LOS ANGELES – There’s plenty at stake for the Los Angeles Clippers as they begin a second consecutive postseason for only the second time in their 29-year history in the city.
For the first time, the franchise has a 50-win season and a Pacific Division crown. They have one All-Star, Blake Griffin, locked up under contract and another, Chris Paul, who they hope will sign this summer to stay long-term. Finally, this notoriously cheap and irrelevant organization is slowly finding a small spot in the city’s heart.
So wouldn’t it be terrible if the Clippers allowed all that to slip away by allowing their hot heads to get in the way?
“That’s been our Achilles heel all season is losing our temper and I think I kind of set the tone,” Matt Barnes said after Saturday morning’s shootaround in preparation for tonight’s Game 1 against the physical Memphis Grizzlies.
Barnes said the Clippers are ready for a tough, physical series, the kind of grinding play that can instantly flare emotions and result in quick-trigger reactions. Barnes said he hopes the referees will let them play, but L.A. can’t worry about chirping at the refs or committing silly retaliatory plays if calls aren’t going their way.
“I’ve been telling these guys it’s a whole new attitude and stop getting in so much trouble,” Barnes said. “There’s a lot at stake, but you really don’t want to give anything away, you want to make a team earn everything. That’s something we’ll probably address before the game, something we’ve already addressed, so we kind of have to police each other out there because we know we’re susceptible to that.”
The Clips are among the top teams at drawing technical fouls. Griffin tied for the second-most during the regular season with 14. Center DeAndre Jordan and Barnes both got nailed 10 times and Jamal Crawford nine times. Even Lamar Odom‘s been T’d up six times and Paul five times.
During a late March game at Dallas, Griffin picked up a T with seven seconds to go in the third quarter that allowed the Mavericks to take the lead. Then Crawford got one a minute into the fourth quarter. The Clippers went on to lose in overtime. Those kinds of shifts on a technical foul can sabotage a playoff game, and undermine a series.
So can flagrant fouls, and L.A. is no stranger to those either. Speaking of playing intelligently, Barnes leads the Clippers with three Flagrant One penalties and one Flagrant Two. And reserve forward Ryan Hollins, whose minutes might get reduced against the Grizzlies, has three Flagrant One fouls.
The Clippers matched the Lakers as the only teams with two players in the top 10 in that dubious category.
“I know nobody on this team is a bad guy, like Blake has, I don’t know how many technicals, and he’s one of the nicest guys in the league,” Jordan said. “I think it’s really just a heat-of-the-moment type of thing. We get so caught up into the game and how competitive it is and sometimes your emotions get the best of you and you may snap for two seconds.
“But those two seconds are going to cost you some points and potentially a game. So we really have to harness our emotions in this series.”
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The shocking news that Kobe Bryant‘s season came to an abrupt end with a probable torn left Achilles Friday night spread through the basketball world like an emotional tidal wave.
Pundits and fans, friends and foes alike, everyone is digesting the news that even if the Lakers make the playoffs, Bryant’s work this season is done. Reactions from around the basketball universe (and beyond):
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.
The one recap to watch: Lakers-Bucks was the more sexy game of the night, what with Milwaukee climbing out of a 13-point hole to take down the West’s most glamorous team. By contrast, the Kings-Suns game gets the award for least sexy matchup of the night (despite an awesome performance from the enigmatic DeMarcus Cousins). That leaves Pacers-Mavs as our pick this morning, a bit of a surprise if you look at the final score. We’re picking this one, though, for some off-court reasons. Namely, the Pacers’ mental toughness and circle-the-wagons approach to last night’s game (especially after they learned Danny Granger won’t be back this season). Indiana also heard Dallas’ talk of shaving their hope-to-be-.500 beards after this game, as if assuming they’d topple the East’s No. 2 team with no problem. But great performances from Paul George and Roy Hibbert showed the Pacers are as serious of a contender in the East as they have been all season.
