Hobbled Chris Paul, Clippers’ role players do just enough to dethrone Spurs in Game 7

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There is not going to be a better series these playoffs.

As they had for six games before, the Spurs and Clippers went back and forth in Game 7 Saturday night trading blows — there were 31 lead changes and 16 ties. Traditionally Game 7s see players get tight, shooting percentages drop, there are ugly turnovers. This game — while not flawless — was well played by both teams, with big shots and role players stepping up.

But nobody stepped up more than Chris Paul.

With 1:25 left in the first quarter he had to leave the game and went back to the Clippers locker room with what is officially a strained hamstring. But that was not going to keep him out of the game. CP3 had 27 points on 9-of-13 shooting, plus had six assists as he continued to orchestrate the Clippers’ offense.

Then, with the game tied 109-109 and just 8.8 seconds remaining, Paul won the series.

The Spurs had one second to try and tie the game, but a time keeping screw-up tipped the play, and Matt Barnes knocked away an alley-oop attempt to Kawhi Leonard.

The Clippers won 111-109 and take the series 4-3. They advance to face the Houston Rockets starting Monday in Houston.

Paul is so bothered by the hamstring Doc Rivers said he’s not sure if CP3 can play in Game 1 of the next round.

“With two minutes left, Tim Duncan walks up to me and says ‘This is the first round?'” Rivers said. “I was thinking the same thing.”

What had been key for the Clippers all series was getting other guys to step up, not just Paul and Blake Griffin. They got that Saturday night. Matt Barnes had 17 points, a key offensive rebound late, then knocked away the alley-oop attempt on the final play of the game. He played his best game of the series.

Jamal Crawford was the other key. The Clippers had to play a stretch in the first half without Paul due to the injury, and then Blake Griffin sat with foul trouble, yet the Clippers stayed close in an excellent game because Crawford got hot. He had 12 of his 15 points in the first half when the Clippers needed them to stay close to the Spurs.

“Jamal was huge, Matt Barnes was huge for us tonight,” Rivers said. “I thought that (stretch with the bench in the first half) was the difference in the game, that stretch. They could have gotten away from us with our two key guys out of the game, and they didn’t.”

If this is Tim Duncan’s final game, the future first-ballot Hall of Fame went out on a vintage note. Ducan, whose contract is up and hasn’t announced if he plans to return at age 39, scored 27 points on 11-of-16 shooting, plus had 11 rebounds. He was nothing short of brilliant.

Tony Parker added 20 points, and Danny Green finally broke out with 16 plus made a couple amazing defensive blocks.

This was a game with so many wild moments, but maybe the most ridiculous exchange came at the end of the third. First Austin Rivers tried to foul Manu Ginobili in the backcourt (the Clips had a foul to give) but Manu anticipated it and went into a shooting motion and got the call and three free throws. It was a by-the-book call but one where the refs rarely give it to the shooter. That left just a few seconds on the clock, CP3 brought the ball back up the floor and knocked down a ridiculous 28-foot, off-balance, banked-in three. It was the Clippers by one after three, 79-78.

It was like this all game.

The Spurs didn’t lose this game; the Clippers won it.

 

Dwight Howard still feeling ‘super’ expectations with Hornets

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DETROIT – Dwight Howard went from leading Orlando in the NBA Finals to playing in star-studded Los Angeles to joining a Houston team that also fancied itself a contender to being the highest-paid player in his hometown Atlanta to… landing in Charlotte, a small-market franchise with modest ambitions.

The spotlight finally off the former No. 1 pick, Howard doesn’t feel reduced pressure.

“Everybody expects me to be Superman every single night,” Howard said.

Howard is diving into his new situation – his third team in three years – headfirst. He’s leading pregame huddles and the Hornets onto the court.

“I have the most experience,” said Howard, in his 14th season. “So, it’s not to come in and fit in. It’s to come in and be a leader.”

This is the latest referendum on Howard. Despite eight All-NBA selections (most of them first-team) and three Defensive Player of the Year awards, he faces relentless criticism of his legacy.

His exit from the Magic was so ugly, it’s known as the Dwightmare. His feuding with the Lakers great is the stuff of legend in Kobe Bryant mythology. Howard never clicked with James Harden with the Rockets. The Hawks unloaded him for a paltry return in what was more salary rearrangement than salary dump, and his former teammates reportedly cheered.

Howard just seems to rub people the wrong way.

