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Three things we learned Sunday: The Clippers enter their annual stretch without Blake Griffin

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The biggest thing to happen in the NBA Sunday? Future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan got his number retired. Gregg Popovich was emotional, and Tim Duncan cracked jokes. It’s a must watch. But we knew Duncan was legendary, here are the things we learned on Sunday in the NBA.

1) Looks like the Clippers will be without Blake Griffin for few weeks, which continues an annual trend. Remember when we were asking if the Clippers could sustain their best-in-the-NBA level of play when they came out of the gate 14-2? Well, they have gone 6-6 since then with a middle-of-the-pack defense. So, no, they couldn’t sustain it.

Now things get worse — Blake Griffin is expected to be out a few weeks for knee surgery, cleaning up some soreness in his left knee. (This is not confirmed yet by the team, which was traveling home Sunday, but very likely will be on Monday.)

Griffin has averaged 21 points, 8.9 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game this season. He is part of the second-most used five-man lineup in the NBA, the Clippers starting five — they are outscoring opponents by 16.2 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court. The Clippers numbers drop off fast when the bench gets involved, and it’s going to be involved a lot for the next few weeks.

I know what you’re saying, “but the Clippers always go on a run when Griffin gets his annual injury.” Not sure that happens this season when you look at what happens to the rotations. Doc Rivers will likely start his son Austin Rivers at the three, and slide Luc Mbah a Moute to the four spot giving the Clippers a small lineup that, in theory, can shoot. Then they run a lot of Chris Paul/DeAndre Jordan pick-and-rolls. Which has worked well as an offense in the past, but I’m not sold on the shooting working as well. Plus we likely see a lot more Alan Anderson and Paul Pierce, which is a steep drop off from the defense Griffin was playing.

The injury also could cost Griffin a lot of money. For several years Griffin was a staple on the All-NBA teams, but he didn’t make the cut last year (he was injured much of the season), and this could be a big setback for him as well — the forward spot is very crowded and it was tough to fit him in the six slots before. Now it gets much harder. Why this hurts is that the new “designated player” rule in the CBA that would allow the Clippers to offer a five-year, $207 million deal to Griffin is believed to be tied to the All-NBA team (either the season or two seasons before, although this is not confirmed). If Griffin doesn’t meet the qualifications, the Clippers can’t offer him that extension this summer, costing him about $6 million a season over the course of the contract.

2) Don’t ignore that the Wizards beat the Clippers and have won five of six. While the Clippers seem poised for a slide, the team that beat them Sunday is suddenly hot — the Washington Wizards have won five-of-six and are suddenly 12-14 and just a game back of the final playoff slot in the East.

What’s been behind the surge is the offense – they are 6.6 points per 100 possessions better in these games (the defense has remained basically flat just 0.4 points per 100 possessions better). Sunday it was the Bradley Beal show, he had 41 against Los Angeles.

The Wizards are making this offensive push for a few reasons — they are running more plays for John Wall off the ball, and his quickness makes him a beast off the weakside. Also, the bench — which was an abject disaster early in the season — has found a bit of a rhythm. Kelly Oubre is averaging nine points a game in December, and Trey Burke is looking like the kind of backup point guard the Wizards hoped he would be. Plus, the Wizards are nailing their midrange shots (we’ll see if that’s sustainable). Look at the shot chart from the last six games.

Wizards shotchart

Before the season we thought the Wizards would be a team in the playoff mix in the East, then they quickly looked like the most disappointing team in the league. Now, they are back in that potential playoff mix. Bradley Beal and Otto Porter are having strong seasons, suggesting this isn’t a fluke. Still, sustaining any kind of success has been an issue for the Wizards for years, we will see if it can happen now.

3) It’s been a while since we said, “Damn, Joel Embiid is good.” Time to fix that. Damn, Joel Embiid is good.

He dropped a career-best 33 on the Nets, leading the Sixers to a win on Sunday. Of course he did most of his damage inside, but he knocked down he was 3-of-6 in the midrange and 2-of-3 on straight-away three-pointers. That kind of range makes him tough to guard.

