DeAndre Jordan, Brandon Knight

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.

Draymond Green: Warriors laughed at Jazz coach Quin Snyder for late timeouts

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After trailing the Warriors by 25 last night, the Jazz cut the deficit to five early in the fourth quarter. Golden State re-inserted starters and pushed lead back to double digits.

Still, Utah coach Quin Snyder called three timeouts in final 1:05 with Utah never closer than seven – a strategy that earned scorn from Draymond Green.

Green, via CSN Bay Area:

“We were laughing at Quinn Snyder who kept calling timeouts,” Draymond told reporters after the game. “Like bro, you’re down 10 with six seconds left, it’s kinda over my man.”

“Just let us go to the restaurant and have a good dinner; just chill,” Draymond added. “That’s what we were laughing at.

The Warriors travelled hundreds of miles to Utah, and the teams battled for hours. What was a few more minutes for the Jazz to maximize their miniscule chance of a comeback? Honestly, I’m surprised how often teams throw in the towel in those situations.

Besides, it was actually an eight-point difference with nine seconds left for Snyder’s final timeout. The Jazz were down just two four-point plays. There was plenty of time for that.

Nine-year veteran Eric Gordon finally chose his team, and he’s clicking with Rockets

AUBURN HILLS, MI - NOVEMBER 21: Eric Gordon #10 of the Houston Rockets tires to get a shot off against the Detroit Pistons at the Palace of Auburn Hills on November 21, 2016 in Auburn Hills, Michigan. 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 Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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A New Orleans restricted free agent in 2012, Eric Gordon signed a max offer sheet with the Suns and infamously declared his heart to be in Phoenix.

New Orleans matched anyway.

“I knew it wasn’t going to happen,” Gordon said. “I knew they were going to bring me back all along.”

So why make those statements? Why alienate New Orleans fans?

“You just never know what a team might do or not,” Gordon said.

Gordon been around long enough now to know you never know, even when you’re certain you do. But this much he clearly believes: In his ninth NBA season and on the first team he picked, he’s happy with the Rockets.

Gordon was drafted onto the Donald Sterling, pre-Blake Griffin Clippers, who had made the playoffs just four times in the previous 32 years and had developed a reputation for cheapness and disarray. They went 19-63, 29-53 and 32-50 in Gordon’s three years in Los Angeles. Yet he says, “I enjoyed my time there.”

He was traded to New Orleans as the centerpiece of the Clippers’ package for Chris Paul, and he doesn’t look back on his time with the Hornets/Pelicans quite so fondly. “Nobody was on the same page over there,” Gordon said. “It was just different. We had the talent there, and things just didn’t work out.”

Gordon admits he sometimes wonders what would’ve happened if he had gone to the Suns. But they haven’t made the playoffs and are on their fourth coach since his offer sheet. “After looking back on it now, they had a lot of chaos and turmoil there, too,” Gordon said.

So, Houston is a welcome reprieve.

Gordon’s first unrestricted free agency yielded a four-year contract worth more than $52 million. He’s averaging 17.0 points per game, his highest mark in five years. He has been healthy after after missing 173 games in five years with New Orleans. And the Rockets are 15-7, on pace for what would easily be Gordon’s most successful season.

Playing with James Harden and for Mike D’Antoni – whose fondness for Gordon dates back to their gold-medal run with Team USA in the 2010 World Championship – has treated Gordon well. Houston is focused on offense, Gordon’s specialty, and its system accentuates his strengths.

Gordon leads the NBA with seven open 3-pointers per game, which he’s converting at 41.3% clip:

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Notice the other Rockets on that list: Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza. Benefitting from playing alongside Harden – an attention-tracker and willing passer – is not unique.

But Gordon does more than just rely on Harden to get him open shots. Since moving to the bench with Patrick Beverley healthy, Gordon has proven particularly valuable when Harden sits.

Houston scores 118.7 points per 100 possessions with Harden on the floor, per NBAwowy!. That mark obviously plummets without Harden, one of the NBA’s best offensive players.

Gordon has prevented it from falling too far, though.

He scores more points per 36 minutes (15.5 to 28.5) and does so with a higher true shooting percentage (56.0 to 62.5) from with Harden to without. He also handles more playmaking, increasing his assists per 36 minutes (2.4 to 4.1), though also, disproportionally, his turnovers per 36 minutes (1.5 to 3.6).

Still, Gordon’s effect on the Rockets’ offense without Harden is tremendously positive.

  • Houston’s offensive rating without Harden – with Gordon: 107.7
  • Houston’s offensive rating without Harden – without Gordon: 86.7

Propping up the Rockets’ Harden-less offense has made Gordon an early contender for Sixth Man of the Year. Here are the win-share leaders among eligible players:

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Given voting history, ranking eligible players by points per game is probably more predictive. It’s at least even more flattering to Gordon:

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Lakers guard Lou Williams deserves to be the early favorite for the award. I’m also quite high on Spurs guard Patty Mills.

But Gordon belongs solidly in the mix.

It might not be the stardom the Clippers predicted when they drafted him No. 7 or New Orleans envisioned when it twice acquired him, but at least Gordon is happily contributing to a winner. After so much controversy – both invited (his Suns saga) and uninvited (being part of the Chris Paul trade) – he sounds happy in Houston.

“You just try to stride it out with whatever team you’re on. So, you know, it’s been a unique situation,” Gordon said. “But here, it’s been good.”

Kyle Lowry to critical DeMar DeRozan: ‘Every shot you shoot is a bad shot, analytic-wise’ (video)

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Your reminder that Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are the best together.

DeRozan was asked about Lowry’s long 3-pointers after the Raptors’ win over the Timberwolves last night.

  • DeRozan: “”Them shots be lucky. … To me, it’s a bad shot.”
  • Lowry (off camera): “Every shot you shoot is a bad shot, analytic-wise.”

That’s not quite what the analytics say, but I won’t let the facts get in the way of a superb diss.

Gregg Popovich pins Spurs’ effort problems on players: ‘I don’t remember playing tonight’ (video)

San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich gives instructions against the Detroit Pistons in the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game in Auburn Hills, Mich., Monday, Oct. 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
AP Photo/Paul Sancya
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The Spurs fell behind by 18 and eventually lost to the Bulls, 95-91, last night – which begged the question:

Does San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich bear any responsibility for his team’s lack of early intensity?

Jabari Young of the San Antonio Express-News:

Popovich:

I don’t remember playing tonight. I didn’t play. Guys get a lot of money to be ready to play. No Knute Rockne speeches. It’s your job. If you’re a plumber and you don’t do your job, you don’t get any work. I don’t think a plumber needs a pep talk. If a doctor botches operations, he’s not a doctor anymore. If you’re a basketball player, you come ready. It’s called maturity. It’s your job.

Like it or not, motivation is part of an NBA coach’s job.

But that’s also precisely what Popovich is doing.

His credentials dwarf any other coach’s. He can play to his own ego and absolve himself of responsibility – and players will seek to please him. His years of success have earned him the ability to motivate this way, a method no other coach could use without alienating his team.