Before the Phoenix Suns' Thursday night matchup with the Western Conference-leading Oklahoma City Thunder, Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic spoke with multiple members of Jeff Hornacek's remarkable team about the individual and collective improvements that have propelled the Suns, who were picked by many to contend for the league's worst record, into the thick of the Western Conference playoff chase. Shooting guard Gerald Green downplayed his own leap forward.
“I still feel like I’ve got a lot to learn and a lot to prove," he told Coro. "I still have so much that could get better.”
He took the next step toward proving it Thursday, turning in a career-best performance that breathed life into a reeling Suns team, totally turned the game around and helped Phoenix earn perhaps its best win of the season.
Green scored 41 points — not only a career-high, but also the highest single-game NBA total by anyone who has played in the D-League — on 12 of 22 shooting, including an 8 for 13 mark from 3-point range, to go with five rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block in 41 minutes of play. Twenty-five of those points came during the third quarter, as Green scorched his way to a 7 for 11 mark, making 6 of 7 3-pointers and hitting 5 of 6 free throws; he scored 14 points in the final 3:03 of the frame, which saw the Suns turn a 16-point deficit into a three-point lead heading into the fourth.
The game remained tight late, thanks to Russell Westbrook (who scored 13 of his 36 points in the fourth quarter) and Kevin Durant (seven of his 34). But rising star point guard Goran Dragic combined with the frontcourt tandem of twins Markieff and Marcus Morris to score Phoenix's final 12 points and push the Suns to a 128-122 win that was equal parts impressive, as Phoenix beat the best team in the West without still-injured star Eric Bledsoe, starting center Miles Plumlee and reserve guard Leandro Barbosa, and important, as it moved Phoenix a half-game ahead of the Dallas Mavericks into the seventh seed in the Western Conference.
The Suns did all that by relying on a guy on his seventh team in a seven-year NBA career that was interrupted by a two-season stint in Russia to go toe-to-toe and shot-for-shot with two All-NBA scorers. It worked, in part, because Green's never viewed himself as that kind of also-ran journeyman. From Coro:
“I’m not trying to be selfish, but I want it every time,” Green said. “I’m not afraid to take big shots. I’m not afraid to take any type of shots. I want to embrace those shots. I don’t think I’ve earned to do that yet. I’m still trying to prove myself to this team and this league. Every day, I’m still trying to get better."
Green came within one 3-pointer of tying the franchise record for made 3s in a game (nine by Channing Frye and Quentin Richardson) and did tie Shannon Brown’s franchise record for 3s in a quarter (six) in the third quarter. Green scored 25 third-quarter points, also coming within a point of that franchise record set in 2002 by Stephon Marbury (26 vs. San Antonio). [...]
Green said at one point he heard Suns coach Jeff Hornacek yelling, “Shoot it!” before he caught a pass in transition.
“I felt like everything I shot was going in,” Green said.
All that confidence — that coach Hornacek has in him, that he has in himself — has manifested in a campaign that has some discussing the 28-year-old Green among the leading contenders for the league's Most Improved Player Award. Coming into this season, Green had posted three 30-plus-point games in 272 NBA contests over the span of six years. Thursday's was his fourth of this season, in 60 games. The 41-point career-high surpasses his previous career high of 36, set less than two weeks ago in a win over the Denver Nuggets.
Given a chance to play a major role at the two-guard with Bledsoe sidelined by right knee surgery and a steady diet of shots — especially from beyond the arc, where he's pulling the trigger nearly eight times per 36 minutes of action — Green has responded. He's shooting 38 percent from deep, which makes the volume of those attempts go down quite a bit easier, while using the respect he's gained as a jump-shooter to his advantage when it's time to blow past a too-close defender on his way to the rack, where he's still showcasing his springs on a nightly basis:
He's still an iffy defender prone to getting lost off the ball, and he's still not an exceedingly reliable secondary ball-handler and playmaker, but he's taken strides in those areas while doing the main things asked of him — hit catch-and-shoot jumpers (15th in the league in points scored on such shots, according to NBA.com's SportVU player tracking data) and use your quickness and explosiveness to be a monster in transition and in finding daylight off screens (1.24 points per possession and 1.19 points per possession, respectively, according to Synergy Sports Technology). He's been extra sharp of late, too, entering Thursday's action averaging nearly 21 points and five rebounds on 46/40/86 shooting splits over his past 12 games.
