NBA

Suns coach Monty Williams grateful to share 'career highlight' with Chris Paul

By Sports Desk June 14, 2021

Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams is grateful to have shared a career highlight with Chris Paul after securing a place in the Western Conference Finals.

Second-seeded Suns beat the Denver Nuggets 125-118 on Sunday to seal a 4-0 series win in the Western Conference semi-finals, with newly crowned MVP Nikola Jokic ejected for a flagrant 2 foul in the third quarter.

Vital for the Suns were the contributions of Paul and Devin Booker, who accounted for 71 of their total points – the former top-scoring with 37.

Williams wrapped Paul in a warm hug at the end, the two sharing a bond from their days working together at the New Orleans Pelicans.

Paul was also there for Williams when the coach lost his wife in 2016, and for the latter, the current successes mean that much more when shared with someone so important.

"The emotions are happy, grateful, tired, relieved," Williams said. "It's one of those moments for me that quite frankly I never thought I'd have a chance to experience. For me, I have a level of gratitude I can't even explain."

He added: "Chris has meant so much to my career, he's meant so much to my life. The darkest moment of my life Chris was right there and one of the highlights of my career, he's right there.

"That's where it is right now. I'm not really good at waxing eloquent about how I feel other than just telling you I just feel grateful for this opportunity and to be on this team and in this moment and have a chance to move forward."

The feeling was mutual for Paul, who was similarly delighted to be on such a road with Williams given their close bond.

"Monty has been through things in his life that a lot of people don't necessarily come back from," Paul said.

"Basketball aside, he means so much to me and my family. So, to be on this journey with him and to see it paying off is nice.

"We're a lot alike. We stay locked in. I don't feel good until the buzzer sounds. Monty's the same way. When the series is over, and the game is over, it's nice to share those moments."

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    "Trust the Process", but for how long?

    That mantra – after tanking out and starting from the bottom eight years ago – has become synonymous with the team's culture and identity since former 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie started a drastic rebuild of Philadelphia's roster and psyche in 2013.

    The long-term vision, in pursuit of a first NBA championship since 1983, has delivered All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, however the 76ers have not progressed beyond the Eastern Conference semi-finals.

    Doc Rivers was brought in to replace Brett Brown and deliver the long-awaited title, yet the same old issues and questions remain after the top-seeded 76ers were sensationally eliminated by the fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks in the second round.

    While Embiid narrowly missed out on the MVP award, Philadelphia's latest failure has only amplified pressure on shot-shy Simmons amid growing speculation over his future at Wells Fargo Center following a forgettable playoff campaign.

    With president of basketball operations Daryl Morey tasked with turning the contenders into champions, will he blow it all up or run it back in 2021-22

    Embiid excels but there's more to come from Philly's unofficial MVP

    His own harshest critic, Embiid sets the bar high, demanding the absolute best from himself and the 76ers in pursuit of a coveted championship. A cornerstone of the franchise, the 27-year-old soared to new heights in 2020-21, leading Philly to their first Eastern Conference title since 2000-01.

    A knee injury proved costly in the MVP race; he finished second to Denver Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic. If he had featured in another 10-15 games, Embiid may have become the first 76ers player since Allen Iverson 20 years ago to be crowned Most Valuable Player. Accolade or not, there was no denying Embiid's impact on his team and the league last season.

    Embiid's improvement was evident as he went from averaging 23.0 points per game in 2019-20 to 28.5 this time around. His +5.5 increase ranks sixth all-time among All-Star centers for largest increase in points per game from one season to the next, only behind Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain (+12.0 with the Philadelphia Warriors in 1962), Jokic (+6.5 in 2021), David Robinson (+6.4 with the San Antonio Spurs in 1994), Los Angeles Lakers great Shaquille O'Neal (+5.9 with the Orlando Magic in 1994) and Patrick Ewing (+5.9 with the New York Knicks in 1990).

    Embiid posted impressive numbers for field-goal percentage (51.3), three-point percentage (37.7 which increased to 39.0 in the playoffs) and free-throw percentage (85.9), as well averaging 10.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists (which improved to 3.4 in the postseason).

    Only scoring leader Stephen Curry (32.0), Bradley Beal (31.3) and Damian Lillard (28.8) – all guards – averaged more points per game than Embiid.