Sanders fuels Bucks’ big victory — As our man Steve Aschburner pointed out postgame, the big story from last night’s Lakers-Bucks game in Milwaukee was obviously the injury toKobe Bryant. But while we’re all fretting over whether or not the Black Mamba will play in L.A.’s next game, lost in the shuffle was the play of Larry Sanders last night. He finished with a career-best 21 points and his high-energy play that has been a hallmark of his season sparked Milwaukee as it rallied from a 13-point hole. Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has more on Sanders and the Bucks’ big win:
The Bucks knew that somehow, some way, they had to halt a four-game slide that was putting their playoff push in reverse gear.
And they did it with a collective effort, posting a 113-103 victory that featured a career-high 21 points from center Larry Sanders and a stellar defensive performance by veteran Marquis Daniels, who had the difficult assignment to defend Bryant.
“We came out and accepted the challenge,” Daniels said. “We needed a win bad. We came out with more intensity and more energy.
“You just try to make all his shots tough and make him work for everything that he got.”
“Our attention to detail was a little better,” Bucks coach Jim Boylan said. “Larry was great, really active, did a lot of talking out there.
“We’ve been struggling lately. And when you struggle, you can get into your own little world, and that’s a bad place to go as a team. You need to be communicating; you need to be playing a collective game.
“Tonight was breaking out of that shell a little bit.”
The Bucks trailed by as many as 13 points in the second quarter but rallied within 56-53 at halftime.
Then they began to take control in the third quarter, using a 13-2 run that featured three dunks by Sanders and a three-pointer by Daniels.
The Bucks led, 82-77, after three quarters and extended the lead to 12 points in the fourth quarter.
Daniels had a key three-point play off a Monta Ellis assist as part of an 8-0 spurt to give the Bucks a 104-92 lead.
“It gets the crowd going and gets the team going,” Sanders said of his six dunks.
He exhorted the crowd in the final minute, walking over to the sideline and raising his arms to get the fans out of their seats.
“I love the crowd,” Sanders said. “I like to get them hyped, especially with the playoffs coming up. It will be good for us.”
Randolph, Hollins ignore talk of conflict — During the Knicks’ win over the Grizzlies on Wednesday night, the New York broadcasting crew implied that there might be growing friction between Grizzlies All-Star forward Zach Randolph and his coach, Lionel Hollins. They also suggested there is a growing belief there is a wedge between the star and his coach and that dynamic is being played out on the court. Randolph and Hollins, though, refute those claims and detail their relationship further to Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal:
There is a growing belief that the Grizzlies’ veteran power forward and head coach aren’t on the same page as they prepare for a postseason run. However, both men dismissed that notion Thursday, saying there is no friction between them.
“Our relationship is fine,” Randolph said. “I respect my coach.”
“The only beef I had with Zach is he was excessively late for a shootaround that started at 4:30 p.m. (last Saturday),” Hollins said. “I told him I can’t start you and he understood. Everybody’s got their opinion about what goes on in our locker room. But only the people in there know. I haven’t had a beef with Zach and he hasn’t had one with me.”
Randolph didn’t start last Saturday against Boston because of his tardiness that day. He struggled mightily on the court this past week in games against Washington and New York.
Randolph had just one shot in the second half of a loss at Washington. He was just 1 of 3 from the field against New York.
Hollins said any correlation between Randolph’s recent poor performances and their relationship is off base because there are basketball reasons why Randolph has struggled lately.
“We’re getting him the ball,” Hollins said. “If you watch the games, we’re getting him the ball. It’s just now teams are taking him away. They’re running three people at him and he’s making passes. Other people are having to step up and try to do things. It’s just the way it is.”
Hollins did acknowledge that the Grizzlies aren’t in the best place as the regular season winds down. And his assessment had nothing to do with their fifth-place standing in the Western Conference.
“I’d like for us to be sharper mentally and more focused intensity-wise. But I understand it’s a long season. I understand that guys get tired and you go through lulls. Then, you get your energy back,” Hollins said. “I just don’t want us to get bad habits. That was one of the reasons I had practice (Thursday). I wanted to get back to practicing our habits. It wasn’t a hard workout, but it was back to technique and fundamentals offensively and defensively.”
