Thunder 117, Clippers 111: A Chris Paul survival guide

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Chris Paul is terrifying, and he knows it. Paul doesn’t score just to score — he does it to establish the threat. When you’re 6-foot-nothing in a league filled with giants, you manipulate instead of overwhelm. Paul can have 6 points and it will feel like he’s dominating, just because he made his shadow look a little bigger.

Stopping Paul isn’t easy, but the Thunder did it better than any team has in a long, long time. In the Clippers 117-111 overtime loss in Oklahoma City, Paul was denied everything. Passing lanes closed up. Avenues to the hole were non-existent. Paul was regularly caught in the air, just hoping for something to materialize — a shocking sight for any long time viewer of his brilliance. It was jarring. Paul is the NBA’s greatest dictator, a player who is in control of himself and everything around him at all times. He makes roster decisions. He distributes the touches. He tells guys where to go and what to do. But tonight, it was the Thunder defense that took control, forcing Paul into a dreadful 2-for-14 effort from the field.

How’d they do it? Let’s take a look at Oklahoma City’s Chris Paul survival guide:

Keep your distance

Because Paul doesn’t attack in a straight line, you can’t just slap a speedster on him and call it a day. You need gobs and gobs of length to disrupt his patented side-step jumper and other horizontal attacks. If you were to construct a Chris Paul stopper from scratch, it would probably be Thabo Sefolosha. Paul is able to trick more physical defenders like Tony Allen, but Sefolosha does a wonderful job of playing off of Paul and giving him space, knowing that he can use his long arms to at least partially contest any pull-up jumpers. As a general rule, the farther Paul stays away from the rim, the less damage he can do. Sefolosha did a wonderful job of deterring Paul’s penetration in the isolation setting, forcing CP3 into an 0-for-9 shooting night from outside of the paint.

Don’t Switch

Paul loves toying with big men ill-equipped to stay in front of him, so the Thunder wisely went “blue” on pick-and-roll coverage and turned down the screens by showing CP3 mobile bigs like Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison instead of switching. It’s the same strategy Gregg Popovich used for much of the Los Angeles-San Antonio playoff series, and the Thunder were able to implement it well here with good foot speed all across the floor. One of the best examples of the Spurs refusing to switch was Russell Westbrook staying at the top of the key in the Clippers last possession in regulation and not letting Kevin Martin have to deal with CP3. Westbrook is a pretty good defender when he’s both motivated and directly attacked, and he took over the defensive stopper role just fine once Martin came in for Sefolosha for offensive purposes.

Make him defend

Covering Westbrook (23 points) is a full-time job, simply because you can’t predict his actions. He takes pull-up threes off his own dribble, he drives when there is no lane to drive, and he does it all at a speed you can’t possibly hope to keep up with. Paul was off and the defense on him was great, but give Westbrook credit for applying constant pressure on the other end as well. With Westbrook flying around and Kevin Durant getting to the line a whopping 21 times, Oklahoma City’s offense felt a little more unrelenting than the Clippers did. Those pindowns for Durant (35 points) just kept coming, and Durant just kept attacking off it. Paul knew it wasn’t his night, but unless it was Jamal Crawford doing something similar in a clear isolation, the Clippers got nothing designed down the stretch and simply survived off improvisational plays from the like of Matt Barnes (19 points).

While Westbrook and Durant functioned like an occasionally bumbling but ultimately effective two-party democracy that took turns wielding power, the Clippers dictatorship failed them late in the game. Blake Griffin played a nice offensive game and had 23 points, but he only shot the ball 3 times in the fourth quarter and overtime combined. Paul is one of the best point guards the game has ever seen and nearly every night his decision-making will be as good as it’s going to get for the Clippers, but like the oh-so-wise Kanye West says, no one man (especially on a night like this) should have all that power.

MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

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We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.

James Harden puts on show to start second half vs. Timberwolves

Associated Press
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James Harden started Game 4 0-of-7 from the floor, including missing a lay-up. It was an extension of Game 3, and it let the Timberwolves hang around for a half despite their own offensive woes.

Then in the second half the MVP Harden showed up.

Houston started the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, and a lot of it was Harden (with a little help from Chris Paul). Harden had 22 points in the third (with 4:30 left in the quarter). After a couple rough games the Timberwolves were going under the pick when Harden had the ball, and suddenly he made them pay.

Or, he was just stepping back.

With all the buckets the Rockets turned a close game into a 25 point lead.

Tyronn Lue doesn’t hold back with retort to heckling Pacers’ fan

Associated Press
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It’s a part of the NBA experience that most fans don’t get to hear — some fans courtside heckling opposing players and coaches, and those guys occasionally firing back. We only tend to hear about it when things cross a line.

Sometimes the interactions are just funny, such as this one passed along by J. Michael of the Indy Star.

Well played, Lue.

Although is Cleveland really a city at the forefront of fashion? Well, I suppose if you went to college in Nebraska…

Report: Pelicans picked up Alvin Gentry’s option for next season before sweep

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Last summer the buzz was all over the league: Pelicans GM Dell Demps and coach Alvin Gentry were given a “playoffs or bust” mandate by management. If the Pelicans were not in the postseason — and just barely getting in and then blown out in the first round might be good enough — there was going to be a housecleaning.

The Pelicans made the playoffs as the six seed with 48 wins despite losing DeMarcus Cousins to a torn Achilles midway through the season.

That alone was good enough to get Gentry another season in New Orleans, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

As noted, this happened before the Pelicans swept the Trail Blazers out of the first round and into a summer of re-evaluation. This option season is the last of Gentry’s original deal with the Pelicans.

Gentry has the Pelicans playing fast, using the elite defense of Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday to get stops, and right now Davis is leading an offense that is just getting it done, with guys such as Nikola Mirotic stepping up. Gentry has earned another year, and a shot to integrate Cousins into this style and level of play, to see where that could take New Orleans next season.

It will be interesting to see if Demps can add more shooting and versatility with a capped out roster.