Doc Rivers the GM’s lack of bench doomed Clippers. Can he fix it for next season?

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This season’s Los Angeles Clippers were slightly better than last season’s Los Angeles Clippers. It was baby steps. They were incrementally improved — but that was not near enough to live up to the lofty expectations.

The reason they fell short of those expectations was Doc Rivers.

Not the coach — he’s still elite on the bench — but rather Doc Rivers the GM let this team down.

The Clippers much-discussed — and dismissed by Rivers — lack of depth came back to bite them. After a grueling seven-game series against the Spurs, the Clippers wilted as the second round series went on against the Rockets. Los Angeles led Houston 3-1 but were flat and tired for Game 5. In Game 6 they wilted in the fourth quarter and blew a 19-point lead (there were a number of factors in that epic collapse, but fatigue was one of them). They fell behind early in Game 7 and didn’t have the role players stepping up nor energy to complete the comeback. The Clippers would make a push but could not sustain it. The fast pace of Game 7 — 106 possessions according to NBA.com — wore them down.

Throughout the series the Clippers players looked tired and after losing Game 7 they admitted they were exhausted.

That’s all on Rivers. This team’s lack of depth was key to their undoing.

Last summer Paul Pierce had interest in coming to the Clippers, but Doc Rivers spent the full mid-level exception on Spencer Hawes. Rivers’ other signings last summer were Jordan Farmar, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Jared Cunningham and Ekpe Udoh. Farmar and Cunningham were waived. Douglas-Roberts was packaged with Reggie Bullock and a 2017 second-round pick to get Austin Rivers (who was terrible most of the regular season but improved to up-and-down in the playoffs).  Rivers signed guys like Dahntay Jones, Jordan Hamilton, and Lester Hudson, but none of them were going to help the bench in any meaningful way.

The Clippers had their starting five and had to hope the younger Rivers, Jamal Crawford (-22 in Game 7) or “Big Baby” Glen Davis would step up. That didn’t happen nearly enough, and an enormous burden fell on the starters.

If the Clippers are going to do anything more than take another baby step forward — one that is likely not enough again — next season they have to get a deeper bench. Well, first they have to make sure free agent DeAndre Jordan doesn’t bolt for Texas, but after that Rivers needs to add some actual bench help to this team.

But Rivers doesn’t have a lot of room to add quality players.

“Contractually, and I don’t think everybody gets that, it’s very difficult (to add players) when you have the contracts we have,” Rivers said after Game 7, referring to the huge contracts of Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, plus one coming for Jordan. “Bringing J.J. (Redick) in here was great, but we’ve got to get this team more support. The problem is, with the contracts we’re hinged from, they’re probably doing to be minimum deals for the most part. There’s no big deals we’re going to make, most likely.”

Those large contracts certainly make it harder to put quality players around their stars, but other teams do it. The Rockets have max deals in James Harden and Dwight Howard, but added Trevor Ariza last summer, Josh Smith mid-season (he chose the Rockets over the Clippers and others), and have drafted and developed guys like Terrence Jones.

Rivers is not a cap guy, and maybe bringing in a cap guy he would listen to would help — giving Spencer Hawes the full mid-level put the Clippers under a hard cap that limited their flexibility through the season. The NBA salary cap and tax system is tax-code level complex and unless you want to delve in and understand every nuance, you need to have someone who does and who you listen to.

Steve Ballmer is not about to strip Rivers of his GM powers, but could he persuade Rivers to bring in a co-GM? Someone else that would have final say if there is a divide in the front office? While it’s hard to imagine Ballmer investing so much power in one person in his other businesses, I expect he’ll let Rivers continue to run the entire show for the Clippers. At least for another summer.

And when the Clippers return next summer, the core will look the same.

“I like our group…” Rivers said. “Teams that have stuck it out, on the long run, have done better than teams that blow it up. We’re really close, clearly. Maybe it’s a defensive guy, one more guy; I don’t now yet. Again, it sounds so easy, ‘why don’t you go get him?’ It’s not that easy, in terms of structure. Maybe we can do something, we will do something, but we’re not going to bring in another max guy.”

They don’t need to. But can they find and get the right role players who can turn that next baby step into the leap forward they need to challenge for an NBA title?

It’s all on Doc Rivers the GM to give Doc Rivers the coach the pieces he needs to win.

Thunder star Russell Westbrook scores 45, leads 25-point comeback against Jazz

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The Thunder lost three straight games, fell behind by 25 in the second half at home and looked as if they had no interest in returning to Utah.

Then, Russell Westbrook reminded everyone why he’s a superstar.

Westbrook is a singular force who can take over a game and rally his teammates – not a liability who makes everyone around him worse. His confidence and determination in the face of calamity were invaluable tonight. He kept attacking, and as shots started to fall, he and his teammates massively increased their defensive intensity.

The result: A 107-99 Game 5 win over the Jazz that looked highly improbable 21 game minutes before it ended. But Westbrook (who finished with 45 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists) singlehandedly outscored Utah in that final stretch.

The Thunder are hardly out of the woods yet. They still trail 3-2 in the series with Game 6 Friday in Utah. Teams with home-court advantage in a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6 win it just 37% of the time. Those teams win the series just 26% of the time.