Cousins pounds away on Suns — The Kings are one of the West’s worst squads but have shown improvement in March, going 7-7 with wins against the Bulls, Clippers and, most recently, the Warriors, during that span. The win in Golden State wasn’t without its dramatic points for the Kings, most notably being that leading scorer DeMarcus Cousins sat out the entire fourth quarter of that game as coach Keith Smart went for a defensive lineup. Cousins was back in action last night and made sure his play wasn’t an afterthought in the Kings’ win, writes Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee:
A night after being held out the final 12 minutes, DeMarcus Cousins had the option of going back in during the fourth quarter Thursday night.
He declined. There was no need for Cousins to do any more.
Cousins had his way against the undermanned Phoenix Suns. The third-year center scored a season-high 34 points to go with 14 rebounds as the Kings bullied their way to a 117-103 win at US Airways Center.
Rather than seethe over what happened against the Warriors, Cousins took his frustration out on Luis Scola, Markieff Morris, Hamed Haddadi or any other Suns player that tried to stop him.
Cousins scored 17 points and had seven rebounds in the first quarter to spark the Kings’ 38-point effort to open the game. It was the most points Phoenix allowed in a first period this season.
“It was definitely frustration,” Cousins said. “I just try to put it behind me. It’s a new day, so I just try to act like it never happened.”
Cousins showed off his overall skills in going 12 for 16 from the field and making all nine of his free throws. He also made one of his two three-point attempts.
Cousins used power against smaller players and skill and quickness against stronger players that could not match his athleticism.
“The guy has a lot of talent, and you saw everything,” Smart said. “From the three-point shot, he can do that, he shoots them in practice. The midrange, 17-, 18-foot shot. The drive to the basket from deep off the floor. Obviously his rebounding is still going to be his strong suit because that’s what he does, and he’s a very good offensive rebounder.”
Smart knew Cousins wasn’t happy about not playing in the fourth against the Warriors and liked how Cousins responded.
“The best way to handle anything you may be feeling is to go out on the floor and perform,” Smart said. “We’re all judged on the performance. And regardless of what a coach did or a player did, it’s all about your performance on the floor. And tonight he created the environment that he wanted to have success in.”
Barnes wants more transparency with refs — The Clippers are tied with the Thunder in average technical fouls per game this season with 0.8. There have been 58 technicals assessed to the Clips this season, with Blake Griffin’s 12 being the team high. And, as Dan Woike of the Orange County Register points out, most of those technicals have come after the Clippers’ players and coaches argue with officials about a call. Reserve forward Matt Barnes, though, has clear thoughts on what should happen with officials in the future:
Matt Barnes, a player who has made a career of not backing down from anyone on the court, didn’t back down from the touchy topic, calling for the leae to be more transparent with their officials.
“One I thing I will say is I know they get graded. I think their grades should be public record,” Barnes said before the Clippers’ victory over New Orleans Wednesday. “Everything we do on the court is public. Our fines, our techs, everything we do is under a microscope. And the refs are supposed to be a part of this league just like we are.
“Their grades should be public record. Everyone should be able to see.”
“It’s hard,” Barnes said. “When you’re playing as hard as you can and you’re getting beat up and nothing is being done about it, it’s frustrating.”
Multiple players agreed that the team has developed a reputation around the league for complaining about calls.
“I think we do, and if so, it’s warranted,” Barnes said. “I’ve seen the calls that have been made against us and the calls that are not made for us. Blake’s a superstar, and I see the way he gets beat up or me as a defender being aggressive and the fouls I get. It’s frustrating, but it’s something we have to play through.
“…I think the reputation, for whatever reason, is something we’re going to have to work through because we definitely don’t get calls.”
Barnes said he doesn’t hold any ill will towards officials, though.
“They’re out there doing the best job they can,” he said.
But that doesn’t change his views on whether the NBA should be more open with its reviews of their officials.
