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.

Pelicans searching for right plan with DeMarcus Cousins in fold

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 23:  DeMarcus Cousins #0 of the New Orleans Pelicans and Anthony Davis #23 react during the first half of a game against the Houston Rockets at the Smoothie King Center on February 23, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. 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 Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
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METAIRIE, La. (AP) — As Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins hoisted up extra shots near one another after practice, Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry stood in a far corner of the club’s practice gym, trying to explain why New Orleans hasn’t won in three games since the All-Star big men became teammates.

“We have to become more consistent, and the only way you can become more consistent, I think, is that you’ve got to consistently have the same people out there so that you’re learning the ins and outs of a system and learning the ins and outs of each other,” Gentry said Monday.

“I do feel good about the progress we’ve made the last three games, and I think we’re just going to continue to get better,” Gentry added. “Unfortunately for us, we’ve got to do it on the fly. That’s really tough to do in some situations.”

The trade that brought in Cousins last week sent three guards – Tyreke Evans, Buddy Hield and Langston Galloway – to the Kings. New Orleans then added two free agent guards – Hollis Thompson and Jarrett Jack – to the regular rotation in the past week.

“We’ve just got to stay with it,” Pelicans forward Solomon Hill said. “Minutes change for people, and we have new roles that we have to learn.”

That seems to be the case for everyone but Davis and Cousins. Davis has averaged 35.3 points and 10 rebounds in the past three games. Cousins has averaged 23.3 points and 13 rebounds despite being limited to less than 30 minutes per game by foul trouble. During a loss at Oklahoma City on Sunday night, Cousins had 31 points and 10 rebounds in only 21 minutes before fouling out.

However, Gentry has noticed instances when Davis and Cousins may be trying too hard to defer to one another.

“They are producing in the team concept, but unfortunately right now, after three games, they’re much better when one or the other one is off the court,” Gentry said. “We have to find a way to make that work when both of them are on the court.”

That might not be an issue on Wednesday night, when Cousins is expected to serve a one-game suspension for receiving his 18th technical foul this season Sunday night in Oklahoma City. He’ll only play if the league rescinds that technical on appeal from the club.

Cousins’ arrival also seems to have affected point guard Jrue Holiday‘s game in unexpected ways. Holiday averaged 21.4 points and eight assists in the 10 games before the trade. Since, he has averaged 10 points, six assists and 5.3 turnovers.

Davis said part of Holiday’s problem is that “he’s looking to be a pass-first point guard.”

“We don’t need him to come out and try to be a guy who’s getting 15 assists. That’s not who he is,” Davis said. “He’s a great scorer and a great defender. … When you’ve got two guys that you want to give them the ball as much as possible, you just overthink a lot.”

Holiday said he appreciates the advice but added that it’s hard to ignore the temptation to pass to Davis or Cousins when “they’re so dominant in the paint.”

“We’re trying to figure something out that’s new to us and trying to get as good at it as possible as quick as we can,” Holiday said.

The Pelicans often don’t practice the day after ending a road trip, but Gentry decided to bring them in on Monday and instead give them off on Tuesday, which is Mardi Gras, a state holiday in Louisiana. Davis and Cousins were invited to ride in the historic Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club parade – the same one in which Louis Armstrong rode in 1949.

Gentry thought it was important to encourage participation in Mardi Gras, suggesting that those who’ve never experienced it in person don’t have “any idea of the magnitude of what it means to the city and what it means to the people.”

Perhaps the chance to celebrate Mardi Gras like a local will inspire the Pelicans to make Lent, which starts Wednesday, more festive than usual for area basketball fans.

NBA quickly reverses course, says Dwight Howard should not have been ejected Monday

BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 27: Dwight Howard #8 of the Atlanta Hawks is ejected from the game following his second technical foul against the Boston Celtics during the third quarter at TD Garden on February 27, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. 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 Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Dwight Howard was sent to the showers early in Boston Monday night, picking up two technical fouls in the third quarter of a game between two teams fighting for playoff seeding in the East.

The first one was unquestioned, Howard pushed Al Horford after a foul.

Five minutes later, Howard got a second technical for doing a pull-up on the rim after a dunk.

That’s two technicals, and Howard was ejected. The NBA didn’t wait for the Last Two-Minute Report to say that was a bad call.

Note that the league is saying that Howard should still have gotten the technical foul called, just not been ejected for it. According to NBA rules, “non-unsportsmanlike technical fouls” such as calling too many timeouts, delay of game, an untucked jersey and hanging on the rim, are technical fouls but do not count toward an ejection from the game.

Personally, I think the Karmic scales in the universe are balanced after Howard did this to a Celtics fan who really wanted his jersey.

The ejection was moot in the grand scheme. Not long after Howard was tossed, the Hawks went on an 8-0 run and pulled away to beat the Celtics anyway, 114-98. Dennis Schroder led the way with 21 for the Hawks.

Three Things We Learned Monday: No Kyle Lowry, so DeMar DeRozan steps up with game winner

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 27:  DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors reacts after hitting the game winning shot against the New York Knicks during their game at Madison Square Garden on February 27, 2017 in New York City.   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 Al Bello/Getty Images)
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We know things get weird and busy for you, like trying to convince police not only did your dog eat your homework he shot your girlfriend, so you missed out on a busy Monday around the NBA. We got you covered, here are the big takeaways.

