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Boston Celtics to face elimination without Kemba Walker, Robert Williams vs. Brooklyn Nets

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NEW YORK — Guard Kemba Walker and center Robert Williams have been ruled out of Tuesday’s Game 5 of the Boston Celtics‘ first-round series with the Brooklyn Nets, coach Brad Stevens said.

Stevens told reporters in his pregame availability that Walker continues to be sore but that Williams has showed slight improvements.

Boston trails the series 3-1, after the Celtics — minus Walker and Williams — lost Game 4 at home 141-126 on Sunday night.

Walker is dealing with a bone bruise in his left knee that he suffered in Game 2. Williams left Game 3 with a sprained left ankle and has been dealing with turf toe for several weeks.

Their absence was felt Sunday night, as the Celtics struggled despite a 40-point performance from Jayson Tatum.

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Phoenix Suns’ Chris Paul ‘makes it look normal’ after notching 15 assists, zero turnovers in win vs. Denver Nuggets

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It had been seven years since a player had a game in the postseason with 15 assists and no turnovers, but Chris Paul accomplished the feat on Wednesday as the Phoenix Suns routed the Denver Nuggets 123-98 to take a 2-0 series lead.

The last player to post a 15-to-0 assist-to-turnover ratio in a playoff game? Paul, in 2014, with the LA Clippers.

“Guys are open. I got the easy part. All I got to do is find them,” said Paul, who had 17 points. “They got to make the shots. It’s a credit to our coaching staff to tell you the truth. Things we’ve drilled all season long, it’s nice to see it come into play in game form, especially in the playoffs.”

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Paul had the 10th playoff game with 15 assists and zero turnovers since assists were tracked in 1977-78. And Paul has accounted for three of those games himself.

“Obviously 15 assists, zero turnovers is unheard of,” Devin Booker said, “but for Chris Paul, it’s a thing that he does, and makes it look normal.”

In the two games in the series, Paul has 26 assists to just one turnover. Going back to his last three playoff games, that ratio gets even more ridiculous, sitting at 38-2. He’s the first player with 10 or more assists and one or fewer assists in three straight playoff games since Maurice Cheeks in 1989.

The Suns showcased their impressive balance with six players in double-figures, including all five starters. But even with 123 points, no player scored more than 18 (Booker). It was a clinic in distribution, particularly in a raucous second half, as Paul carved the Nuggets, finding efficient possessions nearly every trip down the floor. In Game 2, the Suns shot 15-of-24 off Paul passes. Of the 15 makes, 11 were uncontested looks.

“I’m telling you man, I’ve never been on a team quite like this where everybody can shoot it the way that they do,” Paul said. “You don’t have to try to find a certain guy.”

Like in Game 1, Paul found his spots to assert himself offensively, too, hitting a flurry of shots early in the fourth quarter as the Suns put the game away. It’s one of Paul’s many rare talents, an ability to sense moments and pick his spots to attack the game himself, or get teammates involved.

When Paul joined the surging young Suns in the offseason, there was a lot of talk about his role as a mentor, as a leader, as a culture cultivator. At age 36 and plenty of tread on his tires, Paul’s cerebral presence was thought to be something that could boost the Suns just as much as his play. But as he’s shown this postseason, there’s still plenty left in the tank.

“I would never doubt Chris,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “His ability to manage the team, his track record, has success all over it and everywhere he’s been he’s been successful. He works his tail off and yeah, he’s 36 years old but he’s doing a lot of stuff off the floor so he can be effective on the floor.”

The series now turns to Denver, where the Nuggets are desperate for a response. Paul has been using his experience as a motivator, recounting the 2007-08 second-round series against the San Antonio Spurs where the New Orleans Pelicans took a 2-0 series lead, winning the opening two games by a combined 37 points.

“We’re cool. We’re cool. We’ve got a great locker room, guys that understand the moment. A guy like Jae Crowder, who’s been to the Finals,” Paul said. “I’ve played a lot too. I’m always talking about 2007-08, we played against the Spurs when I was in New Orleans and we won the first two games, beat the brakes off of ’em. I remember looking over there at Tim [Duncan] and all them and they weren’t fazed. It was just one game. That’s what we talk about as a team too. It’s just one game.”

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NBA playoffs 2021 – Chris Paul couldn’t have drawn up a better scenario for the Phoenix Suns

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Chris Paul plans.

He planned when he forced a trade out of New Orleans a decade ago. He planned when he creatively leveraged a contract option to get himself to Houston. He planned when he helped change an arcane age rule in the collective bargaining agreement that enabled him the chance to earn tens of millions in extra salary.

Even in the moments after Paul’s Phoenix Suns finished a 125-98 thrashing of the Denver Nuggets to take a 2-0 series lead, Paul was planning. In the locker room, knowing the Nuggets twice came back last season from 3-1 deficits, he was getting his teammates to think about Game 3 on Friday night in Denver. Paul told stories of going up 2-0 against the San Antonio Spurs in 2008 while with New Orleans, only to eventually lose in seven games.

But even on his most rosy drawing board, he probably couldn’t have seen the situation that is unfolding.

The Suns have won five straight playoff games and, with each victory, appear to be getting stronger. His long-time adversaries are falling off the board. Stephen Curry is home. LeBron James is home. Injuries are mounting across the league and this time the one Paul had in the playoffs, his shoulder stinger that almost wrecked this run before it started, seems to be healed.

The Suns are healthy and playing brilliantly as a group. In both games of the second round, five players have scored in double figures.

People around the league are starting to talk about how this might be Paul’s best shot ever at a Finals. It might be premature to say that considering his Houston Rockets team was up 3-2 on the Golden State Warriors in the conference finals before a hamstring pull sidelined him three years ago.

