NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: The Clippers have an edge over the Rockets — Even with Chris Paul “questionable” for Game 1 of the Los Angeles Clippers’ Western Conference semifinal against the Houston Rockets, the Clippers are confident. They have an edge, of sorts, over the Rockets, according to Ben Bolch of The Los Angeles Times:
After edging the five-time NBA champion San Antonio Spurs in the first round, the Clippers have advanced to face a team with a lesser recent playoff pedigree than themselves.
The Houston Rockets have won two playoff series since 1997, one fewer than the Clippers have won since Chris Paul arrived in December 2011.
It’s true that Rockets guard Jason Terry won a championship with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011 and stars James Harden and Dwight Howard each advanced to the Finals with other teams, but the group has done little collectively besides getting past the Mavericks in a relatively breezy first-round series this season.
The Rockets and Clippers each won 56 games in the regular season, finishing tied for the league’s third-best record. The Rockets were awarded the second seeding in the Western Conference and the accompanying homecourt advantage in this conference semifinal series against the third-seeded Clippers by virtue of winning the Southwest Division.
The Clippers have dominated Houston in recent seasons, winning 11 of the last 14 games. But the Rockets won the final two games between the teams this season and Howard did not play in any of the four games in the series this season.
“Obviously, they have a good thing going,” Clippers forward Blake Griffin said. “James has had an unbelievable year, Dwight had a huge series against Dallas and really all the way down the line. They’re a great team.”
No. 2: Rugged Wizards still unblemished in the postseason — The standard for toughness and determination in this postseason, at least in the Eastern Conference, is the Washington Wizards. Playing on the road to start both their first round series and the conference semifinals, the Wizards remain unblemished, perfect after five games. They are the embodiment of toughness, says Mike Lee of The Washington Post:
Bradley Beal and John Wall showed up at the postgame podium looking as if they had just been sparring for 12 rounds instead of playing basketball for four quarters. Beal had petroleum jelly covering two scratches under his right eye that came after Atlanta Hawks reserve guard Kent Bazemore inexplicably kicked him in the face while chasing down a loose ball. Wall had his left wrist and hand heavily taped after an awkward landing that was exacerbated by Beal tripping and falling on him.
At different times during the Washington Wizards’ 104-98 victory over the Hawks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Beal and Wall provided moments of spectacular play and trepidation for a team that suddenly doesn’t know how to lose. Beal matched his playoff career high with 28 points, his third 20-point game this postseason. Wall added 18 points and a game-high 13 assists , extending a string of four consecutive double-doubles that has seen him dish out 55 assists over those games. Beal and Wall have been a representation of the mental and physical toughness required to win at this time of year, having already led the Wizards to more postseason wins in the past two seasons than the previous 27 seasons combined.
“We two guys that’s going to fight until the end,” Wall said after winning at Philips Arena for just the second time in his career and first time this season. “If it ain’t broke, you can’t get us off the court.”
The win almost felt bittersweet after Beal sprained his right ankle in the fourth quarter when he landed awkwardly on Hawks center Al Horford. Beal returned to hobble around for a few minutes but finally got benched, pulled a towel over his head and sobbed uncontrollably as the final seconds ticked off. He continued to weep through a postgame television interview and on his way for X-rays , which turned out negative. With a protective sleeve on his right leg, Beal walked with a slight limp after the game, and Coach Randy Wittman was uncertain about Beal’s availability for Game 2.
No. 3: Can the Cavaliers handle the Bulls without Love, Smith? — No Kevin Love. No J.R. Smith (for the first two games). Some think that’s a “no go” for the Cleveland Cavaliers as they open their Eastern Conference semifinal series tonight against the Chicago Bulls. But LeBron James and Kyrie Irving might have something to say about that. Terry Pluto of the Plain Dealer raises some questions and provides some answers as this long awaited series gets ready for tip off:
1. It’s impossible to know how the Cavs will play in the first two games. Once General Manager David Griffin made his two deals in January, J.R. Smith sat out only one game with the Cavs. That was a 117-78 loss to Boston when the Cavs rested most of their key players, a game meaning nothing. So it’s only this game where we’ll see what the Cavs look like without Kevin Love (shoulder surgery) and Smith (two-game suspension).
2. That’s why it’s so hard to know how the Cavs will perform against the Bulls. It’s great to have LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, they give your team a chance in nearly every game. But the Bulls are a tall team, and they also have some skilled scorers. I’m very, very worried about this matchup.
3. The 6-foot-10 Love would have been a big deal in the Bulls series. He probably would have been defended by Joakim Noah or Pau Gasol — pulling one of the Bulls big men away from the basket. Coach David Blatt loves a power forward — “a Stretch-4″ — who can shoot. That’s Love. Without him, James Jones will be the best option for some parts in the game when the Cavs want a power forward who can shoot. But Jones won’t demand the defensive attention of Love.
4. When the Cavs start Smith and Love, the have two guys capable of making jump shots from long range. That helps keep the middle open for James and Irving to drive to the rim. Of course, Irving and James also can shoot from the outside. But they are even more dangerous when they drive to the rim.
5. When Smith returns from his suspension, the Cavs can play three guards — Iman Shumpert, Smith and Irving — with James at power forward and a big man (Timofey Mozgov or Tristan Thompson) at center. Not sure what they will do in the first two games with no Smith, other than Shawn Marion will see some action at forward — and Mike Miller at guard.
No. 4: Parade plans being made in Golden State — Five down and 11 more to go for the Golden State Warriors, who have looked every bit of the championship caliber team many assumed they would after an epic regular season. Sure, there is a long way to go, but the path is there for them to grind all the way to a championship. Tim Kawakami of the Mercury News has done the math and is convinced that there will be parade through the streets of Oakland this summer:
There was one moment among the many, one move among the multitudes, one particularly providential part of Game 1 at Oracle Arena on Sunday.
It was presumptive MVP Stephen Curry casually dribbling into a high screen-and-roll, luring Zach Randolph to the perimeter … and then a sudden Curry fake that sent Randolph lunging to the right, a Curry sublime flash to the left, and a 3-point splash.
It was poetry. It shook the walls of the old building.
What opponent can stop that? Who can beat the Warriors when they have everything going at full throttle?
Nobody. That’s sort of important to know and point out, 11 victories from a title.
And though it was just a single play on the way to the Warriors’ commanding 101-86 victory over Memphis, it communicated everything important about this team and that player.
This is why the Warriors are already in total control of this series, this is why Curry will win the MVP on Monday (reported first by CSN Bay Area, with a 1 p.m. news conference as reported by this newspaper’s Marcus Thompson II).
And this is why the Warriors are in such a special place, time and mood.
Curry and his teammates know they can’t look too far ahead — not even to potentially winning the MVP, Curry said Sunday.
They realize that any little stumble or loss of focus could put them in jeopardy at any time.
But if they play like this for the rest of the playoffs, the Warriors are going to win the championship, there just isn’t much doubt anymore.
“It’s a fun time,” Curry said after his 22-point, seven-assist, four-steal performance. “The pressure is on.
“The vibe around the league is at a high, and I think we’re ready for the moment, just trying to stay in the moment.”
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Hawks have dug themselves a hole and must grind their way out of it, with the starting unit on the floor more, in the Eastern Conference semifinals … Grizzles look ordinary without Mike Conley in their first blush against the Warriors … Spurs still dancing around questions about the future of Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovich and the crew … Iman Shumpert is the X-factor for the Cavaliers against his hometown Chicago Bulls … Tom Thibodeau still has the blueprint for defeating a LeBron James led team …