Los Angeles Clippers' Paul puts his arm around teammate Griffin during NBA basketball game against the Memphis Grizzlies in Los Angeles

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.

Report: Pacers’ coach Frank Vogel’s contract up, no talks yet about extension

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 26:  Head Coach Frank Vogel of the Indiana Pacers shouts to an official in the first half of Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Toronto Raptors during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on April 26, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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Frank Vogel is one of the 10 best coaches in the NBA. The Indiana Pacers are better with him in the big chair.

But is he going to be back next season?

Probably, only because it’s hard to imagine otherwise, but the door has been opened reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Are the Pacers’ serious? Team president Larry Bird wouldn’t answer the question, but neither did he throw water on the rumor to put the flames out.

Vogel wouldn’t need to worry about employment, he would instantly jump to near the top of every coaching search list out there (and the ones that will come up next year).

The question is, why would the Pacers do this? Can you pick apart is end-of-game management in Game 4, and question his rotations? Sure. Did he make a mistake with his timeout call late in Game 7? Probably. He’s not perfect.

However, this is a team whose second and third best players are Monta Ellis and George Hill, and they have a thin bench — Vogel did more with less he was given by Larry Bird than just about any coach could have. This team has limitations and he has done a fantastic job putting players in positions where they could succeed.

I imagine in a couple of weeks the Pacers will announce a new deal with Vogel. But the door is now open to change.

Raptors hang on through rough finish to beat Pacers 89-84, advance to second round

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To paraphrase the great Rasheed Wallace: “Both teams played hard. Not well, but both teams played hard.”

Game 7s can be filled with tight play and poor decisions, and the final few minutes of this Game 7 between the Raptors and Pacers certainly saw that. It saw the Raptors score just 11 fourth quarter points — and saw the referees swallow their whistles on a clear foul that would have given the Pacers a better chance at a win — but none of that matters to a Toronto fan base starved for a playoff series win.

They don’t care about style points, just give them the “W.” The Raptors and their fans can finally exhale.

Toronto had a 16-point lead, tried desperately to run out the clock in the final five minutes, and in doing so opened the door again for Indiana and made it tight at the end, but Toronto hung on for an 89-84 win.

Toronto wins the series and now advances on to the second round for the first time since the Vince Carter era. The Raptors will face the Heat starting this Tuesday at home in Toronto.

“I think everybody wrote the Raptors off and gave us up for dead,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said after the win. “But that locker room is full of fighters and scrappers and guys that are really getting into it now.”

Casey is wrong in the micro — I certainly don’t remember any “Toronto can’t win Game 7 at home” stories in the press — but right in the macro that his team carried a heavy “they can’t get out of the first round” burden all season, a reputation that almost was an anchor for them in the closing minutes of this game.

But they survived. And advanced.

Paul George was the best player on the floor and finished the game with 26 points, but it was the play he didn’t make (and the foul the Raptors got away with on that play) that will be the talk of Game 7.

Toronto had a small lead most of the game, but a couple of runs (one in the third quarter, another early in the fourth) had stretched it out to 16. Leading the way was DeMar DeRozan, who wasn’t efficient (10-of-32 shooting) but did put up 30 points and was attacking hard. The other key in this game for the Raptors was on the glass where they grabbed the offensive rebound on 35 percent of their missed shots, which led to 17 second-chance points on the night.

But everyone knew Toronto was not going to just be able to coast in for the win. It was going to be hard.

With five minutes left Toronto started to try to run out the clock — Shaquille O’Neal called it “prevent offense” — and the team wouldn’t even really start its attack until there were five seconds or so on the clock. The result was, predictably enough, difficult and contested shots. Meanwhile, the Pacers kept hitting shots and went on a 15-2 run, with Solomon Hill throwing down a huge dunk and Monta Ellis hitting a three that made it a three-point game with 2:36 left.

Then Kyle Lowry answered with a driving layup that had the Raptors up 87-82 with 2:10 left. That would be the last bucket of the game.

Indiana had its chances, but both Ellis and George had turnovers.

George had a chance with the team down 5 and :26 seconds left to go for a quick two and then play the foul game, but as he drove and got cut off he went up and rather than bank in a 10-footer he threw a lot to Ian Mahinmi — and DeRozan shoved Mahinmi while the big man was in the air, causing the pass to go sailing over Mahinmi’s head. It was a clear foul by DeRozan that was not called — and George should have just shot the ball there — but with that the Pacers chances few away as well.

