Clippers next steps start with making Chris Paul happy

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The Clippers were eliminated, swept right out of the playoffs by the Spurs Sunday night.

But it didn’t feel like a painful elimination as much as the start of a journey. Clippers fans stayed and cheered for minutes after what may have been the best season in franchise history. The players talked about the loss as part of the process of becoming a contender.

“Just learning, just watching (the Spurs) maneuver,” Clippers guard Randy Foye said after the game. “And understanding how they execute game plans, and what they do is definitely something you can take from it… Just watching guys like (Manu Ginobili), just watching guys like (Tony Parker), just watching how they maneuver, how they continue to attack — they’re down 1, they’re down 10, they’re up 10 they just continue to keep the pressure on and keep the defense on their heels. Tim Duncan does that, too. That is something I will definitely take from this.”

Now come the questions of how the Clippers get to the next level. And there are a lot to answer this summer

But it all starts with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.

• First, the Clippers will re-sign Blake Griffin to a max contract. Griffin is up for the extension of his rookie deal this summer and he is a no-brainer max player. Griffin said after the game he had given no thought to his next contract, but players in his situation almost always sign for the big payday.

Yes, Griffin does need to work on parts of his game — he talked about his defense and his outside shot as areas of focus after the loss. But this is a 23-year-old guy who has played two years in the league and has a tremendous work ethic. He’ll get there. Plus, he’s key to team marketing.

• Chris Paul is the bigger fish — this is his team now and if the Clippers want to be contenders they have to keep him past next season when his contract is up.

But the new CBA gives a lot of leverage to players —they get more and better money by becoming a free agent and re-signing with the same team then they get by just extending their existing deal. So Paul will become a free agent next summer with options, the Clippers have to prove they are the best one (L.A. will be able to offer more money and years than any other team).

Los Angeles needs to sit down with Paul and make sure he knows how much the franchise wants to keep him. Then they have to go out and get better talent to go around him that can help the team take the next step.

• Does that mean getting a pick-and-pop big to pair with Paul? In Del Negro’s pick-and-roll heavy offense the Clippers needed an option where a big could pop out and space the floor with a dangerous midrange of longer jumper. Like what Paul had with David West in New Orleans.

The challenge is finding the right guy — if you get a four then you need to either sit Griffin or have Griffin play and defend the center spot (something Kevin Pelton pointed out on twitter). Neither of those are good options for long stretches. Also, you can bet Griffin will work on his midrange game this summer. But a pick-and-pop big seems a target.

• What about Vinny Del Negro? The Clippers coach did not do a terrible job as Clippers coach — he got them to the five seed, the second round of the playoffs and guys play hard for him. But is that enough? Is he the guy who can lead this team to contender status? There are plenty of people with doubts.

If I am Clippers GM Neil Olshey, I sit down in the next week or so with Paul and discuss Del Negro. In the end, this is all about keeping Paul and his input matters a lot — not that Paul should be allowed to hire and fire coaches, but the best point guard in the game is much harder to come by than a new coach.

• Mo Williams said after the game he would be picking up his $8.5 million option to return to the team. No surprise there. That is a bit pricy for him but Williams does bring real scoring punch off the bench that the Clippers can use.

• What to do with free agents Randy Foye, Nick Young, Chauncey Billups, Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans?

My guess is that they bring Nick Young back, he can be part of the young core of this team, but he has to dedicate himself in a way this offseason that was not seen in Washington and that culture the last few years. Evans can be brought back at an affordable price. Remember that the Clippers are already at the salary cap before they start picking up players, so guys like Martin it may be about the price the market offers.

The Clippers would like to have Billups back, but can he really come back and be productive from a torn Achilles? I’m not offering much for him, you just can’t.

There are a lot of questions to answer this summer.

This is the Clippers, the worst franchise in the NBA over the past two decades and you always feel with owner Donald Sterling around something could just go horribly wrong. But they have a chance, a window, to become a contender and franchise reputation around.

But that is all about CP3 now.

Joe Johnson dominates late, Jazz beat Clippers 105-98 to even series 2-2

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Rudy Gobert was back at center, giving the Jazz an emotional boost and someone who can match up with DeAndre Jordan (although Gobert wasn’t moving like his normal self).

Gordon Hayward had to leave the game with food poisoning.

It didn’t matter, the Jazz had Joe Johnson. The veteran forward who knows how to get buckets scored or assisted on 20 straight points for Utah in the fourth, sparking a run that got the Jazz a 105-98 come-from-behind win.

The series is now tied 2-2, heading back to Los Angeles for Game 5 Tuesday.

When people talk about Johnson, the first thing that seems to come up is the oversized contract Atlanta gave him, but they forget this is a seven-time All-Star. He was nicknamed “iso-joe” because of how Mike Woodson’s offense used him heavily in isolation for the Hawks, but that was playing to the strength of his skill set. He can get buckets. Just ask the Clippers, as Johnson finished with 28.

