PHOENIX — Last year, guard Isaiah Thomas was toiling in Sacramento for the lowly Kings and center Alex Len played sparingly in 42 games as rookie with Phoenix.
Friday night, the young duo served as a 1-2 punch off the bench to help wear down and finally finish off the San Antonio Spurs with a furious fourth-quarter surge.
Thomas had 18 of his 23 points in the second half and Len had career highs with 10 points and 11 rebounds as the Suns ended the game on a 12-2 run and rallied to beat the Spurs 94-89 and sweep a two-game homestand to open the season.
The Spurs led by as many as 15 points but had only six baskets in an 18-point fourth quarter. Playing without guard Patty Mills and center Tiago Splitter, they ran out of gas late, scoring two points in the final five minutes and couldn’t hold off the young Suns.
“The shots they were making in the first half and the third quarter they weren’t making in the fourth quarter,” said Thomas, who has led the Suns with 23 points in each of the first two games. “The Spurs are an older team and we want to push the pace, especially against them, and play as fast as possible.
Forward Markieff Morris added 20 points and 11 rebounds for the Suns, who were 11-18 against Western Conference playoff teams in last year’s 48-win season that wasn’t good enough to reach the postseason. But their first test this year against the defending NBA champions had an impressive result.
Tony Parker had 19 points for the Spurs and Tim Duncan added 16 points and nine rebounds. Kawhi Leonard, the NBA Finals MVP a year ago and playing for the first time this season, missed all five of his shots from the field and managed six points and eight rebounds in 23 minutes.
“I know we’re supposed to be 82-0 but I’m guessing we’re going to lose some more games before the season is over,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. “I thought the last five minutes their physicality and aggressiveness was great. I thought it forced us into turnovers and bas shots, thus the outcome of the game.”
The Spurs led by five at 87-82 on an Austin Daye 3-pointer with 5:09 left. But the Suns kept pushing the pace and scoring and took their first lead of the game when Thomas finished off a Morris fastbreak pass to make it 88-87 with 3:34 left to play.
Phoenix took their biggest at 92-87 on two great plays by Len, the 7-foot-1 Ukranian who was taken fifth overall in the 2013 draft but played only 362 minutes in his rookie season. Len tipped out an offensive rebound of a Markieff Morris miss to keep a possession alive and then fed Morris for a dunk with 1:09 left to make it 92-87 Suns.
“Coach drew up a play for (Eric Bledsoe) and he passed to me and I saw Markieff’s guy drop down and leave him open,” Len said. “Last year was the toughest year for me in basketball. I wanted to get out there but I couldn’t, so I stayed in the weight room and worked on other stuff. Now I’m healthy and I’m getting comfortable.”
Len had a measure of success in his first meeting against Duncan, a player he had studied carefully.
“I watched a lot of film on Tim Duncan the whole summer.” He said. “He’s one of the best big men to play the game. We wanted to make him shoot contested jump shots.”
The Spurs got back within three on two Manu Ginobili free throws and had a chance to tie the game down three with 6.5 seconds left, but forward Boris Diaw was called for a five-second violation and two Eric Bledsoe free throws with 4.5 seconds left sealed the game.
“We were in a position the whole night, we just didn’t execute down the stretch,” said Duncan who missed both is shots from the field in the final quarter and a pair of free throws with 3:02 left. “That’s the difference in a lot of games. Some great plays by the young kid, Alex Len, good rebounds by him.”
The Suns put up 33 points and hit six 3-pointers in the first quarter of Wednesday’s 119-99 rout of the Los Angeles Lakers, but it was a different story against the Spurs. They missed 13 of 14 shots to end the quarter and the Spurs used an 18-3 run to lead by as many as 15.
Phoenix warmed up and rebounded quickly with a 13-2 run to start the second quarter and eventually tied the game when. Bledsoe hit Len on the fastbreak for a reverse, alley-oop slam to tie the game at 30 with six minutes left in the half. Len had 10 points in 16 first-half minutes.
