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.

Giannis Antetokounmpo out for Bucks-Suns Eric Bledsoe revenge game

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Giannis Antetokounmpoone of the NBA’s best players – won’t help new Bucks teammate Eric Bledsoe in a revenge game against the Suns tonight.

Not only is Milwaukee missing Mirza Teletovic and John Henson (and Matthew Dellavedova and Jabari Parker), Antetokounmpo is out.

Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Antetokounmpo will miss Wednesday’s game against the Phoenix Suns due to right knee soreness.

Antetokounmpo says his knee soreness is the same injury he dealt with in the off-season, which caused him to withdraw from the Greek national team.

“It feels good,” Antetokounmpo said after sitting out shootaround. “I’m just trying to be careful with it and not make any damage. That’s it, because it’s a long season and I’m trying to be careful.”

The Bucks have been outscored by 18.6 points per 100 possessions without Antetokounmpo this season (and are +2.3 without him). Phoenix isn’t good, but neither is Milwaukee without Antetokounmpo.

I don’t think Bledsoe will mind a chance to get more aggressive tonight, though.

Report: Mexico City could host NBA’s 31st minor-league team

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NBA commissioner Adam Silver said his league would look into placing a franchise in Mexico City.

Meanwhile, the NBA’s minor-league has affiliates for 26 of 30 NBA teams and counting. The league also has youth academies in China, India, Australia and Senegal – and also counting.

Jonathan Givony of  ESPN:

The NBA will announce a new basketball development and training academy in Mexico City during the Global Games December 7th and 9th, in conjunction with CONADE (Mexico’s National Commission for Physical Culture and Sport) and the Mexican Basketball Federation, sources told ESPN.

Mexico City could emerge as the 31st G League franchise, where prospects from the seven academies graduate up to, according to sources.

A minor-league team in Mexico City could be a nice testing ground for an NBA franchise. An unaffiliated minor-league team is also an interesting wrinkle, especially how it’d be stocked.

Ultimately, experimentation is a purpose of the NBA’s minor league. This would be running multiple test cases at once.

Lonzo Ball on his shot: “I feel like they’re going to fall. Just have to keep shooting.”

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Lonzo Ball‘s shooting woes this season have been well chronicled. Maybe even beaten to death — but when your father is a hype man, and Magic Johnson says you’re the “face of the franchise” it invites a whole new level of scrutiny. Doesn’t matter if it’s fair, it’s reality.

Rather than a cold recitation of the numbers, a look at Ball’s shot chart for the season says a 1,000 words worth.

Ball has admitted frustration but has said throughout he expects things to turn. He reiterated that in an interview on the Mason and Ireland Show on ESPN LA Radio. He likes the looks he’s getting, thinks they will start to go down. (Hat tip Lakers’ Nation.)

“I’m just missing shots. I definitely like the looks I’m getting. Most of them are wide open, people are going under screens. I feel like they’re going to fall. Just have to keep shooting and shooting with confidence.”

Ball is right. He is shooting 28.2 percent on shots where the defender is 4-6 feet away (22.9 percent from three on those), and 21.3 percent when the defender is 6 or more feet away (19.1 percent from three).

Those shots may start to fall — Luke Walton has preached the same thing to Ball, just keep shooting and it will come around. Right now Ball is in his own head about this, maybe guiding the shots rather than just firing away, but the Lakers aren’t going to rebuild his shot mid-season. He should just keep shooting.

Maybe of more concern is that 42.5 percent in the restricted area — if he isn’t a decent scoring threat on drives, it will hamper his entire passing game. He’s a rookie, he needs time to adjust to the speed, length, and physicality of the NBA, it’s far too early to say what he is and isn’t yet. But those finishing numbers are ones to watch.

Kevin Durant says “I plan on playing” against Thunder Wednesday

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After Kevin Durant missed the Warriors’ last game with a sprained ankle, there was some question about whether he would play on his latest return to Oklahoma City on Wednesday.

Doubt no more, he will play. Like we all expected.

Durant has a ring now and says he wants to move on from the drama surrounding his departure from Oklahoma City, but you can be sure plenty of Thunder fans don’t feel that way. KD will again have boos rained down on him all game.

This is obviously a very different Thunder team than the one Durant left, with the additions of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. While the Thunder have stumbled and blown leads (in six of their nine losses OKC had double-digit leads) this is a team with a lot of potential, as Durant discussed.