Clippers 105, Jazz 104: Don’t make Chris Paul angry

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The city of Los Angeles may not have Phil Jackson, but Chris Paul is doing his best to carry on some of the Zen Master’s most notable traits. Remember how Jackson would never call timeouts when his team was on the bad end of a big run? Timeouts were considered to be bailouts. Jackson wanted his team to figure it out, to work through it, and to learn something in the process.

He was the ultimate believer in throwing your kid in the lake and seeing if they could float, so to speak. Well, Paul did the same in Salt Lake against the Jazz, leaning heavily on Blake Griffin (30 points, 11 rebounds) in a matchup that you would think favored him (against matador defender Mo Williams) more.

It might be easy to mistake Paul’s general pacifist approach to much of the game as a weakness, but he is an absolute terror when provoked. The Utah Jazz didn’t intentionally antagonize him any specific way, but there was a play tonight that woke Paul up from his state of meditation.

It’s a hard thing to do, but the Jazz embarrassed Paul. At about the 6 minute mark of the fourth quarter, the Jazz were still clinging to a lead they built earlier in the game behind their brutally efficient offensive effort.  Utah was inbounding the ball under their own rim, and Chris Paul had his back turned to inbounder Paul Millsap. In a bang-bang play, Millsap lobbed a little pass over Paul’s head to Mo Williams in the paint, who put it in before Paul had realized where the ball was or what was going on.

Paul looked like a fool. And for all the patience Paul exercises throughout the game, he was going to let that slide. On the very next possession, Paul raced down court, not even consider passing. He was getting those two points back. And the lead. And the game.

The Utah Jazz had been great. They had thoroughly outplayed the Clippers in every sense of the word up until this point, but now they were faced with the very real scenario of an angry Chris Paul in a high screen and roll. And with no Derrick Favors in the lineup, it would be up Al Jefferson trying to be something other than a traffic cone for Paul to blow by.

The results weren’t pretty. Paul (14 points, 9 assists) ate poor Al Jefferson alive at the top of the key on switches, hedges and drops to the paint, scoring eight points and dishing out two assists in the final six minutes, including the go-ahead layup for the Clippers and an eventual 105-104 victory.

Despite the outcome, the Clippers screwed things up left and right all night long. They played terrible defense, letting Utah shoot 56 percent from the field. Vinny Del Negro kept Eric Bledsoe, probably the team’s best defender, on the bench for all but 11 minutes, even though he scored 10 points in that limited time. He had a player in his third game back after months and months away from basketball (Chauncey Billups) play a critical role down the stretch, which almost backfired in a serious way. There were so many things wrong — so many things that could have been better.

And while a win might mask those problems in the minds of many, don’t lump Paul in that group. A loss can be a great teaching moment, but on the road against a Western Conference foe that unintentionally embarrassed him? Paul decided to teach his opponents a lesson instead: don’t make him angry.

Marcus Smart returns, helps Celtics win Game 5 over Bucks

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Marcus Smart returned to the Boston Celtics after suffering a thumb injury earlier in the year, and boy was it just in time.

The Celtics guard came off the bench, doing what he does best: attacking opposing guards, grabbing rebounds, and making hustle plays for his squad. Smart thoroughly annoyed the Milwaukee Bucks, and as Giannis Antetokounmpo failed to make a push in the second half (and as Khris Middleton‘s shooting slowly deteriorated) it was Boston who came out with a win in Game 5, 92-87.

Milwaukee’s offense failed to show up early. According to NBA TV, it was the second-lowest halftime total for the Bucks this season, and the away team scored just 37 points at the break. Milwaukee struggled mightily as a team, shooting just 21 percent from 3-point range. Despite the issues, both Antetokounmpo and Middleton had 11 points by half.

Boston’s attack was balanced, with nine players scoring in the first half but none reaching double figures. Smart was effective off the bench, playing 12 minutes in the first half. Smart’s presence was felt elsewhere on the floor as well; in those minutes he racked up two blocks, two rebounds, and two assists.

