With Booker resting, Sarr, Pokuveski lead Thunder past Suns
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Backup center Olivier Sarr scored a career-high 24 points and Aleksej Pokuveski recorded his first career triple-double to lead the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 117-96 victory over the NBA-leading Phoenix Suns on Sunday night. Sarr came off the bench to shoot 9 of 12 from the field, including 5 of 6 from 3-point range. The other 7-footer, Pokuveski, had 17 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds while playing point guard for the bulk of the game. In the first half, Pokuveski struggled to run the offense, committing five turnovers.
The Phoenix Suns earned their 63rd win against the Los Angeles Lakers last week, a franchise record that was overshadowed by the Lakers' elimination from the play-in tournament.
When a media outlet omitted the Suns' historic feat in favor of the Lakers’ defeat, Devin Booker took it as a slight. "How bout 'Suns just set franchise record for W's,'" he wrote.
It's nothing new. The Suns have grown accustomed to snubs.
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Despite being the leader of a team that finished with an NBA-best 64-18 record, Booker isn’t getting much MVP love. Mikal Bridges isn’t universally considered the top candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. And they certainly aren’t considered overwhelming favorites to win their first NBA title among the NBA punditry.
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"We feel like it’s us against the world," Bridges said. "And we love it."
The reigning Western Conference champions came up short last season, but heading into the 2021-22 playoffs, the Suns have a chip on their shoulder. Although Vegas oddsmakers have Phoenix as the overwhelming favorite to win the title, everyone is not as convinced.
The defending champion Milwaukee Bucks have gained traction as a title favorite in many circles because of Giannis Antetokounmpo and their previous win.
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The Suns' ascent to the top of the NBA has been nothing short of extraordinary. In four years, the Suns went from 63 losses to 64 wins. But critics have looked high and low for any shortcoming to discredit the Suns' success.
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When Phoenix got off to a rough 1-3 start to the season, some questioned the legitimacy of their 2021 NBA Finals appearance. Others said the league's investigation into team owner Robert Sarver's conduct would be a distraction. The Suns answered back with a franchise record 18-game win streak.
When Chris Paul was ruled out 6-8 weeks after the All-Star break with a fractured right thumb, media pundits said the Suns championship aspirations were in danger. Instead, they went 11-4 without the veteran point guard.
The Suns have consistently dominated on both sides of the ball, ranking No. 5 in offensive rating (114.2 points per 100 possessions) and third in the league in defensive rating (106.8 points allowed per 100 possessions).
“We have the best backcourt in the league. We have a bunch of guys that should get all-defensive team mentions … our whole starting lineup should get mentioned," said Monty Williams, leading candidate for NBA Coach of the Year.
Powell returns, Clippers beat Suns for 3rd straight win
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Norman Powell scored 24 points after being out two months, Paul George added 19 points in three quarters to go over 15,000 in his career, and the Los Angeles Clippers edged the NBA-leading Phoenix Suns 113-109 on Wednesday night. With nothing at stake, Phoenix rested All-Star guards Devin Booker and Chris Paul and fellow starters Deandre Ayton and Jae Crowder on the second night of a back-to-back. The Suns had already set a franchise record for wins in a season with 63 by eliminating the Lakers from playoff contention Tuesday. The Clippers beat up the Suns for three quarters, leading by 39 points in the third.
But who should be mentioned and who will be mentioned are two different things.
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Williams comments echoed what he said earlier in the year: "We've been a Top 5 defense for a majority of the season and yet we don't get the recognition individually."
Bridges has earned a Defensive Player of the Year endorsement from Williams, Booker and Paul, in addition to peers across the league, like Damian Lillard, Draymond Green and Josh Hart, but a panel of sportswriters and broadcasters do the voting.
"Obviously I want that, but control what you can control," said Bridges, who didn't make an All-Defensive team last year. "Even if I don't win it, it doesn't define who I am. I guard everyday and my teammates and coaches know that. That's all I can really say."
Bridges, whose 7'1'' wingspan is pivotal to his ability to deflect and disrupt around the perimeter, racked up an average of 0.4 blocks, 1.2 steals and only 1.8 fouls this season. He's as reliable as he is available: Bridges hasn’t missed a single game through four seasons, totaling 309 games, the longest active streak in the NBA for games played.
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — From their first-ever Western Conference Finals appearance to a last-gasp play-in game, the Los Angeles Clippers have been a surprisingly resilient bunch. They finished two games above .500 despite not having superstar Kawhi Leonard all season and losing Paul George for a big chunk of it. They traded for Norman Powell in February, only to lose him to injury days later. George and Powell recently returned within days of each other and sparked the Clippers to a five-game winning streak to end the regular season. They're not ready to head home for the summer.
"If all he's done all this season ain't spoke enough… something going for him is that he plays every night," Paul said. "We talk about requirements and what not for awards and all that… I don't want to hear anything about no stats, no percentages. The eye test: The man plays every single night."
Then, there's the exclusion of Devin Booker from the MVP conversation. He averaged 26.8 points, 5 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.1 steals and shoots 46.6% from the field (38.5% on 3s) for the best team in the league, leading many to question the criteria for MVP.
Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas said the "best record leading scorer has always been part of the criteria," but Booker suggested it was personal, tweeting that "the 'criteria' changes depending on players name."
Booker has continually proven that any slight only adds fuel to his fire. Following a clash with the Toronto Raptors mascot in January, Booker led the Suns on a 10-game win streak while averaging 32 points. Last month, Booker dropped a season-high 49 points after the Denver Nuggets used the wrong photo for his team introduction.
"It was disrespectful," Booker said. "But we got the last laugh. … It got me going for sure.”
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The Bucks and Suns met in the 2021 NBA Finals. Our experts expect a rematch. But this time, most are predicting a different outcome.Once the Lakers were eliminated, the discussion turned to another preseason title favorite: the Brooklyn Nets. The Nets won their play-in game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday, claiming the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Whether Phoenix gets the recognition they deserve or not, the Suns are looking to have the last laugh by winning the franchise's first-ever title.
"The end goal is to win the championship," Jae Crowder said. "The focus is there and the motivation is there."
The Suns will start their playoff run Sunday against the winner of the play-in game between the New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Clippers on Friday.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Phoenix Suns favorites to win NBA title, but they still feel disrespected. Are they overlooked?
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