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

Tristan Thompson expected to return to Cavaliers Tuesday, come off bench

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — Cleveland Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson could play for the first time since Nov. 1 on Tuesday against Atlanta.

Thompson has been sidelined with a strained left calf. The team initially said Thompson would be out for up to four weeks, but he said Monday that timeline was inaccurate and that his injury was more serious. Thompson did not divulge any other details about the injury.

Coach Tyronn Lue says Thompson will not start when he returns, meaning Kevin Love will remain at center. Thompson says he’s fine with a reserve role and made it clear he’s willing to do whatever Lue needs.

The Cavaliers have won 14 of 15 and their defense has improved dramatically over the past month.

Thompson says he’ll have the same mindset on the floor as always and “just be myself. Being myself has worked out pretty well for me.”

 

Report: Hornets’ center Cody Zeller out six weeks following knee surgery

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Charlotte just cannot get over the injury bug this season, and we found out last week it had struck again.

Now we know how severe the damage is, as reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Ouch.

Zeller has been solid off the bench behind Dwight Howard this season, averaging 7.2 points and 5.5 rebounds in just under 20 minutes a night. He plays around the basket, 75 percent of his shots come at the rim, but his efficiency has dipped a little this season and he is shooting just 50 percent inside the restricted area.

The Hornets had to start the season without Nicolas Batum, and Michael Carter-Williams has missed time as well. On top of that, coach Steve Clifford had to take a leave of absence from the team for personal health reasons. Stephen Silas has stepped in to replace him.

Report: LiAngelo, LaMelo Ball have deal to play professionally in Lithuania

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This feels like a publicity stunt. Whatever the under/over is on how long it will last, bet the under.

That said, the two younger brothers of Lonzo Ball — LiAngelo, 18, and LaMelo, 16 — have reached a deal to play for a team in the highest level of the Lithuanian league. The story was broken by Adrian Wojnarowski and Jonathan Givony of ESPN (before the signing became official).

LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball are in serious discussions to sign professional basketball contracts with Lithuanian club Prienu Vytautas, sources told ESPN.

The club plans to decide in the next 24-to-48 hours whether to finalize agreements with the two American teenagers, sources told ESPN.

If signed, the franchise has hopes that the Balls – including their father LaVar — could be a marketing boon for the fledgling franchise, sources told ESPN.

Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports reports the deal is done.

Lithuania is a hoops-mad Baltic country of an estimated 2.9 million people who has three players currently in the NBA — Jonas Valanciunas, Donatas Motiejunas, and Mindaugas Kuzminskas — and has put 11 players in the league total, including Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Arvydas Sabonis, and Sarunas Marciulionis. You might remember the Lithuanian National Team wearing Grateful Dead inspired uniforms and taking the bronze medal in the 1992, 1996, and 2000 Olympics.

This is a country that takes its basketball seriously, and the Balls are a traveling circus and reality show. The Lithuanian league doesn’t have NBA-level players, but they guys they suit up have a real feel for the game and play a disciplined style. This could be a real culture clash, the kind of thing that ends quickly and spectacularly poorly. Here is some insight into the team from FIBA’s Lithuanian hoops writer.

Don’t expect the Ball children to play much, especially not at first.

The pay at this level is reportedly north of $1,500 a month, but that could be higher if the brothers are seen as a draw. With the report of the tight financial squeeze, this is likely a gambit on the coach’s part to boost revenue (in Europe, coaches are the CEOs of the organization, much more akin to the power top college coaches have than an NBA coach).

This is a league where men play and the game is taken seriously, it has produced not only Lithuanian players but Boston Celtics center Aron Baynes played there. This team apparently does not run the (suprisingly standard in Europe) two-a-day practices on non-game days, but their practices are longer and harder than most American versions. There are a lot of quality players — former American college/D-League guys, as well as good Europeans — who would love a shot like this. Who deserve a chance like this. If the younger Ball children do not perform and do not take this seriously, it will turn on them quickly.

LiAngelo Ball had gone to UCLA to play basketball this season, but after being suspended for shoplifting in China, his father LaVar pulled him out of college, designed a “Gelo 3” signature shoe for his son from the Big Baller Brand, and started looking for a professional contract. I’m not sure LiAngelo belongs at this level. As one scout told me last summer, LiAngelo was only at UCLA because Lonzo was a top recruit and LaMelo had a lot of potential. That scout wasn’t sure LiAngelo could stick in Europe.

LaMelo is a generally highly-rated recruit with NBA potential, a guy with crazy shooting range for a high-school Junior and good handles, but scouts had a lot of questions about his defense and most of his game outside of just shooting. LaMelo put up 70 points in an AAU game, but he cherry-picked the entire time, and the sense is there is a lot of that in his game. His father LaVar pulled LaMelo out of Chino Hills High School this season after a new basketball coach said he was going to push his guys to play within a system on both ends. How well LaMelo adapts to a very different culture on and off the court at his age is a big question.

Maybe this works out. Maybe the Ball children are more mature in personality and game than I think, maybe this is the financial boost that Prienu Vytautas needs and it works for them. It’s possible. I just don’t expect it.

Matt Barnes announces retirement from NBA after 15 seasons

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When too many fans think of Matt Barnes, they think of the guy who tried to fight Derek Fisher, the nightclub incident in New York, the guy who was a pest on the court and racked up more than his share of technicals and fines in a 15-year NBA career.

Ask Barnes former teammates about him, and they loved him — off the court and on. He was the quintessential guy you wanted on your team and hated to play against.

Barnes announced Monday on Instagram that his 15-year NBA run was over.

Barnes won an NBA title with the Warriors last season, and he played well for the team after signing in Golden State — Kevin Durant went down with a knee injury and Barnes stepped up his role and play. He earned that ring. However, this season there seemed to be no fit for him in the league.

Barnes was drafted in the second round out of UCLA by the Memphis Grizzlies and went on to play for nine teams during his career. He was the guy teams turned to for a spark off the bench — both because he could shoot the rock and because he played a fiery, emotional game. Barnes finished his career averaging 8.2 points and 4.6 rebounds per game.

I’m going to miss him. While he had a rough exterior and was plenty chippy on the court, off the court he was one of the more thoughtful basketball interviews out there — ask him about the game and he gave smart, calm, intelligent answers, not just clichés. He was active with charities and gave of his time and money, it wasn’t just a tax write off. I wish him the best and know he’ll enjoy life after basketball.