The Extra Pass: Clippers offensive fireworks cover up struggling defense, plus Monday recaps

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LOS ANGELES — The Clippers know how to put on a show — they dropped a highflying 137 points on the Rockets and blew the up-and-coming team out of the water. Through four games the Clippers are averaging 116.7 points per 100s possessions, that is almost 7 points better than the second place team (Houston). They are 3-1.

But the offensive fireworks are masking a more serious issue — the Clippers defense is not good.

The Clippers also have the worst defense in the NBA to pair with that offense, allowing 110.1 per 100 possessions. They have given up 100 points in each game this season, and are allowing opponents to shoot 48.2 percent overall and 42 percent from three.

Doc Rivers and all the Clippers know the truth — you can win a lot of regular season games just flat out outscoring your opponents, but you won’t last long in the playoffs.

“Our (problem) is simple right now: Second shots and turnovers,” Rivers said before the game. “As crazy as it sounds… I think it’s 46 points is what we’re giving up if you combine those two, second chance and turnovers. And if you’re giving up 46 points a game on second shots and turnovers, you can be the ’85 Bears and you’re still going to struggle defensively…

“It’s absolutely killing us. It’s creating awful matchups. Transition is about matchups and if you get back matched up to your guy you have a chance of guarding people. If you’re turning the ball over and creating mismatches at some point something bad is going to happen. And it’s happening. So we have to do a better job of taking care of the ball.”

The Clippers gave up 118 points to the Rockets in an up-tempo game (107 possessions, according to NBA.com), and again it was transition defense the team pointed to as the weakness.

“We have a ways to go defensively,” J.J. Redick said. “I think we’re feeling more and more comfortable with out half-court defense. When team are going against our set defense, I think we’re doing a pretty good job and starting to really understand some stuff. We have to do a better job in transition, getting matched up.”

I’m not sure their half court defense is all that great right now, but transition is the bigger issue.

There are 78 more games to figure he team defense out, that’s plenty of time. But that is the mission — this team is going to score at an incredible rate and win a lot of games this season just blowing opponents out of the water. But if they don’t get better defensive habits they will be golfing much earlier than expected come the spring.
—Kurt Helin

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Cavaliers 93, Timberwolves 92: Cleveland isn’t really a better team than Minnesota, especially the way the T’Wolves had gotten off to a 3-0 start to the season behind a monster of a first week from Kevin Love that earned him Conference award-winning honors. But falling behind by 23 points midway through the third on the road will put any team in a tough situation, and despite Minnesota’s furious fourth quarter rally (led largely by Corey Brewer’s activity on both ends of the floor), the Cavs were able to hang on for the win.

Warriors 110, Sixers 90: Golden State is one of the few teams that seem to be ahead of the competition in the early part of the season, both due to the returning core of talent on the roster and because of the style of play that tends to put their opponents on the defensive. The Sixers were a nice little story, but the Warriors obviously had no interest in it after leading by as many as 39 points on the road before the final buzzer sounded. Rookie sensation Michael Carter-Williams was held to just 4-of-17 shooting in 35 minutes of action, and Andre Iguodala torched his former team for 32 points in 33 minutes to lead the way for the Warriors.

Grizzlies 95, Celtics 88: The Celtics organization is likely perfectly pleased with their team’s start to the season. Boston has been in all four games it has played, and battled enough to keep them close into the fourth quarter. But all ultimately ended in losses, which fits perfectly into the plans of a rebuilding franchise looking to secure as many draft lottery ping pong balls as possible. In this one, Memphis held Boston to just 33.3 percent shooting in the final period, and Jerryd Bayless poured in 15 points in the final 12 minutes to lead the Grizzlies to a come from behind victory.

Clippers 137, Rockets 118: Defense? Who wants to watch defense? It was the King Midas game for the Clippers — everything they touched on offense turned to gold. They scored 42 points in the first quarter and a team record 78 in the half as they ran J.J. Redick off screens that James Harden wouldn’t fight through, and quickly Redick was racking up points on his way to 26. Chris Paul had 23 points and 17 assists. Jamal Crawford had 21. The Clippers shot 52 percent on the night. Houston’s offense wasn’t bad — Omri Casspi was able to get space from Blake Griffin and had 19 points, Harden had 15 but needed 16 shots to get there.  Dwight Howard got booed every time he touched the ball and was in early foul trouble keeping him on the bench, then said after the game the crowd reaction didn’t bother him. Something clearly bothered the entire Rocket team. — KH

Celtics fluster Bulls with floor spacing and dirty play, take 3-2 series lead

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The Bulls couldn’t break free. The Celtics look ready to break out.

