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Associated Press

After awful season, Suns pin their hopes on young talent

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PHOENIX (AP) — There was a time, long ago, that the Phoenix Suns were winners playing the most entertaining style in the NBA.

It’s been seven years, though, since the Suns made the playoffs.

Now they’re the youngest squad in the league and maybe, just maybe, they have the makings of success.

“It’s happening in front of your eyes,” ever-optimistic coach Earl Watson said. “If I would say last summer that Devin Booker was going to Boston or anywhere and score 70, everyone thought it was ludicrous. It’s happening in front of your eyes and it’s great to watch.”

The Suns’ optimism starts with Booker, the 20-year-old guard who had some phenomenal scoring outbursts, leading the league with six 20-point quarters, one more than Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook.

But this is a team that won only 24 games. To make sure they didn’t win many more than that, thereby enhancing their draft situation, they sat point guard Eric Bledsoe for the final month of the season.

As a result, Phoenix has the second-worst record in the NBA and is assured a top five pick in this season’s draft.

Here are some things to consider in evaluating the Suns’ odd season:

YOUTH: At one point, Phoenix featured the youngest starting lineup in NBA history.

Spectacularly athletic but temperamental forward Marquese Chriss is 19. So is Dragan Bender, the team’s top draft pick whose season was slowed by injury.

Forward Derick Jones Jr. is 20, guard Tyler Ulis, 21, forward T.J. Warren, 23, centers Alex Len and Alan Williams are 24.

Booker didn’t turn 20 until last October.

What’s uncertain is how fast these young players can improve enough to make this a playoff team or more.

“How long does it take? Good question,” GM Ryan McDonough said. “I don’t know. This is a multi-year process. However, if we’re good over the next couple of years I think we’ll be good for 10 years after that.”

BOOKER: The Suns didn’t know the gem they were getting when they drafted the teenage Kentucky guard as the 13th selection overall.

He averaged 22.1 points per game in this, his second, season, but that stat doesn’t reflect how spectacular Booker can be.

Only four other players in NBA history have scored more than the 70 Booker got in Boston. He is the youngest to score that many and it was a franchise record.

Booker had three quarters of at least 27 points. The rest of the NBA had two.

He plays with an edge, shouting “This is my house!” after sinking a late-game 3-pointer last week against Oklahoma City in a game where the Suns deprived Westbrook of a record-setting 42nd triple-double.

He’s as personable off the court as he is brash on it.

“Once you step between those lines, you turn into a different beast,” he said.

Booker is primed to be the face of the franchise for years to come.

“It’s a big statement to say be the face of the franchise,” he said, “but I think I’m built for it.”

DRAFT PICK: McDonough has been in the league since 2003 and calls it one of the best two or three drafts in that time.

The Suns are loaded with young guards and small forwards but that won’t affect the team’s draft decisions.

If Phoenix gets the No. 1 pick, it could well be UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball.

“We have depth at both of those areas, especially at the guard slot,” McDonough said, “but we’ll take the best available player and if that guy’s as good as we think he can be work the rest of the roster right around him.”

BLEDSOE: Which brings us to point guard Eric Bledsoe.

McDonough said Bledsoe was the team’s best player, as evidenced by the team’s dearth of wins after the decision was made to sit him.

Bledsoe was one of only five players to average at least 21.1 points, 6.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game.

But if Ball comes on board, would this still be Bledsoe’s team?

“I’m not worried about none of that,” Bledsoe said. “I just want to get better, compete for the playoffs and have that lead to a championship.”

THUNDER & WARRIORS: Watson and McDonough point to the lack of success of the Thunder in the first years of Kevin Durant and Westbrook and the Warriors in the early days of Curry and Klay Thompson.

The Thunder drafted James Harden, Watson recalled, and won 50 games.

That’s the plan in Phoenix.

Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant engage in spontaneous, fierce three-point shootout

Associated Press
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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Steve Kerr paid close attention. Teammates, too. Nobody wanted to miss this impromptu, incredible shooting display by two of the world’s best.

Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant took turns firing 3-pointers from all over the court, some 200 of them total, while their coaches-turned-rebounders kept careful count of makes and misses and others watched in awe. Klay Thompson was shooting behind them, “I heard a lot of makes, though.”

Steph edged KD by a single 3, per player development coach Bruce Fraser’s figures from Tuesday’s shootout. Durant later confirmed the final stats.

“That was a really skillful workout right there, there wasn’t a lot of athleticism being shown, but iron sharpens iron,” Durant said. “You only get better when you play with the best and you work with the best.

“I didn’t even realize what we were doing. I was really just focusing on regaining some touch. It was definitely fun working with Steph. He works so hard, he brings something different to the game that I don’t have and I think vice versa. We push each other.”

Special guest Chris Wondolowski got a treat. The San Jose Earthquakes star and U.S. national team forward realized he had come on the right day to witness an amazing show of shot-making.

Even those who see Curry and Durant every day appreciated this performance.

“It was really fun for me to watch,” Kerr said. “It’s really fun to think about, `Oh, yeah, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, they’re on our team.”‘

And their post-practice shooting went up a notch this week with the playoffs about to begin. The fierce competition on Curry’s regular practice court became all-out entertainment with Durant healthy at last from a left knee injury that sidelined him for 19 games. The session lasted about 30 minutes. They talked and laughed, they cursed a little, they hollered at the basketball to cooperate.

Mostly, it did.

“Anyone that can keep up with Steph is an amazing shooter,” Fraser said. “You can count that on one hand, and Kevin’s one of them.”

