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.

Kevin Durant gets into Twitter debate with reporter over White House comments

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Kevin Durant became the latest Warrior — joining Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston, that we know of — to say he would not visit President Donald Trump’s White House as NBA champion. Which is all kind of moot because it’s unlikely the White House invites them and outspoken Trump critic/Warriors coach Steve Kerr and his players any way. (The White House’s biggest concern should be that Kerr accepts the invitation and uses that platform to challenge the president’s policies and style in front of him.)

Durant’s comments led to plenty of talk on sports talk radio and around the sports world online about whether a player or team should decline an invitation from the president. It’s not a new debate, Tom Brady denied that politics is why he didn’t visit Barack Obama’s White House (although I’m not sure many believed him), but KD’s on a big stage now so it became a talking point.

Former ESPN reporter Britt McHenry questioned a player not visiting the White House, and Durant responded, leading to a little Twitter back-and-forth.

Durant had previously Tweeted in response “by doing the opposite, I am inspiring more people” but that Tweet was deleted.

There is no one correct way to protest a person/policy/action, McHenry may see things differently, but Durant has chosen to stay away. That’s valid — traditionally these “champions to the White House” things are tedious photo ops with a few bad jokes thrown in. Having a hoops fan/player in Obama in the White House made the NBA visits more entertaining the past eight years, there was some trash talk, but still, they are largely just a public relations moment. If KD doesn’t want to play the PR game with Trump, that’s a legitimate response.

This has all been a tempest in a teapot. Until/unless the White House actually invites the Warriors to come, it’s all kind of moot.

Dwight Howard on Hornets’ coach Clifford: “It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you”

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Dwight Howard‘s game is much better than his reputation among fans.

He’s not the Defensive Player of the Year/All-NBA/MVP candidate level player he was back in Orlando, but Howard is still one of the best rebounders in the game, he’s strong defensively, and he’s an efficient scorer inside. He’s a quality center, if he plays within himself and is used well. His perception as a guy who does not take the game seriously and held back Houston and Atlanta in recent years has validity (he plays better in pick-and-roll than on the move, but wants the ball in the post), but the idea he is trash is flat-out wrong. He’s still good.

Howard wants to change his reputation, rewrite the final chapters of his career, and told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN that Steve Clifford’s Charlotte Hornets are the place that is going to happen.

“The other places I was, the coaches didn’t really know who I am,” Howard told ESPN. “I think that they had perception of me and ran with it. Cliff knows my game. He knows all the things that I can do. I’m very determined to get back to the top. It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you. They aren’t just saying it; they believe it. It really just pushed me to the limit in workouts: running, training, everything. I want to do more.

“In Orlando, I was getting 13-15 shots a game. Last season, in Atlanta, it was six shot attempts. It looks like I’m not involved in the game. And if I miss a shot, it sticks out because I am not getting very many of them. But I think it’s all opportunity, the system. I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”

Howard averaged 8.3 field goal attempts per game in Atlanta, which is about five a game below his peak. Last season 75 percent of Howard’s shots came within three feet of the rim — is is not there to space the floor, however, he can still move fairly well off the roll and is a good passer for a big.

Last season, 28 percent of Howard’s possessions came on post ups, and he averaged a pedestrian 0.84 points per possession on those. On the 21 percent of shots he got on a cut, he averaged a very good 1.36 PPP. When he got the ball back as a roll man (again on the move), it was 1.18 PPP. The challenge long has been Howard is better on the move but doesn’t feel involved unless he gets post touches, and if he doesn’t feel involved and engaged he’s not the same player.

Maybe Clifford can make this all work with some older plays where Howard feels comfortable.

Charlotte, with Howard in the paint and on the boards, should get back to being a top 10 NBA defensive team, not the middle of the pack as they were last season. Clifford is better than that as a coach, and Howard is an upgrade in the paint (on both ends). Charlotte should be a playoff team again in the East.

But it all will come back to Howard. Fair or not. And Wojnarowski is right, this is Howard’s last best chance to write the ending he wants to his career.

Friday afternoon fun: Watch James Harden’s 10 best plays from last season

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James Harden had a historic season in Houston.

Since it’s Friday afternoon and your sports viewing options consist of watching guys about to be cut from NFL rosters try to impress, why not check out Harden’s best plays from last season. It’s worth a couple minutes of your time.

Mavericks sign Jeff Withey to one-year contract

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Jeff Withey‘s ex-fiancée accused him of domestic violence, but he was not charged.

That frees him to continue his basketball career, which he’ll do in Dallas.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Mavericks could use another center, even if they re-sign Nerlens Noel. Salah Mejri is the only other true center, though Dirk Nowitzki will now play the position.

Withey is a good rim protector. Just don’t ask him to do anything away from the basket.

Dallas annually brings excess players to training camp and has them compete for regular-season roster spots. Whether or not his salary is guaranteed, Withey will likely fall into that competition.