Poised Thunder exploit Clippers defense down stretch, take 2-1 series lead

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LOS ANGELES — This was playoff basketball at its most intense (certainly the most intense we’ve seen this second round, anyway). The Clippers and Thunder were battling and it was emotional, chippy, loud, and foul filled. It was a roller coaster.

It didn’t have much defense, but it was fun.

Through that storm the Thunder kept their heads about them. It’s a cliche to say the most poised team wins a close game, but it’s a cliche for a reason.

While the Clippers got frustrated with each other and chirped at officials in the fourth —all of which seemed to impact their defensive rotations and offensive shot selection, their minds elsewhere — the Thunder kept executing. OKC kept trusting players like Caron Butler to make plays (he nailed three threes in the fourth), kept trusting they would win going small, and they played with the confidence they would make the big shots when they needed to. The Clippers were the team pressing, the team still learning to win on this big a stage.

Oklahoma City won the fourth quarter 32-22 and with that become the first team to trail the Clippers after three quarters and come back to win this season, 118-112.

With the win the Thunder take a 2-1 series lead in the Western Conference semi-finals. Game 4 is Sunday at Staples Center and it is all but a must win for the Clippers.

When asked about the late game poise Kevin Durant talked about the journey and said this year they are way ahead of where they were in years past.

“Just from experience,” Durant said. “You grow from experience. Having been here before, it’s helped us all out. Reggie (Jackson) when Russell (Westbrook) was out, Serge playing in big games, Russell playing in big games, myself. All the way down the line.”

The other thing the Thunder were able to do is play through the physicality better.

As Doc Rivers had said pregame he wanted his team to do, the Clippers came out attacking the rim — they were not going to settle for jumpers. That’s good basketball. But with Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins hanging back, the Thunder are long and physical in the paint — and that physicality threw the Clippers off. The Clippers hit just 4-of-12 at the rim to start the game and finished 24-of-47 in the paint (51 percent).

“We didn’t finish a lot at the basket,” Rivers said. “I think they hurt us…. we’re getting to the basket. That’s what you want to do. We missed a lot of shots at the rim, wide open threes.”

Meanwhile the Thunder offense showed balance — when it’s more than just Kevin Durant (36 points) and Russell Westbrook (23 points and 13 assists, 8 rebounds) it means trouble for whomever is in the other jerseys. Friday night Serge Ibaka had 20, Reggie Jackson and Caron Butler each had 14 (Butler nailing threes in the fourth quarter to make the Clippers pay for not matching OKC’s small lineup). As a team the Thunder had an offensive rating of 123.8 and a true shooting percentage of 64.6 percent.

“Listen they played well today. They really did,” Rivers said. “I thought offensively we played good, but defensively we didn’t”

“Early I thought we allowed too many easy baskets, you know, dunks, layups” Blake Griffin said. “I think we’ve got to do a better job on the boards.”

After what has been a lackluster start to the second round of the playoffs with a lot of blowouts — and a slog of a first game Friday night between Indiana and Washington — the Clippers and Thunder put on a show. It was entertaining. It was a back and forth game with both teams surviving the run of the other — the lead never got more than 8 either way util the final minute.

The Clippers had their chances. This game was 102-101 Thunder with Chris Paul at the free throw line and five minutes left. But then CP3 missed the free throw, and then Serge Ibaka scored the next four points and quickely the Thunder seemed comfortable again. Then the Clipper made another push and it was 108-107 with two minutes left Thunder when Westbrook it a three, then on the next trip down Durant hit a ridiculous turn-around, 18-foot fade-away three over the wrong shoulder. That was the dagger.

The Clippers got 34 points out of Griffin, 21 points and 16 assists from Chris Paul, and 20 points from Jamal Crawford off the bench.

But they couldn’t just outscore the other team — that other team that has two elite scorers. The Clippers were not the defensive team they know they need to be to contend.

“We’ve been a team that regardless of how we plead the first three quarts, the first part of the fourth quarter, we relied on stops down the stretch,” Paul said. “Tonight we didn’t do that.”

They have until Sunday to figure out how to get those stops or they will be free to set golf tee times very soon.

Kristaps Porzingis: “Players know” he’s All-Star starter

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When picking the East All-Star starters, two of the three frontcourt choices were obvious: LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

For the third slot there were a few players who could make a case. The fans chose Joel Embiid third, Kristaps Porzingis fourth, and Kevin Love fifth. The media also had Embiid third and Porzingis fourth, but Al Horford fifth. That was enough to earn Embiid the starting nod.

The players voted Porzingis third, Embiid fourth, and Andre Drummond fifth. Needless to say, Porzingis thinks the players got it right, as he told Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

“Players know,” he said. “That’s all I’m going to say.”

If one were cynical, one would note the players also voted for Tyler Cavanaugh and Tyler Zeller, so how much do we trust their vote? Fortunately, we’re above such crass things.

Porzingis is a lock to make his first All-Star Game this year as a reserve (picked by the coaches).

What separated the two? Embiid has been a little more efficient this season, he’s stronger on the boards and had been a bigger defensive presence. Also, the Sixers have a better record than the Knicks, who have stumbled of late. Or, maybe the fans just like Embiid’s big personality more — he’s blowing off Rihanna.

Both of these guys should have a lot of All-Star starts in their future. This year it goes to Embiid.

