ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Los Angeles Clippers

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Last season: The Clippers finished the regular season with a franchise best 56 wins, good enough for the fourth seed in the West and home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs over the Memphis Grizzlies.

L.A. went up two games to none in the series, before Memphis came back to win the series in six. Vinny Del Negro wasn’t fired, because his contract was up at season’s end. But he wasn’t offered a new contract, either, and the way the Clippers exited the postseason was viewed as the reason why.

Chris Paul re-upped with a max contract as expected, but not before he was reportedly “angry” over the organization letting it leak that he was the one who forced the parting of ways with Del Negro — something we all knew, and didn’t need anyone on the inside to confirm publicly. All ended well, however, as the Clippers were able to pry Doc Rivers from the Celtics to patrol the sidelines this season.

Last season’s signature highlight: In the last moment before things fell apart in the playoffs, Chris Paul’s game-winner at the Game 2 buzzer sent the Clippers back to Memphis with a 2-0 lead in the series.

Key player changes: The Clippers turned over much of their bench from a season ago, which included trading the young and talented Eric Bledsoe to the Suns. But they’ve appeared to upgrade significantly overall, bolstering the team’s reserve unit for a longer postseason run this time around.

  • IN: J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley were acquired in the three-team trade that sent Bledsoe to Phoenix. Darren Collison, who had success backing up Paul in their days together in New Orleans was signed in free agency, as was former Bobcats big man Byron Mullens. Antawn Jamison was signed to a one-year free agent contract, as well. Reggie Bullock was selected with the 25th overall pick in this summer’s draft. Lou Amundson is in camp on a non-guaranteed deal.
  • OUT: Bledsoe via trade, Chauncey Billups and Ronny Turiaf via free agency, Lamar Odom via … (we’ll leave that alone), and Grant Hill via retirement.

Keys to the Clippers season:

1) DeAndre Jordan, defensive anchor: Doc Rivers has appointed Jordan as the one to singlehandedly transform the defensive unit by becoming its backbone. So far, Jordan is happily embracing that responsibility. During the preseason, Jordan is active, engaged, and energized on the defensive end of the floor — he’s talking nonstop, calling out the other team’s plays followed by how his guys are to adjust, and playing with a fire rarely seen in NBA big men consistently over the course of an 82-game season.

That’s going to be the question with Jordan — is he willing to sustain the effort? With Rivers as his head coach, it’s a safe bet that the answer might be “yes.” And if that’s the case, the Clippers will be an extremely difficult matchup all season long.

2) Creating chemistry: The Clippers have a lot of new pieces to fit together, along with a new (although well-respected and experienced) head coach trying to put them all into place. Some minor injuries have prevented Rivers from truly seeing what he has all at once, and keep in mind, there are guys who may be asked to play smaller yet more important roles this year than they have in seasons past. There haven’t been any issues with it in the preseason, of course, but Rivers knows there could be bumps in the road in that department in the future.

“I don’t know if you can have a chemistry test until you go through adversity, to be honest,” Rivers said before the Clippers faced the Suns during the preseason in Phoenix. “Every team in the league right now is getting along. Once the season starts and rotations are set, the amount of touches you get and all that stuff, then you’ll find out how much we all get along. I think we get along great, but no one knows [yet].”

3) Increased output from Blake Griffin and Chris Paul: Paul is the best point guard in the game, but he may need to increase his production for the Clippers to reach new heights. He averaged 16.9 points and 9.7 assists per game, but is capable of so much more offensively. Now granted, he has plenty of talent surrounding him, and if the ball movement is there and guys do what they’re supposed to, it may work out just fine. But Paul is a killer out there in terms of his competitiveness, and it may not be a bad idea to unleash that on the rest of the league a little more often this season.

As for Griffin, it’s hard to believe he’s entering just his fourth full season. He’s already a beast to deal with down low, but he could use a little more finesse to his game to avoid foul trouble and be able to create offense for himself a little bit more easily. He’s still developing, and if he can make some subtle changes to the way he plays around the basket (think less Anthony Mason and more Karl Malone), his averages of 18 and 8 could see a significant increase.

Why you should watch: Doc Rivers is known for his defensive coaching ability, and the Clippers were 15th out of 16 teams in terms of defensive efficiency in the playoffs. After the first two games against Memphis, they couldn’t slow them consistently or get stops when it mattered. Whether or not the transformation will occur defensively is going to be intriguing, to say the least.

