PHOENIX — The Los Angeles Lakers‘ repeat title hopes are on life support after Tuesday’s 115-85 shellacking by the Phoenix Suns in Game 5 of their Western Conference first-round series, putting L.A. one loss away from elimination.
“We’ll find out what we’re made of and we’ll find out how bad we want this,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said afterward when asked how his team will respond in Game 6.
With Anthony Davis sidelined with a strained groin, the Suns used a 16-0 run in the first quarter to take control of the game and kept the floodgates open from there.
The Lakers were outscored 32-10 in the second quarter and trailed 66-36 at the half. The 30-point margin represented the largest halftime deficit of LeBron James‘ postseason career and the second-largest halftime deficit in the playoff history of the Lakers franchise.
It is also the first time in James’ career that his team has lost two consecutive games in a first-round series. His 14-0 record in first-round playoff series is in peril, unless L.A. can win two consecutive games to close things out, starting with Game 6 on Thursday at Staples Center.
“We got our ass kicked. It’s just that simple,” James said. “They got to whatever they wanted to get to in this game. We got to be better, obviously, if we want to force a Game 7.”
As significant a challenge the seventh-seeded Lakers are now facing against the second-seeded Suns, they do have James on their side, whose 33.7 points per game average in postseason elimination games is the highest in NBA history.
“I mean, it’s literally win or go home at that point,” James said when asked what has allowed him to consistently perform in that scenario. “So, you shoot all the bullets you got and throw the gun, too. So, I look forward to the environment.
“Obviously our Laker faithful are going to give us a lot of energy, and I look forward to the moment, look forward to the challenge, and we’ll see if it brings out the best in me and my teammates.”
On Tuesday, the Lakers were at their worst. The game was out of reach before halftime, as the Suns opened the second quarter with a 21-2 spurt to pile on their eight-point lead after the first.
“They just took the fight to us, man,” said Markieff Morris, who started in Davis’ place but finished the night with just four points and one rebound in 10 minutes. “I feel like we started the game off a little hesitant. We needed everybody to be aggressive without AD in the game. I feel like we were really passive early on. I feel like we weren’t attacking them. They were attacking us.”
By the time the second quarter was over, the blowout was in full effect, with Devin Booker already single-handedly outscoring the Lakers’ starters 22-16; Phoenix outrebounding L.A. 23-18; the Lakers coughing up eight turnovers, leading to 15 Phoenix points (compared to just one turnover for the Suns); and L.A. shooting 3-for-15 from 3-point range (20%) compared with Phoenix shooting 8-for-18 (44.4%).
James finished with 24 points on 9-for-19 shooting (6-for-10 from 3) and seven assists, scoring 17 of those points in the third quarter when he played all but 17 seconds, and L.A. outscored the Suns 27-26. James and the rest of the Lakers’ first unit did not play in the fourth.
James and Davis didn’t even finish the game on the bench, heading to the locker room to begin their treatment about midway through the final quarter.
“What was going through my mind was, ‘They’re kicking our ass,'” James said when asked what he and Davis were thinking as the final minutes ticked off the clock while they were in the locker room. “But at the end of the day, it’s one game. It’s one game, and they did what they were supposed to do. They held serve at home, and we go back and we have an opportunity to even the series back out again. That was really the two things that were going on in my mind.”
Outside of James, many of the Lakers struggled mightily. Dennis Schroder went 0-for-9 (0-for-4 from 3) for zero points, while Kentavious Caldwell-Pope missed the only shot he took in 15 minutes of action before his sore left knee ended his night prematurely. Alex Caruso, Wesley Matthews and Ben McLemore combined to shoot 3-for-18.
“I don’t even if I know if I’m watching film on that one,” Schroder said. “I think we got to flush that one, stay positive and be better in Game 6.”
Morris, on the other hand, believed that a film session will be necessary in L.A.’s game prep for Thursday.
“I think we got to watch the tape because the tape doesn’t lie,” he said. “It’s going to show our [lack of a] sense of urgency … [us] not caring, our lack of fight. … I think we need to show that, just to know that the next game we play like this, this s— is over. All we worked for, all we’ve been through all year, it’s over. I think we have to, just to put it in our heads, that this is it.
“There’s no more. If we lose another one, talking about what we could have did, what we should’ve done. This is it.”
L.A. will look to avoid becoming the sixth defending champ in league history to lose in the first round of the playoffs the next season — a group that includes the 2015 Spurs, 2012 Mavericks, 2007 Heat, 2000 Spurs and 1984 76ers.
The Lakers don’t know whether they’ll have Davis back from his groin injury in Game 6, either. James said he is approaching Thursday as if he won’t have Davis on the court.
“My mindset is that he’s not gonna be able to play in Game 6. That’s my mindset,” James said. “And if something changes, then we go from there. But I’m preparing as if he’s not.”