“A ref’s grade should be public record after a game just like our stats are,” Barnes said. “They’re out there, doing their job, and they’re supposed to be the best in the world just like we are. Their grades should be public record. I don’t understand why not.”
ICYMI of the night: It takes a lot for a mascot to make the cut down here, but Bango sure did get Dwight Howard good on this one … :
OKLAHOMA CITY – The NBA league office’s decision Wednesday to fine Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka and not suspend him for his hit to the groin of Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin drew a humorous reaction on Twitter from Griffin and bewilderment from a couple of Miami Heat stars.
The Flagrant 1 foul initially called in the fourth quarter Sunday in the Thunder’s 108-104 win was upgraded to a Flagrant 2 and Ibaka was fined $25,000. The decision not to suspend him allowed Ibaka to play in Wednesday night’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers.
“It’s always better to play than to sit down watching the game,” Ibaka said after the decision came down.
Griffin expressed his thoughts on the non-suspension by spoofing his own Kia car commercials:
Kid Blake: Who are you? Future Blake: you from the future… Don't listen to anything else I've told you just start wearing a cup.— Blake Griffin (@blakegriffin32) March 06, 2013
His Clippers teammate Matt Barnes expressed himself a bit more graphically in his Twitter message:
You can INTENTIONALLY grab or hit someone in the balls & not get suspended, but you push someone & get suspended. #ImConfused— Matt Barnes (@Matt_Barnes22) March 05, 2013
And there was the somewhat odd chiming in from Miami’s disbelieving LeBron James, who came to the defense of his incredulous teammate Dwyane Wade, who was suspended for one game earlier this season for a kick to the groin of Charlotte Bobcats guard Ramon Sessions.
So explain to me the difference? My teammate gets a 1 game suspension and 150k+ taking away from him for his groin altercation #strangetome— LeBron James (@KingJames) March 05, 2013
Ibaka said he didn’t see any of the tweets from fellow players, but, yes, he said he heard about them.
“But it is not really my concern,” Ibaka said. “Like I said yesterday about the foul, it wasn’t something I tried to do. The game was physical. I would not try to hurt someone, I am not that type of guy. I like to play hard. And just for all the fans, I did not try to hurt him, and I apologize to all the fans who were watching the game.”
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – What the Los Angles Clippers are doing is just as impressive in person as it is from afar. Seriously, do you have any idea how difficult it is in the NBA to win every night with a schedule that is unrelenting and competition that, for the most part, is as tight as you could get on a given night?
The Clippers do and have managed their league-best 17-game win streak masterfully.
Does it mean they’ve arrived among the NBA’s truly elite? We won’t know that for sure until sometime in late April or early May, when this group fights off the pressure in the playoffs and advances without playing their very best. Does it mean they have officially replaced the Los Angeles Lakers as the top hoops draw in their own city? Of course, not. Lakers fans will simply remind you to look up in the rafters at Staples Center and start counting the banners.
But if this streak proves anything at all, it’s that Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro has figured out the best way to avoid the dreaded coaching hot seat he seemed to be on every other night when his team wasn’t winning all the time. In fact, he’s rarely been mentioned, good or bad, during the streak. And that’s probably the way he’d like to keep it.
The laws of NBA gravity suggest that this streak will have to end sometime soon. A grueling stretch of schedule that has the Clippers walking on hot coals – in Denver on Tuesday, the Nuggets are 9-1, in Oakland to face Golden State the next night, and then back in Los Angeles for another round of the City Championship series against the Lakers on Friday, followed the next night by a visit from the Warriors — just to survive the next six days.
It’s certainly doable for a team that went 16-0 this month. But adding four more wins this week against that schedule would be grounds for an investigation into extra-terrestrial assistance for a franchise that has never experienced the kind of hoops high the Clippers are these days.
Which brings us right back to Del Negro, whose navigated this mercurial stretch seamlessly. He’s allowed the Clippers’ entire cast of characters to play their roles to perfection. All-Stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin lead the way, Caron Butler and DeAndre Jordan do some of the heavier lifting when they need to, as Butler did in Sunday’s win over the Utah Jazz with 29 points, while the league’s best bench (Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Eric Bledsoe and the boys) continue to crash open close games with their wave on non-stop energy.
