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.

Chris Paul says Clippers should play through Lou Williams, which sounds like a slight of Blake Griffin

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After the Clippers’ win over the Rockets last night, Chris Paul didn’t go after Blake Griffin just through a back entrance into the Clippers’ locker room.

He also seemingly went after Griffin in his post-game interview.

Asked to assess playing against his former team, Paul:

They’ve got Lou Will. Lou Will is the guy. You know what I mean? That’s the go-to guy, the guy that they should play through and stuff like that. He having a great year, and he tough. He tough, man.

Williams is having a great year, especially by the standards of career as a solid sub-star. But Griffin is a bona fide star – a tremendously skilled scorer, ball-handler and passer for a power forward. He’s clearly the Clippers’ go-to player when healthy. It’s great Williams stepped up when Griffin was injured, and Williams can run second units while Griffin is healthy. But Griffin is the go-to player.

I can’t read Paul’s intent. Maybe he genuinely disagrees and believes the Clippers should play through Williams. But – given Paul’s nd Griffin’s history and how heated last night’s game was – it sounds as if Paul is just trying to create friction within his former team and take a dig at Griffin. That’d be petty, but… yeah. Nobody would put that past Paul.

NBA Twitter had fun with Rockets, Clippers, secret tunnels

Associated Press
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This Clippers/Rockets story is so perfectly today’s NBA.

It’s not about the game itself (game-related stories draw far fewer eyeballs/traffic than off the court stuff). It involves drama and confrontation between star players with grudges and a guy who forced a trade. And while the players postured, there was never going to be an actual fight and everybody knew it, still the LAPD was called in.

It’s all perfect fodder for Twitter.

Just a quick recap of events. The Clippers win Monday over the Rockets at Staples Center got chippy — Blake Griffin got into it with Mike D’Antoni after running into him, Griffin and Trevor Ariza were ejected after some words where Austin Rivers was involved. After the game, Paul led a group of Warriors — James Harden, Ariza, Gerald Green — down a secret tunnel behind the locker rooms, went to the back door of the Clippers’ locker room and started to confront the Clippers. Except, nothing really happened but a verbal exchange, security broke it up and the LAPD was called in. That last part just about made Shaq fall out of his chair on Inside the NBA.

All this while Clint Capela knocked on the front door of the Clippers locker room and had it shut in his face.

This story was perfect for NBA Twitter, and it had a field day. Including the big names.

Everyone got in on the act.

Three Things to Know: After another loss to Warriors, what do Cavaliers do now?

Associated Press
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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Warriors handle Cavaliers again, do Cavaliers have to make an upgrade at the trade deadline? LeBron James was an MVP-level beast — 32 points on 18 shots, grabbing boards, dishing out assists, blocking four shots and seemingly being everywhere. Cleveland was targeting Stephen Curry on switches, hit 8-of-10 to start the game and shot 52.1 percent for three quarters. It wasn’t enough. The Warriors led by two after three because the Cavaliers defense remains terrible, and Golden State pulled away in the fourth for a 118-108 win to sweep the season series. It was clear from this game that while the Cavaliers may be better built to take on the Warriors than nearly every other NBA team, and maybe better than they were last June, there is still a gap between them and the Warriors.

That leaves the Cavaliers facing hard questions as the trade deadline approaches Feb. 8:

Do they make a bold move for the best player available? Do they go after depth to help against matchups with Golden State? Is there an available player that can actually close the gap with Golden State? If they find a player they want, do the throw in the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick?

It starts with a big-picture philosophical discussion for the Cavaliers: Do they throw everything into another run at a ring with LeBron, and hope that motivates him to stay next summer? Or, do they make sure they hold on to the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick they got in the Kyrie Irving trade (consider it LeBron insurance)? While the Nets have outperformed expectations and lowered the value of the pick (right now it would go into the lottery the No. 7/8 pick tied with Phoenix), reports are the Cavaliers are holding onto that pick unless a player becomes available who can put them on the Warriors’ level.

DeAndre Jordan is not that guy. He is the best player available and the Clippers and Cavaliers have talked plenty, but Jordan does not change the equation vs. Golden State. Yes, he would give the Cavaliers rim protection and rebounding, but he can’t space the floor at all and defensively the Warriors would be able to pull him away from the basket and expose him. The Cavaliers are still interested (in part because it would make Cleveland better, in part because proposed swap would get them off of Tristan Thompson’s long-term money), but they would only throw in their own first-round pick (currently 24th) as part of the package. Is that enough?