But the Spurs regained their stagger immediately and stretched their lead to 45-36 at the half. Parker led all scorers with 14 points in the first half and added four assists. The Suns pushed hard again in the third but the Spurs took a 71-67 lead to the fourth quarter when Diaw capped an eight-point quarter by beating the buzzer with a fastbreak layin.
NOTES: The Spurs are still without C Tiago Splitter (calf) and G Patty Mills (shoulder). … F Kawhi Leonard replaced Marco Bellinelli in the starting lineup and C Austin Daye, who did not play in the 101-100 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday, started in place of Matt Bonner. The 16 3-pointers Phoenix made in the 119-99 win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday was the most by a Suns team since they made 17 against Charlotte on Dec. 19, 2012. … G Isaiah Thomas had 23 points in his Phoenix debut against the Lakers, the most by a Sun in his first game since Tom Gugliotta had 24 in the strike-shortened 1999-2000 season. It was the most ever by a Sun who came off the bench in his debut. … F P.J. Tucker served the second his three-game suspension for Phoenix.
Rockets spoil Griffin’s return in testy affair
If James Harden needed any extra motivation against the Los Angeles Clippers, he found it in the first half.
Harden scored 34 points, and the Rockets held on for a 100-98 victory over the Clippers in a sometimes testy affair on Sunday at Staples Center.
Point guard Chris Paul, who finished with 23 points, missed a contested shot at the buzzer that would have forced overtime.
“It was very important for us just to go out there and play well,” said Harden, who hit seven of 16 shots from the floor, three of five from 3-point range and 17 of 18 free throws. “The last two games we kind of struggled a little bit, but we got our pop back a little bit today, and it was a good win for us.”
Harden provided much of that pop, particularly in the second quarter after Clippers forward Matt Barnes was whistled for a flagrant-1 foul after pushing Harden to the court at 6:02. Harden scored 15 of his 18 points in the period after that, leading the Rockets to a 58-50 halftime lead.
Did the flagrant foul add more fuel for the Rockets’ All-Star guard and MVP candidate?
“Yeah. Things like that are fun,” said Harden, who had 24 points in the first half. “We have fun, we got boosted off of that.”
The win ended a two-game skid for the Rockets (44-22). Houston forward Trevor Ariza scored 19 points and grabbed nine rebounds, while forward Terrence Jones added 16 points and 12 boards.
“This was a win that we needed, especially on the road,” Ariza said. “Going into the home stretch, these are the types of games we have to win.”
Los Angeles forward Blake Griffin returned after missing 15 games due to surgery on his right elbow. Griffin had 11 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists, but committed five turnovers in 41 minutes.
“I didn’t think I played well,” said Griffin, who managed 4-of-10 shooting. “I was out of rhythm. Way too many turnovers, obviously.”
Barnes scored 19 points and guard J.J. Redick had 15 for the Clippers (42-24), who fell into a tie for the No. 5 spot in the Western Conference standings with the Dallas Mavericks.
Paul lamented a host of turnovers in the defeat, including a critical one involving center DeAndre Jordan.
“I had some bad turnovers,” said Paul, who committed three of the Clippers’ 20 miscues compared to 13 for the Rockets. “On one, I drove it off DeAndre’s foot, the other one I lost towards the end of the half. We have to take better care of the ball. We still had an opportunity to win, but we just didn’t do it.”
The Clippers came back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit. Paul scored seven straight points, capping it with a 3-point basket to tie the score at 96 with 3:05 left in the game. Houston got a 3-pointer by Jones, but Barnes countered with a basket to keep Los Angeles within 99-98 with 1:35 left. Los Angeles, though, never scored again.
Griffin got a steal as Ariza attempted a pass to Harden, but Ariza drew a charging foul as Griffin bolted to the bucket with 12 seconds remaining. Griffin remained unhappy about the call after the game.
“If I speak on that, I’ll get fined,” Griffin said.
Harden hit one of two foul shots with 8.9 seconds left, capping the scoring before Paul failed to connect on a jumper in the lane with Ariza defending.
