The Extra Pass: A big test for the Clippers; plus Thursday’s recaps

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Pressure reveals character, and the last minutes of the Clippers road matchup with Portland did just that.

Down the stretch, both teams played perfectly to their strengths. The Blazers ran everything through LaMarcus Aldirdge (32 points) on the left block, surrounding him with three-point shooters and daring the Clippers to double. The Clippers, meanwhile, put the ball in Chris Paul’s hands, gave him a simple ball screen and let the magic happen.

None of Paul’s 34 points appeared bigger than his fading jumper on the baseline to give the Clippers a three-point lead with about eight seconds left in regulation. After a frustrating loss to Golden State the night prior, it looked like the Clippers would exact some revenge on another Western Conference foe.

But then Portland did what they’ve been doing to every team around the league. In need of a bucket, Terry Stotts drew up a beautiful sidelines out of bounds play to get a clean look for Nicolas Batum, who buried the open three at the top of the key to tie the game and eventually send it to overtime.

So here the Clippers were, on the second night of one of the toughest back-to-back sets imaginable, playing on the road in overtime against one of the league’s hottest teams.

And right at the beginning of the overtime period, there was Blake Griffin on the floor. Not from exhaustion or the kind of flop he’s most closely associated with now, but because there was a loose ball to go after. Then it was Matt Barnes on the floor, chasing that same loose ball.

There were many moments or highlights to sum up the game for the Clippers, both positive and negative, but this was the one to remember.

I know what you’re thinking. Can a title contender really have moral victories? Isn’t that for, you know, the teams who can’t pull off actual victories?

It’s a fair point, and it didn’t help that the Clippers had their flaws exposed (defense on the perimeter, frontcourt depth) once again.

But still, it’s hard to ignore the fact that there were multiple opportunities for the Clippers to pack it in. The excuse of a back-to-back was readily available, and there were a few plays the screamed “it’s not your night.”

For as encouraging as a win this is for Portland in their ongoing quest to prove their sustainability, it was equally positive for the Clippers. It’s important to know just how deep you can dig as a team, both physically and mentally.

It’s a long season, but the Clippers may not be tested like this again. Chances are, they needed that experience more than they need the win.

—D.J. Foster

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Hawks 127, Cavaliers 125 (2OT): What a fun battle of point guards. Kyrie Irving went off for 40 points on 33 shots, plus he dished out 9 assists — he looked like a guy who deserves to start in the All-Star Game. He single handedly had the Cavs up five to start the second overtime. But that is when — with Al Horford having left the game with an injury — it was Jeff Teague who made the plays. He had 12 of his 34 points in the overtimes. He played maybe his best game of the season, plus he drained the game winner.

Rockets 100, Grizzlies 92: Second night of a back-to-back, coming off a signature win on national television, down 13 in the third quarter — if the Rockets had lost this game we would have shrugged and blamed the schedule and the Rockets inconsistency. Instead the Rockets cranked it up in the fourth quarter, held the Grizzlies to 27 percent shooting, got 14 points from Jeremy Lin and 11 from James Harden (27 for the game) to storm back and win. That’s the sign of a team that is maturing, growing together.

Spurs 116, Mavericks 107: This was vintage Spurs. Just a day ago after the Spurs lost to the Rockets on national television, I noted that San Antonio had struggled some against teams over .500. Thursday night they came out against a more rested Mavericks team, went on a 12-2 rum late in the first to take the lead, one they never relinquished. Tim Duncan was brilliant with 21 points and 13 rebounds, including four straight points in the fourth when it looked like Dallas would make a little run. Tony Parker added 23 points. They are still the Spurs and they still execute.

Trail Blazers 116, Clippers 112 (OT): Tonight it was the Clippers turn — the Blazers have done this to teams all season at home. They looked beaten, down three with eight seconds to go after a Chris Paul baseline jumper. But then a clever play freed up Nicolas Batum and he nailed the three, and we were headed to overtime. LaMarcus Aldridge had a big night — he had barely eaten for four days after having his wisdom teeth pulled, yet he went out and dropped 32. Chris Paul had 34. In the end we had another thrilling Trail Blazers game, and once again they found a way to win.

Watch LeBron James’ top highlight from each of his postseason appearances (video)

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LeBron James and Tony Parker are the only players to play in the last dozen postseasons.

(If you’re wondering, Manu Ginobili missed the 2009 playoffs due to an ankle injury.)

It’s fair to say LeBron was a bit more spectacular than Parker in that span. As LeBron enters his seventh straight Finals, the NBA released this awesome video showing LeBron’s best playoff highlight from each year:

There’s no entry for this year. Here’s betting it comes against the Warriors in the NBA Finals.

David Stern: We thought we could re-work Chris Paul-to-Lakers trade until Mitch Kupchak ‘panicked’

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NBA commissioner David Stern – acting as New Orleans’ owner representative, he says – infamously vetoed a potential Chris Paul-to-Lakers trade in 2011.

But that didn’t close the possibility of Paul going to the Lakers.

The New Orleans Hornets (now the Pelicans and not be confused with the current Charlotte Hornets), Lakers and Rockets tried to rework the three-team trade that would’ve sent Paul to the Lakers, Pau Gasol to Houston and Lamar Odom, Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Goran Dragic and a first-round pick to New Orleans. But talks fell apart around the time the Lakers dealt Odom to the Mavericks.

