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.

CJ McCollum, Bismack Biyombo to headline 2017 NBA Africa Game this summer

Portland Trail Blazers' C.J. McCollum pumps his fist during the final moments of their 127-123 overtime win over the Boston Celtics in an NBA basketball game in Boston Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
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NEW ORLEANS (AP) The NBA is going back to Africa.

The league and the National Basketball Players Association announced Saturday that NBA Africa Game 2017 will be held on Aug. 5 in Johannesburg. It’s the second time the NBA is playing on that continent, after a sold-out event there in 2015.

Among the players planning to take part so far are Orlando’s Bismack Biyombo, Portland’s CJ McCollum and Denver’s Emmanuel Mudiay.

The game will have a Team Africa vs. Team World format and will support of UNICEF, the Nelson Mandela Foundation and SOS Children’s Villages South Africa.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver says going back to South Africa “is part of the league’s continued commitment to bring the authentic NBA experience to fans around the world.”

Report: Nuggets received $2.85 million from Trail Blazers in Mason Plumlee-Jusuf Nurkic trade

Denver Nuggets center Mason Plumlee is congratulated after making a basket against the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017, in Denver. Plumlee was appearing in his first game for the Nuggets since being acquired from the Portland Trail Blazers for center Jusuf Nurkic. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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The Nuggets traded Jusuf Nurkic and the Grizzlies’ first-round pick to the Trail Blazers for Mason Plumlee and a second-rounder — a deal that didn’t appear to provide Denver enough value.

But it seems we omitted a key piece of the Nuggets’ return.

Eric Pincus of Basketball Insiders:

Teams rarely trade that much in a single transaction. They’re capped at both receiving and sending out $3.5 million this season.

But this is the advantage of an owner willing to spend. Paul Allen is allowing Portland to assemble a more-talented roster.

Denver still got the best player right now in the trade, and Plumlee will upgrade the bench and maybe even fit OK starting with Nikola Jokic. But it’s hard to overlook owner Stan Kroenke’s cash influx.

Rumor: Kings reignite trade talks for DeMarcus Cousins; Cousins agent denies

AUBURN HILLS, MI - JANUARY 23: DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings looks on while playing the Detroit Pistons at the Palace of Auburn Hills on January 23, 2017 in Auburn Hills, Michigan. Sacramento won the game 109-104. 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 Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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The Sacramento Kings may be looking to move center Boogie Cousins. Stop me if you’ve heard this rumor before.

According to The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Kings management has reportedly engaged in talks during All-Star Weekend to move the talented, fiery center.

If moved, Boogie would be the biggest player dealt thus far this season.

Via Twitter:

It didn’t take long for Cousin’s agent to try and kill those rumors.

That Cousin’s agent denies it doesn’t make it false, however, this move would be a huge change of directions for the Kings organization.

It may also be one they may need to consider. The Kings have said they would offer Cousins the “designated player” max extension (likely around at $213 million over five seasons), and Cousins has said he would sign it. If the Kings really wanted to make him happy, they could do a Russell Westbrook style renegotiation of his contract for the coming season, then have the extension kick in after that (Boogie would sign that, too). However, do that and they have no cap space to bring in players around Cousins, they stay the same team they are right now for years.

The Kings have been reluctant at times to even engage in discussions with teams, in part because owner Vivek Ranadive doesn’t want to move the big man knowing they will go a decade before getting a player that talented on the roster again. The Kings were frustrated when former coach George Karl was insistent on moving him, and they dismissed interest from both the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers.

But there’s also been recent talks around Boogie and the Phoenix Suns, and the situation from an outside-of-California view seems to be ripe for a split.

Cousins, for as good as he’s been, has not shown he’s enough to take the team into the playoffs. Kings management, meanwhile, has been an absolute disaster during his time there and has not done much to compliment him. The relationship seems to have soured, even as owner Ranadive has backed Cousins.

Whatever the outcome, if Cousins gets traded by the Feb. 23 deadline it will go down as one of the biggest mid-season moves this season. It’s going to be hard for Sacramento to move on from a franchise player like Boogie, but perhaps it’s time to look for a different path. For Cousins, a breath of fresh air and a little help might put his career in a new perspective as well.

Report: 76ers sat Jahlil Okafor because they were close to Trail Blazers trade

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 26: Jahlil Okafor #8 of the Philadelphia 76ers controls the ball against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Wells Fargo Center on October 26, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 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. The Thunder defeated the 76ers 103-97. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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The 76ers sat Jahlil Okafor for two games last week, openly acknowledging they were discussing trading him. Then, they played him in their final game before the All-Star break.

That prompted speculation that no deal fell through, but that Philadelphia was bluffing being close in order to drum up interest.

But maybe there actually was a near-trade.

David Aldridge of NBA.com:

On the surface, this makes sense. We know the Trail Blazers were interested in a cost-controlled center, because they traded for Jusuf Nurkic.

But that trade also makes Portland perfect cover if the 76ers are just trying to deflect from a gambit gone wrong. Not only were the Trail Blazers plausible trade partners, they already made their deal. So, there will be no questions about revisiting discussions.