     

    The heart and soul of this Philly team, it is clear when Embiid steps onto the court. In 2020-21, the 76ers held a 45-17 win-loss record with their big man involved but that 72.6 winning percentage dropped to 50.0 without him as they slumped to 11-11.

    Philadelphia regressed in almost every single category in Embiid's absence – points per game (115.4 to 110.2), field-goal percentage (48.6 to 46.1), three-point percentage (38.7 to 34.9), assists per game (24.3 to 22.7), blocks per game (6.3 to 6.0) and fast-break points (15.6 to 13.4). At the other end of the floor, rival teams benefited as their points per game (107.6 to 109.8), field-goal percentage (44.7 to 46.9), three-point percentage (36.7), rebounds per game (42.8 to 43.3) and points in the paint (45.4 to 47.9) all rose.

    His exploits earned a fourth All-Star selection, with Embiid now eligible to sign a four-year, supermax extension after being selected to the All-NBA Second Team. While there has long been question marks over his health and fitness, his form merits a monster pay rise.

    Worryingly for the rest of the league, Embiid is not a player who rests on his laurels. The Cameroonian is determined to deliver a title to the city of Brotherly Love.

    "Losing, obviously, it's gonna take a toll on me, and it does and it's doing it, but it’s also on me," said Embiid after Philly's playoff exit. "I gotta be better. I gotta take another step when it comes to taking care of my body and my game as a whole, because I still feel like I have a lot of untapped potential that people haven't really seen."

    How do you solve a problem like Ben Simmons?

    "I love being in Philly. I love this organisation," Simmons said after he was subjected to boos by Philly fans after their Game 7 loss to the Hawks. "The fans are great, great people. I had a bad series. I expect that. It's Philly."

    Former number one pick Simmons, however, may not have a choice on the matter amid intensifying trade talk.

    The 24-year-old had no fourth-quarter field-goal attempts in his last four games of the playoffs. He is the only NBA player in the last 20 seasons to have four consecutive postseason games with no field-goal attempts in the fourth quarter during a season in which he was an All-Star.

    Fresh off elimination, Rivers was asked if he thought Simmons could be a guard on a championship team, and he told reporters post-game: "I don't know the answer to that right now."

    Since then, Rivers has said he wants the player to remain as the 76ers have a plan for the Australian star, who will skip the Olympic Games in Tokyo to focus on his skillset.

    But after four seasons in the league, there has been no improvement from three-time All-Star Simmons in one fundamental area – shooting.

    An elite defender and creator, debate around Simmons centres on his offence or lack thereof, with the 76ers handicapped by his unwillingness to shoot.

     

    Simmons' field-goal percentage has regressed, dropping from 58.0 in 2019-20 to 55.7 this season – he only managed worse in his 2017-18 rookie campaign (54.5).

    He averaged just 10.1 field-goal attempts in 2020-21 – a career low, which dropped to 7.9 in the playoffs. It is the same story with his scoring as it dropped to a career worst 14.3 points per game and 11.9 in the postseason – both career lows.

    Then there is Simmons and free throws. He was exposed by rival teams as they regularly sent him to the line, with the Melbourne-born guard making just 25 of 73 shots in the 2020-21 playoffs. His 34.2 free-throw percentage is the lowest ever in a single postseason.

    Simmons' unwillingness to shoot – he passed on a wide-open dunk during the closing stages against the Hawks, instead passing to Matisse Thybulle – who was fouled and made just one of the two free throws, irked Embiid.

    "I'll be honest," Embiid said after the game. "I thought the turning point was when we - I don't know how to say it - but I thought the turning point was just we had an open shot and we made one free throw.

    "We didn't get a good possession on the other end and Trae [Young] came back and he made a three and then from there down four, it's on me. I turned the ball over and tried to make something happen from the perimeter. But I thought that was the turning point."

    Having reportedly considered the idea of using Simmons as part of a deal to prise James Harden from the Houston Rockets in January before the former MVP eventually joined the Brooklyn Nets, Morey has a decision to make with the 76ers in the win-now window.

    Doc's Game 7 woes continue

    Is Rivers the man to complete the process for the 76ers?

    A proven winner with Eastern Conference rivals the Boston Celtics, Rivers landed on his feet following his exit from the Los Angeles Clippers, named All-Star coach after guiding the 76ers to a 49-23 record atop the east, ahead of the star-studded Nets and Milwaukee Bucks.