Stern on Nunyo & Company (hat tip: Harrison Feigen of Silver Screen & Roll):

In fact, in the course of the weekend, we thought we could re-do the deal. We really thought that Houston would be ready to part with Kevin Lowry, and we had a trade lined up for Odom that would have gotten us a good first-round draft pick – not we, but my basketball folks. But Mitch Kupchak at the time panicked and moved Odom to Dallas. So the piece wasn’t even there for us to play with at the time. So that was it — just about what was good for the then-New Orleans Hornets.

Remember, Stern – roundly criticized for his handling of this episode* – has blamed the Lakers and Rockets for the lingering perception. This could just be him again trying to shift responsibility.

*Somewhat fairly, somewhat not. Owners veto general manager-approved trades often enough, and Stern was acting as New Orleans’ owner after George Shinn sold the franchise back to the league. But Stern had an agenda as commissioner. He never should have assumed such a large conflict of interest. What he did with the Paul trade was reasonable for an acting owner, but because Stern was also commissioner, it’s fair to question how much New Orleans’ interests and how much the league’s interests factored into the decision-making.

But let’s take Stern at his word – that he and the Hornets thought they could re-do the trade and send Paul to the Lakers. That doesn’t mean they were right. Maybe the Lakers and Rockets (who had Kyle Lowry, not the “Kevin Lowry” Stern named) were never going to part with enough to get Stern’s approval.

And maybe New Orleans didn’t properly convey its interest in still completing a deal. Perhaps, Kupchak acted reasonably by trading Odom to Dallas – for a first-round pick, a deal Mark Cuban would ultimately regret – rather than wait around for the Hornets, who eventually sent Paul to the Clippers.

It’s easy to blame Kupchak, but he might tell a different story.

Isaiah Thomas makes it clear he wants to stay in Boston

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It’s been a long time since there was so much discussion about whether a team needs to trade or just let go of an All-NBA and All-Star player at his peak who is clear and away a fan favorite.

Yet that’s where the Boston Celtics and Isaiah Thomas find themselves. After landing the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft — where they will almost certainly take point guard Markelle Fultz — and with the Celtics looking a full couple steps behind the Cavaliers in the playoffs, the question about whether Thomas is part of the future in Boston has come up. He is a free agent in 2018 and are the Celtics willing to pay the big money it will take to keep him?

Know this, Thomas wants to remain a Celtic and win a Celtic. You can listen to his full comments above, but Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe has the money quote:

Outside of chasing Gordon Hayward, this summer the Celtics are going to focus on getter some frontcourt help, someone to help with rebounding and rim protection. They will look to get better, but Danny Ainge isn’t going to push all his chips into the middle of the table to make a gambit on immediate massive improvement. He will remain patient, building this team so that in three years and five years they will be a force in the East.

And the Thomas discussion likely gets put on hold for a year (unless there is a change of course and contract extension talks come up, but that’s only if Boston misses on Hayward and any other big targets).

Stephen Curry says talk of lack of competitive balance “disrespectful” to Warriors, Cavaliers

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This year’s NBA playoffs have been horribly lopsided and they lacked drama because we all knew where it was headed: Golden State vs. Cleveland. They were so dominant that between them they lost one playoff game so far. This has brought up discussions of competitive balance — we have seen the same Finals three years in a row, and we will almost certainly head into next season expecting a fourth. Then maybe a fifth.

Not surprisingly, Stephen Curry isn’t a fan of the lack of competition argument, saying it disrespects the Warriors and the Cavaliers.

“That almost is kind of disrespectful, because it’s not like it’s easy for us to get here. It wasn’t that at all. Us and Cleveland worked our butts off all year to put ourselves in a position to be playing for a championship. The league is as strong talent-wise across the board as it’s ever been. Every night we get challenged. Obviously, we had that one stat I guess, point differential, all year. We had a pretty solid showing in that respect. But, every night was hard. Every night was challenging. You can’t just sleepwalk through a season and sleep walk through the playoffs and expect to be here. You got to do something. You got to come out every night and prove yourself. Granted, anybody who was betting on who was gonna be in the Finals probably picked those two. It’s easy for them to say that and just wake up in June and see it happen. We had to put that work in all year long to make it happen.”

Curry is right in that nobody should question the work the Warriors and Cavaliers put in to get to this point, and that the other teams did not just roll over for them. Also, both teams did get a little lucky with injuries.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that right now there is a dominant team in each conference, and that sucks the drama out of the postseason. (Maybe a healthy San Antonio team could have pushed the Warriors, we didn’t get to find out.) Golden State has four of the top 15-20 players in the NBA, and that makes them a juggernaut — again, regardless of the work put in. Other teams don’t have much of a chance if the Warriors are healthy and focused, not in a seven game series. The fact that it was flukey circumstances that put a dominant team in each conference — there isn’t another LeBron James returning home, and out West it took a one-time salary cap spike to add Kevin Durant to a 73-win team — doesn’t change the fact this season has felt like a foregone conclusion from the start.

Right now we’ve got what we wanted and expected, the trilogy between the Warriors and Cavaliers. But if we head into next season expecting (and maybe getting) round four of this matchup in the Finals, is that good for the league? Why watch the movie if you know how it ends before it starts?