Boston beat Chicago 108-97 in Game 5 Wednesday, winning its third straight to take a 3-2 lead in the first-round series. The Celtics pulled away with a 13-0 fourth-quarter run, which was boosted by two Bulls technical fouls – the second on Robin Lopez, who was rightfully aggrieved by an uncalled Jae Crowder leg-lock.

That’ll generate more talk about Boston being dirty, especially in the midst of a chippy series. But at least nobody will be discussing the Celtics being a historically weak No. 1 seed, which drowned everything after Chicago won the series’ first two games in Boston. The Warriors and Cavaliers are the only other teams to win three straight games this postseason, the type of elite company the Celtics would like to join.

Close the series in Game 6 on Friday, and Boston silences the most extreme criticism of its present.

“We’ve got to finish it,” said Isaiah Thomas, who scored 11 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter. “We know Game 6 is going to be a big game, and they’re going to fight for their lives. But we’ve got to go in there and finish it.”

The Celtics became just the third team in the last four years to win three straight after dropping the first two games of a series. The Trail Blazers (vs. Clippers) and Hornets (vs. Heat) did it in last year’s first round. Portland advanced. Charlotte didn’t.

Overall, here’s how teams up 3-2 and facing a road Game 6 in a 2-2-1-1-1 series have fared:

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The Celtics’ odds of advancing might be even higher than that. Their 11-point win tonight felt like it could have been much more lopsided.

Boston shot just 9-for-40 on 3-pointers (23%), but many of those were good looks and the high volume of attempts bodes well. They were a product of a high-functioning offense, and in the long run, more of those will fall. Only a few franchises – Warriors, Cavaliers, Hawks, Mavericks, Pacers – have ever attempted so many 3s in a playoff game, though nobody had ever shot so inefficiently on so many attempts.

The Celtics more than compensated for their cold outside shooting everywhere else. They shot 29-for-48 on 2-pointers (60%) and and 23-for-23 on free throws (100%), getting high-percentage looks and drawing fouls thanks to their floor spacing.

The Bulls, on the other hand, wasted a throwback game from Dwyane Wade (26 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists). Avery Bradley (24 points on 11-of-19 shooting) tightly defended Jimmy Butler (14 points on 6-of-15 shooting), and that matchup won’t any easier for Butler.

Maybe Butler will answer the call, but Chicago is running out of advantages. Boston even had higher offensive- and defensive-rebounding percentages than Chicago. And Thomas didn’t carry anything, even the Celtics to victory.

Boston again looks like the complete team it had been for much of the season.

Bucks’ Khris Middleton, dealing with illness, misses practice

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ST. FRANCIS, Wis. (AP) — Bucks wing Khris Middleton missed practice with an illness that has been bothering the Bucks’ second-leading scorer (14.7 points) all week.

Middleton was 3 of 8 for eight points in 35 minutes in the 118-93 Game 5 loss in Toronto that gave the Raptors a 3-2 series lead. Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd said he didn’t think the illness was a factor, and that Middleton had good looks and played well defensively. He expected Middleton to start on Thursday and said he wasn’t pondering any lineup changes for Game 6.

The Bucks got a day off from practice then returned to practice Wednesday after a brief break from what has been an increasingly rugged series.

After getting blown out in Game 3 by the Bucks, the Raptors won the next two games in part by being more physical and slowing down Milwaukee.

Sometimes, a young team needs to learn from failure to get better.

Kidd hopes his players build on the lessons learned from a stinker of a Game 5 in their opening-round playoff series against the Toronto Raptors. They need to regroup quickly to avoid elimination when the Raptors and Bucks meet Thursday night at the Bradley Center.

“Yeah, I hope so,” Kidd said when asked about whether his players learned from the blowout loss. “Today, I thought guys were focused, understanding what we have to do. It’s not hard, but for us the process of being able to be consistent is the one thing that we struggle with.”

Workaholic forward Giannis Antetokounmpo might have been the only player who didn’t want a breather.

“I don’t know, for me, I didn’t need an off-day. But for sure some guys played a lot of minutes, their bodies are sore,” Antetokounmpo said. “I think for some guys it’s good to get some rest so we can bring more energy tomorrow.”

For all of his athleticism, the 22-year-old Antetokounmpo lacks playoff experience when compared to the postseason-tested Raptors.

