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.”

Frustrated fan: John McEnroe says Knicks a ‘total train wreck’

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NEW YORK (AP) — John McEnroe had a ringside seat for the ugliest bout at Madison Square Garden last season.

He was sitting just feet away when former Knicks star Charles Oakley was surrounded by security officials at his seat, shoving them away before being handcuffed and arrested while watching a game in February.

Even before that, the tennis great had begun to lose patience with his favorite team.

“It’s like a total train wreck,” McEnroe said.

The low point during a miserable 2016-17 season came when Oakley was dragged out of MSG in the first quarter of a game against the Los Angeles Clippers. A fan favorite as a player, he had fallen out of favor with the organization in retirement after critical comments about the team and MSG chairman James Dolan.

McEnroe, who often travels for his tennis or other obligations, wasn’t aware of the history between Oakley and Dolan.

“I didn’t even realize at the time that Charles had said bad things about him,” McEnroe said. “I hadn’t been up on that, so it wasn’t awkward for me when he sort of poked me in my back, Charles, right before the incident happened. I was like, `Hey Charles, how are you? This is my son, Kevin.’ He was with me.

“So I didn’t put 2 and 2 together and I didn’t know what had happened or really what had transpired,” he said. “So maybe Jim was already uncomfortable because of past history or whatever and then when Charles and the security guys started to go at it, even before they started to come up to him I was like, `Uh oh, this is not going to go well, at all.”‘

McEnroe is clearly visible in replays of the skirmish that were shown that night and throughout the next day.

“To see Charles Oakley have handcuffs put on him was horrible. Like, I was sick to my stomach, as well as almost every other fan that was in there watching this as it took place,” McEnroe said. “I bet you Jim Dolan – this is just my opinion – had to feel terrible about what that was.”

McEnroe grew up in and still lives in New York, and considers MSG his home arena. The inside cover of his new book, “But Seriously,” is decorated with ticket stubs from games and concerts at the arena, including a Knicks playoff game. But like many Knicks fans, he’s getting fed up with what he sees.

“I mean I’ve been a Knicks fan since I was a kid, so this is just getting beyond belief,” he said.

McEnroe has owned a home in Malibu, California, for more than 30 years. He often trained in Los Angeles as one of the world’s top players during the early-to-mid 1980s, befriending Lakers executive Jeanie Buss and Linda Rambis, whose husband Kurt played for the great Lakers teams of that era that were led by Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

“Watching this was like, I’m sitting there going, why the hell am I a Knick fan again?” McEnroe said, “because this is just absolutely unbelievable, watching Showtime.”

Dolan hired Phil Jackson, who won five titles as Lakers coach, as Knicks president in 2014. But the team has missed the playoffs every season under Jackson, who feuded with Carmelo Anthony last season and didn’t speak to reporters at all while the team went 31-51.

“I mean, he’s known as the Zen Master, like a master talker, and then he’s not talking to anybody,” McEnroe said of Jackson. “So this whole thing seems to have gone completely off the rails.”

Jackson is still hoping to trade Anthony, who has a no-trade clause. McEnroe said he was never the biggest fan of Anthony’s game, but that the All-Star forward didn’t deserve the treatment he received last season.

“It’s crazy to treat a guy that way,” McEnroe said. “It seems like, even if it would be better for both guys if they weren’t there – the Knicks and him – the whole thing just seems, I can’t believe how bungled this has gotten.”

Chris Paul re-elected president of the NBPA

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NEW YORK (AP) — Chris Paul has been re-elected president of the National Basketball Players Association.

Paul’s new four-year term begins immediately. He will be assisted by the union’s newly elected vice president, Garrett Temple of the Sacramento Kings.

In his first term as president, Paul most notably helped the players and the NBA come together on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement that goes into effect on July 1.

Paul says he’s “humbled that my fellow players have voted to have me continue.”

Temple has a three-year term as vice president, which also begins immediately. He replaces Kyle Korver in that role.

The other members of the NBA’s Executive Committee are First Vice President LeBron James, Secretary-Treasurer James Jones, and Vice Presidents Carmelo Anthony, Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, Pau Gasol and Anthony Tolliver.

One reason Markelle Fultz happy to be Sixers over Celtic? Philadelphia has Chick-fil-As

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For about a month, from the day of the NBA Draft Lottery until less than a week before the draft, it was assumed Markelle Fultz would be a Celtic. And he said he was good with that — he’s the No. 1 pick going to a 53-win team that is thinking title contention. That doesn’t happen often.

Then that top pick was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, and suddenly Fultz was going to be paired with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Fultz liked that a lot, and he liked the city a lot.

Why? Because they have Chick-fil-A restaurants. Check out what Fultz wrote in the The Players’ Tribune, an article titled “What’s Up, Philly.” (Hat tip Inceptions at NBA Reddit)

Then (Fultz’s agent) Keith hit me up and said, “New plan. Philly.”

I was just waking up. So I was like, “O.K., cool. Do they have Chick-fil-A there?”

A crispy chicken sandwich for breakfast. It’s kind of like my good luck charm. Keith never got back to me about that important question. So I found out for myself. I googled it immediately.

Philly does have Chick-fil-A. It has six, actually. Seven if you count the one at the airport. Boston has zero Chick-fil-As, for what it’s worth.

Are restaurants becoming a new recruiting tool? “I know you’re thinking of signing in San Antonio, but we have far more Chipotle’s per capita.” “There’s a Cheesecake Factory just down the street from our practice facility.”

I give it four years, max, before Fultz switches to a slightly healthier breakfast choice, at the requestion of Philly’s training staff.

Warriors newbie Jordan Bell gets call from Draymond Green

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Jordan Bell knows he will most certainly get an earful from Draymond Green come training camp as a Golden State Warriors rookie.

Green came looking for him on draft night with a FaceTime attempt after acquiring his new teammate’s digits from general manager Bob Myers. But Bell – out with friends celebrating – didn’t answer because the number was unfamiliar.

Bell decided he would text back instead.

“I was like, `Who is this?”‘ Bell recalled Friday, when he was formally introduced and given his new No. 2 Golden State jersey at team headquarters.

“He didn’t reply so I called the number and said, `Who is this?’ Then he was like, `Yo, I FaceTimed you, hang up right now and FaceTime me right back, don’t call me,”‘ Bell said. “I FaceTimed him and he didn’t answer. I was like, all right. I waited like five seconds and I called him back FaceTime and he answered … and we started talking about it. He was like, `Enjoy this night, celebrate, it only happens once, but after this time we have to get back to work, we’re trying to get rings over here.”‘

The NBA champions began the night Thursday without a draft pick but acquired Bell in a trade with the Bulls. The 6-foot-9 forward and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year out of Oregon was the 38th overall selection by Chicago.

Bell had been upset he dropped so far in the draft, then everything changed once the Warriors made a move for him. Green was drafted 35th overall out of Michigan State in 2012 and still has a chip on his shoulder about it. In fact, he can name every team in order and its selection above him that draft year.

“Draymond will be a fun challenge for you,” Myers said. “Draymond texted me as I was driving home and he said, `What the’ and then expletive `is your problem’ to me? So you can fill in the blank. Then he said, `I have to hear about this’ expletive `on the internet, you didn’t’ expletive `tell me about it.’ So I couldn’t text and drive so I called him and I said, `OK, all right, calm down.”‘

Green demanded he be able to talk to Bell, so Myers obliged with the new rookie’s contact info.

Green’s teammates are accustomed to his intensity. He even yells at them from time to time.

“He’s like our team mom in a way,” joked Myers. “He’s the one that you have to kind of get through him.”