Green's in a big-time groove right about now, and the Thunder didn't do very much to get him out of it on Thursday, as their head coach told Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman:
“He had an amazing game,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “He’s having an amazing year. He’s very athletic. Give him and their coaching staff a lot of credit. He has really taken his game to another level. He’s a knockdown 3-point shooter. We couldn’t control him, and we have to do a better job with that.”
Don't beat yourself up too much, Scott — apparently, not even Green's own coach knew he had that in him.
"We knew he could shoot the ball. But we didn't anticipate the way he can get hot and make shots," Hornacek said, according to Mike Tulumello of NBA.com. "There's not many guys who can get on a roll like that."
Apparently, Gerald Green is one of them. Not bad for a guy who was out of the league two years ago, huh?
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On Sunday, on a nationally televised stage no less, the New York Knicks were handed a miserable defeat by the Chicago Bulls. Chicago raced out to an early advantage, topping the Knicks by 25 points just two minutes into the second quarter, utilizing excellent execution, heady play, and incessant activity to easily down the Knicks despite (say it with me) playing without Derrick Rose and the traded Luol Deng. Bulls center Joakim Noah, who could have been a New York Knick had it not been for the 2005 Eddy Curry deal, dismantled the Knicks with his pinpoint passing, on his way to a triple double with 14 assists, 12 rebounds, and 13 points.
Chicago also limited Knicks All-Star Carmelo Anthony to a relatively pedestrian 21 points. It was the second straight downer of a game for Carmelo, who missed 19 of 26 shots in a loss on Friday against Golden State, following a good month and a half of MVP-level play in the face of his team’s woes. Because all the storylines were in place – the overachieving Bulls downing the glazed-over Knicks featuring a center and coach that could have been New York’s, taking on a player in Anthony that could leave money on the table to join a winner in Chicago this summer – the press was allowed to glom onto several chewy talking points.
Anthony, more than anyone, is used to this. This is why he called the loss “embarrassing” following the game, while continually (and genuinely) pointing out that he has absolutely no clue as to how his likely 2014 free agent turn will play out.
What he probably didn’t know, in the hours before the early game, was that his former Denver Nuggets coach George Karl had decided to go on record in Anthony’s hometown paper of record about how Carmelo doesn’t stack up to some of the NBA’s great all-time chest beaters. Karl, in talking with the New York Times’ Harvey Araton, dropped this about his former star:
“There’s no question that he wants to win and his I.Q. for the game is actually very good,” Karl said. “He always wants to think like a coach, but he always doesn’t want to sign the contract with the coach.”
Asked what he meant by that, Karl said: “I think Melo respected me and I think he respects Mike Woodson. But I don’t think Melo understands that coming to work with the best attitude every single day is a precious commodity when you’re the best player. That’s not the same thing as playing hard. That’s bringing the total package, 100 percent focused on all the little things. Those are rare breeds. Kevin Garnett. Michael Jordan. LeBron didn’t always have it, but he has it now.
“Melo doesn’t get an A in that department — maybe not much more than a B-minus. It is, in a sense, the A.A.U. mind-set: We worked hard yesterday, maybe we can take a day off today. That’s why he really needs that player — the point guard or someone who takes on that role — to be the bridge from the coach to him.”
It’s important to remember that Carmelo Anthony last played for George Karl some 37 months ago. There’s a very good possibility that Anthony loafed his way through Karl’s practices in Denver, a very anti-Jordan thing to do in a league that has been about 99 percent free of Jordan- types for the last six or so decades, but for the last two seasons Carmelo Anthony has absolutely brought it.
