HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Steve Kerr understands the importance of every shot, every possession and every games this time of year. You don’t win five championships in your 15-year career and not comprehend the significance of each and every step you take in the middle of May.
That’s why the sweet-shooting TNT analyst was a must-get for Episode 117 of the Hang Time Podcast. With the conference semifinals winding down and the conference finals looming, a sobering dose of perspective was needed here at headquarters. We needed someone to provide a little context and perspective to what LeBron James and the Miami Heat are going through right now, what Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors are dealing with right now and what it all means in the grand scheme of things.
Things are fluid for so many of the teams still alive in the playoffs, not to mention the teams whose seasons have finished and are searching for coaches and eventually players to help them get to the point where they are still play in mid-May. Kerr breaks it all down, and more, including his assessment that Heat star Dwyane Wade is no longer an “everyday superstar” but an “every other day superstar.”
We thought Kerr’s presence might defuse the normal mid-week volcano that is Rick Fox, whose “Get Off My Lawn” rant of the week includes his debunking of the NBA’s great point guard myth (as he describes it only the way he can).
In Rick’s estimation, we might have seen the last of the point guards to win MVP in the The Finals when Spurs point guard Tony Parker did in 2007. He’ll could very well be the last of his kind, according to Rick, to find his way into the company of elite players at his position like Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and Chauncey Billups, the only PGs other than Parker since 1980 to claim that hardware.
(Sorry Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving and the rest of you, Rick says don’t bother.)
You get all of that and a whole lot more on Episode 117 of the Hang Time Podcast …
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – California’s basketball hierarchy is on its head.
As the second round is set to begin, in is the All-Star-snubbed Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors; out are the two biggest superstars set to hit the free-agent market: Dwight Howard of the Los Angeles Lakers and Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers.
In strange symmetry, Howard and Paul were both ejected in their final games of the season. Howard twice lost his cool and got the heave-ho early in the third quarter of the Kobe-less and totally injury-depleted Lakers’ Game 4 loss to the San Antonio Spurs. Referee Joey Crawford gave Paul a more controversial walk to the showers late in the fourth quarter of Friday’s Game 6 downer at the Memphis Grizzlies, the Clippers’ fourth consecutive defeat after taking a 2-0 series lead.
Both superstars will become free agents on July 1. While the smart money still says D12 and CP3 love L.A. and will stay, unceremonious endings to what were supposed to be storybook seasons for both franchises at least adds a layer of intrigue and speculation to the proceedings.
For the Clippers, 118-105 losers Friday, suddenly the celebrations of a franchise-best 56-win season and a first-ever Pacific Division title are being washed away by a tidal wave of disappointment and tough offseason decisions headlined by Paul’s choice of where next to take his talents.
“I got a lot of time to think about that,” Paul, wearing a Clipper red sports coat, told reporters after Friday’s game. “As I do with any decision I make, I consult with my wife, my parents, my brother, my family. I might even let little Chris chime in on this. We’ll see what happens.”
L.A.’s front office will wait on pins and needles for July 1 to get Paul’s answer, but they will likely move much quicker to determine the future of lame-duck coach Vinny Del Negro. When management assesses the job he’s done in leading the Clippers to the playoffs in consecutive seasons for just the second time in the franchise’s 29 years in L.A. and first time in 20 years, there will be two sides of the coin to each topic of debate.
Since being hired to lead Chicago with no previous coaching experience, Del Negro has been scrutinized, even ridiculed, like no other coach regarding his acumen of the X’s and O’s.
In this series, Del Negro’s team allowed a 2-0 lead to slip away. But how much of that is on the coach and how much is on a team that seemed to get outworked in the final four games? Did the coach not have his team prepared or did the players not show up? Did the coach fail to make proper adjustments or did the players fail to execute?
Paul averaged 22.8 points and 6.3 assists. He shot 53.3 percent and rarely turned the ball over. He didn’t get a lot of help from what was considered to be the deepest team in basketball. His All-Star teammate Blake Griffin sprained an ankle and played 24 minutes in the final two games. He finished the series with a well-below-average 13.2 ppg and 5.5 rpg while nemesis Zach Randolph dominated in the final four games.
Veteran point guard Chauncey Billups, who missed most of the season due to injury, played as if his head wasn’t in it, finishing the series with more turnovers (eight) than assists (six). After going 4-for-8 from the floor in Game 1, he went 7-for-28 the rest of the way.
Sixth Man of the Year runner-up Jamal Crawford was 7-for-21 in Games 3 and 4 and was benched in the second half of Game 6 after going 0-for-5. Matt Barnes, who threw in 30 points Friday night, was 9-for-24 in Games 2 through 5.
