The other Clipper keys: DeAndre Jordan and Baron Davis

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Blake Griffin is a walking highlight factory. And not just for his dunks anymore, people are figuring out he can play the game.

Eric Gordon has become the outside to Griffin’s inside for the Clippers. He’s the guy knocking down key threes — just like he did for Team USA when they were winning the gold at the FIBA World Championships. He is big time.

They are the face of the Clippers resurgence and return to relevance. They are the national media darlings.

But two other Clippers deserve to be mentioned as a central of what is going on — center DeAndre Jordan and guard Baron Davis. Without them, Gordon and Griffin would be the stars of a team still losing nightly, not winning 10 of 14.

For the first half of last season, center Chris Kaman was the guy the Clippers ran their offense through (and he rode that to the All-Star Game). Jordan was his amazingly athletic but wildly inconsistent backup.

With Kaman out this season due to a severely sprained ankle, Jordan has been thrust into the starting lineup — and he has developed into a defensive force. After the Clippers beat the Heat recently, Miami coach Eric Spoelstra as well as several players continually used Jordan’s name next to Griffin’s, saying the Clippers had the most athletic front line in the league and it was hard to deal with. Phil Jackson singled Jordan out as the reason the Clippers were playing so well when those two teams met last Sunday.

The Clippers players have seen the growth in Jordan also, as they told the Los Angeles Times.

“Oh man, [Jordan] is the reason why we’ve been such a hot team,” Davis said. “A lot of the things he’s able to do on the defensive end allows us to be a great defensive team. That 41%, our field-goal percentage, that credit goes to him. He’s our anchor.

“For a young guy, 22 years old, to be able to be back there and anchor that defense, it is amazing to see his growth and his progress. Just that confidence we have in him.”

Davis himself is the other key.

Everybody has known Davis can flat out ball. Everyone remembers when he led the Golden State Warriors to a first-round upset of the Dallas Mavericks in the playoffs. Everyone remembers the streaks of brilliance through his career.

But those streaks have been surrounded by much longer stretches of disappointment, particularly in recent years. Questions of motivation and conditioning — which has led to a long string of injuries — had turned Davis into a non-factor in Los Angeles. One that owner Donald Sterling loved to taunt from the front row.

Those things have changed. Right now, Davis passes the eyeball test — when talking to him with other media after a recent Clippers game my initial thought was I couldn’t remember the last time he looked this thin. He is fit right now as he worked out while down with an injury earlier in the year (he also said he started getting in shape for the season earlier than his traditional August start date, realizing his body is getting older).

And he is motivated. Credit the energy Griffin and Gordon bring to the team, credit Davis’ maturity, credit Zeus, it doesn’t matter. The fact is Davis is motivated and giving the Clippers fantastic point guard play. Gone are the pull-up three pointers with 18 seconds left on the clock and the pounding out the clock dribbling with nothing happening. Right now he is driving into the lane, creating, setting up teammates.

In his last 10 games Davis is averaging 14.6 points on 45.7 percent shooting, plus 8.4 dimes per game. He is again a guy that must be accounted for in game planning. He is again disruptive, and that is opening up lanes for Griffin to dunk.

The next months will be the real test for the Clippers — their friendly schedule (they have not left California in nearly a month) will end when they have to head out on the road for 11 straight on the annual Grammys road trip. Teams are not looking past them any more — if for no other reason than they don’t want to end up in a Griffin SportsCenter highlight.

But those teams better watch out for Jordan and Davis, too. They are helping drive this train.

Kelly Olynyk nutmegs Kyle O’Quinn to set up Josh Richardson dunk (video)

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In the Heat’s rout of the Knicks last night, Kelly Olynyk scored 22 points and dished a career-high 10 assists.

This was the prettiest, a pass between Kyle O'Quinn‘s legs to Josh Richardson, who dunked.

Malik Beasley stumbles, bumbles, fumbles during turnover (video)

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Malik Beasley isn’t a point guard, but he was playing the position for the Nuggets in garbage time of their win over the Bulls last night. And Torrey Craig‘s pass was low and behind Beasley, which is why Craig was assigned the turnover.

With those caveats acknowledged, Beasley’s contortions as he tries to corral the ball are something to behold.

Five NBA Draft prospects/teams to watch in the Sweet 16

Associated Press

Just like me and everyone else, your bracket is busted. That was not the only thing to go belly up in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament — so were a lot of the top-tier draft picks. Arizona’s Deandre Ayton didn’t see the second game of the weekend. Jaren Jackson and Miles Bridges of Michigan State join the long list of players and teams stymied by Syracuse’s zone. Mohamed Bamba. Out. Michael Porter Jr.? Out. Trae Young? Out.

That doesn’t mean there are not guys NBA fans should be watching the round of 16 starting Thursday night. There are likely lottery picks playing, not to mention guys down the board who will be playing in the NBA next season.

Here are five things for NBA fans to watch in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16.