Prediction: The top six teams in the West are all fairly close in terms of overall talent and projected ability to come out atop the Conference standings. But I’ll go ahead and buy into the preseason hype surrounding DeAndre Jordan, and Doc Rivers’ ability to make sure he sustains it all year long. Defense and consistent outside shooting were the major deficiencies this Clippers team was facing, and those needs appear to have been met during the offseason. A 60-win campaign is not out of reach if things fall into place, and a trip to the Western Conference Finals — at minimum — seems to be where the Clippers should land this season.

DeMar DeRozan scores 36, Raptors top Magic 131-112 for 6th in row

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TORONTO (AP) — DeMar DeRozan scored 36 points and Cory Joseph had 15 points and 13 assists as the Toronto Raptors defeated the Orlando Magic 131-112 on Monday night for their sixth straight victory.

DeRozan, selected the Eastern Conference player of the week earlier in the day, set the pace early by scoring 18 in the first quarter. Joseph added six rebounds and Jonas Valanciunas had 17 points and nine rebounds for the Raptors (45-29).

Elfrid Payton had 22 points and nine assists for Orlando (27-47). Evan Fournier added 20 points, and Nikola Vucevic had 12 points and 15 assists.

It was the first game between the teams since the Raptors traded Terrence Ross to the Magic for Serge Ibaka in February. Ross finished with 17 points and two rebounds, while Ibaka had 16 points and seven rebounds.

The Raptors took a 99-89 lead into the fourth quarter.

DeRozan’s basket gave Toronto a 19-point lead with 8:15 to go in the third. But the Magic, winners of seven games this season after falling behind by double digits, fought back.

Bismack Biyombo made a pair of free throws to cut Toronto’s lead to five with 12 seconds left in the period.

But after DeRozan hit a jumper to widen the lead to seven, Delon Wright stole the inbounds pass and hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give Toronto its double-digit lead back going into the fourth.

Payton paced the Magic surge, hitting all four field goals he attempted in the quarter. He led all scorers with 10 points in the period, as Orlando outscored Toronto 32-26.

After four ties and seven lead changes in the game’s first 15 minutes, the Raptors took charge over the final nine minutes of the second quarter to take a 73-57 lead into halftime.

The Raptors hit all four 3s they attempted in the quarter, three by Norman Powell, who led all scorers with 11 points in the period.

Eight different Toronto players scored in the quarter as the Raptors outscored the Magic 33-17 over that nine-minute stretch and led by as many as 18 points.

The Magic cooled off from a torrid shooting pace in the first quarter to a still-respectable 48 percent in the second. Fournier led the way with nine points in the period.

Toronto led 35-34 after a first quarter that featured terrific shooting by both teams.

The Magic led by seven points early as Ross hit four of his first five shots and Aaron Gordon poured in 10 points. Orlando shot 13 for 29 (62 percent) from the field in the period.

DeRozan was 7 for 10 from the field in the opening quarter and hit his only 3-point attempt.

Toronto shot 15 for 24 (63 percent) as each starter had at least one field goal in the first period.

TIP-INS

Magic: Ross received a standing ovation after a tribute commemorating his 4 1/2 seasons in Toronto was played on the scoreboard during the first timeout. . Orlando has hit a 3 in 812 consecutive games, the fifth-longest active streak in the NBA. . The Magic had a 66-58 edge on points in the paint.

Raptors: DeRozan’s conference player of the week award was his fourth of the season. He averaged a league-best 33.3 points in three games last week. . Valanciunas pulled down the 3,000th rebound of his career in the second quarter, second to Chris Bosh (4,776) on Toronto’s all-time list. . The 73 points were the most the Raptors have scored in the first half this season.

 

Kawhi Leonard scores 25 as Spurs dismantle ailing Cavaliers, 103-74

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Kawhi Leonard scored 25 points and the San Antonio Spurs dismantled the ailing Cleveland Cavaliers 103-74 on Monday night in a showdown that turned into a major letdown for the defending NBA champions.

LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol added 14 points apiece for the Spurs, who won their fifth straight.

Cleveland (47-26) dropped its second in a row, set a season low for points and fell a half-game behind Boston (48-26) for the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Cavaliers star LeBron James was injured late in the third quarter after taking an elbow to the base of his neck. He remained on the bench for a while receiving medical attention, then headed toward the locker room and didn’t return to the game.

His status was not immediately known.