Caron Butler averaged 5.8 ppg in Games 2 through 5 and scored five points in 34 minutes of Games 4 and 5. Del Negro ripped center DeAndre Jordan‘s effort. Grant Hill, either injured or buried on the bench this season, was on the floor in the second half of Game 6.
The Clippers could look quite different next season. They have $45 million tied into Griffin, Jordan, Butler, Crawford, Hill and Eric Bledsoe. Two million could get returned if Hill retires as he speculated he might last month.
So let the introspection begin for a franchise that has scrapped bottom for decades and seemed to be headed for better days, if not glory days. Owner Donald Sterling in his later years has seemed to soften and to smartly open his wallet to make things happen. It’s resulted in two sensational seasons that have produced regular-season results like never before, two rare trips to the postseason while also rousing a fan base and creating a fun environment at Staples Center.
Yet the Clippers failed to accomplish Del Negro’s goal and that was go deeper in the playoffs that last season’s second-round sweep at the hands of the Spurs when Griffin was again hurt and unable to perform at a peak level.
So while Curry and the Warriors keep doing their thing, the mood is considerably darker today down in L.A.
LOS ANGELES – In praising young guard Eric Bledsoe, did Chris Paul divulge his plan to be back in a Los Angeles Clippers uniform next season and beyond?
“Bled is one of the best guards in our league,” Paul said following Sunday’s Los Angeles Clippers practice. “I’ve said it all season long, I’m enjoying playing with him right now because there’s no way he can be here next year because we probably won’t have enough money to pay him. He should be a starting point guard.”
Bledsoe, 23, is under contract through next season for a bargain $2.6 million. However, if the Clips max-out Paul, who will become a free agent this summer, the franchise could look to move Bledsoe, the third-year talent out of Kentucky taken 18th by Oklahoma City and traded to the Clippers for a first-round draft pick.
He was a catalyst off the bench in Saturday’s 112-91 Clippers victory for a 1-0 lead in the first-round, best-of-7 series against the Memphis Grizzlies. Bledsoe came alive in the fourth quarter for 13 of his 15 points (on 7-for-7 shooting) and all of his four assists and six rebounds as he played the entire period and Paul watched on the bench for all but 3:12 of the fourth.
“For him, I’m just enjoying it and I love to sit back and watch him because he’s a game-changer,” Paul said. “And like I said [Saturday] night, he’s the key to our run.”
The 6-foot-1 Bledsoe is explosive off the dribble and a rugged 190 pounds. He averaged career-bests with 8.5 points and 3.0 rebounds to go with 3.1 assists this season in just 20.4 minutes. His numbers per-36 minutes, or the floor time a starter might typically play, were 14.9 ppg, 5.4 apg and 5.2 rpg. He shot 39.7 percent from beyond the arc.
Bledsoe, as expected, said he’s not focused on his future beyond this postseason. Still, finding ample minutes for a remarkable backcourt arsenal that includes Paul, Bledsoe and veterans Chauncey Billups and sixth man Jamal Crawford is not easy.
“We got one goal and that’s to win the championship and I think we got a pretty good team to do that,” Bledsoe said. “So I’m not focused on next season. I’m pretty going to worry about winning, learning how to, really, for the first time in my career to get a championship.”
Through three quarters Saturday night, Bledsoe had logged 6:19 and had two points. His spurt of relentless activity in the fourth quarter included stint with Paul and Billups.
“Everybody on the team went through it,” Bledsoe said of sacrificing minutes on a deep team that routinely goes 10 and 11 deep. “For right now, it’s whoever is playing good at the time. So we’re just going to cheer the next man on, that’s part of a team. So I really can’t focus on minutes. If I get them I get them, if I don’t, I don’t.”
According to Paul, Bledsoe should be getting more next season when he’s wearing a different uniform.
And that could very well suggest that Paul plans to stay in a Clippers uniform.
Missed a game last night? Wondering what the latest news around the NBA is this morning? The Morning Shootaround is here to try to meet those needs and keep you up on what’s happened around the league since the day turned.
Bledsoe, Billups give backcourt a boost — The Clippers have had Chauncey Billups in the lineup in just 21 games this season and heading into last night’s home game against Portland, he had missed L.A.’s last eight games. As well, third-year guard Eric Bledsoe had missed five games with a left calf muscle injury that slowed his energetic, up-tempo style. But both players were instrumental in the Clips’ romp of the Blazers, something that made Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro happy, writes Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times:
Billups brings the Clippers championship experience. He won a title with the Detroit Pistons over the Lakers in 2004, when Billups was named the Finals most valuable player.
