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Phoenix Suns’ James Jones, with close ties to LeBron James, braces for Lakers series

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On the eve of opening weekend for the NBA playoffs, members of the Phoenix Suns organization gathered together to pop bottles of champagne. They might as well have been on ice for a decade.

For the first time since 2010, the Suns are back in the postseason, thanks in large part to a trio of leaders added in the last two years: General manager James Jones, head coach Monty Williams and point guard Chris Paul.

“It was more a celebration of the employees,” Jones said of the champagne toast in a wide-ranging interview with ESPN. “A lot of them who have been here for ages. … Coming through COVID this past year and a half, it’s been a lot. We’ve asked a lot from them … [So] just showing them some love. They do a lot for us.”

Come Sunday, when the champagne bubbles will have long settled in the Suns staffers’ stomachs, the organization’s euphoria will get a gut check. Phoenix’s payoff for earning the No. 2 record in the Western Conference is a first round date with the defending champs, when Game 1 tips off against LeBron James and the No. 7-seeded Los Angeles Lakers (3:30 ET, ABC).

There are few who know James quite like Jones does.

When he retired at age 36 after a 14-year career, the last seven of those seasons were spent as a teammate of James in Miami and Cleveland — making it to seven straight NBA Finals together.

James, now 36 himself, is trying to run his personal streak to 10 straight playoff appearances culminating in an NBA Finals berth, but he’ll have to start off as the road team for the first time in his career. In his 15 previous postseason runs, his teams were never seeded lower than No. 4.

“I mean, LeBron’s the greatest,” Jones said. “He’s the best player in the league. I’m biased. I know him. I’ve seen him up close and personal. He’s great. There’s no other way to describe him and he’s the ultimate competitor. And he’s really good. And you have to beat really good players and really good teams to do what you want to do — do what we want to do, do what I want to do, which is win a title.”

In their history, the Suns have made the playoffs 30 times and have zero championships to show for it. James personally has four rings, taking three organizations to the promised land.

“It’s a challenge. It’s a great challenge. And it’s fun,” Jones said. “You live for these opportunities. You don’t take it for granted. Because you don’t get a chance to compete against the greatest very often. And so, I’m just excited. I’m just as geeked for the opportunity to play him as I’m sure he is playing our team. It’s just fun. I’m looking forward to it.

“Seriously, I’m looking forward to it. And I’m not even playing. … It’s the type of stuff you talk about for years to come. Because I plan on being in this industry for a long time, and I know he does too.”

If his early returns on the job are any indication, he will be. Jones took over a Suns team that went 19-63 in 2018-19, earning them the No. 1 pick.

Despite owner Robert Sarver’s reputation being spotty at best, Jones, who played in Phoenix from 2005-07, relished the opportunity and saw a different side to Sarver.

“I was a finance major in college, banking would have been my path,” Jones said. “And Robert was a banker and a guy who knew finance. So there was a baseline interest on my part to understand what he did and understand who he is.”

The rebuild was quick.

Jones drafted center DeAndre Ayton with the top pick a couple of months after being named GM, then took wing player Cameron Johnson at No. 10 and traded for another wing, Mikal Bridges. The draft night haul gave Devin Booker, who’d already proven himself to be a gifted scorer, young talent to grow with.

He also hired Williams, who had coached as an assistant when Jones played a lone season for the Portland Trail Blazers in 2007-08, to man the sidelines after Williams walked away from the interview process with the Lakers.

“When you have a coach that you not only respect professionally but personally, then you have a relationship that’s bigger than basketball,” Jones said. “Monty talks about doing hard things, it’s tough to do hard things with people you don’t like. … It’s easy to do the hard things with people that you love. So that’s how I look at it.”

Last year, thanks to an 8-0 run in the bubble, they went 34-39. Jones scanned the league looking to improve, and it became clear that the Oklahoma City Thunder were looking to shop Paul.

“When Chris became available, we had some conversations around, ‘Did we believe that our team was structured in a way where we could amplify what he does where we could help him?’ … Like, I know Chris can help me. I know every team knows that Chris can help them. Every single one of them. But how many of them feel that they’re in a position to help him? And I thought that could be our advantage.

“When I looked at how our team was constructed, I just felt like, ‘You know what? We have a chance.’ And if Chris can see what we see and how he could thrive here, then I think we’ll be in a good spot.”