“Everybody here has a decent body of work in some way shape or form,” Crawford said. “They’ve proven something somewhere in the NBA. With that is a confidence that a player has, and there are egos involved.”For him to be able to manage that and put people in the right positions and use people to their strengths, he deserves a lot of credit.”
Del Negro has juggled a rotation full of veterans without much drama, but he’s established roles for everyone from Paul to Ryan Hollins.
“Guys get frustrated sometimes not playing as much, but it’s about the team winning games,” Del Negro said.
One thing Del Negro has done is allow players to operate in their areas of strength.
“He just tells me to be me. It’s been awhile since I was told to just be me,” Ronny Turiaf said. “I think it goes back to the Laker days when Phil (Jackson) told me, ‘Ronny, just go out there and play. I trust your basketball I.Q. I trust your basketball knowledge to be able to make plays for us.’”
Utah coach Tyrone Corbin said managing a roster with so many guys who are capable could present challenges down the road.
“It’s difficult. It’s a good and a bad thing to be in,” Corbin said. “Guys want to play, especially good guys who have had great careers and still think they have something to offer. Things are going well so they all want to be a part of it. It’s easier to manage their minutes, when things are going well.”
Said Crawford of Del Negro: “For him to have the pulse of the team and feel the team and the stuff he draws up, he has us believing we can win every single day.”
Do it every single day this week and someone can toss Del Negro’s hot seat into the ocean sometime late Saturday night!
LOS ANGELES – Lob City sells tickets. But defense wins championships.
That’s the way the basketball purists are approaching the Los Angeles Clippers, the hottest and “best” team in basketball as we speed toward the end of the year the Mayans said would be the end of for us all.
It seems fitting that the Clippers, of all franchises, would be in this position. They’ve never had the best record in the league this late in the season. And they’re fighting a legacy of futility that makes it tough for guys like TNT’s Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith to truly believe in what they’re seeing out of a team that has won a franchise-record 15 straight games.
But what would your reaction be to the news that the Clippers — even with all of the alley-oop action we’ve enjoyed from Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan – are as much of a defensive powerhouse right now as they are entertaining and athletic?
The fact is, the Clippers are the second-best defensive team in the league behind Indiana and rank as the most improved defensive team in basketball, ahead of Golden State, Minnesota and Indiana.
Top five defenses, 2012-13
DefRtg = Points allowed per
If you’re not interested in the metrics, give them the eyeball test that Celtics coach Doc Rivers did before, during and after the Clippers put the smackdown on his team Thursday night on TNT. It’s hard to dismiss the Clippers when they are up in the grill of a team that built its foundation on defense, the bedrock that led to a championship during their spectacular run of the past five seasons.
“Last year, I think they showed up and they just thought their talent and their offense was [going to win for them],” Rivers said. “But this year their defense has been fantastic. I mean, we’re all talking about their offense, but they’re playing just terrific defense. And they have balance now. They’re fifth in the league in scoring, fifth in defense. That’s a balanced basketball team and that makes you really good.”
Still, the Clippers are fighting to dispel any notion that this is just a momentary run and that they are the Clippers of yore, when they were a team that quite frankly could not be counted on to do things the way they’re doing them now that Paul is a part of the organization.
“They have a terrific team,” Rivers said. “Every year is a new year, but they’re good. They’re talented and they play together. They all accept their roles. They’re actually a fun team to watch play, other than the dunks. They’re just a fun team to watch play the game.”
Barkley questioned whether the Clippers could keep this up — playing at their fevered and physical pitch and also playing every man in uniform and getting contributions from them all — when the games slow down in the playoffs. It’s a fair question that won’t be answered until April and May, depending on how deep the Clippers play into the postseason.
And it’s not realistic to believe that Matt Barnes will stretch his current streak of nine straight games of scoring double figures off the bench or that Jamal Crawford, Lamar Odom, Ronny Turiaf and Eric Bledsoe will continue to provide the starters an opportunity to rest in the fourth quarter of every game.