“He’s a little bit older now,” Clippers Coach Vinny Del Negro said about the 36-year-old Billups. “He’s missed most of last season and a lot of this season, so that’s not as easy to do. We still expect a lot from him with his leadership. He can make shots, obviously. He’s another guy that can make plays.”
Billups had missed the last eight games with a strained right groin. He has played in just 21 games this season and is expected to play in a back-to-back game Wednesday night in Sacramento.
Del Negro said the plan is to play Billups about 20 minutes per game.
“He knows how to play and we have to get him into game condition as quick as possible,” Del Negro said. “He gives us another dimension out there making plays off the dribble, shooting the basketball. But he’s got to get out there and get his rhythm and chemistry with the guys.”
“[Bledsoe] changes the complexion of the game with his speed,” Del Negro said. “It’s just the versatility that he brings that is of value. We can’t always use it depending on matchups. But he’s been fantastic for us since he’s been healthy.”
Bledsoe had suffered a sore left calf muscle that kept out of five games. He seems to be just now getting his legs back strong again.
“He gives us an edge to us out there defensively and the speed he plays with,” Del Negro said. “We knew that was going to be a factor for us. I feel he’s back playing with a lot of confidence. He knows his energy and the way he plays is very important, especially with that second unit or if he’s out there with Chris [Paul], in how he uses his athleticism to pressure the basketball defensively.”
Spurs likely not expecting much from McGrady — After parting ways with Stephen Jackson last week and dealing with a myriad of injuries to Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker along the guard corps, the Spurs picked up Tracy McGradylast night. McGrady, who hasn’t played for an NBA team this season, is eligible for the playoff roster and provides some backcourt depth for the postseason. But how much will the former scoring champ impact the Spurs’ postseason rotation? Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News has more:
With all the twists and turns during the 2012-13 regular season, it was only fitting that the Spurs gave us one more on Tuesday, signing Tracy McGrady to fill to roster vacated after the unceremonious whacking of Stephen Jackson.
It is the seventh NBA stop for the former franchise player, and eighth as a professional including his recent stint in the Chinese league. He dominated with Qingdao Double Star Eagles, averaging 25 points, 7.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists — the type of numbers he put up as a seven-time All-Star before injuries sapped his athleticism.
McGrady won’t find it nearly so easy back in the NBA, where he averaged 5.3 points last season with Atlanta.
There’s some speculation that McGrady’s addition had been the end goal all along. But at this point, the most likely explanation is probably the simplest: The Spurs excised what they viewed to be a cancer, and they needed a warm body to help pick up the slack on a Spurs bench that suddenly isn’t so deep.
That means chewing up whatever time is available behind starting small forward Kawhi Leonard. And from what Gregg Popovich has said recently, there won’t be much. Leonard, he said, could earn up to 40 minutes a night, leaving precious little for a floor-bound ex-star.
Still, they needed somebody, and with only days left until the playoffs begin on Saturday, the Spurs could have done far worse. His woeful playoff record notwithstanding, McGrady has experience, and he should be able to provide adequacy in a number of facets: Playmaking, rebounding, perhaps even a touch of scoring.
Players unsure if Hunter will coach Suns next season — When the Suns parted ways with coach Alvin Gentry in mid-January, some drama ensued. Assistant coaches Dan Majerle and Elston Turner quit the team shortly thereafter once word came down that fellow assistant Lindsay Hunter — and not Majerle or Turner, who had more experience as assistants — would be the Suns’ new interim coach. Those two might want to consider themselves lucky as Hunter hasn’t set the world on fire as coach. He is 12-28 as interim coach and the Suns are 2-8 in their last 10 games. All of those facts would seem to not bode well for Hunter returning to the Suns, a topic many players were mostly mum on. Scott Bordow of The Arizona Republic has more:
Luis Scola and Goran Dragic were asked whether they would recommend interim head coach Lindsey Hunter returning next season. Both players punted the topic.
“That’s a tough question,” Dragic said. “ … I’m here to play basketball. It’s not my decision to make.”
Dragic did say he liked Hunter’s approach to practice.
“Alvin (Gentry) was a great coach for the veteran players; he knows when to give them a day off, but for our team we have a young team and we really need to practice hard every day,” Dragic said. “When he (Hunter) took over the team I think we maybe had one or two days off. I think it should be like that.”
Scola said he thought Hunter did “a great job. Circumstances were bad and he did as good as he could. But I don’t make those decisions. I’m just a player.”
Would a third coach in less than a year be unsettling for the team?
“I think it would be a sign of things being bad,” Scola said. “But things are bad.”
Suns owner Robert Sarver declined comment when asked about Hunter’s future, and Hunter said no time has been set for a postseason meeting with either General Manager Lance Blanks or President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby.
