The Extra Pass: How the Clippers Grew Up

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The Extra Pass is a new daily column that’s designed to give you a better look at a theme, team, player or scheme. Today, we look at the maturation of the Los Angeles Clippers.

For years and years, the Los Angeles Clippers were a failure on a systemic level. The on-court talent was faced with the permanent uphill battle of overcoming the ineptness of the franchise’s negligent caretaker and owner, Donald Sterling.

Very rarely did the whole overcoming thing actually happen. It happened so infrequently, actually, that calling the Clippers the worst franchise in professional sports wasn’t mud slinging, but rather an accurate moniker.

When the Clippers acquired Chris Paul last year, he understood the gravity of his decision to adopt the abused franchise as his own. Being great on the court simply wouldn’t be enough — he would have to be the new caretaker, the franchise’s new parent. After all, Sterling sure as hell wasn’t doing it, and for as great as Blake Griffin was, he was still just a kid trying to figure out his own game. The responsibility was squarely on Paul’s shoulders.

Like most new parents, Paul accepted that responsibility with a type of fervor that could be considered, at times, a little overbearing. The Clippers were now an extension of Paul, so everything was watched and controlled with an overly careful eye that only a great point guard can possess.

During their inaugural season together, the Clippers would often stumble through three quarters to teams with less talent, only to hope, or know, that Paul would bail them out in the last few minutes. And more often than not, Paul would play the role of both hero and enabler and come through.

The Clippers had managed to become a very good team throughout that process, but all their hopes stayed completely dependent on Paul’s performance. The rest of the team was generally incapable of any real success without Paul holding their hand, and in some ways, Paul was at least partially responsible for allowing the team to establish such a heavy dependence on his late game offensive heroics.

The playoff sweep at the hands of the Spurs was a reflection of this. With Paul banged up and limited by a defense hellbent on stopping him, the Clippers had little else to fall back on in terms of both experience and scheme. While they had ultimately changed for the better with Paul as a parent during that first season, the Clippers as a whole still had yet to mature.

With the guidance of Paul, the Clippers went into the offseason looking to speed up that maturation process. Their youngest substantial free agent signing was 32-year-old Jamal Crawford. They brought in traveled players like Grant Hill, Lamar Odom and Matt Barnes, and secured Chauncey Billups as the first act of business.

Those signings obviously matured the team on paper, but it was Paul who did the actual advancing. Instead of conserving energy for when his heroics would be needed in the fourth quarter like the prior season, Paul changed his approach this year by using his energy right away so the team wouldn’t need him at all — a real “teach a man to fish” move.

Behind Paul’s inspired first quarter play, the Clippers have had a much improved defense (18th in defensive efficiency last year to 4th this season), thanks to the example he’s established. If you flip to a telecast of a Clippers game in the fourth quarter this year, there’s a decent chance Paul will be seated on the bench, watching a suffocating second unit put the bow on another blowout win because Paul did his damage so early.

Playing that hard defensively early on accomplished a few different things for the Clippers. It made them the league’s most dominant defense against opposing point guards, something they can really hang their hat on. It sent the message that he trusted the depth behind him. It emphasized the importance of no player taking possessions off. The Clippers aren’t accomplishing what they are defensively with a scheme like Chicago’s or Boston’s — it’s almost all driven by effort.

A test for the Clippers’ progress defensively came about rather recently when they traveled to Memphis for another game in a long line of slugfests. This time, however, they’d be without their biggest puncher in Paul, who was sidelined with a knee injury.

How did they respond? Well, the Clippers held the Grizzlies to 30 percent shooting and destroyed them in their own house, 99-73. True to form, the game was essentially over in the third quarter.

On the very next night, the Clippers headed to Houston. All the excuses were readily available — they were on a back-to-back, on the road, without Chris Paul, against the league’s fastest team. But they won big again, going up by as much as 20 early in the fourth quarter before cruising the rest of the way.

An interesting narrative popped up after the impressive victories. How could Chris Paul be considered a real MVP candidate if his team was great — maybe even better — without him in the lineup for a few games? It’s a direct hit to the “valuable” part of the equation, isn’t it?

When considering that, I can’t help but be reminded of the conclusion of J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher In The Rye.” The “little brother” of Los Angeles is reaching for that ring, and while Paul is still responsible for the Clippers, he’s mature enough to know that his teammates won’t learn anything if he does everything himself. He’s mature enough to know that repeatedly gearing up and saving them in the moment last year didn’t actually save the Clippers from anything at all.

It’s true, the Clippers don’t need Chris Paul in every waking moment anymore. It’s clear that they’ve grown out of that.

And if that’s not a reflection on Paul’s value, I don’t know what it is.

Russell Westbrook on matchup with Ricky Rubio: ‘Let’s get past that. We’re done with that’

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After Ricky Rubio‘s 26-point triple-double in Game 3, Russell Westbrook said, “I’ma shut that s— off next game though. Guarantee that.”

Westbrook definitely tried. The Thunder star defended Rubio far more aggressively in Game 4 last night. But Westbrook also fouled Rubio four times in the first half and played too out of control, committing five turnovers. Rubio (13 points, eight rebounds, six assists) wasn’t nearly as individually excellent, but his passing keyed the Jazz’s offense.