But don’t tell that to Paul.
“I’ve probably sat out more fourth quarters this year than all my previous seven seasons,” he said. “People talk about how me and Blake’s numbers are down. Well, we don’t play many fourth quarters. And I think it just says a lot about our team and how everything is balanced.”
Balanced in every way. Their production from up and down the roster is at the heart of not only this 15-game streak but also their league-best 23-6 record (the Thunder are 22-6).
Most improved DefRtg
Just as impressive, though, is the focus the Clippers bring every night. And it’s opponent specific. They had to battle a team built similarly to theirs in the Denver Nuggets on Christmas and beat them into submission over the course of four quarters. The Celtics brought a different level of animosity to the Staples Center and the Clippers responded in kind.
“[The Celtics] played very intense, they played aggressive, they played physical,” Griffin said. “And I thought we did a good job of matching that.”
Perhaps best of all is that the Clippers don’t seem nearly as preoccupied with their current streak as others. Their focus is on the developing the chemistry and cohesion needed for finishing the marathon in style.
“I don’t really care about it,” Jordan said of the streak. “We’re just playing, we’re rolling. Everybody’s clicking and we’re starting to gel even more. We still have some guys out. Hopefully when they come back we’ll still be able to keep things going.”
LOS ANGELES – As anyone within a 300-mile radius of the Staples Center will tell you, this was, is and always will be a “Lakers town.”
It’s just a part of the deal when you have 16 NBA championship banners hanging in the rafters. But by the time all of the NBA gifts were unwrapped on Christmas, it was that other team that calls Staples Center home that stood out from the rest of the crowd. Lob City and then some.
The Clippers wiped the arena floor with the Denver Nuggets in a 112-100 clinic before an enthralled home crowd, pushing their franchise-record winning streak up to 14 games and counting. They boasts the league’s best record at 22-6 and a half game ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the first time they’ve held that distinction on Christmas Day in franchise history.
The maestro of the original Showtime saw it and said it himself. ESPN analyst and Lakers legend Magic Johnson started the praise parade at halftime Tuesday night when he called the Clippers the second coming of Showtime.
“I thought I would never see Showtime again,” he said. “The Clippers are Showtime! THIS is Showtime.”
They’ll have to chase a few banners for that praise to be anything more than a a good sound bite, as captain and All-Star Chris Paul made clear after watching a huge lead shrink with the starters resting in the fourth quarter. The Clippers gave up 100 points for just the second time during the streak, average margin of victory 15.4 points.
“The Showtime Lakers won championships,” Paul said.”We always talk about the big picture because this is fool’s gold,” Paul said. “You don’t play for the regular season. … We still got to keep building. We’ll know when we’re where we want to be, but we still have a ways to go.”
The Clippers are working on developing the championship fabric that all title teams seem to have. And they’re doing it with unbridled passion for the job, with smiles on their faces and a locker room as loose as the one some of us saw in Oklahoma City last season when the Thunder made their move to The Finals.
“That sweater contest can be blamed on Chris, Blake [Griffin] and DeAndre [Jordan],” said Clippers and NBA sixth man extraordinaire Jamal Crawford, who led the charge against the Nuggets with a game-high 22 points off the bench. “They are in charge of all of the crazy stuff that goes on around here, all of the fun stuff. They’re the ones who set the pace around here.”
That’s the extent of the finger-pointing that goes on with this group. Ninety minutes before tipoff their locker room was a festival of pranks, holiday greetings and evaluations of whose sweater was ugliest. That was just a warm up for what they had in store for the Nuggets, as physical and athletic a group as there is in the league.
When the Clippers tried to crank up the Lob City action late in the first quarter, Nuggets center Kosta Koufos took exception with a hard foul on and a few choice words for Griffin, who responded by going directly at Koufos and any other player in blue foolish enough to get in his way.