    With Doc on the sidelines, Embiid vaulted himself to within a whisker of the MVP as the 76ers clinched the easiest path to the Conference Finals. After a humiliating series sweep to the Celtics in the opening round inside the bubble at Walt Disney World Resort the previous year, things looked on the up for Philly.

     

    However, it was an all too familiar story for Rivers. His team collapsed.

    Rivers suffered a fourth consecutive Game 7 defeat to tie the longest streak ever by an NBA head coach, after former Sacramento Kings and Rockets coach Rick Adelman also lost four in a row from 2002 to 2009.

    The 76ers blew an 18-point lead in Game 4 against the Hawks before surrendering a 26-point advantage at home to Atlanta in Game 5. That came after Doc's Clippers somehow squandered a 3-1 series lead to the Nuggets in 2020.

    "Listen, this team last year got swept in the first round. We had a chance to go to the Eastern finals. I'm not gonna make this into a negative year,” Rivers said.

    Rivers has 29 losses with a chance to clinch a playoff series – the most defeats by a coach in NBA history. His 34.1 win percentage is the worst ever among coaches with 20-plus games.

    The 59-year-old is under the microscope on the back of this latest failure, having not progressed past the second round of the playoffs since the 2012 postseason in Boston.

    Verdict: Revolution

    Morey and general manager Elton Brand have their work cut out this offseason, with Simmons' future at the top of the list.

    Despite a horrendous playoff series, there is still plenty of value around Simmons. A host of teams are already reportedly circling, and there is a general consensus that it is time for player and franchise to go their separate ways.

    Simmons could do with a change of scenery and the 76ers could use a legitimate shooter/scorer. Now it is up to Morey to weave his magic and supplement Embiid's MVP-calibre ability. Damian Lillard, perhaps? What about Bradley Beal?

    Then there is Philadelphia's bench and depth. The 76ers ranked 13th in the NBA for points per game from their reserves (37.3). It remains to be seen whether the likes for Furkan Korkmaz will still be around come tip-off in 2021-22, so boosting the team's bench and three-point shooting is paramount if Philly are to get beyond the second round and complete the process.

  • Tokyo Olympics: USA played with freedom in Iran win – Durant Tokyo Olympics: USA played with freedom in Iran win – Durant

    Kevin Durant feels the key to the United States' confidence-boosting win over Iran at the Tokyo Olympics was down to becoming more selfish and playing with freedom.

    Team USA's 25-game winning run in the men's basketball at the Games was ended by France last week but they responded with a 120-66 victory against Iran on Wednesday.

    That loss to France followed exhibition defeats to Australia and Nigeria in the build-up to the event, leading to questions over the cohesion of the record 15-time gold medallists.

    But Gregg Popovich's side answered those critics against Iran with a comprehensive victory in which they played fast, aggressive basketball throughout.

    Damian Lillard, one of those to come in for heavy criticism following the opening-game defeat, top-scored with 21 points, all from beyond the arc.

    USA knocked down 19 3-pointers and 22 of their 37 shots (62 per cent) inside the arc as they showed signs of the quality that has taken them to three successive gold medals.

    Brooklyn Nets forward Durant insists the chemistry of the side was never in question as he highlighted the changes made between matches.

    "After a tough loss last game, today we came out with more freedom as individuals and took the shots that we normally like to take," Durant said.

    "They went in tonight, and we guarded up, so it was a good step.

    "I felt like we were in sync last game, but like I've been saying, it's a make or miss game today.

    "We created good shots last game and I think today it's the continuity of what we've been doing over the last week. We finally capitalised on the stuff that we've been working on.

    "Like I said, our chemistry has been great since day one. We're all excited to be here, I mean this is the Olympics, this is the national team. 

    "But I think we were a bit too unselfish early on and tried not to step on toes. That bit us before.

    "Tonight the guys came out there and were super aggressive to look for their shot but also keep everybody involved, and we were able to make some shots. 

    "Damian came out, got it scorching for us, so we're going to need that going forward."

     

    Head coach Popovich rotated his roster against Iran by bringing in Jrue Holiday and Devin Booker, who were brought off the bench against France.

    "In the last game we have to play two 'bigs' and I think that might have clogged it up a bit for us all offensively," Durant added.  

    "Defensively we've been solid the whole time, but offensively we were trying to find our rhythm. 

    "I played the four [position], so I was able to stretch the floor a bit and give guys space and we were able to get some confidence and knock some shots down."

