Blake Griffin sets tone, sets off PJ Tucker as Clippers hang on to beat Suns

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LOS ANGELES — Apparently the Phoenix Suns players didn’t read the scouting report on Blake Griffin and went by last year’s version — he has a jump shot now and if you give him space he will make you pay.

Phoenix’s effort was not the kind of defensive performance a team fighting for its playoff life can afford. Griffin had 22 points in the game’s first quarter on 8-of-9 shooting, and sure there were dunks — including a Mailman tribute dunk — but there also were 18-foot fadeaway jumpers and shots knocked down from the elbow. After the game Chris Paul admitted he should have given Griffin the ball more.

“If you let a guy tee-up that 12-foot shot, he’s going to make it all day,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said after the game. “We were playing off the guy, trying to put an arm out. Not once did we ever get into the guy.”

Eventually the Suns did get into him — PJ Tucker really got into him and got ejected for trying to elbow Griffin in the head after the two got tangled up in the fourth quarter. But by that point it was too late — Griffin finished with 37 points on 14-of-16 shooting in one of the best offensive performances of his career.

And that still almost wasn’t enough against a scrappy Phoenix team.

The Clippers led by 25 in the third and had to hang on at the end for a 112-105 win over the Suns.

That is the Clippers eighth win in a row but they remain the four seed (in a virtual tie with three seed Houston) as every team not based in Oklahoma City remains hot at the top of the West.

For the Suns they fall half a game back of the Grizzlies for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. With that on the line it frustrated Hornacek his team didn’t play with more urgency early.

“It didn’t seem like we were ready to play,” he said. “We were soft. In the second half we got after it better defensively, but we need to put that kind of effort that we had in the late third quarter and through the fourth quarter. We need to do that more often.”

Both of these teams are in the top 10 in the league in pace but early on it is the Clippers doing a better job of pushing the tempo and punishing the Suns in transition (12 fast break points in first 10 minutes). That pace pushed the Clippers out to a 34-23 first quarter lead.

The Clippers pulled away in the second again as Griffin continued to make everything, including a couple 16-foot bank shots ala Tim Duncan.

“When shots are falling, honestly, just keep shooting,” Griffin said. “But at the same time we were all hitting shots. Guys were scoring, our offense was going. Just kind of one of those zones where you feel like everything you’re throwing up is going in.”

Pretty much everything did go in — the Clippers shot 61.5 percent in the first half. A 17-8 run in the third quarter had Los Angeles up 25. Darren Collison chipped in 20 and Danny Granger had his best and clearly most comfortable game as a Clipper with 14 off the bench.

But if you take your foot off the gas pedal against the Suns you pay. The Suns fought to get it down to 11 late in the third and hung around that margin for most of the fourth quarter. Then Griffin fouled out with 3:23 left and the Clippers up 10. The last two were offensive fouls on Griffin, who never really adjusted to a tightly called game.

Goran Dragic then had a couple twisting layups and the lead was down to six (he finished with a team high 23, seven Suns were in double digits in a balanced attack). Chris Paul said he and the Clippers offense froze up a little when Griffin left the game because they had relied on him so much.

But then it was the Clippers turn to be a little scrappy and hold on for the win.

“It was good for us to win a grind-out game like that,” CP3 said.

The Clippers will take the wins as they come now.

So will the Suns, frankly, but they need to get back to being the relentless Suns who played 48 hard minutes or they will be able to schedule their vacations for April this year.

Paul George-Gordon Hayward-Celtics rumor doesn’t add up

AP Photo/George Frey
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Paul George reportedly wants to play with Gordon Hayward. George is also reportedly willing to join his desired team (universally accepted to be the Lakers) by means that don’t guarantee the highest salary.

Could the Celtics – who are pursuing Hayward in free agency – leverage those conditions into getting George?

Adam Kauffman of 98.5 The Sports Hub:

I don’t what George would do, but it’d be a MAJOR financial disadvantage to go this route.

There a couple ways it could happen – George getting extended-and-trade or George getting traded then signing an extension six months later. The latter would allow George to earn more than the former, but even if he pledged to sign an extension, would the Celtics trade for him knowing he’d have six months to change his mind if he doesn’t like Boston as much as anticipated?

There’s a bigger issue, anyway. Both extension routes would leave George earning far less than simply letting his contract expire then signing a new deal, either with his incumbent team or a new one.

Here’s a representation of how much George could earn by:

  • Letting his contract expire and re-signing (green)
  • Letting his contract expire and signing elsewhere (purple)
  • Getting traded and signing an extension six months later (gray)
  • Signing an extend-and-trade (yellow)

image

Expire & re-sign Expire & leave Trade, extend later Extend-and-trade
2018-19 $30.6 million $30.6 million $23,410,750 $23,410,750
2019-20 $33.0 million $32.1 million $25,283,610 $24,581,287
2020-21 $35.5 million $33.7 million $27,156,470 $25,751,825
2021-22 $37.9 million $35.2 million $29,029,330
2022-23 $40.4 million
Total $177.5 million $131.6 million $104,880,158 $73,743,861

Firm numbers are used when it’s just a calculation based on George’s current contract. When necessary to project the 2018-19 salary cap, I rounded.