In many ways, the Anthony that forced his way to New York in 2011 was an overrated star, a guy who scored quite a bit and did little else, leading to consistent Player Efficiency Ratings in the “nice, but no LeBron” 20 or 21-range. That number has shot way up over the last two seasons, he carried the Knicks to 54 wins this season, and he’s done all he can this season for a Knicks roster and franchise that has failed him.
It’s not Anthony’s fault that Tyson Chandler doesn’t come close to resembling the 2011-12 NBA Defensive Player of the Year. It’s not his fault Amar’e Stoudemire can barely do anything but hit flat-footed jumpers, that Raymond Felton’s brain and gut are out of shape, and that ancient types like the waived Metta World Peace and the injured Kenyon Martin are just about done. It’s partially his fault that the Knicks dealt Denver a massive collection of assets and draft picks for his services in 2011, even knowing that they could sign him outright as a free agent the next offseason, but that’s on owner James Dolan.
Piling on Carmelo Anthony at his lowest ebb is a pretty weak move by Karl, a coach who clashed often with Anthony through the years in Denver, with musings probably partially in reaction to Anthony forcing his way out of Karl’s team with a non-demand trade demand in 2010-11. Sadly, as we’ve seen dating back to the 1980s, this isn’t exactly out of step with Karl’s character, either. The man hasn’t had many kind things to say about any of his previous stops – his ongoing feuds with several players, owners, and general managers puts just about any coach in league history to shame.
Carmelo Anthony will not be worth the massive contract New York will offer him this summer. I think he’s been an overrated disappointment for most of his career, prior to 2012-13, and as a Chicago Bulls fan, I don’t know if I’d want him on my favorite team.
Here’s the problem, though. Some guys are just Dominique Wilkins. Some guys are just great scorers and good rebounders. That doesn’t mean Dominique wasn’t thrashing around in every practice, going all out every time the coach rolled the balls out, it just means that not everyone has the all-around gifts that a Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, or LeBron James has. Those guys could pass, with ease, and there is a difference between an unwilling passer (your typical, selfish chucker) and a passer without confidence in his passes. Some guys just don’t see the court like top-tier stars do.
Anthony isn’t a top-tier star, despite that maximum contract, and despite that lone MVP vote from last season. He’s a step below LeBron and Kevin Durant, and at some point we have to stop chalking that up to some fault of Carmelo Anthony. At some point, can’t we just let Carmelo Anthony be this really good player, full stop?
He’s a really good player on a bad team, in what will probably be his best season at age 29, and he’ll probably be talked into returning to that bad team after the Knicks offer a ridiculous contract this summer, when James Dolan points out that they may have cap space to waste in the summer of 2015. And for the next five seasons after this one Carmelo Anthony will decline, he will probably play for more bad teams under the leadership of James Dolan, he will probably attempt to force a trade, and he will no doubt be raked over the coals endlessly by the media, fans, and ex-coaches while making more money than anyone else in this league.
That’s his choice, and it’s an understandable one: Anthony would have to leave an ungodly amount of money on the table in order to finagle a move to a team like Chicago this summer, and Anthony can talk himself into the idea that even a dolt like Dolan can potentially leave well enough alone to possibly let the Basketball Guys do their work and create a good New York Knick team in 2015.
From now until that decision, Anthony will just have to deal with the slings and arrows, while missing the playoffs for the first time in his career. No, he’s not Michael Jordan, or Kevin Garnett – but few are, and even all-around MVP-types like MJ and KG would have a devil of a time trying to do something with this roster. It’s true that Jordan and Garnett would have probably stuffed J.R. Smith in a locker by now, but even that wouldn’t have helped toward The Crusade For .500 all that much.
It takes quite a bit to force us into a defense of the merits of Carmelo Anthony, but here we are. The guy may not have taken advantage of his gifts as an all-around player and team leader over the first chunk of his career, but it’s hard to find fault in his most recent approach, with this most embarrassing of teams.
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