    A victory over the Czech Republic on Saturday will guarantee the world's top-ranked side a place in the quarter-finals.

    That next match will also provide Durant with his next opportunity to surpass Carmelo Anthony as USA men's basketball all-time Olympic top scorer.

    Durant managed 10 points against Iran, moving him to within five of Antony's record (336).

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    Ash Barty has followed up her shock women's singles defeat by crashing out of the women's doubles after an epic clash with Czech pair Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova.

    World number one Barty was stunned in the first round of the women's singles on Sunday by Spain's Sara Sorribes Tormo but teamed up with Storm Sanders in the doubles, with the Australian pair reaching the quarter-finals.

    However, Krejcikova and Siniakova proved too strong in a three-set thriller, winning 3-6 6-4 10-7.

    "You never quite have their measure,” Barty said. "It's disappointing but there's only a couple of points in that match, here and there and it's a different result.

    "We did everything right today but just weren't able to win those big points when it mattered most."

    Barty's medal hopes are now entirely focused on the mixed doubles, where she has partnered with John Peers.

    Andy Murray's bid to become the first male to win four Olympic tennis medals ended with defeat to Croatia's Marin Cilic and Ivan Dogic in the men's doubles.

    Murray, teaming up with Joe Salisbury, went down in two hours and 18 minutes after also winning the first set. The Croatian pair won 4-6 7-6 (7-2) 10-7.

    The two-time Olympic gold medalist had withdrawn from the men's singles on Sunday due to a right quad injury, preferring to focus on playing doubles. TeamGB have not fielded a mixed doubles team.

     

    TITMUS DOUBLES UP, LEDECKY LIFTS FOR GOLD

    Ariarne Titmus backed up her women's 400m freestyle gold medal from Monday with another triumph, getting the better of rival Katie Ledecky to win the 200m free.

    The 20-year-old Australian won the final ahead of Hong Kong's Siobhan Bernadette Haughey and Canada's Penny Oleksiak, while Ledecky finished back in fifth.

    Ledecky would claim her sixth Olympic gold medal, triumphing in the women's 1500m free, with the US claiming a rare one-two as Erica Sullivan grabbed the silver ahead of Germany's Sarah Kohler.

    After being beaten twice by Titmus earlier in the meet, Ledecky said: "I approach each race with a belief in myself. It's the attitude I've always had that's why I've been so successful. Anything can happen, [the attitude I go in with is] I can beat the world record in this race. 

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    STEERING ERROR COSTS GB IN ROWING

    Australia claimed two gold medals in the rowing at Sea Forest Waterway as Great Britain were left to lament a wayward finish in the men's four final.

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    Italy's late charge almost saw a collision with Great Britain, who finished in fourth, after veering towards the neighbouring Italian boat, narrowly avoiding a clash of oars.

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    Australia also won the women's four narrowly ahead of the Netherlands by 0:34 seconds, with Ireland claiming the bronze more than five seconds back.

    Romania secured its first gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics by winning the women's double sculls final, while France triumphed in the men's equivalent.

    The Netherlands and China triumphed in the men's and women's quadruple sculls finals respectively.

     

    RADRADRA DREAMING OF FIJI SEVENS GOLD

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    Fiji went through to the gold medal match with a 26-14 triumph over Argentina, who will take on Great Britain for bronze.

    New Zealand were too strong for the British, winning 29-7 in their semi-final, with two tries each to captain Scott Curry and Regan Ware.

    Former NRL star Semi Radradra, who plays for Fiji after switching codes in 2017 and scored a try against Argentina, said: "Playing in the Olympics is a blessing for me. I never knew I would be here.

    "I think it is everyone's highlight to win a gold medal in the Olympics. That is our aim and we try to give back to our people at home."

    USA RESTORES CONFIDENCE IN BASKETBALL

    Team USA restored some confidence following their first-up loss to France with a comprehensive 120-66 thrashing of Iran in men's basketball.

    USA played fast throughout, wasting no time in offense, with Damian Lillard top scoring with 21 points, all from beyond the arc.

    Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine had eight assists along with his 13 points while Devin Booker, who played in the NBA Finals last week, scored 16 points and had five rebounds and three steals.

    USA head coach Gregg Popovich rotated his roster on and off the court, sharing minutes, as hos team piled on 38 points in the last quarter to round out a comprehensive victory.

    In Group B, Germany defeated Nigeria 99-92 despite Jordan Nowra's 33-point haul.

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