The Rockets outscored Los Angeles 36-20 in the second quarter despite making just 38.5 percent of their shots compared to 44.4 percent for the Clippers. Overall, the Clippers hit 43.9 percent to 37.2 percent for the Rockets. They also held an edge in 3-point shooting, converting 12 of 26 attempts to seven of 30 for Houston. The Rockets, though were 29 of 36 from the foul line to 14 of 24 for Los Angeles.
Jordan finished with 20 rebounds and four blocks.
NOTES: F Blake Griffin’s return benefits PG Chris Paul as much as any Clipper. “Teams have been able to trap (Paul) far more than they can when Blake is on the floor because of (Griffin’s) ability to pass,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “I’m sure CP is the happiest of all to have him back.” … Rivers isn’t sure if injured G Jamal Crawford would return before the playoffs. Crawford has missed six games with a right calf contusion. … Rockets C Dwight Howard sat out his 18th game with a right knee edema. “He’s doing everything he can, he’s trying to get better, but until you’re on the floor, it’s impossible to say,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said regarding Howard’s return. … Both clubs resume play Tuesday. Houston hosts the Orlando Magic, while Los Angeles plays the Charlotte Hornets at Staples Center.
NBA notebook: Clippers’ Griffin cleared to return
Los Angeles Clippers power forward Blake Griffin, out the last 15 games with an elbow injury, was cleared to return Sunday against the Houston Rockets.
Griffin had surgery five weeks ago to remove a staph infection in his right elbow.
“He said, ‘I’m ready,'” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said before Sunday’s game. “Yesterday the trainers called me and said, ‘If he can go, he can go. He’s been cleared.'”
Rivers said timing likely will be an adjustment for Griffin.
“Timing is timing,” Rivers said. “You lose it when you don’t play in an NBA game. Sometimes you come back and you play great the first game and then you lose your timing. Sometimes it doesn’t. As far as the way we play, it won’t be hard for him at all.”
In 51 games this season, Griffin is averaging 22.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists.
–Spurs guard Manu Ginobili had to be helped off the floor late in the third quarter against Minnesota on Sunday. Ginobili went down with 43 seconds left in the quarter and with the Spurs leading the Timberwolves by 30 points.
He was helped off the floor and immediately was led to the locker room. He did not put any weight on his right leg as he was carried off the court.
Up to that point, Ginobili had scored 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting in 19 minutes. He battled a stomach illness last week, forcing him to miss a game against Toronto and play limited minutes against Cleveland on March 12.
–Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr sent emails to three fans who were disappointed that he rested several prominent players, including All-Star guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, in Friday’s loss to the Nuggets in Denver.
“There’s two really good sides to the story,” Kerr said, according to the Associated Press report. “Nobody’s wrong here. … I can’t argue with them.”
Kerr received an email from a family that drove from South Dakota to Denver to see Curry, Thompson and the entertaining Warriors play. But Curry, Thompson, center Andrew Bogut and reserve guard Andre Iguodala did not play so they could be rested, and the Warriors lost 114-103.
“I heard from some fans. I received a few emails, stories about driving in from a long distance off and spending a lot of money on tickets,” Kerr said. “I have great sympathy for those people. I really do. It’s a tricky one. It’s something that I think Adam Silver is trying to address through the scheduling shuffling that he’s talking about.
–The Dallas Mavericks recalled center/forward Dwight Powell from the Texas Legends of the NBA Development League on Sunday.
The 6-foot-11, 240-pound Powell played in one game during his most recent assignment to the D-League and finished with 28 points, five rebounds and two assists to lead the Legends in a 115-89 win over the Austin Spurs on Saturday night.
Powell has appeared in 19 games for the Mavericks this season, averaging 3.5 points and 2.2 rebounds in 10.0 minutes per game.
–The Atlanta Hawks signed forward Austin Daye to a 10-day contract Sunday.
Daye appeared in 26 games (four starts) earlier this season with the San Antonio Spurs, averaging 4.0 points and 2.3 rebounds in 10.3 minutes.