Off-court decisions loom for Raptors — Another season draws to a close in Toronto tonight and the Raptors are once again on the outside of the playoff picture. It has been five seasons since Toronto made the postseason and seven since it finished with a record above .500. Needless to say, the team is in need of more overhauls and changes, although many of those could happen to non-roster positions. Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun explains how the fate of GM Bryan Colangelo, the direction of Maple Leaf Sports and more could shape the Raptors’ future:
As another Toronto Raptors season crawls to its conclusion, a franchise teetering on irrelevance has a series of enormous decisions to make.
There may not be any one right answer for Tom Anselmi and the board of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, but there is almost certainly a wrong one.
The decisions, as they seemingly do at the end of every Raptors season, revolve around the general manager, Bryan Colangelo, and the coach, Dwane Casey. Colangelo has an option year remaining on his contract. Casey has one year left on his deal.
And the team is forever paddling in circles, creating the occasional wave, but ending up nowhere in the end.
The decision for Anselmi and the board isn’t in any way obvious, with the largest issue being the relationship between Colangelo and Casey. Colangelo did his best to distance himself from his coach early in the season and there has been all kind of internal speculation that the two can’t possibly work together again.
Here’s the dilemma for Anselmi and the board: Do they use the option year on Colangelo’s deal and enable him an eighth season as general manager? Or do they have enough faith in Colangelo to reward him with a new contract, which would be based as much on blind faith and the fact he gives good board meetings as anything else?
Whatever determination is made on Colangelo’s future puts Casey’s future in a rather distant place. If one doesn’t believe in the other — and we saw what happened how effective it was when Brian Burke allowed Ron Wilson to continue on when they were philosophically opposed with the Leafs — then what sense is having Colangelo back with Casey as coach?
Colangelo apparently tried to fire Casey at least once during the season, insiders say, but wasn’t given the go-ahead to do so.
Colangelo hasn’t helped himself by his annual summers of bad decisions. There are only so many Landry Fields and Hedo Turkoglus and Jason Kaponos and Jermaine O’Neals you can miss on.
Casey, as coach, didn’t help himself by following up a decent first year with a scrambly second year and an absolute inability to compete in close ones.
So far, Anselmi has revamped the entire front office of Toronto FC and he played good soldier when some of the ownership decided to fire Brian Burke with the Leafs. Now he has a chance to go 3-for-3 in his first year on the job as president and chief operating officer.
“It’s not like we’re going to make an out of the blue decision. There’s been conversation going on all season long,” said Anselmi. “Is it any more complicated than usual? I don’t know. Either Bryan’s going to be in place and making decisions or someone else will be in place and make the decision on the coach. Leadership is very important to us.”
The Raptors’ season ends tonight. There is no meeting yet scheduled for the MLSE board. A decision on Colangelo is expected by early May.
ICYMI of the night: Plays like this one from Chauncey Billups to Blake Griffin might be a good example of why coach Vinny Del Negro is glad Billups is healthy again:
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST –Kobe Bryant will have surgery this afternoon, but even he knows it’s a formality. The immediate procedure for a ruptured Achilles tendon is an obvious one. The sensation it creates is unmistakable and Kobe knew the reality before he courageously limped in front of reporters Friday night, slumped on crutches and with bloodshot eyes.
The Los Angeles Lakers medical staff surely told him the news that must have struck him like a basketball in his throat: The typical recovery period is nine to 12 months, even for a Black Mamba, seemingly more a 6-foot-6, 205-pound piece of precision machinery than a mere fragile human throughout his incredible 17-year career.
“We have to question to ourselves, how special are these athletes?” noted sports injury expert and author Will Carroll Saturday morning. “Is there something mental that goes into the physicalness? Have we granted Kobe magical powers that he might not have? If he’s back in six months, then yeah, give it to him. If it’s 12 months like Derrick Rose (ACL injury), then he’s human.”
Even as the severity and consequence of the injury to his left foot was still soaking in, Bryant, 34, was telling reporters it was already fueling his desire to return better than ever. We can only expect him to pursue the accelerated Terrell Suggs model. The Baltimore Ravens linebacker played seven months after his Achilles injury, but Suggs is the clear exception in these cases.
Bryant’s path will include surgery likely as soon as the swelling recedes. Then begins the grueling comeback trail of rehabilitation.
“He might not be back until December,” Carroll said. “If we’re talking a 12-month recovery, and that’s the long end, we’re talking a full season. He does have some great factors going for him. He’s in great shape, he’s not that old and he’s very athletic.”
Bryant, of course, has one more season left on his contract and he recently indicated to NBA.com that he planned to make a decision this summer on how much longer he wanted to play. He made several suggestions going back to training camp that he would retire sooner rather than later.