1) Kyle Lowry’s out, so DeMar DeRozan steps up with game-winner to beat Knicks.
Monday started with harsh news for the Raptors: Kyle Lowry needed wrist surgery and was going to be out until around the start of the playoffs. Yes, he played in the All-Star Game through it (and was in the three-point contest), but the surgery is there to remove loose bodies, something that builds up over time rather than happening in one traumatic moment, it just caught up with him. It happens.

It just happened at a bad time — with the trade deadline additions of Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, the Raptors were trying to make a push back up to the three seed (at least) and set themselves up for a deep playoff run. They want out of the four seed, which would mean facing Cleveland in the second round. In the three games since the trades the Raptors defense has been improved, but now where will the points come from?

DeMar DeRozan. He had 37 Monday night against the Knicks, including the game-winner in Madison Square Garden.

This is going to have to be the norm for DeRozan and the Raptors for the next month or so — DeRozan is going to have to carry the offense. Other guys can score — Ibaka will get some buckets, Jonas Valanciunas will have good nights, as will Cory Joseph and Norman Powell — but buckets and shot creation will fall heavily on DeRozan. With the win over the Knicks the Raptors moved past the Wizards into the three seed in the East, if they stay there will fall in large part on DeRozan, he has to step up.

2) Dwight Howard ejected, then NBA says it was a bad call. Doesn’t matter, Hawks beat Celtics anyway.
Dwight Howard got tossed in the Boston Garden Monday night for picking up a couple technical fouls. The first one was well deserved, pushing Al Horford after a foul.

The second came for doing a pull-up on the rim after a dunk.

The NBA didn’t wait for the two-minute report to say that was a bad call.

Interesting. The NBA says that should have been a technical, however “non-unsportsmanlike technical fouls” such as calling a timeout when a team doesn’t have one, delay of game, having an untucked jersey, and hanging on the rim should not count toward an ejection.

Doesn’t matter, not long after he was tossed the Hawks went on an 8-0 run without him that stretched into a 22-11 run, and the Hawks pulled away to beat the Celtics anyway (a rough loss for Boston in the playoff chase, see No. 1 above). Dennis Schroder led the way with 21 for the Hawks.

Maybe hanging on the rim shouldn’t have gotten Howard tossed, but consider the Karmic scales balanced after he did this to a fan who wanted his jersey.

3) Stephen Curry goes ice-cold 0-of-11 from three. Not that it matters, Warriors beat Sixers 119-108. Here is Stephen Curry’s shot chart from Monday night in Philadelphia.

Stephen Curry shotchart

That’s redder than a certain district of Amsterdam, and notice that Curry was 0-of-11 from three.

Didn’t matter, these are the Warriors we are talking about. And while the Sixers are scrappy under Brett Brown, they don’t have Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons or anyone that really scares opponents anymore. Kevin Durant had 27 points, Klay Thompson added 21, and while the Warriors as a team shot 20 percent from three they got the win in Philly 119-108.

Sit back and enjoy KD’s work on the night.

Seth Curry, Mavs hand Heat third loss in 19 games with 96-89 win

Dallas Mavericks guard Seth Curry (30) shoots against Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Dallas, Monday, Feb. 27, 2017. The Mavericks won 96-89. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
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DALLAS (AP) — Seth Curry scored 29 points, Harrison Barnes added 24 and the Dallas Mavericks beat Miami 96-89 on Monday night, handing the Heat just their third loss in 19 games.

Curry looked a little like famous older brother Stephen Curry of Golden State by hitting two long 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, the latter giving Dallas a 90-89 lead. The Mavericks rallied from 14 points down in the first quarter and let an 11-point third-quarter lead get away.

Two games after scoring a career-high 31 points in a loss at Minnesota, Curry was 5 of 7 from long range to help the Mavericks improve to 2-0 with forward-center Nerlens Noel, who came from Philadelphia before the trade deadline.

Goran Dragic scored 24 points for the Heat, who went scoreless over the final 4:37 as a three-game winning streak ended.

Hassan Whiteside, a free agent target for Dallas last summer, had 19 points and 19 rebounds. Now the Mavericks are preparing for a future with the 22-year-old Noel, who had a crowd-energizing block from behind on Whiteside and finished with six points and six rebounds.

Dragic finished a 9-0 Heat run with a 3-pointer that bounced high off the front of the rim and went in for an 89-84 lead. But Miami missed its last seven shots, and the Mavericks scored the final six points on free throws after Curry’s go-ahead shot.

Curry scored 11 points in the second quarter, including a three-point play that gave Dallas its first lead at 48-46 after the Mavericks trailed by 14 in the first quarter. He had another flurry late in the third, hitting a long 3 and a pull-up jumper for the final five points as Dallas took a 78-69 lead into the final quarter.

TIP-INS

Heat: C Willie Reed won’t need a boot or crutches to treat bursitis in his right ankle. Coach Erik Spoelstra said Reed was day to day. … The visit to Dallas was the Miami’s last road game against the West this season.

Mavericks: Coach Rick Carlisle said G J.J. Barea is at least a week away from returning from a left calf strain that has sidelined him the past 16 games and for 33 of the 41 games he has missed this season. … G Quinn Cook, undrafted in 2015 out of Duke, made his NBA debut a day after signing a 10-day contract, getting two points and two assists in 17 minutes. … Seth Curry had a big night while his brother had a most miserable one. Stephen Curry was a career-worst 0 for 11 from deep in the Warriors’ win over Philadelphia on Monday.