NEWS OF THE MORNING
Game belongs to CP3 | LeBron focused on title, not MVP | Wall and Beal lead young Wizards past Pacers | Spurs look to their bench for boost | Hibbert’s teammates fed up, need more from All-Star big man
No. 1: CP3 answers the bell, silences his critics in opener — Silence. That’s what Chris Paul did to his critics in Game 1 of the Los Angeles Clippers’ conference semifinal in Oklahoma City Monday night. Folks who questioned whether or not he was ready to play through whatever pain he’s experienced with a sore hamstring and aching thumb found out early, and often, that he was not going to be denied. And a determined Paul, with all that he has been through recently, is still a force to be reckoned with in these playoffs. Bill Plaschke of the The Los Angeles Times explains:
Chris Paul entered this postseason famous for a ring he doesn’t have, a city he doesn’t own, and a television commercial featuring a twin brother who doesn’t exist.
Maybe that’s why, on a wind-stopping Monday night in Oklahoma City, he spent three hours shouting, “Enough.”
Enough of the talk that he’s too injured and weary to lead the Clippers to NBA greatness, as the smallest starter ducked his head and shouldered them to a stunning 122-105 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the opener of their second-round series.
Enough of the idea that his sore hamstring and thumb limit him offensively, as he missed just two of 14 shots and just one of nine three-point attempts, scoring 32 points in the best pure shooting postseason game of his career.
Enough of the talk that he’s too slow defensively, as he led a swarming Clippers defense that deadened the dazzling Thunder offense into 18 turnovers, resulting in 23 points.
Enough, enough, enough of the idea that Donald Sterling has anything to do with this anymore.
Paul’s role as president of the players’ union meant he was especially stressed during the Sterling-stained opening series. He led the players in their jersey protest while wearing black socks and sleeves. Until the final quarter of Game 7 against the Golden State Warriors, he struggled throughout the series with his strength and focus, and even admitted that he was one of several Clippers who fell asleep during Sunday night’s film session here.
A day later, biting through the Thunder and its roaring college-type crowd as if they were his dangling mouthpiece, Paul made it clear that everything was different.
“Maybe with all that stuff that happened, winning that series allowed him to breathe a little bit,” said Clippers Coach Doc Rivers afterward.
Paul showed up in a white sleeve and white socks. He took his first shot midway through the first quarter. It was a three-point attempt. He swished. He missed his next shot moments later. He didn’t miss again until there were barely five minutes left in the third quarter. During that time, he hit jumpers against seven different Thunder defenders, and ended any last Thunder gasp early in the third quarter with a tumbling three-pointer from the corner with Russell Westbrook in his face.
“That’s what I do. That’s what I do. [Pause] That’s a lie,” said Paul with a laugh when asked about his treys. “This one will definitely go down in the history books for me. Don’t count on it for Game 2, I’ll tell you that.”
No. 2: LeBron focused on title, not MVP (that will go to Durant) — Kevin Durant is just hours away from collecting his first MVP trophy, trumping his rival and friend LeBron James for the NBA’s top individual honor. That crowning achievement for Durant could very well turn out to be the worst thing to happen to the Brooklyn Nets, though. Because they’re the ones who have to deal with an angry and motivated James, who has already conceded the MVP race to Durant publicly, several times. But as Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News points out, someone has to pay for the absence of hardware:
LeBron James was a gracious loser, if you want to call finishing second in the MVP race to Kevin Durant a loss for the one player who will take the court against the Nets Tuesday night still universally hailed as the best player on the planet.
“If the reports are correct,” James said, after the Heat’s practice on Monday, “kudos to him. Much respect to him. He deserved it. He had a big-time MVP season.”
Then came the follow-up question and James’ answer that might be a source of even more concern for Jason Kidd and his players in this second-round playoff series. It’s already going to be difficult enough trying to prevent James from making the next step toward winning his third straight title. He and the Heat have won nine straight playoff series since falling apart against Dallas in 2011 when they had a 2-1 lead and everyone thought James had finally broken through.
So he gave Durant his genuine salute, but then someone in the circle of reporters around James wanted to know if he thought Oklahoma City’s star “deserved it over you?”
The “you” part triggered the competitiveness that drove James to four MVP’s in the last five years and three straight Finals appearances.
“Why do you have to go there?” he said, looking annoyed.
He simmered for a moment: “I said he deserved to get it. I mean, what do you want me to say? He deserved to win it.”
There was an edge to his voice and that’s because this has been James’ award for so long now and players of his magnitude never concede that they’re not the MVP. They think they should get the award every year.
You think Michael Jordan, as fierce a competitor who has ever come down the pike, has ever gotten over finishing second to Charles Barkley in 1993, or when he was voted runner-up to Karl Malone in 1997? Later in those seasons, by the way, Jordan more than settled those scores. He met up with his MVP successor in the Finals and both times walked off with the championship, along with the big MVP, the Finals MVP.
Now the Nets, already the underdogs in this series, and coming off a grueling seven-gamer against a young Toronto team, get the two-time defending champs and James when he’s got a reason to really be ticked off.
As Chris Bosh told me, “It’s extra motivation if you’re looking for some. We never want to make it a big thing, the MVP, but he feels that, ‘Key, that’s my trophy.'”
