DeAndre Jordan, Brandon Knight

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


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.

51Q: Does Ty Lawson vault the Rockets into the top tier of championship contenders?

DENVER, CO - MARCH 07:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets controls the ball against Ty Lawson #3 of the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center on March 7, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Rockets defeated the Nuggets 114-100. 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 Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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I see five clear upper-echelon championship contenders –  Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, Thunder and Cavaliers.

Do the Rockets belong in that group, or do they fill the next tier by themselves?

Ty Lawson – acquired for pennies on the dollar – could put Houston over the top.

But, really, this premise might not be fair to the Rockets. They earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference last season and reached the conference finals last season. James Harden finished second in MVP voting. Dwight Howard looked like a star during the playoffs. The supporting cast – Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Patrick Beverley, Corey Brewer and even Jason Terry – played better than anyone expected. Young players like Clint Capela, K.J. McDaniels, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell could make a leap at any moment.

There’s a case to be made we should have taken Houston more seriously even before trading for Lawson.

I didn’t, though, and I don’t think many others did either.

I suspect one of the biggest reasons is the Rockets’ balance. Houston – 12th in points scored per possession, sixth in points allowed per possession – was one of only two teams to win more than 51 games last season without ranking top five in either category. Of the seven teams with so many victories, the Hawks – sixth, seventh – were the only other. Atlanta was a darling team, winning 60 games after going 38-44 the season prior. The Rockets’ modest win increase, from 54 to 56, drew less attention.

But balance shouldn’t be punished. Houston’s surprisingly strong defense should be celebrated. Lawson might push its middling offense over the top.

There are reasons to question that, though.

The biggest is Lawson’s sobriety. If he’s not focused and engaged, this all goes out the window. His comments about going to rehab only because it was court-ordered raise doubts, though they hardly foretell anything.

Let’s say Lawson’s off-court problems are behind him. How big of an upgrade is he? The Rockets already had a pretty good point guard who fit well with Harden in Beverley. Lawson is a clear offensive upgrade, but in the biggest moments, the ball will still run through Harden. At that point, would you rather have Beverley or Lawson on the floor? Beverley is a far superior defender, and his off-ball offensive game isn’t far from Lawson’s. Beverley is is a fine spot-up shooter, and Lawson’s strengths involve having the ball and creating. Lawson’s biggest boost could come when Harden sits, but that was fewer than 12 minutes per game last season.

Sure, a secondary ball-handler could ease pressure on Harden throughout a long regular season. Lawson and Harden can take turns running the attack.

But we’re talking about title contention, and in those high-leverage situations, it’s Harden’s show. How much does Lawson matter then?

The Rockets have a chance to win a championship. As good a chance as the NBA’s five best teams? I’m not so sure.

UNLV following Kentucky’s lead with combine for NBA scouts

Goodluck Okonoboh, Patrick McCaw
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Kentucky held a two-day combine last season for NBA scouts.

Now, LSU and UNLV are following suit.

Rob Dauster of NBC Sports:

The Runnin’ Rebels will hold their event on October 23rd and 24th at the Mendenhall Center, UNLV’s practice facility, sources told The expectation is that all 30 NBA teams will be in attendance.

LSU has potential No. 1 pick Ben Simmons and another first-round prospect in Tim Quarterman.

UNLV features lottery prospect Stephen Zimmerman.

This won’t replace scouts attending games and watching practices, but the fact that all 30 teams plan to attend shows how seriously the pro league takes these. No college team wanted John Calipari to have that competitive advantage in recruiting, so the smart ones are leveling the field with their own combines. Soon, more college teams will follow.

As the calendar gets packed, NBA teams might have to pick and choose which they attend. At that point, we might get little clues about which prospects they’re scouting hardest.