NBA Season Preview: Los Angeles Clippers

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Last season: 29-53, a season that seemed lost when Blake Griffin fractured his kneecap landing after a monster dunk in the preseason. But only the Clippers can find ways to bring that down even farther: there was the Mike Dunleavy firing (which is on its way to court), Baron Davis checked out mentally, then there was the Phil Hughes era. Hughes may be one of the most honest, fun coaches I’ve ever covered. But he wanted to run and the team did not have the players for it. The results were just ugly.

Head Coach: Vinny Del Negro, he of the simplistic offensive sets but who got a young team to play hard and defend for him. If he can do that again with this roster, they’ll do pretty well. Based on history (from Bill Fitch through Dunleavy), Del Negro should hire a good attorney because he will have to sue to get all of his money owed on his contract.

Key Departures: The Clippers did not really lose much on the court (which should bring more hope than it does here). Steve Blake traded uniforms and will be in the locker room 25 feet down the hall. Ricky Davis is in China. Travis Outlaw is gone. But really, nothing that can’t be replaced by better. Not that it was, but these were not huge losses.

Key Additions: We can count Blake Griffin in here because he never played a regular season game for the Clippers. This guy is a beast, a guy who can instantly become one of the better pick-and-roll guys in the league. There aren’t many athletes like him at the four and everyone will be reminded why he was the first overall pick.

The Clippers had a high draft pick — again — used it on Al-Farouq Aminu, a guy they think could be their future at the three. Then at Summer League he looked a few years away, although by the preseason he seems to have made big strides. Still it may be next year or the year after before we know what the Clippers have here.

In the short term, the Clippers got a very solid Ryan Gomes to come in and play the three for them, and at a fair price. The Clippers also made good signings with Randy Foye and re-signing Craig Smith, giving them solid if not spectacular depth. Basically, if these guys are playing 18 minutes a night off the bench the Clippers will be fine, if these guys have to play 30 minutes in a starters role the Clippers will struggle. And in the preseason Gomes has been starting, so….

Eric Bledsoe, who Los Angeles traded what will be a future pick in the teens for so they could draft him at 19, will step in now and be the backup point guard from day one. And the heir apparent to the big job.

The Clippers also signed Brian Cook to a two-year deal Why? Just, why?

Best case scenario: It all comes together perfectly, Baron Davis and Blake Griffin becomes one of the best pick-and-roll duos in the league, the role players all play above their heads a little and the Clippers fight for one of the final playoff spots in the West.

For that to happen: Baron Davis is the good Baron Davis, not the bad jack-up-a-deep-three-with-18-seconds-on-the-clock Davis. Also, the team’s role players need to play a little better than they have in the past.

The Clippers have a good frontcourt — Chris Kaman made the All-Star team while that is a borderline call the fact is he is one of the better true centers in the league. He plays well with his back to the basket, can pass and plays solid defense. Now with the hustle and athleticism of Griffin along side him there is a lot of potential there. The Clippers need to be near the top of the league in shots attempted in the paint for them to be successful, because not many teams can match them up front.

But it all comes back to Davis. This guy has the skills to be one of the most dynamic, best distributors from the point in the league. When he is interested — like in the middle of last season when he and Kaman got a real flow going on the pick-and-pop for a while. But Davis chaffed against Dunleavy and by the time Hughes took over Davis had mentally checked out for the season.

Del Negro, based on what he did with Derrick Rose in Chicago, gives his point guards a lot of freedom. A lot. That and the energy of Griffin, the quality wingman in Eric Gordon could make the Clippers a dangerous staring five. But if Davis mentally checks out early again, he will drag the Clippers down with him.

The Clippers should get a bigger, better year out of Eric Gordon, who continues to improve, as evidenced by his time with Team USA. The rest of the guys — Foye, Gomes, Smith, Rasual Butler and so on — are all pretty average, solid NBA players, Which is nice, but if the Clippers are going to step forward in a deep west then need a bench that can be more dynamic. Somebody here needs to be a guy who can lead that unit.

More likely the Clippers will: be a slightly more entertaining version of last year’s team. And miss the playoffs. And have a lovely lottery party.

Griffin will be a Rookie of the Year candidate, but how far can he lift a team that is essentially the same as the one that won 29 games last season? Are we really counting on an energized and focused Davis for 82 games? Heck, 65 games of good Davis makes this a borderline playoff team. But it’s just hard to see it. It’s just hard to see Del Negro somehow inspiring this team to great heights.

Prediction: 31-51, and a middling lottery pick. Oh, but Donald Sterling has these grand plans to get a top free agent….

Giannis Antetokounmpo slashes Celtics, forces Game 7 in Boston

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The Milwaukee Bucks needed a big game from Giannis Antetokounmpo on Thursday night. Boy, did they get it.

After a disappointing in Game 5 in Boston, Antetokounmpo was fearsome in his return to the Bradley Center for Game 6. The Bucks were able to keep their defensive intensity up, and we got the game most of us expected from Antetokounmpo in a return to his home court: complete domination on the biggest stage.

The game started out much the way we’ve seen in this series — sort of kooky. It was another low-scoring affair as the first half closed with Milwaukee leading, 49-38. The Celtics couldn’t get things rolling offensively, and were saved by baskets in the paint in the first quarter. Boston scored just 15 points in the second period, saving themselves with makes from beyond the 3-point line.