But after the routine disappointments with the LA Clippers and the letdowns and near misses in Houston, this rising Suns streak feels like the most unexpected playoff situation of Paul’s career.

“I’m telling you,” Paul said after scoring 17 points with 15 assists and no turnovers in Game 2. “I really haven’t been on a team quite like this one.”

Working with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Paul had several hopes when picking a trade destination last offseason. He wanted to be close to his family in Los Angeles, be in good weather and have a shot at playing next to a star; he would have that in Devin Booker. Represented by the same agency, Booker was desperate to get some help. “I’m done with not making the playoffs,” Booker said three years ago after a 21-61 season. “I’m serious.”

After going a perfect 8-0 in Orlando to narrowly miss the playoffs in 2020, the Suns were upwardly mobile — but they were not seen as real contenders. Different people in their fanbase and organization may have jumped to that conclusion as this special season unfolded, but now that it’s actually happening, Paul is basking in the position he’s found himself in.

Booker has been the star he believed in, his 47-point closeout game to knock out the champion Lakers being the gem so far. Paul can’t believe how effective his teammates are at shooting, with Jae Crowder, Mikal Bridges, Dario Saric, Cam Johnson and Cameron Payne lighting up the opposition from outside.

Paul, who was the centerpiece of Lob City with the Clippers and on an offensive juggernaut in Houston, says he’s never seen anything like it.

“Everybody shoots,” Paul said. “You don’t have to try to find a certain guy. Everybody [on our team] are knock down shooters.”

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Chris Paul connects with Deandre Ayton for a roaring two-handed slam.

During the five-game winning streak Paul has 53 assists and four turnovers. That’s 53-4. With his shoulder better — he couldn’t even attempt long shots for several games in the last round — he’s made 14-of-24 shots and 4-of-5 3-pointers in this series. His two 3s Wednesday were fourth-quarter daggers.

“He manages games better than anybody I’ve ever been around,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “It’s not something I take for granted, it’s not something our team takes for granted.”

It is dangerous to think this fairy tale will continue, Paul’s playoff career is one long string of unexpected setbacks. But it’s also human nature to watch him, at age 36, and wonder whether there is some bit of karma heading his direction.

Outwardly Paul will not allow it, he has literally done dozens of commercials about insurance covering unexpected disasters. But inwardly he probably can see the road ahead and start to feel some warmth.

“We’re cool,” Paul said. “We have guys who understand the moment.”

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Denver Nuggets’ Michael Malone on blowout Game 2 loss

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Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone said he felt his team “quit” in Wednesday night’s 123-98 loss to the Phoenix Suns in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals.

“I felt we quit tonight, which is something you never want to see,” Malone said. “So I guess for Game 3, I’m just going to try to find guys that will at least go out there and leave it all on the line. I may have a hard time coming up with five guys that fill that, but these two games, these second halves have really been disappointing, and that’s an understatement.”

For the second straight game, the Suns dominated the Nuggets in the second half, outscoring Denver 72-56 and running away down the stretch. It was a performance that left Malone and his team searching for answers as the group heads back to Denver for Game 3 on Friday night.

“I saw one team that wanted to be here, that played with a purpose and urgency, and one team that did not want to be here and played with no urgency,” Malone said. “And that’s why we got our ass kicked. … We had a lot of guys play really bad tonight. And then we allowed the impact of not making the shot to affect the other end, and it was really — this was just an embarrassing performance all the way around, top to bottom.”

Freshly minted league MVP Nikola Jokic also expressed disappointment in his team’s performance, but he pushed back on the notion that some players quit on Wednesday night.

“I don’t think so that guys quit,” Jokic said. “When you’re losing a lot, you can always kind of put your head down. … But I’m not sure that we quit. I didn’t quit.”

Nuggets guard Will Barton, who returned to the lineup for the first time since suffering a hamstring injury on April 23, said that some players spoke up after Wednesday night’s loss, but he declined to go into specifics about what was said.

“I won’t get into it, but some things were definitely said, some things that needed to be said, but all that is irrelevant,” Barton said. “We got to go on the court, Game 3, and play like we know how we need to play and win.”

Malone pointed out Barton’s performance, 10 points in 16 minutes, as another way to explain the disappointment he felt in the rest of his team.

“That was probably the only silver lining to a really rough night all the way around, was Will Barton, who hasn’t played in over seven weeks, in his first game goes out there, gives you 10 and three … and he hated me when I took him out because he had reached his minute restriction, I understand that,” Malone said. “I just told our players it’s embarrassing that a guy that hasn’t been able to play for seven weeks was out there leaving it all on the line, and I don’t think anybody else did.”

Aside from the disappointment he felt in his players for the way they performed, Malone also took part of the blame. He said the entire team will have to quickly change its mentality to get back into the series.

“This was an embarrassing performance from myself all the way through the last player,” Malone said. “We’re walking out of here with our heads held down, rightfully so. And there’s a reason that their crowd is yelling ‘Suns in 4!’ and they’re calling for a sweep. Because if we play like this back in Denver, this is going to be a really quick series.”

Malone also noted that his team can’t lull itself into believing that things will turn around Friday night just because the Nuggets are headed back home. He was particularly disgusted with the way he felt his team lollygag at times when the Suns started to pull away.

“Literally, I saw guys say, ‘Hey, I’m not making shots tonight. I’m just going to walk around and mope. And my body language is going to be poor,'” Malone said. “And I felt that was the five guys on the court, that was the 12 guys on the sideline. We had no juice, no energy, no passion, no fight, no urgency, no grit, whatever adjective you want to use, we did not have it.

“And you can’t use, ‘Hey, we’re going home for Game 3,’ as something you can rely upon. We have a great crowd, but if we play like this, they’re going to boo us off the court, and rightfully so.”

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