No. 3: Youth is served by Wizards’ Beal: — Comparisons to Kobe Bryant of any kind probably seem like a bit much right now, but Bradley Beal’s performance in these playoffs has done exactly that for some folks lucky enough to witness and chronicle the early rise of both players. And truth be told, Kobe didn’t handle himself nearly as well in his first playoff outing as Beal did against the Chicago Bulls and the Pacers Monday night in the Wizards’ Game 1 upset at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mike Wise of CThe Washington Post connects the dots:
You can’t be just 21 or under and take over a playoff game in this ear-splitting replica of an old Indiana “Hoosiers” fieldhouse. You can’t just drop pressurized shots on the home team and shut up a state of frothing basketball fans, some of whom drove past barns with backboards for hours, at such a ridiculously young age. Or have a perennial all-star veteran call you a superstar on the podium after the game.
Kobe Bryant already tried that, after all. Game 4, 2000 NBA Finals, the first genuine June moment of a Hall-of-Famer-to-be’s career.
Game 1, 2014 second round — Bradley Beal’s first playoff moment at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, all those clock-winding-down killers from the perimeter to send the NBA’s road warriors onto another character-soaring victory.
Blessed to be at both games, I can say with conviction that Beal had Kobe’s supreme confidence Monday night. In yet another stirring performance that makes you forgethe’s 20-freakin’ years old , Beal’s stroke may have even been purer than Mamba’s at 21.
“Bradley Beal’s a superstar in this league,” Paul George, the Pacers’ all-star guard, said afterward. “He’s on the rise.”
“Like, the way I think about it, I’m 20 years old, playing in the playoffs, something I always dreamed about, so why not embrace it?” said Beal, who, let’s be honest, is nearly too good to be real.
After his candor and 14 points in the fourth quarter of the Wizards’ 102-96 punch to the Pacers’ mouth, he added: “Why not accept that challenge? I’m just having fun on a great team.”
There were a lot of reasons the Wizards staved off Indiana and won their fourth straight road playoff game and got out of the gates for the sixth straight time this postseason blindingly quick.
Trevor Ariza, who couldn’t miss from three-point range. He made all six he took and combined with Beal for 47 points. Together, they were the Swish Brothers.
No. 4: Spurs need major boost from bench crew: — Long a staple on championship teams from San Antonio, the Spurs’ bench was not its usual self in the first round series against the Dallas Mavericks. That , of course, has to change in the conference semifinal matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers. Dan McCarney of the Express-News discusses what has to change for the bench mob this time around:
Fortified by the league’s highest-scoring bench, the Spurs’ depth was perhaps their greatest strength during the regular season. But with the exception of Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter, the rest of the supporting cast — starter Danny Green and reserves Boris Diaw, Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli — struggled through much of their first-round victory over Dallas.
As such, the Spurs averaged just 37 points off the bench in the series, almost eight points less than the regular season. The drop would have been even lower had Ginobili not enjoyed his highest-scoring series since 2008 with 124 points in seven games (17.7 per).
Green and Diaw actually came around late in the series, and ended up shooting 58 and 54 percent, respectively. Mills — who did have provide some solid non-scoring moments with his hustle — and Belinelli struggled pretty throughout, however, as they both shot less than 40 percent.
They could be in store for an improvement by simple default as Portland enters their second-round series with perhaps the NBA’s least effective bench, ranking 30th in scoring and 27th in production differential.
Blazers coach Terry Stotts went to his reserves as little as possible in the first round against Houston. Only Mo Williams played a significant role as starters Damian Lillard (44.7), Nicolas Batum (43.0), LaMarcus Aldridge (41.2) and Wesley Matthews (39.8.) all logged heavy minutes.
Tony Parker doesn’t expect fatigue to be a factor against the youthful Blazers, but he can still hope. Whether it’s a matter of wearing their opponent out or providing more production, the Spurs are counting on an improvement from their bench in the second round.
“They’re young, so that’s going to be hard,” he said. “But if our bench can play well, it’s an advantage for us. I think the whole bench needs to play well. Beli needs to come back and play better.”
No. 5: Pacers veterans intervene with Hibbert: — Enough is enough already. The Indiana Pacers’ veterans can’t take any more of Roy Hibbert’s doughnut, he came up with zeros yet again in Monday night’s loss to the Washington Wizards. There was reportedly an intervention after this latest debacle. Both David West and Rasual Butler stepped to Hibbert to remind him that while he has their unconditional support, he has to come out of his swoon now if the Pacers are going to make that No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference mean anything. Scott Agnes of Pacers.com has more:
The Pacers then went cold, going six minutes without a field goal and getting off just five shots during the dry spell. Down 10 with one minute to play, Chris Copeland, who was getting his first minutes of the game, sank a 3-pointer. George Hill would hit three of his own, with a pair of Washington free throws between each one.
In the end, the Wizards got a win they deserved. They played with more fight and more punch, most evident on the glass (where they had a 53-36 advantage). The Pacers, who fought so hard during the regular season for homecourt advantage, have lost three of five games at home during the postseason and once again have to play from behind in a series.
After the game, a number of guys – including Hibbert, West and Rasual Butler – had a private discussion back behind closed doors. None of them would reveal what was discussed, but West was as heated as he’s ever been. The veteran forward was fuming, a combination of dejection and frustration. The team will likely have a long film session and multiple long conversations before taking the court for Game 2 on Wednesday.
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Los Angeles Lakers are reportedly interested in Kevin Ollie and the UConn coach is willing to listen while he negotiates a new deal with the Huskies … The Hawks have three restricted free agents — Mike Scott, Shelvin Mack and Gustavo Ayon — high on their priority list this summer … The Detroit Pistons are taking their time with their GM and coach search for a reason … Dwight Howard was apparently not enough for Rockets owner Leslie Alexander, who says the franchise is looking to make another free agent splash this summer …
ICYMI OF THE NIGHT: Everyone has an opinion on what is ailing Roy Hibbert. And the Pacers’ All-Star center has not escaped the scrutiny of Charles, Kenny and Shaq …