Author: Kurt Helin

Los Angeles Clippers v Denver Nuggets

Are these Clippers as good as last season’s version? No. Or at least not yet.


LOS ANGELES — Last season after 32 games, the Clippers were 21-11.

This season after 32 games, the Clippers are 21-11.

But this season doesn’t look or feel the same.

“I don’t think we’ve played as well,” Blake Griffin said after a hard-fought 101-97 win against a scrappy Utah team Monday night. “I mean maybe to this point, it is kind of hard to remember exactly how we were playing, but we hit a stretch last year, late in January early in February, when (Chris Paul) came back where we really hit our stride. That’s what we have to find again, we have to find our stretch.”

That stretch of play at the start of 2014 meant the Clippers entered this season talked about as potential title contenders. However, in a loaded Western Conference the Clippers flaws — defense and depth — have the team looking so far like it might not get out of the first round.

To a man the Clippers own up to their spotty performance so far, they know they are not playing at the level of the other top teams in the West right now. But they also are taking a big picture view that there are 50 games left in the season, they have just gone through a crowded and tough stretch of the schedule, and that they can get back to the team they were. They believe they can still build the needed good habits.

If they are going to do that, they are going to have to defend more consistently.

In last five games entering Monday night the Clippers had surrendered to opponents 6.2 points per 100 possessions more than their season average (which was already 18th in the NBA) and opponents had an eFG% of 56.2 percent. The Clippers are 4-6 in their last 10 games and their defense is 26th in the league in that stretch.

“We’ve shown we can be very good defensively, we just pick and choose to do that,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “We played Golden State the other night (Christmas) and our defense looked as good as anybody in the league…. I think we’re going to be a really good defensive team at the end of the day.”

But they are not now and the Utah game Monday night was an example of why. After a rough 18-point first quarter the Jazz scored at a 120.8 points per 100 possessions offensive rating in the second and third quarters (a number that is phenomenally high). The Jazz were led by 15 points from Gordon Hayward in those middle 24 minutes and their guards were getting into the paint and breaking down the defense.

But then come the fourth — the game was tied 77-77 entering the frame — the Clippers became focused and the Jazz scored at an 83.9 points per 100 pace in those final 12 minutes. The Clippers got the win.

“Just a commitment, effort,” Clippers starting three Matt Barnes said of what is needed to change team’s inconsistency on defense. “Not to make any excuses but we’ve been on a hell of a schedule lately, playing every other day for like a month.”

While there are no excuses in the NBA, the Clippers have a pretty good one with their schedule and practice concerns — they are just coming through a loaded stretch of the schedule with a lot of games. Rivers, who already practices less than pretty much any other coach in the league, decided to keep his players fresh by not practicing on off days.

The Clippers last real “lace up, get after it” practice was Dec. 5, according to Blake Griffin. That’s going on nearly a month. While there are fewer practices in the NBA than many fans realize (due to travel schedules and the volume of games) that is a long time.

“When you don’t practice there’s slippage,” Rivers said. “Offensively we’re catching the ball in the wrong spots, one foot off. Defensively we just need to be reminded of what we should do. We take pride in a lot of things — making them make the second pass, defending the three-point line — and we’re slipping on a lot of those areas. I think we’ll have the time to fix those because it’s nothing new.”

The other big area of slippage is transition defense, that’s the area which let the Jazz hang around on Monday night. The Clippers defense in the paint with DeAndre Jordan has been pretty good (he had four blocks vs. Utah) but on the perimeter the Clippers are virtually matadors waiving their cape as the guy with the ball slashes into the lane and breaks the defense down.

The other issue has been the lackluster bench play — Monday night Rivers played Griffin the entire fourth quarter, including with the second unit, to give them another scoring option. That came after the bench couldn’t hold the lead they had been given in the first half.

In a brutally tight Western Conference, these inconsistencies and concerns about defense and depth could have the Clippers sixth or seventh in a power ranking of the conference (in PBT’s latest power rankings they are sixth in the West).

Both Rivers and the locker room embraces big picture — they think they have plenty of time to fix this. To get back to the team they were last season.

And they do — there are 50 games left before the playoffs start, more than three months of basketball.

But those other teams in the West are improving too, they are making moves to give them an edge (the Rockets have been the most aggressive). There is time to make personnel moves to add depth, although the Clippers are not far below a hard cap (which kicked in when they gave Spencer Hawes the mid-level exception last summer) so they don’t have much money to offer the few players out there.

Every team goes through down stretches over the course of 82 games. Maybe the Clippers are getting theirs out of the way early, maybe the schedule and lack of practices to fine tune things are the issue. Maybe they can find their stride again.

But right now, they do not look like the same team from last year.

NBA’s top 10 crossovers of 2014 (VIDEO)

Chicago Bulls v Denver Nuggets

It’s that time of year when we look back at the best of of the past 12 months — and when you think the best crossovers of 2014, you think Ty Lawson.

There are other impressive, ankle-breaking ones on this Top 10 list from the NBA — such as from Dwyane Wade and Jeff Teague —but Lawson is on here a couple times and that’s not a coincidence.

And no, I’m not sure a couple of these are true crossovers. But let it go, it’s fun to watch anyway.

Josh Smith’s stats in Rockets’ last two games has Pistons fans nodding

Washington Wizards v Houston Rockets

In his Houston debut Josh Smith had 21 points and was a guy the Rockets leaned on down the stretch of a win to get some key buckets.He was making plays. Rockets fans were smiling.

In his next two games, Smith has 8 points total on 3-of-13 shooting, with 12 rebounds, eight turnovers and one assist. The Rockets starting five has yet to adjust to Smith in the mix — they were -10 as a group in 14 minutes in the loss to Washington Monday.

