Stephen Curry, Jamal Crawford

With Donald Sterling investigation lingering, Clippers drop Game 4 to Warriors

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Blake Griffin backed down his man, extending his left arm – the one with a black wristband – to create space, and drew a foul.

For moments Sunday, maybe only brief ones, Game 4 between the Clippers and Warriors was about basketball rather than Donald Sterling.

The Warriors still couldn’t stop Griffin once he got the ball, but it didn’t matter, because Curry launched Golden State’s offense into the stratosphere.

Curry made all five of his 3-point attempts in first nine minutes and finished with 33 points, leading the Warriors to a 118-97 Game 4 win Sunday and tying the series 2-2.

Golden State blitzed the Clippers early, jumping to a 39-19 lead, and hardly looked back. The Warriors never trailed again, only briefly allowing Los Angeles glimmers of hope.

Of course, there’s the giant elephant in the room: Were the Clippers distracted by the Sterling situation?

It’s a question that’s impossible to answer definitively. Even the Clippers themselves can’t know how they would have performed otherwise.

Doc Rivers – who openly questioned his players’ readiness before the game – drew a technical foul and nearly a second, but he frequently argues calls. Chris Paul – who is also addressing the situation as players’ union president – battled foul trouble, but all Clippers-Warriors games lately, including this one, have been physical. DeAndre Jordan – who made the team’s first public response with an all-black Instagram image –  didn’t score, but he’s disappeared in big games before.

Nothing was completely out of character for the Clippers.

Still, questions about their focus will persist, and those questions are fair. It’s been a long time since an entire team played a postseason game under such turbulent circumstances

But don’t let those questions diminish what Golden State accomplished.

The Warriors went 51-31. They’re hardly a pushover capable of winning only when the opponent is distracted.

They beat the Clippers twice in the regular-season, including one 19-point victory. Even without Andrew Bogut, the Warriors won Game 1 in Los Angeles and took the Clippers to wire in Game 3.

And with Draymond Green replacing Jermaine O’Neal in the starting lineup, the Warriors became even more dangerous.

Really, Mark Jackson should have started Green with Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and David Lee from the moment Bogut went down. In the regular season, that lineup produced like the NBA’s best offensive team (123.4 points per 100 possessions) and best defensive team (89.2 points allowed per 100 possessions).

Even with undivided focus, the Clippers might not have handled that lineup well.

At whatever focus level they reached today, they handled the on-court challenge with only minimal success. Jamal Crawford scored 26 points, doubling his previous series high. Griffin, who entered the game with 83 points in 93 minutes this series, remained a load the Bogut-less Warriors can’t handle once he gets the ball. He scored 21 points on 14 shots.

But Lee and Green did a much better job denying him the ball. Griffin also turned the ball over four times amidst the increased defensive pressure.

For the Clippers to rally and win this series, they have plenty of on-court issues to address – slowing Curry while keeping Paul out foul trouble, sparking Jordan and finding Griffin more often.

Those might be the least of their problems, though.

NBA: 76ers got away with violation before Robert Covington’s late 3-pointer against Trail Blazers

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Robert Covington hit the game-winning 3-pointer in the 76ers’ 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers on Friday, but that wasn’t Covington’s only triple as Philadelphia overcame a four-point deficit in the final 40 seconds. He also buried a 3-pointer with 38 seconds left.

The catch: That shot came after Philadelphia should have turned the ball over, according to the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report.

Gerald Henderson missed a 3-pointer, and Dario Saric prevented the rebound from going out of bounds, saving the ball with a pass to Covington. Except Saric got away with stepping out of bounds with the ball with 42.1 seconds left, per the league:

Saric’s (PHI) left foot is out of bounds when he makes contact with the loose ball.

That would’ve given Portland the ball up four.

The 76ers overcome the odds to win this game. But a correct call might have produced too steep of a hill for Philadelphia to climb.

NBA: Heat got away with two violations before clutch 3-pointer in win over Mavericks (video)

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Dirk Nowitzki entered Miami nostalgic about returning to the place he led the Mavericks to the 2011 NBA title.

He left with a 99-95 loss to the Heat.

But perhaps correct officiating down the stretch would have produced a different result.

Before Tyler Johnson hit a key late 3-pointer, Miami got away with two violations, according to the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report.

First, Goran Dragic should’ve been called for travelling with 1:47 left:

Dragic (MIA) moves his pivot foot.

Failing that, Hassan Whiteside should’ve been whistled for a three-second violation with 1:45 left:

Whiteside (MIA) is in the paint for longer than three seconds.

Either call would’ve ended the Heat’s possession. Instead, they kept swinging the ball until Johnson hit his 3-pointer.

We’ll never know how the game would’ve played out with a correct call, but at different points, Dallas trailed by just two and three while having to intentionally foul.

Raptors Kyle Lowry was ejected Sunday for blow to Brandon Knight’s head (VIDEO)

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Kyle Lowry has had an All-Star worthy season, but he’s had a rough few games.

His jumper has gone missing the last three games — he is shooting 35.4 percent overall and 25.9 percent from three in those games. Not coincidentally, all three of those are Raptors losses.