This year, with Paul, the Suns were better than good. Phoenix finished with the second-best record in the league at 51-21. Coming into the season, Jones knew he had put his team in position to improve, but didn’t limit his expectations with a label. A playoff team? Contender? Champion?

“I don’t make the distinction. I just look at it like, you are competitive or you’re not,” Jones said. “You want to say that growth is linear. … But it’s so dynamic from year to year, I don’t look at it that way. You can be a team that is struggling one year and unhealthy and then a team that is completely healthy the next year while everyone else is unhealthy and be right there. And if you’re competitive, you give yourself a shot to take advantage of those opportunities.

“Going into this year, I was like, man, if we’re competitive, we’ll give ourselves a shot. Because that’s all you need. You just need to be competitive.”

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Cleveland Cavaliers extend qualifying offer to Jarrett Allen

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CLEVELAND — The Cavaliers extended a qualifying offer Friday to center Jarrett Allen, making him a restricted free agent.

The team had until Aug. 1 to make the offer to Allen, a 23-year-old acquired last season in a trade from Brooklyn and viewed as one of Cleveland’s core pieces.

The Cavs can now match any offer given by other teams to Allen, whose size and athleticism at both ends of the floor makes him enticing.

General manager Koby Altman has expressed his hope to keep Allen in Cleveland long-term.

Allen, who played college ball at Texas, came to the Cavs as part of the blockbuster trade in January that sent star James Harden to the Nets.

Allen’s arrival pushed veteran Andre Drummond to the bench and eventually led to the team buying out the two-time All-Star center’s contract.

Allen averaged 13.2 points and 9.9 rebounds in 51 games — 40 starts — for Cleveland.

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Devin Booker, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday available for Team USA opener vs. France

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TOKYO — The trio of players making the unprecedented jump from the NBA Finals to the Olympics are all scheduled to be in Japan by Saturday.

The hope is for Devin Booker, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday to be available when Team USA opens play Sunday against France, according to coach Gregg Popovich.

After attending the Milwaukee Bucks‘ championship parade Thursday, Middleton and Holiday are scheduled to fly to Seattle on Friday. There, they will join Booker, whose Phoenix Suns they helped eliminate on Tuesday, and take a private plane to Tokyo.

The pivot from being opponents in the NBA playing for the highest stakes to teammates on the national team going for a gold medal has happened over the years but never this suddenly, making it one of the more awkward scenarios in Team USA’s already fascinating history of intersecting star players.

“I would say just understanding competition and that it’s never personal between who you’re going with, unless lines are crossed,” Booker said this week discussing going from foe to teammate with the Bucks’ players. “Those guys aren’t that type and I would never go that way with them, because there’s a high respect level for each other. Representing your country is a whole different dynamic than competing against each other in the NBA Finals, but I can always respect somebody that competes at the highest level.”

With the lengthy procedures for entry into Japan, it is unlikely the new arrivals will get much more than a light walk-through with the rest of Team USA, which has been in Japan since Tuesday. But with an expected tough test against the French, Popovich is planning on using his reinforcements immediately, even if he’s not sure how it will play out.

“I have no idea [how to use them]. I’m not trying to be glib. I’m trying to be transparent,” Popovich said. “Maybe they’ll be OK for the game [Sunday] and it’ll hit them two days later. Maybe we should play them in the first half and see what they’re like.”

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Los Angeles Lakers extend qualifying offer to guard Talen Horton-Tucker

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The Los Angeles Lakers made their first move in what promises to be a busy offseason by extending a qualifying offer to second-year guard Talen Horton-Tucker, the team announced Thursday.

The qualifying offer for Horton-Tucker is $1.9 million, according to ESPN front office insider Bobby Marks, and will make the 20 year old a restricted free agent, allowing the Lakers to match any outside offer to retain their former second-round pick.

Los Angeles has early Bird rights and can re-sign Horton-Tucker for a contract that projects to start at $10.4 million, according to Marks. The contract must last at least two seasons.

Horton-Tucker averaged 9.0 points on 45.8% shooting with 2.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.0 steals in more than 20 minutes per game last season.

The Iowa State product made strides in his second year in the league, memorably filling up the box score with 14 points, 11 assists and three steals in a road win over the Brooklyn Nets in April and played 13 games when he scored 15 points or more, during which the Lakers had an 8-5 record.

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