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 Rockets laughing at Andre Roberson missing free throws: ‘Probably the guys that don’t play’

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The Rockets bench made a big production when an intentionally fouled Andre Roberson kept missing free throws in the Thunder’s Game 4 loss to the Rockets yesterday.

Russell Westbrook stuck up for his teammate.

Royce Young of ESPN:

Westbrook:

I didn’t see it. I didn’t see it at all. Probably the guys that don’t play, probably over there the ones laughing, if I had to guess.

Good guess. It appears Montrezl Harrell and Bobby Brown – whose only playing time this series came late in Houston’s blowout Game 1 win – led the jeers.

But the most important thing for the Thunder is Roberson making his free throws. They need him on the court to defend James Harden, which exposes him to hacking. If Westbrook deflecting attention onto the Rockets’ benchwarmers helps Roberson at the line, great. But if not, the Rockets will keep having reasons to laugh.

Magic Johnson winks at bringing Paul George to Lakers

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Paul George-to-the-Lakers rumors have swirled for a while.

New Lakers president Magic Johnson will only fuel them.

Asked how he’d interact with the Pacers star to avoid tampering if they ran into each other, Johnson said on Jimmy Kimmel Live:

We’re going to say hi, because we know each other. You just can’t say, “Hey, I want you to come to the Lakers,” even though I’m going to be wink-winking like [blinks repeatedly]. You know what that means, right?

In explaining how he’d avoid tampering, Johnson probably tampered. Accidental tampering appears to be his specialty.

The Collective Bargaining Agreement says team employees can’t permissibly “induce, persuade, or attempt to entice, induce or persuade, any Player who is under contract to, or whose exclusive negotiating rights are held by, any other Member of the Association to enter into negotiations for or relating to his services or negotiate or contract for such services.” But the league arbitrarily enforces tampering, so who knows whether he’ll be punished?

Johnson almost certainly could have gotten away with the hypothetical conversation he laid out. But going on television and describing it — even as fantasy, even not directly to George — could constitute tampering in itself,

If Johnson helps attract George to Los Angeles, it’d well be worth it. At least he’s trying something.

Report: Austin Rivers returning for Clippers-Jazz Game 5

Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
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There have been bigger injuries in the Clippers-Jazz first-round series: Blake Griffin‘s toe, Rudy Gobert‘s knee and Gordon Hayward‘s stomach.

But Clippers guard Austin Rivers has yet to play due to a strained hamstring.

It sounds as if that will change tomorrow.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

This is neither as big a deal as the Clippers will make it out to be nor as meaningless as Rivers’ many detractors will claim.

The 6-foot-4 Rivers will provide an important defensive upgrade on the perimeter. The Clippers haven’t successfully hidden Jamal Crawford and Raymond Felton, allowing Utah too many quality looks. Here how the Jazz have shot when defended by each, per NBA.com:

  • Crawford: 18-of-36 (50%), including 7-of-17 on 3-pointers (41%)
  • Felton: 13-of-24 (54%), including 5-of-8 on 3-pointers (63%)

Rivers needn’t be great to help behind Chris Paul and J.J. Redick.

Rockets bench hams it up over Andre Roberson missed free throw (video)

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Russell Westbrook might not want to talk about his supporting cast distinctively, but it’s a real issue for the Thunder, who trail the Rockets 3-1 in their first-round series.

Even Andre Roberson, who has impressively defended James Harden, brings a glaring weakness: free throws. Roberson is 2-for-17 from the line in the playoffs, including 2-for-12 in Game 4 yesterday. Houston even repeatedly intentionally fouled him late.

It was agonizing for all but the most partisan Rockets supporters – though even Houston’s bench, while at least implicitly mocking Roberson, appeared put off that he missed yet again.