It’s impossible to determine how long it will take a particular individual to recover from a catastrophic injury. Carroll said Bryant’s chronic knee issues could complicate his recovery due to overcompensation as he works to strengthen his heel. Carroll said it can also be difficult to locate a donor tendon large enough to replace the highly developed one of a 6-6 elite athlete.
Hall of Fame point guard Isiah Thomas retired at age 32 after rupturing his Achilles in April 1994. Dominique Wilkins has said the favorite portion of his Hall of Fame career was rupturing his right Achilles at 32, hearing that his windmill tomahawk days were done only to return with a vengeance. He increased his scoring average the next two seasons and made three more All-Star teams.
Clippers guard Chauncey Billups, 36, hasn’t been the same since his return 10 months after rupturing his Achilles tendon in Feb. 2012.
“Jumping is the toughest part,” Carroll said of basketball player’s return from a torn Achilles tendon. “That’s what’s going to test Kobe the most.”
Response to Bryant’s injury immediately focused on the heavy minutes he’s logged all season and primarily over the last seven games as the disappointing Lakers have made a desperate charge to secure the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Bryant had again played every second of Friday night’s 118-116 win at Golden State up to the three-minute mark of the fourth quarter when Bryant made his fateful move to drive by Harrison Barnes. Bryant stepped down on his right foot and fell to the ground.
Headed toward a third 48-minute effort, it was his eighth consecutive game of playing at least 41 minutes. He averaged 45.7 minutes in the six games before Friday night.
Some have pointed a finger at coach Mike D’Antoni for allowing Bryant to carry on that way, but it was the prideful Bryant who forced that issue during this mad playoff push.
Achilles injuries do seem to attack athletes in their 30s with more regularity, and certainly age and fatigue play a role in being vulnerable to such an injury. Those two factors can’t be overlooked in this case. But it’s impossible to declare it definitively. An injury can occur to any player, young or old, at any time, and Bryant has routinely played through injuries, such as his recent severely sprained ankle, that would sideline others for weeks.
“Every time you run you’re doing some damage. Age and fatigue are a factor, but not the only factor,” Carroll said. “Usually in a traumatic injury, you take a wrong step and it happens.”
The next step for Bryant is surgery followed by rehab. Then the countdown for his return from the first major injury of his career will begin in earnest. Bryant has never played fewer than 65 games in any season and he’s missed only a handful of games in each of the last eight seasons.
Right now, nobody can be certain when, or even if, he’ll be back for an 18th NBA season.
“Is it six months, eight months or is it 12 months?” Carroll said. “Is he the next Terrell Suggs or Derrick Rose?” a
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Oklahoma City, Memphis and Miami, feel fortunate, very fortunate, and proceed with caution.
As the regular season churns down to a handful of games over these final 16 days, the three teams above are the only ones of the 16 current playoff teams, plus the desperately-trying-to-get-in Los Angeles Lakers, currently unaffected by injury — or injuries.
Playoff seeding, and ultimately playoff series, could tilt on an injury report that seems to grow with each passing game.
The Grizzlies caught a break with the quick return of center Marc Gasol from an abdomen injury. Initially the team listed him as out “indefinitely.” Later, Gasol said he’d be back for the playoffs. Next thing you know he’s back after missing just two games and right back on his game.
The Heat missed Dwyane Wade for a couple games during their win streak and, of course, he, LeBron James and Mario Chalmers came down with those, ahem, previously unreported injuries prior to Sunday’s game at San Antonio. Speaking of the Spurs, Manu Ginobili‘s most recent ill-timed injury (hamstring) has put the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed firmly in play Thursday night when San Antonio visits a Thunder team as healthy as any can be 70-something games in.
Few are so fortunate, and let’s start with the carousel of injuries that have beset the Lakers. Kobe Bryant continues to play through a sprained ankle and whatever else, Dwight Howard still deals with the sporadic shooting pain from the torn labrum in his shoulder and Pau Gasol is finally back. But Metta World Peace (knee) won’t be back and Steve Nash (hip) is “doubtful” for tonight’s big showdown against the never-say-die Dallas Mavericks (10:30 p.m. ET, TNT).
The Lakers won’t receive sympathy cards from Denver, which could be without spark plug point guard Ty Lawson (heel) until the playoffs. As soon as Chauncey Billups (groin) finally returned he was gone again, and couldn’t the sinking Clippers use him right about now?
Houston’s All-Star James Harden can’t seem to shake a sprained right ankle. Jazz reserve big man Enes Kanter (shoulder), whose March was his biggest month of the season, is out indefinitely. Golden State is essentially healthy, having lost Brandon Rush way back in the opening days of the season.