But thanks to Westbrook, Paul George (34 points) and plain all-around defensive effort, Oklahoma City still has a shot. At minimum, the Thunder won’t send George into unrestricted free agency with four straight losses.

Not that Oklahoma City erased all concerns.

Rudy Gobert devoured the Thunder’s offense in the paint – at least while he could avoid the foul trouble. Utah was +7 in Gobert’s 30 minutes and -8 in the 18 minutes he sat.

The Thunder made most of their comeback with Carmelo Anthony on the bench. They continued to play well once he returned in the fourth quarter, but by then, the Jazz had lost all rhythm.

Utah – led by Jae Crowder‘s 27 points – looks deeper. Anthony was still Oklahoma City’s third-leading scorer with just seven points.

And the Thunder haven’t won in Salt Lake City this series.

But they’ll make another trip there. Considering where this game and series looked midway through the third quarter tonight, that’s a heck of an accomplishment.

Another massive third quarter lifts Rockets past Timberwolves into second round

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We saw this movie just a couple of nights before, but Rockets fans love the ending and would gladly pay to see it 12 more times this postseason.

Much like Game 4, the Rockets were down at the half in Game 5 Wednesday after having played disinterested defense and with cold shooting from their stars (James Harden and Chris Paul combined to go 3-of-16 from the floor). Minnesota was up 59-55 and had hope.

Then the third quarter the Rockets flipped the switch. Again.

Harden had 15 points in the third — matching the Timberwolves as a team. Minnesota started to double Harden and take the ball out of his hands (especially late in the shot clock), but he often moved the rock and it led to open threes — the Rockets were 6-of-10 from three in the quarter. Houston won the third 30-15, not as overwhelming as the 50-point quarter the game before but once again enough to comfortably pull away from Minnesota and cruise in for a 122-104 win.

With that, the Rockets win the series 4-1 and now await the winner of the Utah vs. Oklahoma City series.

In that series, the Rockets will need to play with more consistent focus than they brought against the Timberwolves — they can’t just play a couple of good halves in the next series and expect that to be enough. Unlike Minnesota, those teams in the next round will make Houston pay a steep price for a lack of focus.

Houston got a massive night from Clint Capela, who led the Rockets with 26 points and 15 rebounds, running the rim hard in transition and making plays inside while the rest of the Rockets launched threes over the top.

Harden finished with 24 points and 12 assists, and Eric Gordon had 19 off the bench in the win.

Minnesota had 23 points from Karl-Anthony Towns and 17 from an energized Jeff Teague.

For the Timberwolves, a team with elite young talent, this was a glimpse of what it will take to reach the heights they envision. This was a good step — the franchise’s first trip to the playoffs since 2004 is not to be diminished. It matters. But there are higher levels this team can attain. Defensively they have to be better, offensively they need to feed Towns more and play to their strengths better. It’s a work in progress.

Houston just showed them where they want to be.

Hawks, coach Mike Budenholzer agree to part ways

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This was expected.

It was pretty obvious Mike Budenholzer didn’t want to stick around and lose a lot of games with the Atlanta Hawks as they rebuild the next few years, especially after he had been stripped of his GM powers. Budenholzer went well down the road with the Phoenix Suns about their open coaching position before thinking better of it. Since then he has set up a meeting with the Knicks about their coaching vacancy, a job he reportedly wants badly.

At this point there was no need for the Hawks and Budenholzer to continue their sham marriage, so they have agreed to amicably separate, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and since confirmed by the Hawks.

Budenholzer said this to Wojnarowski of ESPN:

“I am grateful for the five years that I spent as coach of the Atlanta Hawks, and will always cherish the incredible contributions, commitment and accomplishments of the players that I was fortunate enough to work with here,” Budenholzer told ESPN on Wednesday night. “From ownership to management, support staff to the community, I’ll look back with great pride on what we were able to achieve together with the Hawks.”

For Budenholzer, the long-time Spurs assistant and a strong Xs and Os coach, look for him to both push for the Knicks job and be in the running if/when the Milwaukee Bucks job opens up whenever their season ends. In both cases he’s a fit — those are teams that need a culture and system reset, and Budenholzer proved he can bring that to Atlanta (that was a good team before they let Al Horford and Paul Millsap walk for nothing).

With Atlanta, they likely will turn to a top assistant coach who will get a chance to develop young players on that team (and not cost Atlanta as much as an established coach). Stephen Silas of the Hornets is a rumored name, but there are others.

LeBron James overrules controversial finish with game-winning 3-pointer (video)

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LeBron James‘ turnover with the game tied late looked like a bad call. LeBron’s block of Victor Oladipo on the ensuing possession looked like a goaltend.

Did the Cavaliers get robbed of a crucial possession? Did the Pacers get robbed of two go-ahead points?

LeBron nullified those questions with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Cleveland a 98-95 win and a 3-2 series lead. The game-winner capped a great game by LeBron (44 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists) and moves the Cavs to the verge of advancing.

When a team with home-court advantage can close out a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6, it has 52% of the time. It has won the series 92% of the time.

The odds are even better with LeBron. LeBron has won 11 straight closeout games, nine of them on the road. He’ll have another opportunity Friday with Game 6 in Indiana.