Most importantly, Utah outscored Oklahoma City by 12 in the 30 minutes the point guards shared the court and won 113-96 to take a 3-1 series lead.

How did the matchup with Rubio go, Russ?

Westbrook:

It’s not about me and him. Let’s get past that. We’re done with that.

How convenient.

Westbrook is the one who brought attention to the individual matchup. He took stopping Rubio upon himself. Now, when it didn’t go well, Westbrook suddenly doesn’t want to talk about it?

Maybe Westbrook realized he got carried away, to the detriment of his team. It’s not too late to fix that, and this could be his attempt to do so before Game 5 Wednesday.

But he also must own the egg on his face for putting the spotlight on Westbrook-Rubio and then dodging the attention once the matchup went south.

Rockets 50, Timberwolves 20: Most dominant playoff quarter in shot-clock era (video)

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James Harden missed a floater and clapped in frustration. The Rockets’ third quarter in Game 4 against the Timberwolves didn’t get off to a great start. Harden’s shooting had underwhelmed since Game 2.

Then, Harden and Houston broke out of the funk – in a big way.

The Rockets outscored Minnesota 50-20 in the third quarter of their 119-100 victory last night, giving Houston a 3-1 lead in the first-round series. The 30-point margin in the third quarter was tied for the most lopsided playoff quarter in the shot-clock era:

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Harden singlehandedly outscored the Timberwolves himself, 23-20. Paul added 15.

The Rockets shot 5-of-10 on 2-pointers, 9-of-13 on 3-pointers and 13-of-13 on free throws. Houston committed no turnovers and offensively rebounded a third of its misses.

It was incredible output, even for the NBA’s best offense.

The Rockets’ 50 points were second-most in a playoff quarter – and the most in a victory – in the shot-clock era. The leaderboard:

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As expected, Wesley Matthews says he will pick up $18.6 million option with Mavericks

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Wesley Matthews still has value as an NBA player.

However, he doesn’t have $18.6 million in value on the open market right now — especially in what will be a tight market this summer — so he’s going to take the cash on the table. Matthews is going to opt into the $18.6 million in the final year of his contract (the final season of a four-year, $70 million deal), he told Dwain Price of the Mavericks’ official website.

He said he will pick up that option and return and play next season with the Mavs.

“Obviously that’s something that hasn’t been on my mind,” Matthews said. “That’s what you have an agent for and agencies for.

“Like I said, I don’t plan on being anywhere else. And now it’s just focusing on getting back healthy, which I am now, and getting on this court.”

Matthews missed the final 16 games of last season with a stress fracture in his right fibula, and played in just 63 games total. He has been cleared to resume basketball activities now and is back on his workout routine.

Matthews biggest value has been on the defensive end, where he has been good on the wing for Dallas. Offensively, he averaged 12.7 points per game last season, shooting an improved 38.1 percent from three and with a true shooting percentage right around the league average at 54.1. He’s been solid in Dallas, a glue guy and a veteran example for young players such as Dennis Smith Jr., although they paid him that contract to be more than just solid.

Matthews name came up in trade rumors last deadline, and now that he has an expiring deal you can expect his name to come up again this summer and into next season (if he’s not moved). He’s an interesting trade piece who could help a lot of playoff-bound teams, something the Mavericks are not likely to be.

Draymond Green is texting Joel Embiid advice during playoffs

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In Game 1 of their series, the Philadelphia 76ers — without Joel Embiid — blew the doors off the Miami Heat, winning by 27. It’s the kind of game that can lead a young team to overconfidence.

That’s when Draymond Green texted Joel Embiid some words of advice, reports Jessica Camerato of NBC Sports Philadelphia.

“Draymond texted me after the first game when we blew Miami out,” Embiid recalled Monday. “He basically told me that it’s not going to be the same in Game 2. They came back and they won that game.”

Green was right, but it’s one of the harder things for young players to understand, how much the ground can shift game-to-game in the playoffs. For the first four games especially, matchups and strategies will change night-to-night, and around Game 5 that tends to settle down and become more about execution (and talent).

For the Sixers, everything in their series changed with the return of Joel Embiid. Unhappily wearing a mask, Embiid’s defensive presence in the paint slows the Heat attack and allows things like Philly’s Game 4 comeback win on the road. Now Embiid’s about to make his home playoff debut in Game 5 Tuesday night, with a chance to close out the series.

“The atmosphere was amazing, it was insane,” Embiid said of the home crowd in Games 1 and 2. “After going to Miami, I felt like nothing compared to it. … We’ve been almost perfect [at home] since the beginning of the year. It just shows you how much we need them. Especially myself, I play better in that type of environment. I need the fans to get into it and push me. That makes me elevate my game.”

Beyond the first round, in an East where the expected best teams — Toronto and Cleveland — have looked vulnerable, the door is open.

“A lot of people say that we have a bright future, but I think our time is now,” Embiid said. “We have a pretty good chance. We have a special team, a lot of great guys. I don’t think we need anybody else. We’ve just got to work with what we have, and we have a special team. I feel like we have a pretty good chance to go far.