A 28-10 Clippers’ scoring barrage ensued, with wicked dunks from Griffin, Jordan and Matt Barnes, whose impact off the bench alongside Crawford (20 points on this night) cannot be ignored. Paul and Barnes nailed consecutive 3-pointers during that run and Crawford, the best pure scorer on the roster, brought the fans out of their seats repeatedly with showmanship off the dribble on offense that the ringleader of the original “Showtime” crew (and longtime showman and Clippers superfan Billy Crystal) could appreciate.
Not everyone in the Clippers’ camp is as enthralled with the early season work, though.
“It’s nice. But it’s Christmas,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. “We’ve got a long way to go and lot of improvements to make.”
Hours earlier Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni expressed similar sentiments about his team, while also professing that they had the “best talent in the league” on their roster. This from a coach whose team has won five straight games just to get back to .500 (14-14).
Again, the Clippers have won 14 straight, the longest streak in the league this season. And yet they’re still losing the fight in the Battle For Los Angeles.
“We’re really not fighting that battle,” Crawford said having obviously heard that line of questioning before. “We’re good over here. We don’t worry about anything but us around here. It’s all about getting better and better. We’re trying to stay locked in and focused.”
Do blowout victories lead to big nights for a team’s bench or does a big night for a team’s bench lead to blowout victories?
Yes. And vice versa.
Something like that, anyway, after the team with arguably the NBA’s best unit of reserves took on and handily beat the team that used to arguably have the best backups.
The Los Angeles Clippers have been getting great production from their bench, led by veteran addition Jamal Crawford. Crawford (at 20.7 ppg) isn’t just the Clippers’ leading scorer so far this season, he ranks ninth overall in the NBA. He’s the only one of the top 26 on that list who is averaging fewer than 30 minutes nightly – in fact, Crawford hasn’t started a single game.
The 13-year veteran is off to his best start ever – he’s averaging 26.5 points per 36 minutes, 5.6 points more than his previous best. Crawford scored 22 minutes in 27:22 Saturday, and he had plenty of help from benchmates Matt Barnes (13) and Eric Bledsoe (10) in L.A.’s 101-80 victory over Chicago.
Ahem, yes, that Chicago. One of the Bulls’ distinctive advantages the past two seasons was a second unit unrivaled in the NBA for total impact at both ends of the floor. While guys such as Kyle Korver and C.J. Watson gave their club reliable scoring weapons, defenders such as Omer Asik, Ronnie Brewer and Taj Gibson made coach Tom Thibodeau smile at the havoc they wreaked on the other clubs’ best-laid plays.
Except that now, only Gibson remains from the guts of that “bench mob.” Gibson’s production has been down so far, possibly affected by contract-extension uncertainty that wasn’t resolved until the Halloween deadline. Jimmy Butler hasn’t made the second-year step as a shooter that was supposed to make Brewer expendable. The others were shed in Bulls management’s adherence to fiscal responsibility, i.e., minimizing luxury-tax liability.
So the Bulls swapped out valuable parts as if they were interchangeable cogs, and the helpful contributions in reserve now are supposed to come from Marco Belinelli, Nate Robinson, Nazr Mohammed, Vladimir Radmanovic and Marquis Teague.
Only they’re not. Catch a glimpse of the gamebook from this one: Through three quarters at Staples Center, the Clippers had a 17-point lead but a 42-8 bench scoring edge. The Bulls’ backups, in a total of about 33 minutes, were a frosty 2-of-12. They were part of the problem defensively in the Clips’ 35-point second quarter, too.
A team that has no margin for error, with its superstar point guard still out indefinitely, lately has been getting next-to-nothing – nothing reliable, anyway – from its used-to-be strength.
Aside from Derrick Rose’s absence, the Bulls’ single biggest issue is the fact that their new Bench Mob isn’t playing nearly as well as their old one did.
“Our second unit comes in, we always try and take advantage,” Crawford said. “We feel like we’re among the best second units in the league and every night we get an opportunity to prove it. So we want to support our starters and once we get everybody together we feel like we’ll be among the best teams in the league.”
