Shootaround (Jan. 15): Suns shine south of border
Suns feel Mexico spark | No reason for Steph to stray? | Hood’s knee perhaps not serious | Tough love for Lakers’ Russell
No. 1: Suns feel Mexico spark: There was young star Devin Booker putting up a career scoring high on consecutive nights. There was coach Earl Watson taking emotional note of his team’s opponent, a rival who nonetheless has helped him in his training-wheels time in charge of the Phoenix Suns’ bench. There was a spirited victory over the San Antonio Spurs Saturday in Mexico City and, according to Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic, there was so much more to make memorable the Suns’ trip south of the border:
Outside the arena, basketball fans could purchase street tacos and NBA merchandise. It was hard to tell which was more popular.
Inside, Commissioner Adam Silver declared the NBA was in “the golden age of basketball.” And maybe this historic trip to Mexico City will be remembered as the time when Devin Booker and the Suns began their own golden era.
The Suns beat the Spurs 108-105 on Saturday, vanquishing a former nemesis for the first time in 10 games. For too long, one of these teams has been the hammer, the other a roofing nail. Maybe this will mark the rebirth of a great rivalry.
Booker won countless new fans with consecutive 39-point performances, re-establishing himself as one of the NBA’s freshest new stars. He out-dueled Spurs star Kawhi Leonard, who scored 38 points, and will soon be advocating for more games south of the border.
“We embraced the city, the city embraced us,” Suns head coach Earl Watson said. “Devin Booker doesn’t want to leave. He wants to stay here and play Utah here on Monday.”
This game could be the turning point for a young team that will miss the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season. Watson said the Suns have had a couple of “momentum games” this season, citing a home win against Toronto and the second-half performance in a close loss to LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
“But there are no moral victories,” Watson said. “Coming in tonight, after a tough game against Dallas where they just beat us in everything … you could see our young group grow up and start to believe more.” …
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No. 2: No reason for Steph to stray? The math already was shouting it pretty loud: the NBA’s new collective-bargaining agreement boosted the financial advantage a player’s current team has in re-signing or bidding for his services in free agency, to the point that many of the league’s stars may stay put beginning this July. But hearing talk along those lines from Golden State’s Steph Curry, in his calm, reassuring tone, had to sound even more convincing to Warriors fans. Curry spoke last week for a podcast with San Jose Mercury-News writer Tim Kawakami, and the two-time MVP’s marvelously lucrative future was a central topic:
Stephen Curry isn’t ready, willing or even curious about bolting from the Warriors in free agency this summer, which is no great surprise, but you still have to ask, right?
So I asked him during our podcast conversation after practice on Saturday: Steph, given the huge new dollar-advantage presented to the Warriors in the new collective bargaining agreement and the atmosphere here, can you even fathom leaving this team this summer?
“I can’t,” Curry said. “Like I’ve said from Day 1 when I was first asked about free agency, this is a perfect place to play. Bay Area fans are amazing, our organization’s amazing, we’ve put together an amazing team that’s competing for championships every year.
“There’s really no reason that I can see right now that would draw me elsewhere.
“And we’ll see what happens. But that’s kind of a great position to be in and one that allows me to just focus on just playing good basketball this year and winning a championship and letting the rest of that handle itself.”
The new CBA, signed last month, allows a “designated veteran player” who meets certain requirements (Curry’s MVP last season is among several ways he qualifies) to receive a five-year extension worth about $209 million from his current team.
But all other bidding teams could only offer Curry at max a four-year deal worth about $133 million–a monster difference of $76 million in the overall value.
I asked Curry if he has let himself contemplate a new deal worth more than $40 million a year.
“I know it’s on the horizon,” Curry said. “It’s something that I hope to get done this summer.
“It sounds crazy, but I haven’t really thought about what that means yet, just because it’s so much time between now and then. so much to accomplish.”
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No. 3: Hood’s knee perhaps not serious: The Utah Jazz have dealt with more than their fair share of injuries, so it was only natural for some folks in Salt Lake City to fear the worst when wing Rodney Hood went down in a heap late in Saturday’s comeback victory over Orlando. But as minutes passed, what looked initially to be quite ominous revealed itself to be less so. That turned a good news-bad news night for coach Quin Snyder and his crew into a good news-manageable new situation, as chronicled by Jody Genessy of the Deseret News:
Rudy Gobert had a monstrous outing with 19 points and 19 rebounds; Gordon Hayward was his All-Staresque self with 23 points, seven assists and five rebounds; Derrick Favors looked like his old self with 17 points and six boards; George Hill added 14 points and seven assists; and Rodney Hood scored 14 with a key 3-pointer at the two-minute mark for the second straight night.