Plus the guy just hustles.

Cleveland GM David Griffin: “I hope everybody says we have no chance”

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The Golden State Warriors are heavy favorites to win the NBA title. According to bovda.lv, bet $100 on the Warriors to win the title and you get $41.7 dollars. Bet $100 on the Cavaliers and you get $200. And that number is likely to get worse for Warriors fans.

The Cavaliers are okay with that. They like being the underdogs. Look at what GM David Griffin said in a televised interview after they eliminated the Celtics in Game 5, via Cleveland.com.

“I hope everybody says we have no chance,” General Manager David Griffin said during a TV interview following the Cavaliers’ 135-102 win Thursday night against the Boston Celtics, clinching a third straight NBA Finals appearance.

“Obviously the team we’re playing is as good as you can possibly put together, it’s going to be an unbelievable battle for us, but I think [the Cavs] love battling together. The greater the odds, the better we seem to play together. We really do rally around each other in that sense.”

There is some truth to that.

There’s also a difference between that truth and slowing Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. How the Cavaliers are going to do that will be the interesting part of these playoffs.

Detroit’s Van Gundy honored for cooperation with media, fans

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) — Stan Van Gundy of the Detroit Pistons has won the Rudy Tomjanovich Award, which honors an NBA coach for his cooperation with media and fans, as well as excellence on the court.

The Professional Basketball Writers Association announced the winner Friday. Van Gundy was one of five finalists for the award. The others were Steve Clifford of the Charlotte Hornets, Mike D’Antoni of the Houston Rockets, David Fizdale of the Memphis Grizzlies and Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics.

Dwane Casey of the Toronto Raptors won the award last season.

No surprise: It’s Cavs-Warriors in the NBA Finals, again

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OAKLAND (AP) — Here they go again.

For the third straight year, it’s Cleveland and Golden State in the NBA Finals. The 2016 champions versus the 2015 champions . The first “threematch” – rematch of a rematch – in league history. It’s the matchup most expected, the matchup most predicted, and probably the matchup the Cavaliers and Warriors wanted as well.

Let the hype, and the waiting, begin: Game 1 isn’t until June 1.

“I’ve been very blessed the last few years to be a part of this league and play on the big stage,” said Cleveland star LeBron James, who has now reached the Finals for the eighth time – including each of the last seven years. “But we’re going to enjoy this for a couple more days before we have to lock in on that juggernaut out west.”

The Cavaliers and Warriors split their two meetings this season, both winning at home. Cleveland won by one on Christmas Day, Golden State prevailed by 35 on Jan. 16.

Golden State led the league with 67 wins this season and is a staggering 27-1 in its last 28 games – including a perfect 12-0 in the Western Conference playoffs, the first time a team has gone this deep into an NBA postseason without losing. Cleveland, which seemed sleepy at times in the regular season, went 12-1 in the Eastern Conference playoffs that ended with a win over Boston on Thursday night.

“Playing in this league, you can’t take anything for granted,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said. “Thirty teams suit up every year trying to get to this point, and only two teams do. So you have to appreciate it. … We need to understand the privilege that we have and the opportunity that we have to play in the Finals again, to have the opportunity to win a championship.”

Already, the back-and-forth is underway.

Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue was quoted earlier this week saying he thought Boston’s offense was “harder to defend” than Golden State’s. Countered Golden State acting coach Mike Brown, when asked about it Thursday: “That’s his opinion. It’s cute.”

And there will be reminders of the Halloween party that James threw for the Cavaliers last fall, with “3-1 Lead” – a nod to what the Warriors lost in last year’s Finals – prominently displayed on the drum set.

Much more of that sort of that will likely follow over the next week, filling time before Golden State plays host to Game 1. But there’s also a clear respect level between the clubs as well.

“The best team in our league the last three years,” James said of the Warriors. “And they’ve added an unbelievable player in Kevin Durant this year. So it makes it even more difficult. They’re going to challenge us a lot, offensively, defensively, mentally, physically. We have to be ready for the challenge.”

