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.

LeBron James scores 44, reaches assist mark as Cavaliers down Hornets

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CLEVELAND (AP) LeBron James scored 17 of his season-high 44 points in the fourth quarter and reached another career milestone as the Cleveland Cavaliers won their fourth straight, 116-105 over the Charlotte Hornets on Saturday night.

James did it all, adding 10 assists and nine rebounds in 43 minutes. He took over in the fourth quarter, scoring 13 straight during one stretch to help the Cavs hold on.

As the final seconds ticked off, James stood at midcourt and spun the ball on his index finger as the crowd roared.

James, who moved into ninth place on the career scoring list Friday, recorded his 7,000th assist in the first half, becoming the first frontcourt player in NBA history to reach the plateau. James is the only player with 27,000 points and 7,000 assists.

John Wall, Bradley Beal spark Wizards in late run to beat Bucks

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WASHINGTON (AP) John Wall had 24 points and 11 assists, Bradley Beal added 20 points, and the Washington Wizards used a late 11-0 run to beat the Milwaukee Bucks 110-105 on Saturday night.

Kelly Oubre, Jr. scored a career-high 19 points for the Wizards, who have won three of four.

Giannis Antetokounmpo led Milwaukee with 28 points and 13 rebounds. His two free throws gave the Bucks a 100-95 lead with 4:28 left, but the Wizards rallied while the Bucks went cold.

Wall’s driving layup gave the Wizards a 101-100 lead with 3:03 left. Oubre then got a steal and his dunk at the other end made it 103-100.

Bradley Beal’s driving layup pushed the lead to 105-100 and Wall soon added a free throw.

Mirza Teletovic‘s 3-pointer with 5.9 seconds left pulled the Bucks to 108-105, but Beal hit two free throws to seal the win. Teletovic finished with 25 points on 8-for-12 shooting.

Wall scored nine of his points in the fourth quarter.

The Bucks, who committed 20 turnovers, have lost three of four.

Trailing by eight early in the third quarter, the Wizards went on a 16-3 run and led 70-65 before the Bucks answered to make it 77-77 after three.

The first half featured seven lead changes.

Washington trailed by nine after one quarter, but opened the second with a 12-0 run fueled by their reserves and the score was tied 52-52 at halftime.

TIP-INS

Bucks: Milwaukee shot 14 for 23 (60.9 percent) in the first quarter, including 4 for 7 from 3-point range. … Bucks have hit at least 10 3s in each of the last three games. … After scoring 27 points in each of his last two games, Jabari Parker had eight points.

Wizards: It was Wall’s 12th double-double of the season. . Gortat finished with nine points and 14 rebounds. . Wizards have won four of their last five versus the Bucks. . The Wizards have won back-to-back games for just the second time this season. . Markeiff Morris (15 points) and Otto Porter, Jr. (10) were the other Wizards in double figures.

UP NEXT

Bucks: At Toronto on Monday.

Wizards: At Miami on Monday.

Paul George has 37 points to lead Pacers over Blazers 118-111

Indiana Pacers forward Paul George reacts after scoring a basket against the Portland Trail Blazers in the second half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/R Brent Smith)
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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Paul George scored a season-high 37 points to lead the Indiana Pacers over the Portland Trail Blazers 118-111 on Saturday night.

George made five 3-pointers, and Thaddeus Young hit six 3s while getting 24 points and nine rebounds. Myles Turner added 14 points for the Pacers, who had lost five straight regular season games to Portland.

C.J. McCollum made a career-high seven 3-pointers and had a season-best 34 points for the Trail Blazers. Damian Lillard had 33 points behind five 3s.

George scored 13 straight points in the fourth quarter for Indiana. He was fouled on the go-ahead basket with 4:36 remaining and completed the three-point play to give the Pacers a 108-105 lead.

Indiana didn’t even take its first lead until Al Jefferson was fouled on a basket and made the bonus free throw to put the Pacers ahead for the first time 99-98 with 8:34 left in the fourth quarter. Then McCollum scored seven straight points to give the Trail Blazers the lead again before George took over.

The Pacers trailed by 20 points at one point after Portland didn’t waste much time taking a lead right from the start.

Lillard, who scored 28 points in Portland’s 131-109 win over Indiana on Nov. 30, had a big first quarter with 19 points and five 3-pointers.

He made back-to-back 3s to put the Trail Blazers ahead 26-11 with 5:59 remaining in the first and McCollum’s 3-pointer with 8:09 left in the second quarter gave the Trail Blazers a 58-38 lead.

George made back-to-back 3-pointers with under a minute to go in the first half. His 3 with 25.3 second remaining put the Pacers within seven to trail 71-64 at the half.

TIP-INS

Trail Blazers: Their 44 points in the first quarter were the most Portland has scored in a quarter this season. … Portland finished with 16 3-pointers. … Lillard had nine assists. … Mason Plumlee had eight points and nine rebounds.

Pacers: Jefferson finished with 10 points off the bench. … Monta Ellis had 10 points and five assists.

UP NEXT

Trail Blazers: Monday they travel to Los Angeles to play the Clippers.

Pacers: Monday they host Charlotte and try to snap a four-game losing streak to the Hornets.

Stephen Curry says the Warriors “sucked” but his Christmas light necklace is cool (VIDEO)

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Stephen Curry had one message after the Golden State Warriors lost to the Memphis Grizzlies, 110-89, on Saturday night.

Well, maybe he had two.

  1. “We sucked tonight.”
  2. Check out this sweet Christmas light necklace.

I’ll show you what I mean.

Via Twitter:

That’s a pretty sweet postgame fashion choice, even while the Warriors had an abysmal 88.5 offensive rating in the loss and Curry himself scored just 17 points on 4-of-15 shooting, including 3-of-11 from deep.

Memphis found a way to stifle Curry all night, including forcing him into airballs and rejecting his attempts at the rim with thunderous blocks.

Golden State was without center Zaza Pachulia, who missed the game with a right wrist injury. Anderson Varejao started in his place, but there wasn’t a Warriors starter who finished the game with a positive +/- despite Memphis playing somewhat pedestrian.

Cool necklace, bummer for Golden State fans as the team drops to 20-4. That makes them, uh, well still No. 1 in the Western Conference I guess. No need to panic in the middle of a road trip that ends with New Orleans, Minnesota, then back home for New York and Portland.