That makes his latest test in Charlotte so interesting. Howard is supplanting maybe Kemba Walker as the face of the team and definitely Cody Zeller as starting center. The Hornets have found success with Zeller, going 63-53 when he starts and 57-73 otherwise the last three seasons.

“The nature of his game, he plays in a way to help other people play better,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said of Zeller. “He is a screener. He is a ball-mover.”

In other words, the type of player teammates love.

Is Howard?

Howard is still solidly productive. In Charlotte’s season-opening loss to the Pistons, he posted 10 points, 15 rebounds and two blocks – and ruffled a few feathers. Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press:

https://twitter.com/Vincent_Ellis56/status/921100491362365440

Dirty-work players who irritate opponents are revered. High-priced players who irritate their teammates are loathed.

Howard walks a fine line.

He returned to Atlanta with emotion and expectations. By the end of his time with the Hawks, everyone seemed unhappy. Still, Howard says he’s grateful for the opportunity to play in front of people, especially his grandparents, who watched him grow up.

“Atlanta is going to be my home,” Howard said. “The Hawks is always going to be my favorite team.”

It’s just never easy for Howard.

Even a career Basketball Reference pegs as 99% likely to end in the Hall of Fame based on his tangible accomplishments stirs controversy.

“He’s a Hall of Famer right now if he never played another game,” Clifford said.

Said Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, who coached Howard in Orlando: “It’s mind-boggling to me that would be any debate there.”

It’s probably easier for Van Gundy and Howard to recall their time together fondly than it was to enjoy it while partnered. Clifford, who was an assistant in Orlando and Los Angeles while Howard was there, is just getting into his time as Howard’s head coach.

It’s those middle moments, in the throes of long seasons, that have proven difficult for Howard and those around him.

Here he is in Charlotte, hosting the Hawks tonight, and facing another challenge. The Hornets would probably be happy just making the playoffs and ecstatic advancing, which would be their first playoff-series victory since reemerging as the Bobcats in 2004. Howard, who has reached three conference finals, is counting on himself to lead them there – even if nobody else is anymore.

Kobe Bryant still has it, bounces shot in from near half court

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This was a Nike gala, an event with a basketball theme. The court was lit up from below, there were tables at half court, and people had drinks in their hands.

Kobe Bryant was there, stylishly dressed in black. So was famous model Winnie Harlow.

Know that regardless of the setting, Kobe still has game.

Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala cleared to play vs. Pelicans Friday

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Without Draymond Green in the fourth quarter Tuesday night in the opener, and with Andre Iguodala out for the game, the Warriors defense fell apart against Houston. The Rockets scored 34 points in the quarter and came from behind to beat a Warriors team that had been in control of the game up to that point. There was more to it than just Green’s balky knee, but without the Defensive Player of the Year they are not the same.

Bad news for the Pelicans: Green and Iguodala have been cleared to play in New Orleans Friday. Green had an MRI and it came back negative.

Green admitted he was concerned that the injury, via Anthony Slater of The Athletic.

Now it is the Pelicans who should be concerned. The Warriors will want to wash the feeling of that opening night loss off them.

Report: Kevin Love was frustrated with move to center

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With Derrick Rose having to start at point guard (until Isiah Thomas returns sometime in early 2018) and Dwyane Wade starting at the two, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue had no choice but to move Kevin Love to starting at center. The Cavaliers desperately need the floor spacing to open up driving lanes and options for LeBron James. Start Tristan Thompson at the five (with Love at the four and Jae Crowder coming off the bench) and it adds another non-shooter to the mix that allows opposing defenses to just pack the paint and force LeBron to be a jump shooter.

That doesn’t mean everyone liked the change.

Love admitted to Chris Fedor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer he was frustrated with the move at first.

“It’s been a little bit of a change for me,” Love admitted. “I still find myself spacing a little bit wanting to roll a little bit more and on the defensive end just playing the primary big on their team the whole time on the defensive end. It’s been a little bit different figuring things out on that end, but it comes with the growth I’m talking about. We need to do that and hopefully be a machine when things start clicking.”

Lue put it this way.

“We’re going to try it out and see how it works. He was frustrated at first, but now he’s enjoying it.”

While in certain matchups, when the opposition has a more traditional center, the Cavs may go back to the Love/Thompson front line for a stretch. But the small ball lineup is the way Cleveland should be leaning, even with its clear defensive deficiencies. We saw that in the opener with Love’s dagger three in the fourth quarter.

Love is adjusting, he’s already sacrificed a lot to play with LeBron. This is just another step in that evolution.