There are other players available who could help the Cavaliers, such as Nikola Mirotic or Evan Fournier (or anyone on the Magic), but none are game changers with the Warriors. Paul George is the only guy who might be and he is not available, the Thunder are riding this season out with him.

Can the Cavaliers afford to do nothing? That would send a bad message to LeBron as he weighs free agency. Expect the Cavaliers to make trades, it just might be re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

2) Clippers win fifth straight beating Chris Paul’s Rockets — then things really get interesting when Rockets go after Clippers in the locker room. The story the Clippers wanted this game to be about is that they beat the Houston Rockets 113-102, and with that fifth straight win moved into a playoff position in the West despite the rash of injuries that hit the team this season. The Pelicans, Clippers, Nuggets, and Trail Blazers all within half-a-game of each other for slots 6-9 in the West — one of them will miss the playoffs — and that sets up a fun race for the second half of the season.

That’s not what anyone is talking about.

Instead, the fact that Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza, Gerald Green and James Harden used a secret back-tunnel between the locker rooms to try to go into the Clippers locker room and confront Austin Rivers and Blake Griffin. The guys reportedly stood at the back door of the Clippers locker room, Clippers players dared them to enter, and security stepped in fast. The LAPD was called and nothing actually happened — and it wouldn’t have anyways, these are NBA players there wasn’t going to be a fight. We know that.

Meanwhile, Clint Capela went to the front door of the Clippers locker room, knocked, and had the door shut in his face. (Was he the diversion tactic or just not in on the plans.)

NBA Twitter had a blast with this, including Griffin himself.

3) Earlier in the day, Ben Simmons and Kyle Lowry almost got in a fight in the hallway after being ejected. Or they didn’t. After the Rockets/Clippers fun, this almost seems quaint. Ben Simmons and Kyle Lowry had a little run in during the third quarter of MLK Day matchup.

Later, they were ejected late in Philadelphia’s 117-111 win over Toronto:

This led to reports of a dust-up in the hallway after the game.

After the game Simmons and Lowry both basically denied it.

Nothing to see here. Move along. Go watch the Clippers and Rockets, that’s far more entertaining.

Reports: Rockets try to confront Clippers, police dispatched to locker room

AP
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The Los Angeles Clippers got the better of the Houston Rockets on Monday night at Staples Center, 113-102, but the battle between Chris Paul and his former team had apparently just begun.

According to multiple reports, members of the Rockets took to the Clippers locker room after the game to confront Austin Rivers and then Blake Griffin.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski says that according to his sources, James Harden, Trevor Ariza, and Gerald Green entered the Clippers locker room looking for Austin Rivers, who was on the sideline due to an injury. LAPD were then dispatched to the scene — not just ordinary Staples Center security — and while nothing happened that’s somehow not the end of this story.

In true Scooby Doo fashion, Woj reports that the Rockets then sent Clint Capela to the front door of the Clippers locker room while Chris Paul went to a secret back door to the Clippers’ area as he looked to go after Blake Griffin.

Once again, I cannot stress that I am not making this story up.

Via Twitter:

Some of this may stem from the general tension between the two teams. Paul was traded to Houston in June for Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, and Sam Dekker among others after spending six seasons with Los Angeles.

There’s also the fact that Mike D’Antoni and Griffin got into it during the game, yapping at each other after Griffin made contact with the Houston coach on the sideline.

Griffin appeared to be pointing at D’Antoni for being out of the box on the sideline, making purposeful contact with him and resulting in double technical fouls.

Yet the overarching tension between the two teams was already palpable. Paul reportedly took umbrage to how Rivers was treated by his father, coach, and (at the time) GM Doc Rivers.

Then, late in the fourth quarter — after Griffin had already gotten into it with D’Antoni — some jawing from Austin Rivers led to an on-court discussion between Ariza and Griffin.

That prompted officials to eject both Griffin and Ariza with just a minute to go:

Austin Rivers said that the tension between Paul and Griffin was the thing that led to CP3 looking for a trade to Texas, just as a bit of backstory, so the bad blood and he-said, she-said is long-running.

No word yet on the details confirming how far anybody got, although it seems reasonable to expect Adam Silver and the league office should come down with some suspensions for folks. Malice in the Palace was perhaps the greatest modern disgrace for the NBA, and the league tries to keep even the whiff of violence away from their games.

It feels like there’s no way anyone here can get off light in an era where guys are getting suspended from both playoff games and preseason games for taking a teensy little step off the bench during disputes.

Meanwhile, the guys on the set of Inside the NBA had an absolute BLAST with the details (as did of Twitter, to be honest).

The Rockets and the Clippers play again next on Wednesday Feb. 28 in LA.