We know you were out finishing — okay, who are we kidding, you were starting — your holiday shopping, so you may not have been watching the NBA. Here are the big takeaways from Thursday night around the league.
1) Clippers beat Spurs without Blake Griffin, but if Chris Paul is out a while things will change. It’s an annual tradition with the Clippers — no, not Blake Griffin getting injured, but the “how much trouble are the Clippers in without him” discussion. There’s a sense the Clippers will slide, but they adjust their game to run a lot more DeAndre Jordan/Chris Paul pick-and-roll — a dangerous combination — and it works. (Which leads to the stupid “are the Clippers better off without Griffin?” columns, but we’re a few weeks away from that.)
It worked against the Spurs Thursday night — 54.3 percent of Los Angeles’ possessions involved the pick-and-roll, and the Clippers used their athletic advantages to roll the Spurs early then hold on for a 106-101 win. By athletic advantages, I mean plays like this.
Los Angeles also got a monster night from the bench. Their all-bench lineup of Raymond Felton, Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson, and Marreese Speights were on the court for 18 minutes together, including much of the fourth quarter, they moved the ball brilliantly, hit their shots, scored 41 points and were a +4. Considering how devastating the Clippers starting five is (when healthy) if the Clippers get this kind of bench play they become difficult to beat.
It’s games like this, snapping a five-game Spurs winning streak, that make you think the Clippers could use that athleticism to beat the Spurs in a seven-game, second-round playoff series this year.
If healthy. Which became an issue in the fourth quarter Thursday when Chris Paul was chasing Tony Parker around a pick and pulled up with a tweaked hamstring, but it doesn’t appear too serious.
The Clippers can hold their ground for 4-6 weeks without Griffin, but without Paul that dynamic would change quickly. Raymond Felton had his best game as a Clipper Friday and they held off the Spurs, but that is not a sustainable trend. I’d be shocked if CP3 played Friday night against Dallas (that’s a game the Clippers can still win without him). After that it’s the Lakers on Christmas Day. Hamstrings can be tricky, they linger sometimes (and if guys come back to fast they re-aggravate them), no doubt the Clippers need to be cautious. But if Paul misses more than a couple of games, well, no Paul or Griffin would lead to a rough stretch in Los Angeles.
2) Celtics win fourth straight (three on road), may be coming together. In the latest PBT Podcast (previewing the Christmas Day games), Dan Feldman and I had the same reaction to the Boston season: They haven’t been bad, but I thought they’d be a little better than this.
Maybe they are, maybe it’s just coming together a little slower than we expected. The Celtics beat the Pacers 109-102 on the road Thursday night, giving Boston a sweep on a three-game road trip, and Boston has now won four in a row. They have done it with defense — in those four games, they have allowed just 94.7 points per 100 possessions, second best in the NBA in that stretch (for the season Boston has allowed 103.7 per 100, which is middle of the pack).
Boston has shown versatility in lineups (which we thought would be a strength entering the season), and Brad Stevens seems to be finding some combinations he likes. Ones that defend, ones that can be scrappy, just not score. Who plays well with Isaiah Thomas (28 points the win over Indiana)? Who can play well with Al Horford? How do all the puzzle pieces fit together? Stevens is still playing mad scientist, trying different combinations rather than just locking into a set nine-man rotation. It may have meant fewer wins in November and December, but the Celtics want the wins to come in late April and May, and Stevens is learning who he can trust there.
Boston is, to me, the clear third best team in the East, and one that could make things very interesting in the second round against Toronto in the postseason. If we get that far. Still a lot of basketball between now and then. But the Celtics seem to be thinking big picture, and that picture starting to come into focus.
3) Shaq got his jersey retired by the Heat, and it was a very Shaq event. Miami gave the man a diesel truck. It was a larger than life event for a larger than life man and personality. Who cares if Shaq only spent a couple of years in South Beach, he was key to that 2006 NBA title, he remains loved in South Beach, and if they want to honor the man they should do it. And they did, in the most Shaq of ways.