Swish after swish, an occasional clank off the rim, but that’s pretty rare for these two. Even when they are taking 100 of them each in a game that’s just for fun.

“Don’t step out of bounds, KD!” Kerr yelled from behind the baseline as Durant let fly a corner 3.

Kerr notes that his pet peeve is seeing players in practice step on the end line – and Durant has big feet so it could easily happen – because then it’s more likely to occur during games.

His two biggest stars were locked in. The contest required each to make five 3s from five different spots, but when neither would miss it often took 10, 11 or 12 straight 3-pointers before someone would win that location and they could move on to the next.

“It was super spontaneous, it wasn’t planned, which is always sometimes the best way,” Fraser said. “It’s good when those two get together for many reasons. It’s good camaraderie, good for them to spend some time together and it’s also a good way for them to compete a little bit. It’s pretty incredible to be able to work with two of the best players in the world on the same court, the same space.”

And you should see that frayed net. Equipment chief Eric Housen acknowledges it’s overdue for a replacement given all the work Curry gives that basket.

The shooting marathon sure seems to have paid off: Durant went 11 for 16 and made 5 of 7 3s a day later in a win Wednesday against the Lakers. Curry also hit five.

“He mentioned that he’s a little hesitant coming off the injury, but he looked real springy,” Curry said afterward. “Obviously found his touch, so that’s a good sign.”

Now they’ll try to transfer that steady shooting and energy to the court when the NBA-best and top-seeded Warriors (67-15) host Portland in Game 1 on Sunday afternoon at Oracle Arena.

Playing off ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, they’re calling this friendly game “30 for 35” – for Curry’s No. 30 jersey and KD’s 35.

“Steph said it first, he said `30-35’ and I put in the `for,”‘ Fraser said. “At the beginning it was just kind of a light shooting where they were moving around and making 21 shots, then they got into a collective make 10 from each space, so it was combined where they were working together. And then we put it where they were going against each other, which was interesting because they kind of both perked up. Neither wanted to lose to the other.”

More AP NBA: https://www.apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Grizzlies’ Tony Allen has strained left calf, will miss at least start of playoffs

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Memphis was already facing long odds going into a playoff series against the Spurs — a team that plays the Grizzlies’ style but better — and now things just got worse.

Tony Allen will miss at least the start of the playoffs — and maybe all of them — with a strained left calf muscle, the team announced. Here is the wording from the official press release:

Grizzlies guard Tony Allen has been diagnosed with a strain of the medial gastrocnemius muscle (calf) in his right leg. Allen is out indefinitely and will be continually re-evaluated while beginning rehab immediately.

Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports added these details.

The injury came in the first half of a meaningless game Wednesday night. And you wonder why teams rest guys.

Allen averages 9.1 points per game for the Grizzlies, but that’s not his primary role — he is an All-NBA Defensive Team level defender at the guard spot that the Grizzlies rely on to help shut opponents down. The Grizzlies outscore opponents by 1.2 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court, they get outscored by almost a point per 100 when he sits.

This means Vince Carter will have a larger role for Memphis in the postseason, which is a boost to the offense but hurts defensively — Kawhi Leonard didn’t have a great regular season against the Grizzlies because Allen was on him. Now things will open up for the Spurs’ best player. Also, expect to see more Troy Daniels and James Ennis for the Grizzlies.

Report: Carmelo Anthony, Knicks coaches argued at halftime of loss to Brooklyn

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What was the low point of the Knicks’ season? It’s not easy to answer because there are so many options to choose from.

But a new report from Ian Begley at ESPN may have pinpointed the moment, at halftime of a Knicks loss to the Nets in Brooklyn in March when the Nets dropped 14 threes on the Knicks in the first half. That’s when Carmelo Anthony and coach Jeff Hornacek, plus others on the Knicks coaching staff, got into it.

Hornacek lit into the Knicks in the visitors’ locker room of the Barclays Center, and according to people familiar with the matter, Hornacek’s diatribe was expletive-filled and delivered at a high decibel level….

Carmelo Anthony, whose default demeanor is relaxed and easygoing, responded with anger and expletives of his own. For those accustomed to seeing Anthony live by his oft-used idiom, “Stay Melo,” it was jarring.

Anthony’s R-rated rant essentially questioned the direction of the entire organization, according to sources. Associate head coach Kurt Rambis fired back, calling out Anthony’s effort on defense.

First, if you’ve played a competitive sport past the age of 10, you’ve been in a locker room where the coach went off on the team after a sluggish first half. And sometimes players fire back. It’s not something wildly out of the ordinary.

But this seems to set the picture for the Knicks heading into the summer.

Anthony has had it with the Knicks, the triangle, and the overall direction (or directionlessness) of the organization. Phil Jackson is ready to move on from Anthony, who is not a good fit for the triangle on the court and is not the leader he wants off it.

Anthony is going to get traded this summer, the only question is where. Remember he has a no-trade clause, essentially giving him veto power over any deal. He’s not getting dumped to Orlando for prospects, he’s going to need to go to a contender — or a team with some other major draw — to get him to agree to the deal.

It’s going to be one interesting summer in New York.

PBT Podcast: Western Conference first round playoff breakdown with Dane Carbaugh

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Russell Westbrook vs. James Harden.

Is this the year the Clippers break through, or can the Jazz end their playoff run early and lead to a major shakeup in Los Angeles?

Can Memphis or Portland even win a game?

Kurt Helin and Dane Carbaugh of NBC Sports dive into all of that as they break down the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, talking about matchups and challenges for every team.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunes (just click the button under the podcast), subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out our new PBT podcast homepage and archive at Audioboom.com.