Over in the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics, New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls shake their heads at any team ruffled by a single injury, or two. The Celtics, having adjusted to life without Rajon Rondo, plus rookie Jared Sullinger are without Kevin Garnett (ankle) and Paul Pierce missed Monday’s loss at Minnesota for “personal reasons,” according to coach Doc Rivers. Meanwhile, Boston is dangerously close to slipping into eighth place and a first-round matchup against the Heat.
In the Big Apple, the injury list goes on and on: Tyson Chandler (neck) remains wait-and-see, Amar’e Stoudemire (knee) and Kurt Thomas (foot), very likely could join Rasheed Wallace (foot) as being shut down for the season. The Knicks, busting through it all with an eight-game win streak, continue to battle for the No. 2 seed with the Indiana Pacers, who have five straight and learned last week that Danny Granger (knee) won’t be making the late-season comeback they had expected just days earlier.
And those scrappy, scrappy Bulls by now must be resigned to a full season without Derrick Rose (knee), and they may have lost Rip Hamilton (back) for the season. They hope to soon get center Joakim Noah (foot) back in uniform, as well as Marco Belinelli (abdomen).
Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Nets, finally with Deron Williams healthy and playing like an All-Star again, would love to say the same about Joe Johnson (heel).
As the playoffs quickly approach, time is running short for players and teams to get healthy.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – That rant Vinny Del Negro unleashed on his team after Saturday night’s blowout loss to the Houston Rockets (sans James Harden) was not an elaborate pre-April Fool’s Day ruse. It was real.
“They played harder than we did,” Del Negro said. “We were terrible. Our effort was terrible, our attitude was terrible, our urgency was terrible. Very disappointed. I didn’t see the fight in us tonight, and we need guys to step up.”
“We’re fighting for a spot, and we come out with that second-half — pretty much the whole game — effort. It was poor.” Del Negro said. “I know it’s the fourth game in five nights, but that’s no excuse. We’ve got plenty of depth. No excuses. I don’t believe in that.”
The vitriol … the disappointment … all of it was real.
With seemingly everything to play for — a top-three seed in the Western Conference playoffs, home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, simple professional pride — the Clippers cannot find the energy to finish the season the way they started (with a bang).
The Clippers have fallen off the mark in the second half of the season, squandering a league-best 32-9 start by stumbling their way to a .500 finish (17-17) with seven games remaining in the season. Chris Paul‘s MVP turn during All-Star weekend might very well serve as the lone highlight for the Clippers during the season’s stretch run if they can’t shake out of their funk.
Deciphering exactly what’s wrong with the Clippers from a schematic standpoint is basically a waste of time. They have certain deficiencies that cannot be cured this season unless both Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan magically locate reliable post moves overnight. That’s not meant as a slight to either of the talented young big men, it’s just a fact.
The Clippers are not capable of playing inside-out for long enough stretches to make other high-level teams uncomfortable. Kicking off a crucial, four-game home stand with a deflating loss to the Pacers is no way to inspire confidence. And when Paul, Jamal Crawford and the rest of the Clippers’ perimeter stars are taking turns struggling as well, it confirms all of the fears we’ve been expressing about this team since their second-half struggles began.
This is code red time for the Clippers. They’ve lost four of their last five games and the finger-pointing (direct and otherwise) has already begun. The effort and energy from the players seems to be lacking, suggesting an underlying issue between the players and the coach that is undefeated in terms of the final results (the coach always has to go).
Del Negro has taken a rather aggressive approach, tinkering with his rotations and even benching starters in an effort to jumpstart his team.
For any of this to be said on a team with some of the best locker room leadership in the league (Paul, Caron Butler, Grant Hill and Chauncey Billups) is a bit startling.
Just as startling is Del Negro’s pointed criticism at his biggest stars, particularly his benching of Paul and Griffin recently, moves that are sure to erode the coach-player dynamic on a team that has always had issues in that regard under Del Negro. This madness is going on with a team that needs just one more win to clinch the franchise’s first 50-win season in history.
This puts the entire operation on alert for the postseason. If the Clippers slide in and then slide out just as quickly, then it’s anyone’s guess as to where the Clippers go from there in the offseason.
Start the playoffs on the road and suffer the fate then that you did during your recent tour through the Southwest Division, a 1-3 plank walk, and whatever is wrong with the Clippers will be someone else’s problem.
DALLAS – The Clippers’ pre-game locker room thumped with music as players jovially bounded about, getting in workouts with trainers on the floor of the cramped visitor’s locker room, telling stories as they sat at their locker stalls, laughing at a constant stream of jokes and generally having a good time.
