Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook

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.

Report: Rockets return Donatas Motiejunas to restricted free agency, working on new contract with him

Donatas Motiejunas, Kenneth Faried
AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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The Rockets had Donatas Motiejunas in a bind.

He was beholden to them on a four-year, $31 million deal and unable to sign with other teams. Motiejunas’ choices: Report for a physical or wait in limbo.

But apparently Houston has allowed him out of that constraint.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

This means Motiejunas can’t sign with the Nets, who signed him to the original offer sheet, for one year.

I bet it also means Motiejunas and Houston have agreed to a new contract. Otherwise, why release him from the offer sheet? The Rockets would be giving up a tremendous amount of leverage out of the goodness of their hearts – unless this is just a prelude to a new deal with Houston.

John Wall pushes down Jusuf Nurkic from behind in retaliation (video)

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John Wall didn’t like how Jusuf Nurkic bumped him, so Wall shoved the Nuggets center from behind and sent him to the floor.

An overreaction to the bump? Probably. Wall got hit with a technical foul.

But I’m mostly just impressed Wall was strong enough to push over Nurkic.

DeMar DeRozan throws down massive dunk against Timberwolves (VIDEO)

derozan
AP
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DeMar DeRozan is having one of those seasons for the No. 2 team in the Eastern Conference, the Toronto Raptors. During Thursday night’s win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, 124-110, DeRozan scored 27 points while adding eight rebounds, five assists, and shooting a whopping 13 free throws.

DeRozan also sealed the victory in the final minute with a huge put back dunk.

The Raptors led by 9 points with a minute left as they were inbounding the ball. A long pass from the baseline to a streaking DeMarre Carroll resulted in a blocked layup, but DeRozan was there to clean up the mess.

Via CJZero on Twitter:

Three things we learned Thursday: Memphis, Marc Gasol just win every close game

Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) shoots between Portland Trail Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu, from left, center Mason Plumlee, and forward Jake Layman (10) in the second half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
Associated Press
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Here’s what you missed Thursday around the NBA while you were drinking homemade glow-in-the-dark beer with jellyfish genes in it (no, you try it first, I insist)…

1) Don’t play Memphis in a close game, they just find a way to win.
Last week, when Mike Conley went down with a back injury and was going to miss six weeks (give or take), we questioned if Memphis could keep their heads above water. They promptly went out and lost to a very good Toronto team.

Since then they have won five in a row, capped by an impressive 88-86 win over Portland Tuesday. Impressive because:

• Memphis is now 12-0 in games that were within 3 points in the final minute. You get in a close game with Memphis, you lose. (Statistically, we know some of that is luck, that there will be some regression to the mean, but that stat has propelled a team has been outscored by nine points this season, one that should be 12-12, to the 16-8 record they have.)

• Memphis trailed Portland 79-68 with less than five minutes to go, and still won.

Marc Gasol had 36 points and has been an absolute beast since Conley went down, doing whatever it takes to win.

• Toney Douglas — a guy the Grizzlies just picked up off the street this week, basically — comes in and is clutch down the stretch for them, including hitting the game-winning free throws with 0.5 seconds left (Damian Lillard tried to argue the call, to no avail).

The schedule gets tough for Memphis the next couple of weeks — Golden State, home-and-home with Cleveland, then Boston and Utah looming not long after — but do not doubt the Grizzlies. No team is as resilient as this bunch.

2) Bulls prove Spurs aren’t perfect on the road. It was bound to happen, the San Antonio Spurs were 13-0 on the road, they were going to stumble at some point. That point turned out to be Thursday night in Chicago, where the Spurs came out of the gate like they went out and had a big pregame meal of Lou Malnati’s pizza — 32 points on 30.6 percent shooting in the first half for San Antonio. The Spurs didn’t defend poorly, for example Kawhi Leonard held Jimmy Butler to no first-half points — in fact, midway through the first quarter Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez had scored almost all the Bulls’ buckets — but the San Antonio offense was dreadful. Throw a little credit to the Chicago defense if you want, but this was more San Antonio stumbling than a Chicago return to the Thibodeau era.

The Bulls were up 12 at the half and were able to hang on despite a strong second 24 minutes from Leonard (17 of his 24 came in the second half) and get the win. Dwyane Wade had 20 points and hit a couple of key buckets late to stabilize Chicago. For a Bulls team that is going to be in a playoff battle all season — they are the seven seed right now, one game ahead of the Pacers in ninth — these kinds of wins at home can prove huge.

3) What is it with Minnesota and second half? On the road, the Minnesota Timberwolves had played the Toronto Raptors even for the first 24 minutes — it was 59-59 at the half. And yet, there was a sense of dread for Timberwolves fans because all season their young team has just come apart in the third quarter — and then Toronto opened the second half on an 11-2 run. Minnesota, to their credit, crawls back into it, but midway through the fourth the Raptors go on a 17-4 run sparked by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and the Raptors pull away for the 124-110 win. The Timberwolves lost another game because they can’t defend well.

Minnesota shows flashes of the kind of brilliance that has everyone thinking they might be a contender in a few years. But we all expected too much too soon from this group. Those impressive stretches are followed by ones where they play like a young team, they don’t defend well, and they throw those good efforts away. Not that they were going to beat a good Toronto team on the road, but the Timberwolves can be frustrating to watch. Patience is hard, and Minnesota fans are being asked to show a lot of it. We can debate if it’s time to bring Ricky Rubio off the bench and let Kris Dunn sink or swim, but that’s not the core problem. Ultimately, the Timberwolves are young and playing like it. They don’t know how and aren’t putting in the effort to defend well yet. Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, they can be the core of a contender eventually, but there is a lot of learning to do along the way. Tom Thibodeau can teach them. But it’s going to require patience.