 

Lakers make 14% of their free throws, win

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Jordan Clarkson‘s free throw rattled around the rim before falling out late in the first quarter. The Los Angeles crowd groaned. The Lakers missed their first five free throws, and the visiting Pacers led by seven.

It appeared to be one of those nights.

And it was. The Lakers shot just 2-for-14 (14%) on free throws Friday. But they still won, 99-86.

That’s the worst free-throw percentage with at least eight attempts by any team and the worst free-throw percentage regardless of attempts by a winning team in the Basketball-Reference database, which dates back to 1963-64.

Here’s the “leaderboard,” winners in purple and losers in gold:

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The Lakers are shooting an NBA-worst 69% on free throws, but last night took the cake. The offenders:

Knicks’ Jeff Hornacek brushes off concerns about job security

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We saw this pattern earlier this season with the Lakers. Young team gets off to a better-than-expected start, shows real promise, but as things move toward the middle of the season they take a step back. As happens with young, developing teams, they are up and down. However, major market media and an impatient fan base wants to blame someone, so the coach is suddenly discussed as having “lost the locker room” and that his job was in jeopardy (a coach not hired by the current GM). Even though in Luke Walton’s case, it wasn’t (and isn’t).

Now that same pattern has come to New York and the Knicks with Jeff Hornacek. The Knicks started 17-14 and had fans prematurely thinking playoffs thanks to a home-heavy schedule. Reality has hit them the past month.

Hornacek tried to brush off questions about his job security in New York, speaking to Stefan Bondy of the New York Post.

Hornacek also believes he has the backing of GM Scott Perry and president Steve Mills, despite being inherited by them as Phil Jackson’s hire.

“We were talking about rebuilding and we got off to a good start because we had a lot of home games,” Hornacek said. “Scott and Steve, everybody’s still on the same page of trying to get our young guys opportunities. We’re still trying to win games. We still want to establish an identity where defensively we’re going to get after it all the time and we’re building toward that. It’s great to have their support…

“I think the expectations come from the players where all of a sudden you hear them talking about, ‘Oh we can make the playoffs.’ We never said that,” Hornacek said. “We said we want to get better and we want to grow. Part of our talk was you can’t worry about the results. You just got to go out there and if you do your best and try to improve the results will come. When you start thinking about win or lose all of a sudden your mentality becomes different. We got to get back to that.”

Is Hornacek the long-term answer in New York? I don’t know. However, finally unchained from the pseudo-triangle disaster Phil Jackson imposed, he has done a solid job this season, putting Kristaps Porzingis in better spots to lead this roster. The Knicks are projected to win around 38 games at this point (according to Cleaning the Glass), and they have about a 14 percent chance of making the playoffs still (according to fivethiryeight.com). Heading into the season, that would have been about anyone’s best-case scenario for this team.

Not that it matters when you’re coach of the Knicks — job security speculation comes with every paycheck. It just isn’t deserved in this case.

Steve Kerr has “regrets” over time as Suns GM with Mike D’Antoni as coach

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Saturday night, Steve Kerr and Mike D’Antoni will square off as the coaches of the two best teams in the NBA this season (the Warriors and Rockets), teams loaded with offensive talent that play fast — Kerr and D’Antoni have some of the same basic philosophies about the game. Right now they have a mutual admiration society going.

But remember when Kerr took over as the general manager of the “seven seconds or less” Suns? Then traded for Shaq, which was the first step in D’Antono going out the door to New York.

Kerr opened up about his regrets from that era to Mark Medina of the San Jose Mercury News.

“I have some regrets,” Kerr said. “I think we had a few differences that I probably didn’t handle very well as a GM that I could’ve probably handled better, especially given that we really like each other and have a lot of similar viewpoints on the game.”

The Suns were a contender, but not one that could get over the hump of the peak San Antonio Spurs of the mid-2000s (it was more than just the year Robert Horry hip-checked Steve Nash into the boards and A’mare Stoudemire got nailed for leaving the bench). Kerr felt the need to do something, so he traded Shawn Marion for an over-the-hill Shaquille O’Neal who did not at all fit the Suns’ style. That move ended an era, and the next summer D’Antoni signed in New York (with a front office that never gave him the pieces for his style of play).

“I should have let Mike know, ‘It’s okay, keep kicking [butt] and keep going, and we’ll make some moves that aren’t so radical that fit more with who we are as an organization,” Kerr said. “We swung for the fences, and it was not the right move to make as an organization. I didn’t envision that as GM. I didn’t have the macro view of what we needed to do….

“I needed to tell Mike, ‘It’s okay if we don’t win the championship,’” Kerr said. “We were so desperate to win. But not everybody can win. But what you can do is keep putting yourself in a position to get there. Then maybe the breaks fall your way.”

Kerr said he’s matured in the way he views the game and team building since then. That is evident in the way the Warriors have been built, with a big-picture view of everything that gets done — they win not only because they are loaded with talent but how that talent fits together. However, they are really an extension of the changes D’Antoni brought to the NBA in Phoenix, just with better defense and some ridiculous shooters.

After stints in New York and Los Angeles with rosters that were ill-suited for his style, D’Antoni is winning big again in Houston because James Harden was really a point guard and GM Daryl Morey has put the right pieces around him to play D’Antoni’s style.

But once again D’Antoni seems just short of a ring because a legendary team — and Steve Kerr — is in the way.