It wasn’t pretty for the Raptors. They do not care. Their loyal and long-suffering fans were rewarded with a first round win, that monkey is off their backs.

But they are going to have to play a lot better and a lot looser against a veteran Miami team if the Raptors want to make the franchise’s first-ever conference finals.

 

 

Stephen Curry says “pretty good” chance he plays in Game 3 next Saturday

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, left, and head coach Steve Kerr react during the first half in Game 1 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, May 1, 2016. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
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The Golden State Warriors were just fine without him Sunday in Game 1.

But no doubt the Warriors are a much more dangerous team with the past-and-future league MVP, so when will they get him back? Maybe by next weekend.

That would put him a couple of days inside the two weeks the team said he would be out, but it’s not unreasonable.

That said, players are the worst people to ask about their recovery timeline, they are always convinced they can be back more quickly than the team doctors say. Also, if the Warriors can win Game 2 Tuesday at home and be up 2-0 in the series, why rush Curry back? Make Portland win a game first.

That said, the Warriors would like to get Curry a little game run and his legs under him this series, because they are going to need him next series (against San Antonio or possibly Oklahoma City).

Warriors’ defense too good, Klay Thompson too hot for Blazers in easy Game 1 win

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Even without Stephen Curry — who thinks he can be back for Game 3 next Saturday — the Golden State Warriors execute like champions.

They have an elite defense. Just as Damian Lillard, who shot 3-of-17 and had 12 points through the first three quarters (he went 5-of-8 in the fourth and scored 18 points, but the game was over by then). Or ask C.J, McCollum, who shot 5-of-17 for 12 points on the night.

The Warriors have more than one elite shooter and playmaker. Klay Thompson had 37 points and was 7-of-14 from three. Draymond Green added a triple-double of 23 points, 13 rebounds, and 11 assists.

It all overwhelmed a Portland team that had played against the Clippers Friday night and still looked a little sluggish. The Warriors opened the game on an 18-4 run and led by 20 after 12 minutes, Thompson had 18 of his points in the first quarter, and by that point the Warriors put it in cruise control and were never seriously threatened on their way to a 118-106 win.

Golden State leads the series 1-0, with Game 2 at Oracle Arena Tuesday night.

Portland has a lot of work to do before then, starting with altering their defensive strategies — they need to have their bigs show out more and be physical when they can with Thompson. Oh, and put Maurice Harkless on Thompson, not McCollum. They need to take away Klay’s space, if Portland gives him the room to operate he had for three quarters Sunday again and he will beat them again.

Another part of the Warriors’ fast start was a clever move by Steve Kerr, asking center Andrew Bogut to guard wing Maurice Harkless. Portland’s game plan (almost every game) is to try and drag the opposing center into defending the pick-and-roll, but now Harkless had to be involved rather than Mason Plumlee. Harkless isn’t half the playmaker or threat in that role Plumlee is. It helped slow the Blazers pick-and-roll, and they went on to score just 17 first quarter points.

All game long the Warriors were able to attack the rim and Portland just does not have the paint protectors that will slow them down. Shaun Livingston had 12 for Golden State getting the start in Curry’s place and Golden State did a good job of posting up the smaller Trail Blazers guards. Portland got 15 each from Al-Farouq Aminu and Allen Crabbe (who had a good game), but Bogut was a force in the paint and his rim protection was an issue for the Blazers.

Portland also lost Gerald Henderson to an ejection, one that seemed like a quick trigger to me. Toward the end of the third quarter, Anderson Varejao fell and as he did kicked Henderson knocking the Blazer to the ground. Henderson thought it was intentional and got up and got in Varejao’s face. The referees looked at the tape and went with the double technical.  But neither man let the incident go and with 15 seconds left in the third Henderson was trash talking with Varejao, who at that point was on the Warriors’ bench. The referee hit him with a second technical.

But that’s the least of Portland’s problems right now.

They have not been a strong defensive team all season, however they need to be a better one by Tuesday. If the Blazers go down 0-2, and Curry is back for Game 3, Golden State could get even more time to rest before the next round because this series will not last long. Lillard and company need to bring it on Tuesday night.