The return of Gobert, a quietly strong game from Derrick Favors, plus maybe something else (like the heavy load last game) seemed to wear on DeAndre Jordan, who was not as sharp as normal in this one. The Clippers again leaned on Chris Paul — 27 points, 12 assists, nine rebounds — and Jamal Crawford who had 25 points off the bench. However, take those two out of the equation and the rest of the Clippers shot just 34.2 percent against that elite Jazz defense. In the fourth quarter, the entire Clippers’ team shot 31.4 percent total.

Utah got good performances from their role players, who stepped up with Hayward out. Rodney Hood had 18 points and some key buckets in the fourth. Then there was Joe Ingles, who defended CP3 for stretches, was a force getting where he wanted on the pick-and-roll leading to 11 assists, plus he had two key threes down the stretch.

The Clippers clearly missed Blake Griffin in some of these matchups, but Los Angeles is going to have to adjust to that in this series because he’s not returning.

This series is even and feels like it may well go seven. The Clippers have two out of the remaining three at home, and they have the best player in the series in Chris Paul. All that may not be enough if the Jazz role players keep stepping up.

Watch Paul George lose JR Smith, put Cavaliers guard on skates with crossover

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Game 4 between the Indiana Pacers and Cleveland Cavaliers was hotly-contested in the first half. The Cavaliers led, 58-52, after two quarters.

But one special play came when Indiana’s Paul George put JR Smith on his heels, with the Cavaliers guard reeling back some 10 feet after a pull-back crossover left George alone at the 3-point line.

Via Twitter:

You might say George pushed off with his left hand, but you could also point out that Smith then turned a flop-like head kick into an actual blown defensive assignment.

Cleveland completed the series sweep on Indiana with the win, 106-102.

Kobe Bryant’s new Canvas video is brought to you by the letter O (for Obsession)

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Kobe Bryant’s Canvas series returned to our television screen on Saturday. The Sesame Street-like videos center around finding a place to draw motivation from in order to, as the most recent video says, dominate the will of your opponent.

They’re … weird.

They are also extremely Kobe-ish in that they stay true to the former Los Angeles Lakers great’s internal vision of how to play basketball.

The last one we saw was all about finding a musecage, and using your dark thoughts to propel you to win. This one is all about obsession, and how that emotion separates those who like to win from true competitors.

I’m personally all for these videos. They are maybe a little cheesy, or single-minded, but that’s sort of the point. It accurately reflects Kobe, which is something you don’t often see from retired players trying to transition their brand from player to former player.

Isaiah Thomas scores 33, Celtics beat Bulls 104-95 to tie series

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CHICAGO (AP) Isaiah Thomas scored 33 points, and the Boston Celtics beat the Chicago Bulls 104-95 on Sunday to tie their first-round playoff series at 2-all.

Boston blew a 20-point lead, but Thomas keyed a third-quarter run that put the Celtics back on top after Chicago briefly went ahead.

Gerald Green made four 3-pointers on his way to 18 points, helping the top-seeded Celtics return the favor in Chicago after dropping the first two games at home. Al Horford added 15 points and 12 rebounds.

Game 5 is Wednesday in Boston.

Jimmy Butler carried the Bulls with 33 points and nine assists. Nikola Mirotic and seldom-used Isaiah Canaan each scored 13 points, but Dwyane Wade finished with just 11.

Canaan made his first appearance since April 10, with Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg searching for help at point guard with Rajon Rondo missing his second straight game because of a broken right thumb.

The Celtics led by 20 in the second quarter and were still up 10 in the third when Chicago scored 12 straight. The Bulls went ahead 65-63 on Robin Lopez‘s hook shot with 4:35 left in the quarter.

Thomas answered with back-to-back layups and scored 10 points in a 12-0 run that gave the Celtics a 75-65 lead, and they withstood a push by the Bulls early in the fourth.

With Thomas and Green each scoring 16 in the first half, the Celtics carried a 57-46 lead into the break.

Butler led the Bulls with 17 in the half. But the offense struggled in a big way with Rondo unavailable. Jerian Grant started and went to the bench after about five ineffective minutes. Michael Carter-Williams then picked up two quick fouls, forcing the Bulls to go with Canaan in the first quarter.

The Celtics, meanwhile, led 41-21 early in the second quarter. But things started to turn after Canaan stole the ball from Marcus Smart and scored on a layup.

Smart feigned throwing the ball at Butler. The two came nose to nose, resulting in technical fouls for both players, and the Bulls started to shoot their way back into it.

Mirotic hit a pair of 3-pointers and scored eight in the quarter. Bobby Portis cut it to 52-42 with his basket late in the half, and Butler hit two free throws with 22.6 seconds left to make it 57-46.

RONDO FINED

The NBA fined Rondo for attempting to trip Boston Celtics forward Jae Crowder from the bench in Game 3. Crowder jawed at the Bulls’ bench after hitting a jumper and Rondo extended his leg as Crowder walked by.

TIP-INS

Celtics: Thomas was just 1 of 9 on 3-pointers but made 12 of 13 free throws.

Bulls: Butler made 19 of 23 foul shots after failing to get to the line in Game 3. … Canaan was inactive for the first three games.