1) Battle of the zone defenses and lottery prospects: Duke vs. Syracuse. The Blue Devils are the most loaded team left in the tournament… forget that, they were the most loaded team in the tournament, period. If you’re a fan of a team in the midst of the tankapaloza going on at the bottom of the NBA standings right now, this is your game.

Duke’s big man Marvin Bagley III is likely going to be taken between No. 3-5 come June, and he is worth keeping an eye on. He’s a phenomenal athlete who can get buckets — he had 22 points in each of the first two Tournament games and shot a combined 18-of-24, he is an incredible finisher around the rim — plus is a beast on the boards (16 in the two games). Scouts and teams that liked him all season at Duke saw more of the same in the first two rounds, he helped his stock (if that’s possible)

Next to Bagley on Duke’s dominant front like is the more polished Wendell Carter Jr. (a likely top 10 pick), who had 24 points on 15 shots through two games of the tournament. This is a game where against the Syracuse zone Carter’s passing — big-to-big to Bagley, or kicked out to guys like Grayson Allen — will both matter to the team and show something to scouts. Allen is a likely late-first/early second round pick who can help his cause by showing how he can shoot over the top of that zone.

For Syracuse, Tyus Battle needs to show he can make good decisions with the ball in his hands — he’s been inconsistent with that all season. He passes the eye test as a 6’6” NBA guard, but his decision making needs to be better and Duke will test that. Battle is a late first/early second kind of guy who needs to get a team to fall in love with him.

The fact both of these teams play so much zone will turn off NBA scouts — it’s the right basketball move for both Duke and Syracuse, but it masks the defensive flaws the top prospects on both teams have. And there are defensive questions about all three of those guys.

2) It’s the NCAA Tournament, of course you should be watching Kentucky. Two things are inevitable this time of year: John Calipari will find something to complain about so he can say everyone is against him; and Kentucky will be loaded with NBA prospects.

Kentucky’s guys to watch when they take on Kansas State starts with back-of-the-lottery/mid-teens pick Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, their smooth point guard. He was impressive with 46 points on 15-of-25 shooting in the first two tournament games (which is good, the consistency of his jumper was a question mark for scouts), although he did not show much of a stroke from three (2-of-2). His hesitation moves and smart game look like something that will translate to the NBA.

Then there’s Kevin Knox on the wing, who also should go in the lottery. He had 25 points on 16 shots in a strong game against Davidson in the first round, and what teams like are his defense and versatility. Combo forwards are in demand in the NBA.

Also keep on eye on Hamidou Diallo, a likely second-round pick.

3) Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson, and Villanova will get a test from West Virginia. At this point in the season, scouts/GMs have opinions largely formed about players, but they want to watch them play one more time and want to see them tested. West Virginia should do that for the two Villanova prospects

Mikal Bridges is the kind of long, athletic defender that teams are looking for, plus he can knock down threes — he is 8-of-14 from deep so far in the tournament. He dropped 23 on a good Alabama team, and he looks like the kind of switchable wing role player at the NBA level a lot of teams are searching for.

The bigger test is for likely second-round pick Jalen Brunson — the guard struggled at points vs. Collin Sexton, and now goes up against a strong defender in Jevon Carter (a possible second-round pick himself). Brunson can help his cause with a good game here.

4) Hey Nuggets/Clippers/Lakers/Pistons fans, take the time to check out Texas A&M’s Robert Williams, he might be your late lottery guy. If anyone helped their cause in the NCAA’s first two rounds, it was A&M’s Williams, who played a key role in the Aggies upset of North Carolina with his 13 boards and strong play inside. The question never has been “does he have the talent?” but rather “will he bring it every night?” Williams showed everyone against North Carolina what he looks like when he can bring it, and you could see where he would be dangerous in the NBA where more skilled players around him will open up the floor and give him more space to operate. Think a poor man’s Clint Capela. Can he show he will bring it consistently on a big stage?

5) Texas Tech’s Zhaire Smith had a strong first weekend, but he will get a test from Purdue’s Vincent Edwards and Carsen Edwards. Smith has plenty of talent and it showed against Florida in the first weekend — 18 points, nine rebounds and seven assists, and strong defense.

Smith may be in the mold of a guy where some will say “he needs another year in college to develop” but after 28 points on 21 shots through the first two rounds of the tournament, the potential second-half-of-the-first-round may well come out and get paid to develop. He will get another chance to show how much he has developed against a quality Purdue team.

Between his clutch FTs, LeBron James goes out of his way to high-five Raptors G Fred VanVleet (video)

AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

High-fiving the opponent between his free throws is a wellestablished trick to break concentration.

LeBron James turned the tables in the Cavaliers’ win over the Raptors last night.

Toronto guard Fred VanVleet brushed hands with LeBron between a pair of late LeBron free throws. Unfazed, LeBron turned around and got a crisp high-five from VanVleet:

LeBron made both free throws.

No matter how much better the Raptors have been than Cleveland this season, LeBron wants the mental edge. He led the Cavs to playoff-series wins over Toronto the last two years, and this only increases perception he’s in complete control when these teams meet.