“This was a good win for us, I think, because of some of the circumstances. I feel like people were a little tired there tonight,” Hayward said. “(We had) an emotional win against Cleveland and a late, late TV game (Friday) as well. Just happy that we won, happy that we grinded that one out. It was a good win.”
The injury, which happened as Hood drove to the basket on a fast break and stepped awkwardly, looked a lot worse than the initial diagnosis of a hyperextended right knee
Hood was helped off the court by trainers and Jazz teammate Boris Diaw.
“They’re going to continue to evaluate (the knee), but hopefully it’s not serious. It’s serious enough he had to leave the game,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “I don’t know when he’ll be back.”
The prognosis seemed to improve somewhat in the locker room.
“I know exactly how he’s feeling. If anybody do, I do,” said Jazz guard Alec Burks, who’s had his own share of knee issues over the past year. “I seen him walk, so that’s a good sign.”
Moments later, Hood walked to his locker with his right knee tightly wrapped. Because of the injury, he was not made available for a comment.
“It’s unfortunate for sure and unlucky. Hopefully he has a speedy recovery,” Hayward said. “He’s a big piece of what we do. It just sucks to see anybody go down, especially your teammates. I wish him the best and hopefully he comes back and he comes back real good.”
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No. 4: Tough love for Lakers’ Russell: Halfway through Year 2 of D’Angelo Russell’s tender career, the Los Angeles Lakers have begun showing some tough love to their young point guard. Coach Luke Walton as well as some teammates have ratcheted up their approach to Russell as he’s shown enough talent to justify their expectations, so the kid gloves are off, reports Mark Medina of the Orange County Register:
Once the Lakers’ 113-97 loss to the Clippers on Saturday at Staples Center became official, Walton informed Russell he did not like his play where he had five points on 1-of-7 shooting and five assists. Walton also offered pointed words to Russell during a timeout late in Thursday’s loss in San Antonio after Russell offered little effort on defense.
“We need him to be more aggressive and be the player we know he is and capable of being,” Walton said. “We’ve seen it for most of this month. I’m confident he will be.”
Russell has averaged 11.8 points on only 37.7 percent shooting in the past five games. That marks a sharp drop from when he averaged 21 points on 50 percent shooting during two games earlier in January. After shooting a combined 12 of 21 from 3-point range during that stretch, Russell has gone 4 of 28 from the perimeter in the past six games. On Saturday, Russell missed his lone 3-point attempt while looking to attack the basket more.
“Teams scout; they’re going to take away stuff that you do,” Russell said. “The opportunities that you get on the offensive end and beginning of the season aren’t the same going into the second half of the season. That’s where you as a basketball player have to be better.”
While Russell placed some blame on the team’s collective failure to read off of each other, his starting backcourt teammate took issue with his recent shot selection.
“You got to keep shooting. But if it isn’t falling, try to look for other things,” Lakers guard Nick Young said. “He’s the point guard. He doesn’t have to shoot the ball as much. He can be him, get assists and do other things until the shots start falling.”
Walton said he wants Russell to keep shooting before offering a few qualifiers.
“If it’s a good shot and if his defender is under him, I want him shooting those 3s,” Walton said. “I want him being aggressive. I’d rather him err on being the side of being too aggressive than too cautious at this point. He knows that.”
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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Although the league probably has used the word “exploring” about Mexico City as a potential NBA site for most of the 25 years since it first staged regular-season games there, its appeal both in fan potential and business opportunities added weight to commissioner Adam Silver’s words there this time. … Derrick Rose is urging Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek to demand more of the team defensively, which sounds reminiscent of former teammate Jimmy Butler’s challenge last season to Fred Hoiberg. May the New York version get better results. … Conversely, Washington point guard John Wall challenged not coach Scott Brooks but himself, and the Wizards are seeing benefits from it. … Much-traveled scorer Gary Neal was reported to be on the Atlanta Hawks’ radar for a 10-day contract. … Don’t look now, but it’s Cristiano Felicio – not Robin Lopez, not Pau Gasol, not Joakim Noah, not even Tom Boerwinkle – who is the Chicago Bulls’ go-to center down the stretch these days. … The Bulls’ annual early-season road ordeal, otherwise known as “the circus trip” for the reason United Center isn’t available for home games, might be a thing of the past. Other NBA teams could be affected, too, by the news that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus is ceasing operations after nearly a century and a half.