This young, athletically gifted bunch, on its way to the playoffs for a second consecutive season for only the second time in the franchise’s 28-year history in Los Angeles, is known for its loose, if not the loosest, locker room in the league.
But the postgame scene in there is more frequently becoming hushed and tense. Such was the case Tuesday night at the American Airlines Center. The Clippers couldn’t build upon second-half leads, lost their composure and drew two costly technicals, mostly struggled in the half-court and couldn’t hold down a two-point lead in the final five seconds in losing 109-102 in overtime to the surging Dallas Mavericks just trying to slip in the backdoor of the playoffs.
Locked in a fight for seeds 3-5 with Denver and Memphis, L.A. dropped to fourth with three more road games in four nights starting tonight at New Orleans. They’re at San Antonio on Friday and Houston on Sunday.
As the regular season draws to a close, the Clippers, 5-5 in their last 10, seem to be creating more questions about their postseason viability than stamping their card as Western Conference title contenders.
“We had trouble executing down the stretch. That’s on me,” said Blake Griffin, who struggled to just 14 points on 4-for-12 shooting, and whose apparent, off-balance game-winning bucket with 0.4 seconds left was wiped away for using his forearm to push off Dirk Nowitzki. “Very disappointing, especially with Memphis and Denver losing [Monday] night. We needed to take advantage of it and we didn’t.”
Lame-duck coach Vinny Del Negro, who says he’s not concerned with his future,is always a target for criticism. Their often stale offensive sets remain an issue. They haven’t won more than four in a row since reeling off 17 straight in long ago December. Homecourt advantage is far from a lock and it remains to be seen if Del Negro’s deep rotation is sustainable, or even beneficial, in the playoffs.
“For us, I don’t think there’s any pressure,” said Chris Paul, who had a season-high 33 points, but also seven turnovers to match his season-high from just three games earlier when the Clips melted away at Sacramento. “For us, I think it’s just will, you got to have that will and just fight to the end. We’re going to do that, we’re going to do that. We’re going to keep trying to compete. We’re going to have an opportunity to do something that’s never been done, winning 50 games and winning a division, and not being satisfied with that.”
Paul does bring up a good point that perhaps ought to force everyone to take a step back in scrutinizing this team and view the larger picture. This is only Year 2 of the CP3 era, with the first being a lockout-shortened season. What has been accomplished is remarkable in terms of the franchise’s putrid history.
The Clippers need two wins to reach 50 for the first time in its existence in L.A., San Diego or Buffalo going back to the 1970-71 season, and the franchise has never won a division title. The Clips hold a 7 1/2-game lead in the Pacific over Golden State with 11 to play.
“I tell you, I could care less about the expectations or how happy people are that we win,” Paul said. “At the end of the day we’re playing for one reason and that’s to win a championship.”
In Del Negro’s first season, the year before Paul came into the picture, L.A. won 32 games. They’ve won 88 since, and expectations are that this team can challenge Oklahoma City for the West crown.
“The expectations, sometimes people get a little delusional in terms of how you’re going to get there and what you’re going to do, and people get sick of the word ‘process’ and things like that probably, but that’s what it is,” Del Negro said. “It’s a long NBA season. You got to handle the injuries, you got to handle a lot of things. I feel we’re in a pretty good position and we have to finish the season off strong and then it will come down to our health going into the playoffs.”
Chauncey Billups missed his 52nd game Tuesday night, but is expected to return on the road trip and giving the Clippers a clean bill of health. Paul said Billups changes the offense.
“Definitely a concern, but something that we can work at,” Paul said of the halfcourt offense. “We’re going to keep trying to work at it. We move the ball a little bit different when Chauncey’s out there because he’s another playmaker, another guard.”
Lob City has been one of the great stories the last couple seasons, and certainly no one expects Paul, a free agent this summer, to leave the franchise he’s turned around.
The same can’t be said for Del Negro if the Clips make a quick exit out of the playoffs.
This will get even more interesting in about three more weeks.
Can a team win it all nowadays without an MVP-type superstar?
Steve Aschburner: Don’t want to say “can’t” about a superstar-deficient roster surviving to win the NBA title but I do think it’s a long shot. The ability to ride one (or better yet, two) hot hands and the role that free-throw opportunities can play in pivotal games — built off of star power, in many cases — are the things of which champions are made. It would be fascinating to a lot of hardcore pro hoops fans to see, say, a Nuggets-Pacers Finals, but it wouldn’t thrill the marketing types or maybe even the folks in Olympic Tower. But I don’t see them having to fret beyond the conference finals round.
