Clippers win fifth straight over Knicks, finding their way in Chris Paul’s absence

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NEW YORK — The Clippers were a middle of the pack playoff team in the loaded Western Conference, before Chris Paul went down with a shoulder injury that could keep him out up to five weeks.

Common sense would dictate that they see an immediate drop-off in overall play and production, but the absence of the All-World point guard has allowed the team to focus more on its system, and see other individuals elevate their play in order to help the team continue to achieve success.

L.A. won its fifth straight without Paul on Friday, an easy 109-95 win over a depleted Knicks squad. But there hasn’t been one particular key to the team’s recent string of victories, as Clippers head coach Doc Rivers pointed out afterward.

“We’re kind of making it up,” he said. “We really are. At some point in a game we make a defensive run; we just need to do it for four quarters. The one good thing is offensively, we’ve moved the ball. We had five guys in double figures tonight. It’s tough to guard a team when the ball’s moving and you can’t key on one guy.”

Jamal Crawford finished with 29 points off the bench, and Blake Griffin continued his elite play with 32 points on 12-of-20 shooting, to go along with seven rebounds and three steals. The season began in Los Angeles with many believing Paul might put together something approaching an MVP campaign, and he was spectacular before the injury. But it’s been Griffin who has elevated his game to that level, and his play all season has been more than impressive.

“He’s just been great,” Rivers said of Griffin. “He really has. This run — it’s been all year. He’s doing everything — he’s rebounding, we put him on Carmelo down the stretch. He’s doing everything a coach could ask him to do And he’s leading, as well.”

Griffin has been consistent with his amazing performances, but as Rivers said, it’s not as though it’s a recent occurrence — it’s been all season long. Griffin sees Paul’s absence as an opportunity to test the team’s mettle, which he believes may pay dividends later when the postseason comes around.

“You learn everybody’s fight and resolve,” Griffin said. “I think we’ve really shown that we’ve kind of buckled down and really played within ourselves, and really relied on our system to get us there. Nobody’s trying to do too much, and that’s what you need when somebody like CP goes down, because you always worry about somebody trying to replace him. And from day one I think we’ve tried to say that you can’t replace him, and that everybody has to elevate their game.”

To this point, most have. DeAndre Jordan patrols the paint and cleans the glass, Darren Collison is allowed to try to score more than facilitate as Paul’s replacement, and the offense runs through Griffin in the post much more than usual in the team’s current situation.

The hope in Los Angeles is that Paul’s midseason absence could be a blessing in disguise. If the team can learn to trust the system and play to its individuals’ strengths while working toward common goals, then good things are likely to be on the horizon once Paul is back.

“You can’t really go into the playoffs and not know your identity, and not know what you’re trying to accomplish every game,” Griffin said. “For us to every game have a game plan, and have to go out and execute that game plan in order to win — it’s big. And hopefully it gives us some experience playing through adversity.”

Jared Dudley: Giannis Antetokounmpo practiced mean mugging in locker room

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Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s Game 3 dunk over Aron Baynes was great.

Antetokounmpo’s Game 4 dunk over Al Horford (seen above) is even better, because of the fantastic mean mug that followed.

The rise of Antetokounmpo is no accident. He worked hard to develop his on-court skills. And that includes all aspects.

Suns forward Jared Dudley, who played with Antetokounmpo on the 2014-15 Bucks:

This is the inside info we need.

Report: Knicks are Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer’s top choice for job

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Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer withdrew from the Suns coaching search, but that he was even involved with another opening while under contract with Atlanta is telling. It probably wasn’t about the Phoenix job being special. He’s also talking with the Knicks – and maybe that goes somewhere.

Marc Berman of the New York Post:

Mike Budenholzer is genuinely interested in the Knicks’ job, according to an NBA source who has spoken to the Hawks coach.

“New York’s his top choice,’’ the NBA source said. “If they offered him the job, he’d say yes. He wants to live in New York.’’

“Phoenix and the Knicks are trying to win every game,’’ said the NBA source who has spoken to Budenholzer recently. “There’s a good chance Atlanta is not looking to win games the next two years. This wasn’t Mike’s decision. He didn’t expect it. He doesn’t want to lose games.’’

Going to the Knicks to win? What a time to be alive.

But the Hawks are only one year into what appears to be a multi-year rebuild. Relative to that, New York is ahead.

When Kristaps Porzingis returns is the biggest variable. But Enes Kanter, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee and Trey Burke are all in their primes. Atlanta is much thinner.

The Knicks would probably also offer Budenholzer a raise and the Hawks compensation. Though dealing with James Dolan carries downside, this could be a financial boon to everyone else involved. It’s no wonder Budenholzer and the Hawks are both into this.

The big question is whether New York, which is casting a wide net, tabs Budenholzer. He doesn’t have a clear connection to Knicks president Steve Mills or general manager Scott Perry. But Budenholzer is a demonstrably good coach, and that ought to matter plenty.

Andrew Bogut signs to play in NBL in native Australia

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Back in January, the Los Angeles Lakers waived Andrew Bogut. He had a very limited role on a Los Angeles team that was not making the playoffs, serving as a backup big man against teams who use a traditional center. That’s not much of a role anymore. He’s a center who can pass, shoot from the midrange a little, and knows where to be defensively, but the game has evolved as Bogut’s skills have faded. Bogut tried to latch on with a contender for the playoffs, but could not find a team to take him.

So he is going home.

Bogut is signing to play for the Sydney Kings in Australia’s NBL.

Bogut was the first No. 1 draft pick from Australia when he was selected by the Milwaukee Bucks in 2005. He made the All-Rookie team that season, was All-NBA in 2010, but may be best known for his role as a crucial part of the defense of the NBA champion Golden State Warriors in 2015 (and his injury during the 2016 Finals is an underrated reason Cleveland was able to pull off a miracle comeback).

At age 33 Bogut may not have a spot in the NBA, but in the NBL he both will thrive for a few more years but also be a huge draw and get the welcome home from fans that he deserves.

When Lance Stephenson gets a traveling call, he earns it (VIDEO)

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Yes, guys get away with traveling in the NBA. James Harden on the step back (sometimes, not always), or guys sliding left/right to avoid a closeout at the arc and not bothering to dribble while they do it.

Lance Stephenson got called for traveling Sunday in the Pacers’ loss to the Cavaliers. In a game where Stephenson got under the skin of LeBron James and drew a technical (and tied him up for a jump ball at one point), this was the best Lance highlight of the game. Because if you’re going to travel, you should go all in.

Never change Lance. Never change.