The real story of the game came in the second half. Antetokounmpo would not let up from the gas, scoring both as the Bucks center and on the break. Milwaukee’s franchise player matched up against Al Horford all night long, and the battle between the two was intense. Both seemed to want to muscle each other, and for different stretches they both got the better of each other.

Boston battled back, eventually tying the game at 61-61 with 4:21 to go in the third. The Celtics’ charge was led by Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Horford, all three of whom allowed Boston to make up a 14-point deficit. Boston played carefully, allowing their young wings to do the work. Despite not having a fastbreak point until late in the third, they also didn’t have their first turnover of the second half until there was little more than three minutes to go in the same quarter. Antetokounmpo, who couldn’t let Boston’s run continue after the tie, turned on the jets to close the quarter and Milwaukee entered the fourth period with a 9-point lead they would never cede.

The fourth quarter was much of the same, with the matchup between Antetokounmpo, Horford, and Horford’s backup in Aron Baynes. Several times, Antetokounmpo ran full speed after starting with the ball on the opposite free-throw line, going right at either Horford or Baynes. But the Bucks star wasn’t completely selfish. He managed to stave off tunnel vision, at times finding teammates on his spins to the bucket.

A lot of talk was made about Antetokounmpo’s poor performance in Game 5, a career playoff-low of 16 points on just 10 field goal attempts. The Greek Freak made sure that didn’t happen again, finishing the game with 31 points on 13-of-23 shooting, adding 14 rebounds, four assists, and two steals.

Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton were amped up as well. Both finished with 16 points, and as a team the Bucks scored 25 points on the break, with 50 points coming from the painted area, topping Boston in both regards.

For the Celtics, Tatum led the way with 22 points on six-of-14 shooting, adding three rebounds and three assists. Terry Rozier continued his playoff emergence, scoring 18 points while nabbing seven rebounds and dishing out five assists. Boston shot just 27.8 percent from the 3-point line.

Game 7 now heads back to Massachusetts, where we will see if Antetokounmpo can keep his foot to the floor and drive the Bucks past the second-seeded Celtics on Saturday.

Stephen Curry back in full practice mode for Warriors

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) Stephen Curry resumed full practice with contact and could play for the defending champion Golden State Warriors as soon as Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals Saturday night against New Orleans.

Curry looked strong as he practiced Thursday wearing a protective brace over his sprained left knee, which has sidelined him since the injury March 23 – the same day he returned from a six-game absence because of a hurt right ankle.

Coach Steve Kerr is calling Curry questionable for Saturday. That could change if the two-time NBA MVP still feels fine Friday and is fine after one more day of full practice before the Pelicans visit Oracle Arena to begin the best-of-seven series.

“Steph practiced at 100 percent, he did everything, he looked good,” Kerr said. “What we have to do is see how his body responds the rest of the day, put him through another practice tomorrow. I think he needs to string together two good days but it was very positive today. … I think it’s been coming along pretty well. When we were in San Antonio and I was asked a question about how he was doing, I think I was able to give an answer, `He’s doing great but we haven’t ramped him up yet.’ I think today was an important day because it’s the first time he’s actually gone live action and he was allowed to go through practice. And he appears fine.”

Curry went through his usual shooting work with Kevin Durant from various spots after practice, cutting and exhibiting his fancy footwork and dribbling skills. The Warriors have played well without their floor leader, eliminating the San Antonio Spurs in Game 5 of the first-round series with a 99-91 win Tuesday night.

The Pelicans will present a different, faster pace for the Warriors, so getting Curry back to push the ball and direct the offense would be important. Andre Iguodala, the 2015 NBA Finals MVP, started in the first round in his place while Quinn Cook handled point guard duties late in the regular season with Curry out.

“We’re excited. I know he’s very eager to play,” said Klay Thompson. “He’s a competitor, so sitting out I know kills him. We can’t wait for him to get back whenever that is.”

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

PBT Extra: How big a threat are Pelicans to Warriors?

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Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and the New Orleans Pelicans were the surprise of the first round of the NBA playoffs. We knew they were good, but they looked dominant on both ends sweeping the three-seed Portland Trail Blazers right out of the postseason (and into a somber period of reflection).

New Orleans looked like the best team in the West in the first round and now they take all that momentum to Golden State where… let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

In this PBT Extra I discuss how the Pelicans have found an identity, but the matchups against Warriors are dramatically more challenging than what they saw in Portland. And that’s before Stephen Curry returns to the fold.

The Pelicans are a great story, but the pecking order in the West is real for good reason.

Nuggets’ Mason Plumlee undergoes surgery to fix core-muscle injury

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DENVER — Denver Nuggets center Mason Plumlee underwent surgery to fix a core-muscle injury.

The team said Plumlee had the procedure performed Thursday morning by Dr. William Meyers in Philadelphia.

Plumlee is expected to return to basketball activities this summer and be ready for training camp in the fall. He averaged 7.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists for a Nuggets team that narrowly missed out on the postseason.

The 28-year-old Plumlee was acquired by Denver as part of a deal in February 2017 that sent center Jusuf Nurkic to Portland. Plumlee signed a three-year, $41 million deal with the Nuggets last September.