Matt Barnes, Manu Ginobili

Clippers 92, Spurs 87: Making a list, checking it twice

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Doubting the legitimacy of the Los Angeles Clippers is not a new or particularly uncommon practice. Despite laying waste to the Grizzlies, Spurs, Lakers and Heat in convincing fashion already, there was a sense that this would be the first true test for the Clippers. They’d be out on the road, against the team that swept them in last year’s playoffs, in a revenge game, in a matchup the Spurs have historically owned since Tim Duncan was in diapers. This would be the game they would crash back down to earth. Right?

Not exactly. The Clippers are a team on a warpath right now, steadily checking off all the questions being asked about them one by one. What would happen when they finally had a bad shooting night from Jamal Crawford and as a team? What would happen if they had an injury to a starter? What would happen to that defense when it ran up against a well-coached team?

Check, check, check. It was never pretty, but the Clippers grinded out a win against the San Antonio Spurs, 92-87, behind their whack-a-mole depth and a vastly improved defense that keeps churning out impressive performances.

It was Matt Barnes who popped up first off the bench for the Clippers, playing 35 minutes with Caron Butler suffering a shoulder sprain. Barnes didn’t do anything special, but he made smart cuts and cleaned up the trash around the rim, sparking a 23-5 run in the second quarter that changed the game completely. Barnes led all scorers with 12 points at halftime — which is both an indictment on a first half where everyone looked like Bambi on ice, and a testament to the Clippers depth, which has carried them all season.

After being called “one of the most underrated players in the league” by Spurs coach Gregg Popovich before the game, fellow bench stud Eric Bledsoe (9 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals in 23 minutes) showed exactly why that’s true, terrorizing passing lanes and making eye popping plays with his athleticism offensively and basically doing all the things he always does. Even with Jamal Crawford struggling (4-for-14, 4 turnovers) and the Clippers going a Grizzlian 1-for-12 from behind the arc, it was all disguised by the defense, which shut down every player not named Duncan (20 points, 14 rebounds) or Matt Bonner (10 4th quarter points) almost completely.

Last year’s bench for the Clippers played in survival mode, just hoping to hold leads until Chris Paul could come save the day, but now Paul’s heroics seem to be used only for emergencies. Once Bonner got hot from deep, the Clippers did have to break the glass and rely on Paul for a clutch little jumper in the lane to push the lead to two possessions late, but it was the defense that ultimately smoldered a Spurs team that looked a little lost offensively without Stephen Jackson (finger injury) or Kawhi Leonard. The Spurs shot just 35 percent from the field, thanks in large part to a swarming defense that mucked up the game and cut off the steady diet of ball rotations the Spurs offense usually lives on.

A Clippers win over the Spurs last year might have felt flukey, but this, again, felt sustainable. It was ugly, but the Clippers won with plenty of avenues for improvement (turnovers, perimeter shooting), which might be the scariest thing of all. The Clippers sport a top five offense and defense through the first 10 games, and they might not even be playing their best ball (no Grant Hill or Chauncey Billups), or utilizing their best players (lots of minutes poured into Lamar Odom and Willie Green). Add in that DeAndre Jordan is beginning to figure it out on the block (he went right at Duncan multiple times tonight) and Blake Griffin is improving as a pick-and-roll defender, and this is a team that could realistically keep rising, even with a stretch of road games ahead of them. They just seem to have an answer for every question, even as the questions change.

In reality, the Clippers’ body of work through 10 games is unparalleled throughout the league. The Knicks have been great, and so have the Grizzlies, but the Clippers have beaten better opponents in a more convincing fashion. They really may be the best team in the West and the league as of right now. Of course, that moniker only means something in June, but if the best team in the league right now is only supposed to keep getting better and better going forward? That list, the one with the Spurs checked off twice and the NBA Finals at the way down at the bottom, might need to be taken a little more seriously.

Russell Westbrook on Lakers speculation: “Nah, I like where I am now”

PHOENIX, AZ - FEBRUARY 08:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on February 8, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Thunder defeated the Suns 122-106.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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TORONTO — No matter what Russell Westbrook does, he cannot escape the rumors that have followed him for years. He grew up in Los Angeles and played college basketball at UCLA—so, it’s only logical that when he hits free agency in the summer of 2017, he’ll look to sign with the Lakers, right?

Westbrook did his best to shut that down on Saturday after practice with the Western Conference All-Stars.

“Nah,” Westbrook said. “I like where I am now. Oklahoma City is a great place for me.”

Westbrook admitted that he grew up a Lakers fan, but said he never thought of playing there as a kid.

“I never thought I’d play in the NBA,” he said. “I was just watching them.”

Westbrook has another full season to go before his contract with the Thunder is up, so it’s going to be a while before there’s any resolution here. A lot, of course, will depend on what Kevin Durant does this summer.

If Durant sticks around and the Thunder make another deep playoff run next season, it becomes more likely that Westbrook will stay. But if Durant goes somewhere else, there’s a good chance Westbrook follows suit. For now, all they can do is deflect the speculation that will be there no matter what they say.

Gregg Popovich says he thinks more about Warriors than any team he ever faced

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Gregg Popovich and his Spurs have gone up against some powerhouse teams in the past 17 years. There were the Shaq/Kobe Bryant Lakers, Steve Nash and the seven-seconds-or-less Suns, The Kobe/Pau Gasol Lakers, LeBron James‘ Miami Heat teams, and the list goes on.

But nobody has given him more to think about than Stephen Curry and the Warriors.

That’s what he said on ESPN Radio Friday, as reported by Marc Stein of ESPN.

