Three things we learned Thursday: No Blake Griffin, no problem for Clippers. Yet.

1 Comment

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.

Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac, probable top-10 pick, declares for NBA draft

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
1 Comment

Jonathan Isaac explored bursting through a loophole to declare for the 2016 NBA draft straight out of high school.

Instead, he went to Florida State. Now, he’ll enter the 2017 draft.

Isaac:

If he doesn’t hire an agent, Isaac can maintain college eligibility, but this message seems pretty final. Expect Isaac to remain in the draft, and expect him to go in the top 10.

What I like most about the 6-foot-11 forward: Despite being so lanky, he was an elite defensive rebounder. That shows an underlying technical proficiency and physicality that should serve him well.

And then there are the drool-inducing flashes – his ability to go up and get alley-oops above the rim and a sweet-looking jumper.

He’s still a work in progress, and he deferred a lot at Florida State. But he’s just 19, and he has the tools to do more. I’d love to get him on my team as he learns to assert himself.

Report: Clippers sort of resent Austin Rivers’ favored status

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
1 Comment

The Clippers faced a potential crisis this summer.

They had already agreed to re-sign Austin Rivers to a three-year contract worth more than $35 million, and Jamal Crawford was threatening to leave. Losing the then-36-year-old Crawford would’ve been costly, but it wouldn’t have been devastating. The bigger issue would have been the image: keeping the coach’s son over the reigning Sixth Man of the Year.

Clippers president/coach Doc Rivers calmed the brewing storm by giving Crawford a three-year, $42 million deal.

But apparently the underlying tension hasn’t completely dissipated.

Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report:

The in-house resentment toward Austin Rivers being favored as Doc’s son, according to team sources, still very much exists, but it isn’t out of control.

Know what the Clippers truly resent? Losing. They’ve gone 8-9 since the All-Star break, and they’re clearly feeling the slump.

That brings lingering issues, like Austin’s place on the team, to the surface.

And other Clippers are reasonable to show suspicion about the dynamic, a complication Doc should have considered when he traded for Austin.

Austin has explained his never-that-warm relationship with Doc, who was busy coaching while Austin was growing up. These two claim this is far more a coach-player than father-son relationship, and I believe they believe that. I also believe it’s mostly true, though their familial ties probably intrude more than they realize.

That said, Austin has worked himself into a legitimate backup guard after a horrendous start to his NBA career. It’s worth a reminder just how bad he was in New Orleans because that shows how even his modest role now is a sign of tremendous growth. Austin has improved his shot, and his 6-foot-4 frame is an asset in some defensive matchups (probably not as many as Doc believes, judging by Austin’s assignments).

Does Austin deserve 28 minutes per game? Probably not, though he also handles garbage-time minutes so older teammates don’t have to. Does Austin deserve his $11 million+ annual salary? Probably not, though the capped-out Clippers had no recourse beyond minimum contracts to replace him, so he had leverage (ditto Crawford). Does he deserve to so often speak for the team? Probably not, though bigger stars Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan might not mind the occasional break.

Austin’s biggest problem is that, despite his improvement, his gaffes are still so blatant. That makes it more difficult to take him seriously, even when the totality of evidence says we should.

And for all the examples of Doc’s Clippers favoring Doc’s son, Austin was still the player who got left in the game with a concussion. That’s just dangerous, not nepotism.

There isn’t out-of-control resentment for Austin, because there’s isn’t out-of-control favoritism for him.

But there is some favoritism, and the more the Clippers struggle, the more they’ll look for a place to point the finger and occasionally land on Austin.

Report: Spurs assistant Becky Hammon, determined to become NBA head coach, offered Florida women’s job

AP Photo/David Zalubowski
1 Comment

Spurs assistant Becky Hammon is the NBA’s first female full-time coach.

She could also become the next Florida women’s basketball coach.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon is considering a lucrative offer to leave the NBA and become the University of Florida women’s basketball coach, league sources told The Vertical.

The financial offer would be a considerable raise, especially considering that she’s still a young, behind-the-bench assistant on Gregg Popovich’s staff. Nevertheless, Hammon is grappling with the decision, because she has been determined to stay on course to become the NBA’s first female head coach, league sources said.

Hammon is blazing a trail in the NBA and might eventually become a head coach in the league. She has Gregg Popovich’s endorsement, praise from San Antonio players and success in limited opportunities.

But the path for a woman coach in men’s basketball is extremely narrow. It’s not fair, but Hammon faces hurdles others wouldn’t.

And the glass ceiling becomes exponentially thicker for a woman in women’s basketball who’s trying to jump to men’s basketball. Women’s college basketball is not a pipeline to the NBA, especially not for a woman. If Hammon goes to Florida, the paradigm changes. It would renew questions about her playing experience coming only in women’s basketball and her limited time with the Spurs.

Hammon wouldn’t be blackballed from the NBA, but she’d be setting up more obstacles for herself to clear to become a head coach in the league.

In one respect, I don’t envy her decision. However, she has positioned herself to choose between a promising path and an excellent job. Even if deciding is difficult, she’ll wind up in a good place.

Reports: Phil Jackson attending Shaq statue ceremony, Magic Johnson missing it to scout UCLA-Kentucky

AP Photo/Gus Ruelas
2 Comments

The Lakers are formally unveiling Shaquille O’Neal’s statue outside their arena tonight. Also tonight: UCLA-Kentucky in the Sweet 16, which features NBA prospects Lonzo Ball, Ike Anigbogu, T.J. Leaf, De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo.

That makes an interesting choice for the NBA’s two highest-profile team presidents – the Lakers’ Magic Johnson and Knicks’ Phil Jackson (who coached Shaq in Los Angeles), both of whose teams are headed toward a high picks in the upcoming draft.

And the front-office heads are going different directions.

Arash Markazi of ESPN:

Marc Stein of ESPN:

Watching a single game in person is unlikely to swing anything. Both Johnson and Jackson could send scouts to watch UCLA-Kentucky live and then the presidents could watch video later.

But attending in person is ideal, and there are already questions about Jackson’s work ethic. This will only fuel them.

If nothing else, this is an opportunity for Johnson, new on the job, to establish an image. He can clearly juxtapose himself with the failing Jackson and establish himself as a diligent alternative. The Lakers hired Johnson at least in part due to his high profile, but that needn’t stop him from grinding now that he has the position. Anyone doubting him would respect that.