When you mention contenders, consider the Clippers

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Sunday night, the Clippers went into the thin air of Denver and knocked off the Nuggets, the deepest and most steady team in the West (with the second best record in the conference).

Monday night they faced a rested Oklahoma City Thunder team and ran the team to best in the West out of the building. The final score was 112-100, but it wasn’t that close. While we were all buzzing over Blake Griffin’s latest and greatest ridiculous dunk, the Clippers were making a statement.

Chris Paul is back healthy and when you start talking about teams with a shot at the title you need to start mentioning the Clippers.

“They’re the best team we’ve played all year,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said after the thumping. “They have everything, they have a talented bench… they beat us.”

Maybe the Clippers are dark horse contenders. There are still questions about them — can you expose their lack of depth along the front line in the playoffs? Can they defend well enough in a playoff setting? Can Vinny Del Negro really coach a contender deep?

But a healthy Chris Paul — he had 26 points and 14 assists against OKC — directed the Clippers like a maestro the past two nights served notice on the league that the Clippers can play with anyone. They’re not playoff tested, but they should be feared.

Los Angeles raced out to an early lead Monday  behind Caron Butler getting good looks by finding his spots on the weak side then getting the kick out when the defense had to collapse on Paul or Griffin. Butler finished with 22 and was 4-8 from three. Both Butler and D’Andre Jordan have made the Clippers so much more dangerous by moving well off the ball and finding their spots to find good looks.

“We’re trying to see what the defense is going to give you,” Chauncey Billups said. “I had a couple looks tonight that I turned down. Caron was hot, so that was my shot but I moved (the ball) on. That’s the sign of a good team, you always want to have different guys that step up and be big. Last night (in Denver) I was rolling, tonight Caron, Chris was unbelievable, there was Blake. Look, it’s tough to prepare for four or five guys.”

The key to the game was the final 1:30 of the first half. While the Clippers had been up by as many as 15 the Thunder had cut it to 6 and seemed to have the momentum.

Then Mo Williams hit a three for Los Angeles. Williams next stole the ball from Russell Westbrook and Butler knocked down a three. James Harden missed a three on the other end, the Clippers came down and it was another Williams three. Then Durant with another turnover and that led to another Billups three. And the lead was 18 again. The Thunder never recovered.

To a man, the Thunder said it was by far the worst game they had played this season, the first clunker they have had. Westbrook and Durant combined for 67 — two thirds — of the Thunder’s points, the rest of the team shot just 38 percent. Brooks was philosophical about it and says it’s going to happen. Anyone who has watched the Thunder this season knows they can play better.

But part of their off night was the Clippers, a team thrown together before the season who are starting to figure it out.

“I definitely think we’re learning,” Paul said. “We just have to keep building our identity. We can’t say we’ve arrived after winning this game.”

Kobe Bryant sends inspirational recovery message to Gordon Hayward

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Kobe Bryant has been there. He tore his Achilles at an age most players would have said: “that’s it, I’m out.” Not Kobe. He fought through it, came back, and was able to leave the game on his terms — and with a 60-point night.

So when Kobe sends an Instagram recovery message to Gordon Hayward, he knows of what he speaks.

Be sad. Be mad. Be frustrated. Scream. Cry. Sulk. When you wake up you will think it was just a nightmare only to realize it’s all too real. You will be angry and wish for the day back, the game back THAT play back. But reality gives nothing back and nor should you. Time to move on and focus on doing everything in your power to prepare for surgery, ask all the questions to be sure you understand fully the procedure so that you may visualize it in your subconscious while being operated on and better the chance of it’s success. Then focus on the recovery process day by day by day. It’s a long journey but if you focus on the mini milestones along the way you will find beauty in the struggle of doing simple things that prior to this injury were taken for granted. This will also mean that when you return you will have a new perspective. You will be so appreciative of being able to stand, walk, run that you will train harder than you ever have. You see the belief within you grow with each mini milestone and you will come back a better player for it. Best of luck to you on this journey my brother #mambamentality always.

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The message was vintage Kobe, all about the drive and steps to recovery. Focus on the next thing, don’t let any obstacles stop you.

Let’s just hope Hayward can take this to heart and make a full recovery.

PBT Podcast: Gordon Hayward injury, Celtics’ future, opening night news

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The buzz of the NBA’s opening night was killed just a 5:15 into the first game when Gordon Hayward went down with what could be a season-ending ankle and leg injury.

What’s next for Boston now? Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports get into that with this latest PBT Podcast.

They also discuss the opening night game between the Celtics and Cavaliers and what we can take away from it, same with the Houston Rockets upset of the Golden State Warriors. The pair also gets into the Nikola Mirotic/Bobby Portis incident in Chicago (this was recorded just before the Portis suspension came down), the LaMarcus Aldridge extension with the Spurs, and if Joel Embiid should be ticked about being on a minutes limit to start the season.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunes (just click the button under the podcast), subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Michael Jordan scores again, this time with his Jumpman logo

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Michael Jordan is showing he still has the ability to score big – even though he hasn’t played in nearly 15 years.