Then on Sunday, he struck the Suns’ Brandon Knight in the head as Knight drove the lane. Lowry made an ill-advised swipe at the ball after Knight got past him and smacked Knight on the head. Lowry was given a Flagrant 2 and was ejected, which was the right call.

Lowry took responsibility for the hit and said after the game he texted Knight to apologize, that he wasn’t a dirty player and didn’t intend to do hurt Knight. Classy move. But Lowry still could face a fine from the league for this.

Three things we learned Sunday: Roller coaster Laker season has some deep, deep dips

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 29:  Luke Walton of the Los Angeles Lakers watches play during a 101-89 Dallas Mavericks win at Staples Center on December 29, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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With a couple of important football games Sunday you may have missed some other things. Like why a highway was covered in red Skittles. Or, the handful of NBA Games that took place. We can help you with the latter, here are the big takeaways from Sunday.

1) On the anniversary of Kobe’s 81-point game, Lakers only score 73.
I keep waiting for the day Luke Walton snaps.

He has been the model of the patient, developmental basketball coach of a young team this season — it’s about progress, about lessons learned, about laying a foundation that helps this young core grow into something more dangerous in future years. He has been what the Lakers needed, a departure from last year and he who shall not be named. However, the lack of effort and growth on defense — the continued inability to defend the pick-and-roll — has to be eating at him inside. This is a young team, it’s going to have ups and downs, but the downs have been deep and pronounced, and at some point I expect Walton to just unload on his young charges.

Although if it didn’t happen after Sunday, it might never happen. On the 11th anniversary of Kobe’s 81-point game, the Lakers as a team scored just 73 points. Los Angeles lost by 49 points, a franchise record for worst loss ever. Walton said after the game the Lakers lacked the kind of veteran or natural leader on this team who would take charge on the court and call out his teammates off it in moments like this. Maybe he needs to be that guy.

Comments about the Lakers often talk about a quality young core for them to build around. There is some truth to that. Brandon Ingram has had some better games of late, although on Sunday he was asked to start for the injured D’Angelo Russell and be a playmaker and that failed. Ingram missed his first shot and it got in his head for the rest of the day, throwing off his game. Ingram needs to be a better shot creator (and get stronger). Jordan Clarkson can score the rock, and both he and Larry Nance Jr. are future NBA rotation players who can contribute to very good teams. Then there is Russell — nobody has been more up and down this season than the second-year point guard. A few weeks back I wrote about how he had finally developed a game-day routine and seemed to be turning a corner with a string of strong games. Since then he’s pretty much stunk. He’s developing, although it’s fair to ask if he’s doing that fast enough?

(Still, the Lakers really missed Russell Sunday — he’s the only guard they have who is a threat to score from three or getting into the lane, he’s a good passer who sees the angles on the court, and when he’s out there the ball moves better. This Lakers team lacks shot creators and when Russell is out the offense can stagnate quickly, reverting to one-on-one plays.)

It’s fair to ask why the inconsistent defensive efforts? Well, consistently bad may be the more accurate description. They make bad decisions constantly, and the veterans they have either are not great defenders — Nick Young, Lou Williams — or can be drawn into bad positions, such as Timofey Mozgov having to defend Dirk Nowitzki Sunday.

It’s also fair to ask if the Lakers really have an alpha in this core? Do they have a top 15 NBA player that can be the cornerstone of a future contender? I don’t see it. Maybe Ingram with some muscle and experience on him can get there — scouts are still very high on his game — but I do not see it elsewhere. Plus, I don’t see the alpha, ultra-competitive personality that doesn’t accept losing gracefully. Again, maybe Russell or someone has that and is just not confident showing it yet, but this team lacks it.

With all that, the Lakers development roller coaster seems to have bigger dips than highs. Which has to frustrate Walton. And at some point, he’s going to lose it.

2) The Suns beat the Raptors, and Eric Bledsoe was the reason.
Phoenix has won a couple of game in a row, and while beating the Knicks does not earn guys high praise, beating the Toronto Raptors will do that. Quietly Eric Bledsoe has had a borderline All-Star season — he’s not going to make the team due to the depth of talent in the West and the fact the Suns suck — and he showed it Sunday with an impressive 40 points to get Phoenix the win.

3) The Warriors punish Magic to end week where they asserted themselves. Last week for the Warriors started with a rematch against Cleveland, and Golden State earned a measure of confidence blowing them out. Then the Warriors beat Russell Westbrook and the Thunder thanks to a “look at what you’re missing” game from Kevin Durant. Then the Warriors knocked off the surging Rockets and James Harden.

That’s a good week, although the Warriors still had to face the Magic on Sunday. That had the makings of a potential let down game but the Warriors pulled away for the win.

Golden State has established itself as the best team in the NBA this regular season. There’s still a lot of season (nearly half) to go, and they will get tested in the playoffs, but they have set the mark to beat. Did they set the bar last year, too? Yes. And they made the Finals (and would have won if Draymond Green could keep his hands to himself), not something to ignore. But this season feels different with Durant in the fold. We’ll see. But for right now, they keep right on rolling at 38-6.