“I’ve spent more time thinking about Golden State than I have any other team I’ve ever thought about in my whole career,” Popovich told ESPN Radio on Friday. “Because they are really fun. I’d go buy a ticket and go watch them play. And when I see them move the ball, I get very envious. When I see them shoot uncontested shots more than anybody else in the league, it’s inspiring. It’s just great basketball.

“So I’m actually enjoying them very much. You try to solve them, but they’re in a sense unsolvable because it’s a particular mix of talent that they have. It’s not just that Steph [Curry] can make shots or that Klay can make shots or that Draymond Green is versatile. Everybody on the court can pass, catch and shoot. And they all get it.”

When you think about those legendary teams Popovich faced, they may have been a little less mentally taxing to gameplan for. The Shaq/Kobe Lakers ran the triangle (an offense Popovich was familiar with), but most of what made them great was exceptional talent — two future Hall of Famers at their peaks. The Spurs tried to bully the Suns, and then they developed a motion offense that eventually shredded the Heat.

The Warriors are different, and Popovich gets to a fundamental problem in defeating them:

“They’re talented. But they’re also very, very smart.”

That’s what’s hard to plan for — smart players and smart teams adjust, and the Warriors by design loaded their roster with high IQ guys. If you adjust, they counter. And for the last season-and-a-half, that has worked brilliantly.

LeBron James on Kevin Love trade rumors: “They’re false”

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 8: LeBron James #23 helps Kevin Love #0 of the Cleveland Cavaliers to his feet after Love was fouled during the second half against the Portland Trail Blazers at Quicken Loans Arena on December 8, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Trail Blazers 105-100. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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TORONTO — The rumors were out there: the Boston Celtics were interested in Kevin Love and were talking trade with Cleveland.

LeBron James would have none of that.

“It’s false,” LeBron said of the rumors when speaking to the media after the Eastern Conference’s All-Star Game practice Saturday. “It’s the only thing I can look at it and say it’s false. That’s the last thing guys are worried about right now are trade talks from our team.”

That echoed what Carmelo Anthony said. The buzz around Toronto (where the NBA has gathered for All-Star Weekend) that there wasn’t a lot of to the talks and if there was any momentum has stalled out.

Still, there will be talks, and there will be plenty of Cavaliers trade rumors in the run-up to the Feb. 18 trade deadline. Cleveland could use some shooting from the wing and quality depth to provide versatility going up against Golden State or San Antonio in the Finals.

LeBron just wants to make sure the talks don’t impact the locker room.

“One thing about this business is you can only control what you can control. Things that you can’t control, you can’t let it bother you, and I’ve learned that over the years,” LeBron said. “There is so much that goes on in professional sports that if you just focus on what you can control, everything else will take care of itself.”

The Love rumors likely will continue to flare up this week, but they are not going to move him unless another team makes a Godfather offer.

The Cavaliers have been 10.1 points per 100 possessions better this season when Love is on the court compared to off it (and their defense does get marginally better when he plays). When Love, LeBron, and Kyrie Irving are on the court together the Cavaliers outscore opponents by 11.7 points per 100 possessions. Those are massive numbers.

The Cavaliers are a win-now team, if you’re going to break up part of that trio it has to be for something that makes the team demonstrably better. And that kind of superstar trade is rare at the February deadline anymore.

Chris Bosh: “Just being smart and cautious” pulling out of All-Star Game

MIAMI, FL - FEBRUARY 09: Chris Bosh #1 of the Miami Heat shoots during a game against the San Antonio Spurs at American Airlines Arena on February 9, 2016 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice:  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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TORONTO — You could hear it in Chris Bosh‘s voice, he wanted to be part of this All-Star Weekend in the city where he first made a name for himself as an NBA player. He specifically wanted to be part of Saturday’s Three-Point Contest as a big man.

Instead, he is out of everything All-Star Weekend due to what team officials said is a strained calf. The announcement came late, Bosh had done the Friday morning media availability and talked like a man going to play, and then a couple of hours later it was announced he was out.

“Yesterday I was upbeat, but it just kind of lingered,” Bosh said. “I tried to treat it and all these things, but it’s just one of those funny things where if you feel like it’s not really turning a corner, you know calves can turn into really major, major problems. Any other circumstance, I’d try to push through it, but it just didn’t make any sense to do it.”

The concern is that this is more than just a calf muscle injury. Bosh missed much of last season with blood clots in his lungs, a life-threatening disease. Those lung clots can be caused by deep vein thrombosis, a blood clot in the leg. The fact the NBA let him out of All-Star Weekend that late (and called Al Horford on vacation in warm Cancun and told him to get to frigid Toronto) is a sign of caution and a little concern by the league.

Bosh doesn’t think this is a repeat of that, although he expects to undergo an MRI soon just to be safe.

I’m pretty optimistic,” that it’s not, Bosh said. “I’m always making sure. When we get back to Miami we’ll do everything we need to do to treat this…. 

“Just being smart and cautious. I’m just taking it a day at a time. I’m trying to make sure that I go and get it checked out. We’re doing everything we need to do here; there’s not much we can do now. Of course, the trainers and doctors will take another look at it and re-evaluate it, and just make sure.”

This is the smart move, what Bosh dealt with last season is not something to ignore and hope it gets better.

That doesn’t mean Bosh likes it.

“I’ve been kinda down the last couple days,” Bosh said. “But I’m here, and I still get to take in everything and enjoy what I can. I was really looking forward to competing (in the Three-Point Contest) because that something unique for me, but there’s nothing I can do.”

The Heat are off until Feb. 19. Bosh said he hopes to be back on the court then, but he doesn’t know.