The Celtics could theoretically renegotiate-and-extend, but that would require cap room that almost certainly wouldn’t exist after signing Hayward.

Simply, it’s next to impossible to see this happening. It’d be too costly to George.

Dwyane Wade on why he exercised his player option: ’24 million reasons’

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Dwyane Wade said he wanted to see the Bulls’ direction – winning now with Jimmy Butler or rebuilding? – before deciding on his $23.8 million player option for next season.

While Chicago was actively shopping Butler (before eventually trading him to the Timberwolves), Wade opted in, anyway.

David Aldridge of NBA.com:

This is most real answer answer you’ll ever see. Props to Wade for his directness.

This also speaks to the unlikelihood of him accepting a buyout, no matter how poorly he fits with the rebuilding Bulls now – though maybe he’d accept a small pay cut to choose another team.

Medically risky prospects bring intrigue to 2017 NBA draft

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
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ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla dubbed Indiana forward O.G. Anunoby, who was slipping through the first round, a “sexy blogger pick.”

While I appreciate the compliment, Fraschilla was also right about another point: Those analyzing the draft for websites clearly valued Anunoby more than NBA teams. Fraschilla cited Anunoby’s limited offense, but it’s hard to get past Anunoby’s knee injury as a primary reason he fell to the Raptors at No. 23.

The 76ers adjusted us to the idea of picking an injured player high in the draft, with Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid in recent years. Even though Ben Simmons was healthy when picked, a later injury that cost him his entire rookie year conditioned us to the idea that sometimes top rookies don’t begin their pro careers ready to play.

But the 2017 NBA draft pushed back against that as a new norm. Most of the biggest tumblers on my board had injury concerns, from where I ranked them to where the went:

  • 12. O.G. Anunoby, SF, Indiana – No. 23, Raptors
  • 13. Harry Giles, PF, Duke – No. 20, Kings
  • 18. Isaiah Hartenstein, PF, Zalgiris – No. 43, Rockets
  • 19. Ike Anigbogu, C, UCLA – No. 47, Pacers

Anunoby had the aforementioned knee injury that even he, trying to paint himself in the most favorable light, said would cause him to miss some of the upcoming season. The strength of his game is a defensive versatility that would be undermined by a decline in athleticism.

Giles looked like a potential No. 1 pick in high school until three knee surgeries in three years derailed him. He was limited at Duke as a freshman, though reportedly acquitted himself in pre-draft workouts.

Hartenstein’s and Anigbogu’s medical issues were less widely know, but teams were apparently concerned.

Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress:

https://twitter.com/DraftExpress/status/878094857037676544

https://twitter.com/DraftExpress/status/878099339012210688

The 7-foot-1 Hartenstein is big enough to put a heavy load on his back. Just 19, he has nice vision as a passer and a developing outside shot that could allow him to spend more time on the perimeter and better take advantage of his passing.

Anigbogu was the youngest player drafted. He’s big and strong and mobile and throws his body around like a wrecking ball. He must develop better awareness and maybe even some ball skills, but there’s a path toward productivity.

Will these players blossom as hoped?

As I wrote when ranking Anunoby and Giles 12th and 13th before the draft, “I’m somewhat shooting in the dark” and “I’m mostly guessing here.”

This is the disconnect between the public perception of these players’ draft stocks and where they’re actually selected. We don’t have access to their medical records like teams do. We’re operating with far less information.

Still, it’s not as if teams always know how to interpret medical testing. Even with more information, this is hard.

I’m confident Anunoby, Giles, Hartenstein and Anigbogu would have gotten drafted higher with clean bills of health. So, this is an opportunity for the teams that drafted them. If the players stay healthy, they provide excellent value.

It’s obviously also a risk. If the player can’t get healthy, his value could quickly approach nil.

There are no certainties in the draft, but these four players present especially wide ranges of outcomes, which makes them among the more exciting picks to track in the years ahead.

Vlade Divac: Kings would have drafted De’Aaron Fox No. 1

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I sense a pattern.

Like Celtics president Danny Ainge saying Boston would’ve drafted No. 3 pick Jayson Tatum No. 1 if it kept the top pick, Kings president Vlade Divac said Sacramento would’ve taken No. 5 pick De'Aaron Fox No. 1 if it had the top pick.

Divac, via James Ham of NBC Sports California:

“Screaming,” Divac said about the reaction in the room to Fox falling in their lap. “It was a guy that we all loved and in some way, if we had the number 1 pick, he would’ve been our guy.”
“De’Aaron is our future,” Divac added.

The Kings are getting a lot of credit for drafting well. Maybe it’s a good thing they didn’t get the No. 1 pick, because it would have been foolish to pass on Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball (and others) for Fox. (The real punchline: Sacramento couldn’t have won the lottery due to Divac’s dumb salary dump with the 76ers giving Philadelphia the ability to swap picks.)

I don’t believe the Kings would’ve actually taken Fox No. 1. This sounds like Divac embellishing, which can be no big deal. It also puts outsized expectations on Fox, for better or worse.