Asked what gives his team confidence that the Lakers can extend the series, considering the Suns seemingly have all the momentum at the moment, Kyle Kuzma was succinct.
“I think just we got our ass kicked. We got disrespected out there,” he said. “So I think that should be enough to give us some.”
Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley to miss Game 2 vs. LA Clippers
Conley, 33, an All-Star for the first time this season, has missed significant time because of injuries to both hamstrings during his two seasons in Utah. He missed six games in February and nine games in late April and May due to tightness in his right hamstring.
Conley averaged 17.4 points and 8.6 assists for the top-seeded Jazz in the first round.
ESPN’s Tim MacMahon contributed to this report.
USA Basketball sets plan for Olympic camps in Las Vegas
For USA Basketball, the last stop before the Tokyo Olympics will be Las Vegas.
The men’s and women’s national teams will hold training camps in Las Vegas in July, they announced Thursday, and they’ll be playing seven exhibitions there against other Olympics-bound national teams as well.
USA Basketball will open its men’s training camp, led by coach Gregg Popovich, in Las Vegas on July 6. The Olympic men’s teams from Australia, Nigeria, Argentina and reigning Basketball World Cup champion Spain will also be spending some time in Las Vegas; Argentina will start its training camp there this month.
The U.S. women’s training camp under coach Dawn Staley will likely open around July 12; the WNBA break for the Olympics starts after the games of July 11. The Olympic women’s teams joining the U.S. in Las Vegas are Australia and Nigeria.
It’ll all take place at the MGM Resorts, which was announced as USA Basketball’s training camp home and resorts partner with the sides having now agreed to a multi-year sponsorship deal.
“USA Basketball is proud to expand its partnership with MGM Resorts,” USA Basketball CEO Jim Tooley said. “We’re excited to bring our national teams to their properties as we prepare for the challenging competition that lies ahead this summer.”
The U.S. men are seeking a fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal, the U.S. women their seventh in a row. Both will enter the Olympics ranked No. 1 by FIBA, the sport’s international governing body — though it remains unknown who the Americans will have on their rosters for the rescheduled Tokyo Games.
Those rosters could be set by the end of June. Some top NBA players such as Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, Kawhi Leonard of the LA Clippers and Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers have expressed some interest in being part of the Olympic team; others, such as LeBron James and Anthony Davis — Los Angeles Lakers teammates who were dealing with injuries when their season ended last week — are not planning to join the team.
All teams in Las Vegas will be taking part in what USA Basketball described as “comprehensive health and safety protocols … including mandatory and regular COVID-19 PCR testing, administered to athletes, coaches, officials and staff in accordance with FIBA and USA Basketball recommendations and CDC guidelines.”
Those concerns are why the international teams opted to spend time in Las Vegas. Argentina’s men’s team is conducting the entirety of its three-week camp there before flying to Tokyo, simply because it believes a controlled environment and less traveling between different countries will minimize virus-related risks before the Olympics.
“We were lucky and, at the same time, we deserved it to get an organization like USA Basketball to extend this invitation to us,” Argentina coach Sergio Hernandez said. “In such a complicated context it doesn’t get better than this.”
The games are set up as part of five doubleheaders, and fans will be able to attend the matchups at MGM’s Michelob Ultra Arena. Tickets go on sale next week.
July 10 — U.S. men vs. Nigeria, Argentina vs. Australia
July 12 — Argentina vs. Nigeria, U.S. men vs. Australia
July 13 — U.S. men vs. Argentina, Australia vs. Nigeria
July 16 — U.S. women vs. Australia, U.S. men vs. Australia
July 18 — U.S. women vs. Nigeria, U.S. men vs. Spain
The Nigeria-U.S. women’s game will be a prequel to the teams’ Olympic meeting on July 27 in Tokyo, the first game there for both of those teams. Nigeria and the U.S. are both in Group B at the Olympics, along with Japan and France.
The Australia-Nigeria men’s game is also the warmup for an Olympics-opening matchup. They’ll play in a Group B game on July 25.
The men’s teams from Spain and Argentina — the teams that played in the World Cup final at Beijing in 2019 — are both in Group C for the Olympics. They’ll both spend some time in Las Vegas but are not scheduled to face off there before flying to Japan.
Las Vegas will see the top four men’s teams in the FIBA rankings there for the exhibitions: The U.S. is No. 1, Spain No. 2, Australia No. 3 and Argentina No. 4. Nigeria is ranked No. 22.
The U.S. women also hold the No. 1 FIBA ranking, and their July 16 opponent Australia is ranked No. 2 in the world. Nigeria’s women are ranked No. 17.
Phoenix Suns’ Chris Paul ‘makes it look normal’ after notching 15 assists, zero turnovers in win vs. Denver Nuggets
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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