In 10 games this season with the Erie BayHawks of the NBA Development League, Daye has averaged 16.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.1 blocks in 28.5 minutes.
–The Miami Heat recalled guard Zoran Dragic from the Sioux Falls Skyforce of the NBA Development League on Sunday.
Zoran appeared in four games (one start) and averaged 16.5 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.50 steals, helping the Skyforce to a 3-1 record over that span.
Ginobili sprains ankle as Spurs rout Timberwolves
SAN ANTONIO — The fourth and final meeting of the season between the San Antonio Spurs and the Minnesota Timberwolves looked a lot like the first three.
Forward Kawhi Leonard scored a team-high 15 points as San Antonio defeated Minnesota 123-97 Sunday night at the AT&T Center. The only downside for the Spurs was losing guard Manu Ginobili due to a sprained right ankle.
Leonard was one of seven San Antonio players to score in double figures as the Spurs (41-24) completed a season sweep of Minnesota (14-51). The average margin of victory in the games as 23.
The Spurs earned their seventh win in eight games.
Guard Kevin Martin scored 19 points and guard Zach LaVine added 18 for the Timberwolves, who were missing many players on the final game of a four-game road trip. Minnesota lost its fourth game in a row.
“We moved (the ball) well, but it wasn’t a fair fight,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. “Their guys are devastated by their injuries, so I thought we had good focus under the circumstances. They still played the right way, so that was the best part of the game.”
The Spurs pulled away in the third quarter behind a 13-0 run. The Wolves only shot 27.3 percent in the third, and the Spurs made 63.6 of their field goals while outscoring Minnesota 33-13 in the period.
“That’s what great teams do,” Martin said. “We knew they were going to do that. Kawhi Leonard had a first half that he probably didn’t want to have, and I’m sure Pop let him know about it. He came out in the second half and changed the whole game.”
Ginobili had to be helped off the court late in the third quarter, and he did not return. He was hurt with 43 seconds left in the quarter and with the Spurs up by 30 points.
Ginobili was taken immediately to the locker room and did not put any weight on his right leg, and he will be out for a to 10 days, Popovich said. Ginobili finished the game with 11 points in 19 minutes.
San Antonio forward Jeff Ayres sustained a rib contusion in the second half and also sat out the rest of the contest.
Sunday night marked the first time San Antonio stepped back on the court since a 128-125 overtime loss to the Cavaliers on Thursday that included a 57-point performance by Cleveland guard Kyrie Irving. The loss snapped the Spurs’ six game winning streak.
Minnesota dressed only eight players. Forward Kevin Garnett (knee), guard Ricky Rubio (ankle) and center Nikola Pekovic (ankle) were all ruled out by coach Flip Saunders before the game.
“It wasn’t a fair fight,” Saunders said. “We just weren’t alert mentally, as far as trying to play. They just mauled us basically.”
The Spurs took advantage of Minnesota’s depleted lineup and jumped out to a quick 8-2 lead behind guard Tony Parker, who made his first four shots of the game and finished the night with 11 points and eight assists. Minnesota trailed 60-50 at halftime.
The Spurs led by as many as 39 points in the fourth quarter.
Even though San Antonio was facing a team without a full complement of players, forward Tim Duncan said the final game of a 5-1 homestand was a sign of good things to come.
“We’re turning that corner,” said Duncan, who finished with 10 points, six rebounds and six assists. “I think we’re heading the right direction. The huge loss last game, I felt like we gave that one away. But other than that, we’re on the right track.”
San Antonio will hit the road for back-to-back games in New York on Tuesday and in Milwaukee on Wednesday. The Timberwolves head home to face the Brooklyn Nets on Monday night.
NOTES: San Antonio moved percentage points ahead of the Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Clippers for fifth place in the Western Conference standings. The Clippers lost Sunday, while the Mavericks were idle. … Minnesota F Kevin Garnett (knee) missed his fourth game in a row. … Spurs G Manu Ginobili was back in action against Minnesota after battling a stomach illness that caused him to miss the team’s game against Toronto on Tuesday and play less than 10 minutes against Cleveland on Thursday.