Clippers try to jump-start defense for playoff run. Hapless Pistons help out.

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LOS ANGELES — Since the start of the season there have been two questions that seem to define just how far the Clippers can go:

1) How good is DeAndre Jordan playing at the five?

2) How good is the Clippers defense?

The answer to both of those questions of late was “not good.” Which is why a lot of people have crossed the Clippers off their contenders list. Teams like the Thunder, Spurs and Nuggets have made them look bad recently.

Vinny Del Negro admitted his team was not playing well heading into Sunday night, then said the usual coach speak about it being all effort and focus. What he really needed was a nice easy blowout win with some good defense.

Enter the Pistons.

The Clippers played good defense early, the hapless Pistons couldn’t capitalize when they did find holes and the Clippers got their rout, 129-97.

It’s a start. Now they need to carry it over to a bigger test against Memphis Wednesday.

“I thought defensively we were really tuned in, trying to take away some things, our energy level was up,” Clipper veteran Chauncey Billups told PBT after the game. “It wasn’t about who we was playing, it was about kind of us and our mindset and what we was going to do.”

The Clippers can defend. On the season, the Clippers have given up 100.2 points per 100 possessions, eighth best in the NBA. They have defended the pick-and-roll well (both the ball handler and roller, top five in the NBA according to Synergy Sports) by mixing up coverages.

But in the last five games that is up to 107.3 points per 100 possessions, 27th in the NBA during that stretch. In those games teams are shooting 47.8 percent overall and a very good 39.5 percent from three. Go back 10 games and the Clippers are giving up 104.3 points per 100 (20th in the league).

“We have to start playing better, I don’t think we’ve played well in a while…” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said before the game. “I think we just got to get our intensity up. Deny one pass away, be more physical, execute the plan better, talking, communicating, sprinting back in transition, loading up on the ball, running three point shooters off the line, boxing out, just all the fundamentals.”

Oh, well, if that’s all that’s wrong….

The Clippers did that in the first quarter. The Pistons pregame goal was to draw the Clipper big men out in the pick-and-roll, to get them in space, but the Clippers dropped off a lot. Why? Well, they were playing the Pistons. This was not a team that could make the Clippers pay for that strategy. Even when it worked and Jose Calderon made a nice pass to Greg Monroe, who had rolled inside to good position, he couldn’t finish when contested (he started the game 1-of-5). And the Clippers didn’t fear Jason Maxiell. Rightly.

As the game wore on the Clippers were more aggressive against the Pistons guards, trapping and challenging. And everybody not named Calderon struggled against that challenge.

It’s hard to take any defensive stats from this game after the first half too seriously because it became such a blowout. The Pistons had no answer for the Clippers on the offensive end. The Pistons defense could not keep stop Blake Griffin early — he hit on post moves, dunks in transition, cuts through the lane and, of course, a transition alley-oop. Throw in some vintage Chris Paul cross over and step backs and the Clippers were up 12 in the first quarter. Griffin finished with 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting.

DeAndre Jordan was more active as well. Plus, he had a monster, monster dunk. The Pistons just had now answers.

And this was a Clippers team that was without Jamal Crawford and Eric Bledsoe off the bench.

To a man the Clippers all talked about defensive intensity and focus, to getting back to the kind of defense they were playing when they won 17 in a row. The Clippers are the current three seed in the West however both the Nuggets and Grizzlies are playing great ball and either of those teams — or sides like the Warriors or Rockets or Lakers — could expose the defense if the Clippers are not focused and not building good habits heading to the playoffs.

If not, the Clippers playoff stay could be shockingly short. There is no margin for error in a deep West.

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.

 

Celtics to get Marcus Smart back for Game 5 Tuesday

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It’s a series that has hinged on defense — Boston has played it well for the majority of five games, bottling up Milwaukee in the halfcourt. The Bucks only played it with real energy at home (and only for about six of the eight quarters the last two games) but when they do they have overwhelmed the Celtics, then converted turnovers and missed shots into transition and early clock opportunities the other way.

For Game 5 Tuesday night, Boston gets its best perimeter defender back — Marcus Smart. He has been out since before the playoffs following thumb surgery last March.

Stevens, via NBC Sports Boston:

“He hasn’t played in six weeks, so it’s hard to say how much (time he will get) but will certainly play,” Stevens said. Stevens said there would not be a minutes restriction on him, but added that the fourth-year guard wasn’t going to play 35 minutes.

Smart is a very good perimeter defender who is very physical and usually assigned to the other team’s best guard (or wing, depending upon the matchup). When Smart was on the court this season, the Celtics allowed less than a point per possession and were 3.6 points per 100 better defensively than when he sat.

Smart likely will get time against Eric Bledsoe and Kris Middleton of the Bucks. Just his presence brings needed depth to the Celtics in what is a critical Game 5 in a series tied 2-2.

Report: Pelicans have discussed offering DeMarcus Cousins less than max over two to three years

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Last month, Anthony Davis said he heard DeMarcus Cousins planned to re-sign with the Pelicans. Cousins was out a torn Achilles, and New Orleans was rolling with Davis playing more center. But New Orleans’ ceiling looked higher with Cousins, and Davis made clear he wanted to keep Cousins – in itself a big deal. More important than keeping Cousins is keeping Davis, which requires keeping Davis happy.

Then, the Pelicans swept the Trail Blazers, becoming the lowest seed to sweep a first-round series.

Is everyone still sure Cousins warrants a max contract, which projects to be worth about $176 million over five years?

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

The Pelicans have broached internally the idea of offering Cousins a two- or three-year deal at less than the max, per sources familiar with the discussions. I would not expect that to go over well with Cousins’ camp. But the Pelicans have the dual leverage of winning without Cousins and a tepid market for him.

Only a half-dozen or so teams have max-level space this season, and most won’t pursue Cousins at that level, sources say.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Pelicans leaked this to test the waters. Word will get back to Cousins, and they can gauge how strenuously he objects. If they want, they can deny ever considering this and try to avoid offending Cousins.

But New Orleans has leverage.

It will be a tight market. Many of the teams with significant cap space are young and rebuilding, and they won’t want Cousins’ attitude. Even teams ready to win might not bring him into the locker room. Returning from a torn Achilles – hard for any player – will be especially difficult for the 6-foot-11, 270-pound Cousins.

That said, Cousins has leverage on the Pelicans, too. He’s extremely talented, and players that talented are hard to come by. New Orleans would still essentially be capped out if he walked, left with only the mid-level exception to replace him. Cousins and Davis play well together, and Davis – who can become an unrestricted free agent in 2020 – wants Cousins around.

Confronted with a similar situation with Jrue Holiday last summer – capped out and no mechanism to adequately replace him – the Pelicans spent big. But Holiday wasn’t hurt and didn’t have any fit concerns with Davis.

For New Orleans, it’s clearly worth securing the 27-year-old Cousins for the next couple years. The upside is too high. But, especially given the injury, guaranteeing him money into his 30s is undesirable.

On the flip side, Cousins should want long-term security. This might be his last chance to get it.

So, maybe both the Pelicans and Cousins can meet in the middle. But finding that point is never simple.