Fran Blinebury: This is like the old kids’ riddle about how many balls of string would it take to reach the moon? Just one, but it better be big. Of course, a team without a superstar can win it all. But it had better be talented, tough, unselfish and have enough players who could make all the big and little plays in the clutch. The stars have to be perfectly aligned to produce the 2004 Pistons again.
Jeff Caplan: OK, so the star-less Detroit Pistons won it all against the bickering, last-of-the-line Kobe-Shaq Lakers nearly a decade ago. The Chauncey Billups-Rip Hamilton-Tayshaun Prince-Rasheed-and-BenWallace Pistons remain the lone example, an exception to the rule. So, no, I don’t believe a team without a bona fide superstar in today’s NBA can win it all. We’ve seen that it’s nearly impossible for a lone superstar to take his team to the top. Dirk Nowitzki finally managed that task with one of the great postseason runs of all-time in 2011. And let’s be real, those Mavs caught a collapsing Lakers team with Phil Jackson having one foot out the door, a very young Thunder team just getting their feet under them and the Miami Super Friends in their first season together. I truly enjoy watching George Karl‘s squad run up and down the floor, but a team has got to have a go-to-guy who can create his own shot when the game turns into a halfcourt grindfest and when crunch-time demands an isolation takeover.
Scott Howard-Cooper: Possible, but it makes the odds much longer. The team does not have to have an MVP-type superstar, but it needs to have a player able to beat coverage to hit a pressure shot coming out of of a timeout in the final seconds. It also needs to have the player strike a fear in defenses, enough to create an opening for a teammate if Player X himself does not take the shot. That usually describes a superstar.
John Schuhmann: I think so. It would take great defense (like what we’ve seen from the star-less Pacers and Bulls) and an offense with shooting and ball movement (like the Spurs in Chicago on Monday). Of course, I don’t think the Nuggets have what it takes. They’re not good enough defensively, not good enough on the road, and not good enough from behind the 3-point line to thrive in at a slower, playoff-like pace.
Sekou Smith: It’s only been done once in my time eyeballing the league, by the 2004 Detroit Pistons. And they did it with one of the most meticulously crafted rosters I can remember seeing that was didn’t have a true MVP-type anchor (Chauncey Billups or Ben Wallace came close). I love the Nuggets and the way they are playing this season. The committee approach only goes so far in the NBA playoffs these days. Sooner or later you run into a team built around a superstar player (or players, in most instances).
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST –Dirk Nowitzki moved past Wilt Chamberlain Saturday night and into 15th place on the NBA’s all-time free throws made list.
In his 1,076th career game, Dirk collected eight more free throws to total 6,059 on 6,910 attempts. That’s 87.7 percent, currently good for a tie for 13th all-time with Jeff Hornacek. Only four active players have better career free-throw percentages — No. 1 Steve Nash (90.4), No. 5 Chauncey Billups (89.4), No. 6 Ray Allen (89.3) and No. 12 Kevin Durant (88.2).
But back to Wilt’s free throws and a little comparison to Dirk because these numbers are really mind-blowing:
* In 1,045 games — 31 fewer than Dirk has played to this point — Wilt made two fewer free throws (6,057) on 4,952 more attempts.
* Dirk has averaged 6.4 free throws a game; Wilt averaged 11.4.
* Dirk, 18th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list (24,442 career points), has missed 851 free-throw attempts.
* Wilt, fourth on the all-time scoring list (31,419), missed 5,805 free- throw attempts.
Dirk’s percentage has dipped a bit this season. After going 8-for-11 from the free-throw line in Saturday’s blowout win over the Golden State Warriors, Dirk is shooting just 78.5 percent from the free- throw line, his low-water mark by far since finishing his rookie season at 77.3 percent.
The slippage is rather stunning considering Dirk finished six of the last seven seasons at 89.0 percent or better (the other season was 87.9 percent).
The only conclusion is that the Oct. 19 athroscopic surgery on his right knee that sidelined him for the first 27 games of the season has taken a toll on a player who has always featured a pronounced knee bend in his shooting form (his 40.7 field-goal percentage is also the lowest since his rookie season).
That aside, Dirk remains one of the game’s all-time great free-throw shooters and he needs to average just under 4.0 made free throws in the final 32 games of the regular season to pass Bob Pettit (6,182) and move into 14th place.
In any other season, that would seem automatic, but this season Dirk is averaging just 2.9 made free throws a game. Prior to this season, he averaged 5.7 made free throws a game.
Whether it happens this season or next, it will happen. In fact, by the second half of next season Dirk should take his place in the top 10 all-time for most free throws made.
He’s just 317 away from overtaking No. 10 Allen Iverson (6,375), who despite his preference, doesn’t appear headed to an NBA free throw line ever again.