they know what they’re representing. They know the history of the franchise they’re representing.”

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey scored 27 points apiece for Oklahoma City, which lost for only the fourth time in 12 games down the stretch. The Thunder (36-38) dropped into a tie with Dallas for 10th in the West despite holding the Lakers to only 42 points in the second half after LA put up 41 in the first quarter alone.

“That’s a testament to our ability to scrap and hang in there,” Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault said. “That’s how you want teams to score against you. All the things they got down the stretch are things we’re willing to live with. It’s hard to slow that down.”

Russell sat out with a sore right hip, joining James on the sideline at an important game for the Lakers’ playoff hopes. Los Angeles still improved to 8-5 during James’ latest injury absence.

Oklahoma City erased all of Los Angeles’ early 17-point lead when Gilgeous-Alexander’s jumper tied it at 102-102 with 5:25 to play. Davis responded with three points, and Walker hit a tiebreaking shot with 3:50 left.

Schröder replaced Russell in the starting lineup and had another standout game, including six points in the final 3:18 while the Lakers hung on. Walker got his most significant playing time since early March in Russell’s absence, and the former starter responded with four 3-pointers.

“I’ve just been in the gym, being positive and focused on what we’re trying to accomplish,” Walker said. “I love these guys, and I’m fortunate to play with them.”

Ham said Russell’s hip injury was “not too serious, but serious enough where we need to manage it.”

Gilgeous-Alexander played despite the Thunder being on the back end of consecutive games. The Thunder have been resting him in the second game of recent back-to-backs.

Joel Embiid scores 46 but 76ers still fall short against Poole, Warriors


SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Jordan Poole emerged as one of Golden State’s most dependable performers during the championship run last season.

He resembled that go-to guy once again Friday night when the Warriors needed everything he had, with the ever-reliable Draymond Green doing his thing, too.

“Opportunity,” Poole said of his stellar fourth quarter playing all 12 minutes.

Poole scored 33 points and swished a key 3-pointer with 1:18 to play off a pretty pass by Green, Stephen Curry added 29 points and eight rebounds, and the Golden State Warriors rallied past Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers 120-112 on Friday night.

“Tonight something about it felt like last year in that playoff run when Jordan was just attacking and knocking down shots but also getting to the line just giving us an entirely different dimension offensively,” coach Steve Kerr said. “That’s when he’s at his best. I thought he really competed down the stretch defensively as well. He was magnificent tonight.”

Embiid checked back into the game with 8:26 left and scored 13 straight on the way to 46 points.

But the Warriors came back from 11 down for their ninth straight home win — and one of the most important yet as they fight for playoff positioning.

Green noted: “Nobody wants to be in that play-in, the play-in is dangerous.”

Curry dribbled the baseline and around Embiid for a go-ahead jumper with 2:20 to play. Klay Thompson tied it at 104 with 5:05 left, only for Embiid to drive straight down the key for a dunk. He did miss consecutive shots in crunch time, too.

Poole’s driving dunk with 8:27 left got Golden State back to 93-91 then Kevon Looney’s putback after Embiid blocked a layup try by Poole cut it to 102-101.

Embiid shot 13 for 23, made 19 of 22 free throws and had nine rebounds, eight assists and two steals. He helped Philadelphia take an 88-79 lead going into the fourth. He had his streak of scoring 30 or more points in a franchise-record 10 straight games snapped in Wednesday’s 116-91 win at Chicago but made up for it.

Golden State nemesis James Harden sat out with left Achilles soreness for the Sixers, who had won nine of 10 and 10 of 12.

Thompson added 21 points and six rebounds and Looney contributed six points, 10 rebounds and seven assists as the Warriors reached 30 home wins for the sixth time since 2014-15 and second in a row.

“You want to take care of home court as best as you can,” Poole said.

Green had 10 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds for Golden State, which had some momentum from two straight wins on the road following an 11-game skid away from Chase Center.

“I feel good. It’s that time of year you’ve got to turn everything up a notch,” Green said. “I love this time of year.”

Philadelphia, which had won the last two matchups, made 10 of 17 shots to start the game but missed its first eight 3-point tries before Georges Niang connected at the 8:06 mark of the second quarter.

Luka Dončić fined for money gesture toward referee after loss


The Mavericks were livid about the officiating in their loss to the Warriors, particularly the miscommunication about a third-quarter out-of-bounds play that gave Golden State an uncontested bucket in what ended up being a two-point game.

Frustrated or not, everyone knew Luka Dončić crossed a line and would get fined when he made a gesture suggesting the referees were paid off.

Friday the NBA came down with a $35,000 fine for Dončić “for directing an inappropriate and unprofessional gesture toward a game official.” While that’s a steep price it could have been much worse — the referee did not give Dončić a technical foul at the time, which would have been his 16th and triggered a one-game suspension without pay.

Dončić wasn’t the only person fined by the league for snapping at the officials, Suns coach Monty Williams was fined $20,000 on Friday “for public criticism of the officiating.” Williams was frustrated after losing to the Lakers on a night where Los Angeles got to the line 46 times to Phoenix’s 20.

“Where do you see a game with 46 free throws for one team?” Williams said after the game. “That’s just not right. I don’t care how you slice it. It is happening to us too much. Other teams are reaching, other teams are hitting, and we’re not getting the same call, and I’m tired of it. It’s old… I’m over it. Been talking about the same thing for a while. Doesn’t matter what team it is.”

It doesn’t matter what team it is for a reason. First, the Suns do not draw a lot of fouls because they are not a team that puts a lot of pressure on the rim (especially without Kevin Durant), they settle for jump shots. Second, they have the highest foul rate in the league — they foul a lot. Those two things will lead to a free throw disparity nightly (they had players who could draw fouls, Mikal Bridges is doing it now in Brooklyn, but the Suns didn’t put the ball in his and ask him to attack as the Nets have, Phoenix used him as a shooter and cutter off the ball more often).

The tensions between players and referees feel ratcheted up this season, and these are just the latest examples.

Report: Kevin Durant targeting March 29 return vs. Timberwolves


When Kevin Durant sprained his ankle during warmups, the Suns said he would be re-evaluated in three weeks. It turns out it may be more than a re-evaluation.

Durant is targeting a return almost three weeks to the day from when he injured himself, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

There has been no official update from the Suns, but Durant’s camp has always been optimistic about a return.

The Suns have gone 2-5 without Durant and slid into a virtual tie with the Clippers for the No. 4 seed in the West. If Durant returns Wednesday, Phoenix would have seven games left to hold off Los Angeles and retain home court in the first round of the playoffs. More importantly, they could generate some chemistry before the postseason begins.

Durant averaged 26.7 points and 7.3 assists a game with a ridiculous 80.8 true shooting percentage in his three games with the Suns, and the team won all three games. The fit seemed almost seamless and if the Suns can get back to that they are a threat to win the wide-open West.

It’s going to be a wild final couple of weeks in the West.