The Hornets owner’s latest slam dunk off the court might come by way of the NBA’s new uniform contract with Nike.

Since the Jordan Brand is a Nike subsidiary and the namesake of the six-time NBA champion, the Hornets will be the only NBA team to wear the Jordan Brand “Jumpman” logo on their uniforms this season. That would appear to be a merchandising windfall.

After the switch from Adidas, the other 29 NBA teams will wear the Nike “swoosh” on their uniforms.

Charlotte’s All-Star point guard Kemba Walker loves the idea of the Hornets being unique – and knows it’s because of Jordan.

“I mean, he’s the GOAT (Greatest of All Time),” Walker said. “Everybody loves MJ. Everybody loves the way he competed and the way he carries himself.”

Especially off the court.

There isn’t a player in the league who doesn’t want to emulate the NBA’s greatest pitchman.

Though Jordan was not made available to be interviewed for this story, others praised his savvy and longevity.

Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbook is a representative for the Jordan Brand, which sponsors 21 active NBA players. Westbrook is soaking up as much knowledge as he can working with Jordan.

The reigning league MVP said he’s tried to use what Jordan has done with marketing skills as a model for his own success.

“He set himself up, not just on the basketball court, but in business,” Westbrook said. “…. He set himself up tremendously – his kids, his family – by doing the right things on and off the court.”

Jordan last soared through the air in the NBA in 2003. But even now, at 54, his marketability doesn’t seem to be tapering off.

Forbes Magazine estimated last December that Jordan has made $1.7 billion since leaving the University of North Carolina in 1984 – more than any athlete ever.

The vast majority of his wealth has come from marketing, since Jordan earned $93 million during his playing career.

It’s all led to Jordan being able to call his own shots – like exclusive use of the Jumpman logo.

“Well, he does own the team,” Westbook quipped. “He gets to pick that for sure.”

Hornets forward Marvin Williams, who like Jordan played college basketball at North Carolina, said he knows the uniforms will be popular with NBA fans simply because of the “international symbol” Jumpman has become. The logo features a silhouette of Jordan leaping through the air, his legs scissored and one outstretched hand holding a basketball.

“That symbol – I have seen people have it on their clothes, their cars, tattoos,” Williams said.

Larry Miller, president of Jordan Brand, said the logo represents greatness “so it’s a natural fit to have it on the uniforms of MJ’s team.”

“Aligning his team and his brand brings everyone in the Jordan family closer together,” Miller said in an email to The Associated Press, “and it’s a win for both organizations.”

The Hornets recently opened an expanded team store at their downtown arena and are still receiving new Jumpman merchandise, but it’s not staying on the shelves very long.

Hornets executive vice president and chief sales and marketing officer Pete Guelli said the team is expecting a “substantial increase” in merchandise sales.

“Being the only Jordan Brand team has a number of inherent advantages,” Guelli said. “It is also our first formal connection to our owner and allows us to explore additional extensions around that unique alignment.”

History indicates it should be a profitable connection.

“Obviously people knew who he was when he played, but when you see a 5- or 6-year-old kid walking around with Jordans on, and know who Michael Jordan is, but have never seen him play,” Williams said. “I have teammates that have never seen him play but know about everything he has done. It speaks volumes not only to what he has done as a player in his career, but it speaks a ton to what he has done post-basketball as well.”

AP Sports Writer Cliff Brunt in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.

 

Bulls’ Nikola Mirotic out 4-6 weeks with fractured face; Bobby Portis suspended 8 games for punch

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The price to be paid from the fight at Bulls practice Tuesday came into focus Wednesday.

Nikola Mirotic, who suffered a fractured upper jaw and concussion due to a punch from Bobby Portis, will be out at least a month from his injuries, the Bulls announced.

For his part, Portis has been suspended eight games by the Bulls without pay for his actions. He will be able to practice with the team, and can return to action on Nov. 7 against Toronto.

The incident happened during the Bulls practice Monday. This much everyone agrees on: What started as a physical battle for rebounding position around the basket turned into a shoving match between Mirotic and Portis. Also, so far this isn’t unusual, shoving matches happen every once in a while on every team (in every professional sport).

Then Portis punched Mirotic and dropped him, fracturing his face. While the first reports called it a “sucker punch” — likely spin from Mirotic’s agent/camp — Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said he didn’t see it as one. Apparently, neither did Robin Lopez, via Vincent Goodwill of NBC Sports Chicago.

Whether it was a sucker punch or not is moot — you can’t punch and drop a teammate. It crosses the line.

Mirotic may be the Bulls best player, and certainly will be one of their leading scorers this season. Portis has struggled to live up to his early promise and reportedly is frustrated with his role, and by extension Mirotic. That does not mean you can punch the team’s best player in the face. Rather the opposite.

Can you imagine the reaction of any other organization if their best player got punched by a teammate?

The Bulls have to make a decision on what to do with Portis, who has a $2.5 million team option for next season, then would be a restricted free agent in the summer of 2019.