Two games is an incredibly small sample size. Smith may yet be a great pickup for the Rockets, he may provide needed depth at the four, plus some good defense. But these lines from the last couple games are not wildly out of character. Smith is displaying is the kind of shot selection, missing in close, and ball-stopping offense that had Detroit willing to eat $27 million just to set him free.

To be fair, there are reasons Smith can be struggling in Houston right now — he’s not familiar with his teammates, growing pains that were expected, and he’s not getting a ton of minutes with any one unit. He’s shown flashes of being dangerous, and maybe he is better suited to coming off the bench with this team (although he was allegedly promised a starting spot).

But the pattern through the first three games have Pistons fans nodding their head. They saw this for a couple seasons.

Not that this is that big a deal for Houston — they got him for just $2 million this season and once Terrence Jones returns they can cut back Smith’s minutes without much pain if they want. Or they can move him to a bench role where he is asked to create with the second unit. Coach Kevin McHale will have options.

It’s something to watch to see if he needs to use them.

By the way, nodding Pistons fans, Stan Van Gundy had options with Smith, too, and for a long time didn’t use them, something Vincent Goodwill pointed out at the Detroit News:

But it was Van Gundy who basically empowered Smith to (run the offense), essentially designing the offense around an inefficient player. (Brandon) Jennings often started possessions passing to Smith — who tried to do everything — and despite his ability to do a bunch of things well, it appeared the burden was too much for Smith to handle….

Smith’s start to the season was glaringly off to any casual observer, yet there was no modifications to the plan. His shooting was at a career-low rate, he wasn’t finishing in the paint and it looked as if his physical gifts had started to slide.

If Van Gundy is to be believed about his statement concerning the timing of Smith’s release (and we haven’t been given cause to doubt him) — that it was three weeks in the making, that there was no confrontation that hastened the move and it was more about having the practice time to adjust to no longer having Smith around — then why didn’t Van Gundy adjust how he wanted his anemic offense run while Smith was still here?

Remember, Van Gundy had the chance to trade Smith over the summer. He chose not to.

Yes the Pistons have looked a lot better the last two games — like with Houston it’s a small sample size but the ball is moving much better on offense — but that’s not all about Smith being gone. Van Gundy earns some of the blame as well.

PBT Monday NBA Winners/Losers: At least one thing is working well in Washington

Paul Pierce

Every night the NBA can be a cold hard reality — there are winners, there are losers. It’s the nature of the game. We know you are busy and can’t keep up with every game, so we’re here to bring you the best and worst of the NBA each week night. Here’s what you missed while you watched the Entourage movie trailer again (I can’t wait for this one)….

source:  Washington Wizards. Are you mentioning this team as one of the best in the East? You should be. While the rest of the East struggles, the Wizards are now 7-2 against the powerful West. Those same Wizards have the best defense in the East so far — better than the Bulls — and that plus a variety of guys who can score the ball make them a threat out East. The Wizards showed a lot of what makes them dangerous in beating the Rockets in the game of the night on Monday, 104-103. The Wizards led by 23 at one point but the Rockets made a late charge behind James Harden (9 points in the final :19 seconds, he finished with 33) but the Wizards just had answers. They had their own 33 point man in Bradley Beal, who did it on 9-of-17 shooting. The Wizards went 8-of-8 from the free throw line down the stretch. And they have Paul Pierce, the veteran who had 21 points on 9 shots on the night, and he had the biggest shot of the game.

source:  Rim at the Toyota Center in Houston. Just :48 seconds into the game, the rim at the Toyota Center was bent and the game had to stop for nearly 30 minutes while the arena crew put in a new basket. That’s always entertaining. The damage apparently happened on a Dwight Howard dunk and not, as rumored, because of Josh Smith’s jump shots.

source:  Danny Granger.The man has apparently been taking is post-game soaks in the hot tub time machine, because he looks more like the 2010 version of himself than the guy we have seen in recent years. Granger hit six three pointers on his way to 21 points in Miami’s loss to Orlando. Granger had 18 in the Heat’s previous game against Memphis. Consider me cynical that he can sustain this, but right now Granger is in throwback mode and making the Heat look, well, if not good then better.

source:  Jimmy Butler. The man is earning himself a big payday — the Bulls couldn’t reach a deal with him on a contract extension before the season and while Butler says he does not want to leave Chicago next summer the cost of keeping him is going up by the game. He scored seven of his 27 points in the fourth quarter and was a guy the Bulls leaned on to get buckets in a close win over Indiana. Butler is scoring 22 points a game averaging 40 minutes a night and has become a key cog in the Bulls. When the coaches get around to voting for the All-Star Game reserves it’s going to be tough to leave him off the list.

source:  Kings 4-on-5 strategy. Okay, this was not how the Kings’ owner drew it up… okay, he was never going to “draw it up” it was just an idea he had to have one player cherry-pick on offense and have the defenders go 4-on-5 with the other team. This only happened because Reggie Evans went to the bench thinking DeMarcus Cousins was checking in only to realize Cousins wasn’t waived in, so Evans sprinted back onto the court in cherry picking position. It still is the same principle. Then Evans caps it off the only way that would be truly funny.

Hornets’ Red Sea defense parts and Bucks’ John Henson throws it down. Hard. (VIDEO)

John Henson

Every night they play we could just run a series of Bucks highlights, there always are a bunch. They should be on your League Pass much watch list.

The best Bucks highlight of Monday night came courtesy John Henson, the power forward who in overtime got the ball with his back to the basket almost all the way out to the three-point line on the right wing, then turned to face up and saw the Hornets’ defense had parted like the Red Sea.

So he put it on the floor, got to the rim and threw it down. No Hornet was stopping that.

They had to work a little extra for it at the end, but the Bucks picked up a nice little road win in Charlotte, 104-94.