That’s exactly what Taj Gibson and his old Bench Mob teammates used to say after games. They would always find a way to extend a lead or keep it at bay until the starters returned. That’s not the case anymore. Thibodeau struggles to find consistency from his new group on a night to night basis. When they play higher quality opponents and the starters don’t bring the right intensity — the Bulls are in trouble.
Crawford, at 32, might not be able to maintain his current pace. Then again, the Clippers have Grant Hill and Chauncey Billups potentially in reserve for their reserves, so there is cavalry for the cavalry. The Bulls used to have that kind of deep depth, but right now all they have is Radmanovic playing the Brian Scalabrine role, and of course less lovably.
Never mind that the playoffs won’t begin for nearly six months. It’s never too soon to leap to conclusions about what we know — or think we know — one week into the 2012-13 regular season.
Knicks: Just when it became fashionable to trade in those blue and orange jerseys for the black and white of Brooklyn, the Knicks roll out their best start in team history, not only going 3-0, but also winning every game by at least 16 points. Nobody’s breaking out the countdown charts until Carmelo Anthony and his buddies run down the historic 72-10 record of the Bulls. But as long as the Knicks keep sharing the ball and the likes of Ronnie Brewer, Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni give big man Tyson Chandler help with their defense on the perimeter, they’re for real. At least until Amar’e Stoudemire comes back to mess with the chemistry. Suddenly the Eastern Conference is about more than sniping between the Heat and Celtics. We all know the real bad blood is N.Y. vs. Miami with Jeff Van Gundy hanging onto Alonzo Mourning’s ankle.
Lakers: The NBA’s combination of longest-running soap opera/situation comedy of the past two decades has always been the ride on the day-to-day roller coaster of the Lakers. It’s part of the DNA of Angelenos to panic anytime their team loses two in a row and this season an 0-3 start hit the hysterical jackpot. Yes, Mike Brown will be under more microscopes than a newly discovered germ at the CDC and, yes, it will matter that soon-to-be-39-year-old Steve Nash is ambulatory for the postseason and it would help if their bench wasn’t paper thin. Still every team in the West outside of the Thunder and Spurs would trade its roster for a confused Dwight Howard and an aging Kobe Bryant. They’re not dead yet, but their breathing is labored.
James Harden: Look, LeBron James already has a shelf full of MVP trophies and is concentrating on chasing down Michael Jordan for his six championships. So wouldn’t it be simpler to just acknowledge right now that The Beard is unstoppable. It was never a secret that Harden was talented and explosive. But popping in 37 and 45 in his first two games with the Rockets and leading the league in scoring at 35.3 has been like scrapping the velvet off a painting of dogs playing poker and to find a Rembrandt hiding underneath. (more…)
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Los Angeles Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro has a decidedly different approach to preseason basketball than his Los Angeles Lakers’ counterpart.
While Mike Brown isn’t worried about his team’s 0-6 preseason record, Del Negro demands that his crew treat every dress rehearsal like the real thing.
“You get paid to play and you get paid to win, I don’t care if it’s exhibition or not, you have to compete,” Del Negro told reporters after Monday night’s win over the Golden State Warriors. “If you’re not willing to compete and put it out there, you’re not a competitive person and those are not the type of people I want around here. … I understand it’s an exhibition game but when you play your minutes, play the right way so we can get better. If you don’t want to, you can come sit with me.”
Both sides will have main players sitting with the coaches when the Clippers and Lakers square off tonight (10:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV). Lakers star Kobe Bryant is set to rest his sore foot and Del Negro has talked about resting his starters for the preseason version of the Staples Center Classic.
That means tonight’s game could turn into a battle of the benches, and that’s one fight where the deeper Clippers’ appear to have an advantage over their city rivals. A roll call of the Clippers’ reserves — Jamal Crawford, Lamar Odom, Grant Hill, Matt Barnes, Eric Bledsoe, Ronny Turiaf, Willie Green, Ryan Hollins and Chauncey Billups (who will return from a torn Achilles tendon sometime next month or in December) — highlights an explosive supporting cast of talented players all capable of playing multiple positions.