The Celtics stalled to start the third quarter, at times going several minutes between baskets. The intensity level was still high, particularly during one tussle with 9:33 left in the third. Eric Bledsoe and Terry Rozier got into a bumping match on the baseline away from the ball, resulting in one player getting pushed into an official. Bledsoe earned a Flagrant 1 for his efforts, and Rozier was assessed a technical.

Milwaukee began to battle back on surprising baskets by Shabazz Muhammad. The former Minnesota Timberwolves wing dropped two 3-pointers to help the Bucks make a run at the Celtics all the way into the fourth quarter.

The critical play of the game came with 80 seconds left. With the shot clock winding down, Al Horford was allowed by officials to shoot a long jumper. The refereeing crew didn’t blow the whistle, and Boston took a second possession after a backtip.

Then, with 28 seconds left as the Bucks were trying to steal or foul the Celtics, came the play Boston fans had been waiting for from Smart. At first it appeared Milwaukee had shot at a turnover as they hustled Smart to the floor on a trap. Thinking quickly, Smart leapt on the lost ball, flipped over, and sent a pass to a wide open Horford for the basket, all but sealing the game.

Milwaukee tried to play the foul game in the final minute or so, but weren’t able to come up with a win. Antetokounmpo finished with just 16 points and Middleton with 23. Horford led the Celtics with 22 points, 14 rebounds, and three assists.

Boston now leads the series, 3-2, as they head back to Milwaukee for Game 6 on Thursday.

Meek Mill gets out of jail, takes helicopter to 76ers-Heat, rings bell pregame

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Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid had been one of the most notable NBA players leading the charge for the #FreeMeekMill movement. The rapper Meek Mill, a Philadelphia native and Sixers fan, has been incarcerated for violating the terms of his probation multiple times.

At the heart of the movement to free Meek Mill is the idea of comparative justice, that he has been unfairly targeted because of his race as an absorber of punishment from the penal system despite it being a decade since he committed his crime. People from Embiid to New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft have made their voices heard on the subject.

Today, Meek Mill was released from prison and was sent a special gift: the opportunity to fly via helicopter, provided by 76ers minority owner Michael Rubin, to Game 5 between the Sixers and Miami Heat.

When he arrived at the game, the rapper rung the ceremonial bell before tip-off.

Not a couple of hours fresh out of the joint.

Russell Westbrook fined $10,000 for confrontation with Gobert, no suspension

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The rule in the NBA is clear and strictly enforced (just ask Amar’e Stoudemire and the Suns): Leave the bench during an altercation and you get suspended for a game.

Monday night, in the fourth quarter of the chippy game Monday where the Jazz beat the Thunder, Russell Westbrook was set to check into the game when there was a little dust-up between Rudy Gobert in Raymond Felton, and Westbrook came in and escalated it. Did he leave the bench, or was he coming into the game and that’s different.

The NBA decided he was coming into the game already — Westbrook got a $10,000 fine and an after-the-fact technical, but no suspension.

OKC needs Westbrook — and an aggressive Westbrook who is knocking down his midrange shot — to have a chance to avoid elimination in Game 5 Wednesday. The Thunder have had their strengths turned against them, and have not shown the versatility to adjust in this series, and if Westbrook and company cannot change that Wednesday their season will end.

Nets hire Pablo Prigioni as assistant coach, Tiago Splitter as scout

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NEW YORK (AP) — The Brooklyn Nets have hired former NBA player and Argentine guard Pablo Prigioni as an assistant coach.

The Nets also announced Tuesday that former Spurs center Tiago Splitter was hired as a pro scout.

Prigioni spent most of his professional career in Spain and won a bronze medal with Argentina in the 2008 Olympics before coming to the New York Knicks in 2012 as a 35-year-old rookie. He spent four years in the NBA with the Knicks, Rockets and Clippers.

Splitter helped San Antonio win the 2014 NBA championship before spending the final two seasons of his seven-year career with Atlanta and Philadelphia. The Nets said Splitter, who also played for Brazil’s national team, will have added duties related to player on-court development.