Antetokounmpo and Middleton are playing in their second career playoff series after the Bucks lost in six games to top-seeded Chicago in 2015. Antetokounmpo’s role has changed now that he’s the focal point of the offense, so he faces more defensive scrutiny.

The team surrounding Antetokounmpo and Middleton has been almost completely made over since then, with injured forward Jabari Parker and center John Henson the only other holdovers. Henson has only played three minutes against Toronto.

Two other starters, guard Malcolm Brogdon and center Thon Maker, are rookies. Even center Greg Monroe, a seven-year veteran who provides scoring punch off the bench, is making his playoff debut. Fourth-year players Tony Snell (Bulls) and Matthew Dellavedova (Cavaliers) joined the Bucks this season, brought to Milwaukee in part because of their postseason experience.

In contrast, the Raptors have been through about every conceivable playoff situation after losing to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals last season. Led by one of the best backcourts in the game in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, Toronto is no stranger to adversity.

“You definitely see that experience come into play and we just understand the moment probably a little bit more than them. That’s not to take away (anything) from them,” DeRozan said. “They are a great team, a young team and this is definitely going to be an experience they will learn from and carry over but for now it’s something we have to keep in mind and understand the moment of going into every single game … to try and close this thing out.”

Milwaukee’s transition game is off track with 31 turnovers over the last two contests.

“That’s the physicality part, because it’s the playoffs, because it’s more intense. You get away with slaps, holds, grabs and that’s a trick of the trade,” said Jason Terry, a 17-year veteran who is averaging about 10 minutes a game off the bench for the Bucks this series.

“If you haven’t (been) through that, you don’t know it until you face it,” Terry said. “I think for us being a young team, now that we’ve seen it four or five games consecutively, hopefully now we can adjust.”

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Jimmy Butler hits contested deep buzzer-beating 3-pointer (video)

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Shooting buzzer-beaters is especially difficult because the defender knows your deadline to release the shot. The threat of a pump fake, drive to another location or pass disappears as the seconds tick down.

On the other hand, Jimmy Butler is very good.

Wizards’ interior defense, transition buckets earns them 103-98 win, 3-2 series lead over Hawks

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It’s one of the core tenets of the NBA analytics movement that aligns well with old-school thinking — get your buckets from the places it’s easiest to score. The ones where teams shoot the highest percentage, where they are most efficient. Basically, shoot close to the basket or corner threes.

Feeling comfortable back home, Washington took those shots away from Atlanta Wednesday night — the Hawks shot 43.6 percent inside eight feet of the rim, were just 18-of-41 in the paint (43.9 percent) and were 0-of-6 on corner threes.

Combine that with 27 points from Bradley Beal, 20 points and 14 assists for John Wall, and some transition baskets (20 fast break points) and you get a 103-98 win for the Wizards. Washington now has a 3-2 series lead with Game 6 in Atlanta Friday night (if necessary, Game 7 would be Sunday).

Washington always seemed to be the better team in this one, but they could never get a comfortable lead — when Washington would get up double digits, the Hawks would close the gap again and hang around.

A lot of credit for that goes to point guard Dennis Schroder, who had 29 points on 10-of-18 shooting, and was 5-of-6 from three, to lead the Hawks. As it has been all series, the Wizards game plan with Schroder was to go under every pick and dare him to beat them with his jumper — and he almost did. Schroder also had 11 assists on the game.

While he played well and Paul Millsap was his usual impressive self inside (21 points, although on 8-of-19 shooting), the Hawks wings were a mess. Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, and Tim Hardaway Jr. combined to shoot 13-of-41 (31.7 percent) and they were 3-of-18 from three (Hardaway had all the makes).

Meanwhile, Beal had one of his best games of the playoffs, and he deserves some credit for the struggles of the Hawks’ wings.

“I think (Beal) is one of the best two-way players in the league,” Brooks said. “He’s not going to tell anyone he’s a great defender, but his coaching staff, his teammates know he locks up defensively.”

Washington also got some help from Otto Porter (17 points) and Bojan Bogdanovic off the bench with 14 points. Both of them made some clutch shots.

Scott Brooks threw some new wrinkles at the Hawks that worked for stretches — using Wall to double Millsap at times, or going for a stretch with Markieff Morris at the five. Morris still had foul trouble despite the help, the veteran Millsap knows how to get calls. Still, the tweaks worked well enough to get Washington some buckets, and the win.

The question becomes will the Wizards be able to do that on the road — the home team has won every game this series. If the Hawks’ wings feel more comfortable and hit some shots, if Atlanta can get some more easy points inside Friday night, we will be watching Game 7 of this series on Sunday.