For James, the Finals are an annual rite.

For Durant, this trip ends a five-year wait.

Durant’s only other time in the Finals was 2012 when he was with Oklahoma City. The Thunder lost to Miami in five games, a series that made James a champion for the first time.

At the very moment where the clock ran out in that series, the person James was embracing was Durant – telling the then-Thunder star, his offseason workout partner at the time, how proud of him he was.

“Hopefully,” James said that night, “I don’t continue to have to run into him.”

They’ll collide again, starting next week.

Durant’s decision to leave the Thunder for Golden State as a free agent last summer meant the Warriors went from mere overwhelming favorites to win the West again to super-duper-overwhelming favorites to win the West again. They got a big scare in late February when Durant had a left knee injury, but he’s back and the Warriors have rolled since.

“It’s a little different, definitely. I can’t lie,” Durant said, when comparing the 2012 Finals trip to this one. “I went when I was 23 years old, and it felt like the Western Conference Finals was almost like the championship. Just getting to that point, you know how hard it is and how much work you put in to start the season. So it’s a little different now, obviously. We have a bigger goal in mind.”

The storylines are many. Can James win his fourth ring? Can Durant win his first? Will the Warriors be haunted by letting last season’s 3-1 lead slip away? Will they become the first team in NBA history to go undefeated in a postseason? How will Golden State guard Kyrie Irving? How will Cleveland try to contain Curry?

There’s also the irony that Brown, the first coach who took James to an NBA Finals in 2007 – Cleveland was swept by San Antonio – will now coach against him, likely in the same leading role he’s had for Golden State since head coach Steve Kerr was forced to take a break because of continued problems with his surgically repaired back.

“I don’t care who you’re playing, to make it to the NBA Finals, to win your conference finals, it’s a big task,” Brown said.

The biggest task awaits.

Isaiah Thomas wants Celtics to sign free agents, reportedly they are not looking to trade him (yet)

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The Boston Celtics made a huge leap forward this season: They got the No. 1 seed in the East and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. For a team on the rise, that’s impressive.

However, as soon as they landed the No. 1 pick in this draft, a big question started to bubble up:

What is the future of Isaiah Thomas with this team? Which is a strange thing to say about a guy who averaged 28.9 points per game and was All-NBA this season, but here we are.

First, the Celtics are not looking to trade IT this summer as some have suggested, reports Sean Deveny of the Sporting News.

That starts with All-Star Isaiah Thomas, whose name has lately been the subject of trade speculation. But league sources indicate that any talk of dealing Thomas is strictly speculation at this point — the Celtics have had no such discussions. Not yet, at least.

The challenge for the Celtics seems to be this: If they draft Markelle Fultz No. 1 (as is expected by everyone around the league), then what is the future for Thomas? Do you want to pay Thomas max money just as he turns 29 when you have a stud young point guard coming up behind him?

That led to talk of extending Thomas this summer with the team’s cap space (which assumes they do not sign Gordon Hayward). Except Thomas would rather the money be spent on free agents than himself, as he told Chris Forsberg of ESPN.

“We need the best possible player that’s gonna help us win, and I’m with that,” said Thomas. “Anything Danny and this organization need me to do to help bring even more talent to this city, I’m all for that. I want to win a championship and being so close to getting to the Finals, that makes you want it that much more.

“I’m all help if they need it. I’ll be around.”

Nothing is certain in the NBA, but here is the most likely outcome of the Isaiah Thomas situation: They keep him, they draft Markelle Fultz, they do not extend Thomas (whether they land Hayward or not), and they see how it all fits together for a season. Then they make a decision on Thomas in the summer of 2018. The bottom line is he may well have more value to the Celtics than another team, and while he’s certainly getting a raise from the $6.3 million, he will make next season he may fall short of the max, and in a zone where the Celtics are willing to keep him.

In pure basketball terms, the Celtics may be hesitant to spend on Thomas, but he is also the most popular player on the team by a mile. Letting him go is not that simple.

There are a lot of questions to be answered between now and next summer when it comes to IT.