Cleveland has been out of sync recently, losing three of five, and those struggles only got worse against San Antonio. The Spurs led by as many as 33 points to the delight of the sold-out crowd.

San Antonio (57-16) is two games behind Golden State (59-14) for the league’s best record entering a home showdown with the Warriors on Wednesday.

Cleveland opted to play its stars rather than sit them for rest, but the trio of James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love sat out the fourth quarter of its second rout in the past two weeks.

James exited with 25 seconds remaining in the third after taking an elbow to his neck from David Lee on a rebound. James continually rubbed the area before collapsing after he crossed midcourt and remained on the floor for about a minute before walking unassisted to the bench. He left for the locker room early in the fourth quarter during a timeout.

James finished with 17 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in 29 minutes.

The Spurs held the Cavaliers scoreless for three minutes after San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich was issued a technical foul during a timeout with 6:38 remaining in the first half.

Leonard hit a right-handed runner as the second quarter closed to give the Spurs a 64-40 lead.

TIP-INS

Cavaliers: Cleveland completed its schedule against the West, finishing 16-14. In addition to losing to the Spurs by 29 points, the Cavaliers lost by 35 to Golden State and 30 to the Los Angeles Clippers. . Cleveland F Kyle Korver missed his third straight game with a sore left foot, and the team plans to sit him for several games to see if rest and treatment helps. Korver will sit out Thursday in Chicago and Friday at home against Philadelphia before being re-evaluated, a team spokesman said. The shooting specialist missed seven games earlier this month with an inflamed tendon in his foot. . G Iman Shumpert missed his second consecutive game with a sore right knee. . James needs 24 points to pass Shaquille O’Neal for seventh overall in career scoring. O’Neal has 28,596 career points. . The Cavaliers averaged 116.3 points in their previous four games.

Spurs: San Antonio is holding its opponents to an average of less than 100 points for the 22nd straight season. . Danny Green tied his season high with four blocked shots. . Leonard has scored in double figures in 100 straight games.

 

Russell Westbrook dominates final minutes, hits game winner for Thunder (VIDEO)

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This game looked over. The Dallas Mavericks were up 13 with 3:30 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Oklahoma City Thunder were going to take the loss.

Then Russell Westbrook happened.

He scored 12 points in a 14-0 Thunder run to close out the game, then capped it off hitting the game winner for the Thunder (video above). For the game-winner, the Thunder almost went 1-4 flat and just let Westbrook work in isolation on his defender, a smart play when you have a guy this talented.

It was the kind of game that the Westbrook for MVP crowd will point to — he had 37 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists, and he absolutely dominated the final minutes of the game (he shot 5-of-9 down the stretch).

This was Westbrook’s 37th triple-double of the season, and the Thunder are 30-7 when he does reaches that mark. Westbrook takes heat in some quarters for “empty stats” or trying to pad his numbers, but the fact is the Thunder are 11-24 when he doesn’t put up the huge numbers and carry the offense. If you’re going to define “MVP” by value to his team, it’s hard not to choose Westbrook this season, this team is toast without him.

Paul Millsap out at least three more games with knee issue, Hawks 0-8 without him

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The Atlanta Hawks have come apart at the worst time. They have lost seven in a row and have fallen from comfortably in the playoffs to tied for the 5-6-7 seed in the East, just 2.5 games out of falling out of the playoffs altogether.

It has all happened with Paul Millsap out, and that is going to continue for about a week more the team announced Monday.

Atlanta Hawks forward Paul Millsap has been diagnosed with left knee synovitis and has undergone a non-surgical procedure at Emory (Orthopaedics & Spine Center in Atlanta). He will be listed as out for the next three games and his status will be updated as appropriate.

Synovitis is when the synovial membrane — which encases joints and helps lubricate them with synovial fluid — becomes inflamed. It’s usually a sign of another issue causing the inflammation.

The Hawks problem is they are 0-8 this season when Millsap is out.

It still feels unlikely Atlanta will fall all the way out of the playoffs (they have a slightly easier schedule than everyone they’re competing against for the slot), but they are more likely than Indiana or Milwaukee to slip. Also, the odds of them finishing with the seven or eight seed seem high, and that likely means a quick one-and-done visit to the postseason.

After that would come some real questions in Atlanta about how much they want to pay Millsap to keep him as a free agent (it’s going to have to be near max money and for five years, or he will look hard at his other options).