Kurt Helin

Hornets’ coach Steve Clifford brilliantly, politely tells media they don’t know what they’re talking about

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Steve Clifford is right.

To use myself as an example, I watch a ridiculous amount of NBA games during the season, both in person and on television (or streaming). I talk to people around the league — players, scouts, other basketball junkies — about the NBA and its players and strategies. I keep up on stats (particularly advanced). I’m not ignorant of the game.

But I am no scout, no coach. Not even close. I do not pretend to be. I’m wrong with what I think is going on plenty. I don’t see so many important details. I will talk about adjustments during a playoff series, but coaches often play the importance of those down.

Steve Clifford said all of that brilliantly when asked about adjustments after his Hornets’ loss Tuesday. The video above is part of his speech, here are his full comments.

Teams do make adjustments that matter over the course of a playoff series. Sometimes those work out brilliantly — think Golden State accepting their true identity and going small starting Andre Iguodala in the Finals last season — but as Clifford said often the answer is far more straightforward. For example, Portland’s coach Terry Stotts admitted after his team’s Game 2 loss Tuesday that he did use Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum off the ball more to get them better looks against a trapping Clippers’ defense. And it worked, they got more and better looks — then they shot a combined 12-of-39.

Jeff Van Gundy would remind us it’s a make-or-miss league, and all the adjustments in the world don’t matter if you miss the shots. Van Gundy protegé Clifford reminded us of that, too.

Detroit Pistons rookie Stanley Johnson on LeBron: “I’m definitely in his head”

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You can see why never-holds-back Stan Van Gundy likes his rookie Stanley Johnson.

For chunks of the first two games of the series, the Pistons’ Johnson has had to guard LeBron James — and this has been turn-it-up-to-11 playoff LeBron. He was 12-of-18 shooting for 27 points in the Cavaliers’ Game 2 win Tuesday.

But Johnson thinks he’s done well and after this latest loss he was talking plenty of smack, via Nick Friedell of ESPN.

“I’m definitely in his head, that’s for sure,” Johnson said…. “That’s for sure….

“He jabbers,” Johnson said of James. “He moves his mouth sometimes. Their whole team does, kind of like their little cheerleaders on the bench. Every time you walk in the right corner. They’re always saying something like they’re playing basketball, like they’re actually in the game. There’s only seven or eight players who play. I don’t see why the other players are talking. They might as well just be in the stands, in my opinion…

“I wish he would just talk when [the game] is 0-0, not when he’s up 16,” Johnson said. “I think that’s more — that means something. That means you’re confident in yourself. You believe what you’re about to do. Don’t talk after you made a couple shots. Anybody can do that.”

ESPN’s stats people tracked it, and LeBron was 6-of-6 shooting for 13 points with the rookie Johnson on him in Game 2. So sure kid, you’re in his head.

ESPN’s Friedell tweeted out the “I’m in his head” quote and Johnson retweeted it — you have to like that the rookie is so brash. Some day he’ll be able to back it up.

 

Blake Griffin is all the way back, throws down monster dunk

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LOS ANGELES — After missing half the season due to a quad injury/broken hand/suspension, Blake Griffin returned for the final five games of the regular season. But he did not look like his old self. His shot was off, he did not seem as aggressive, and he just looked rusty.

No longer.

For two playoff games against Portland he has been a beast — and his athleticism isn’t in question. Not with dunks like this one off a little elbow pick-and-roll with Chris Paul. Griffin had 12 points (on 12 shots) and nine rebounds in this game.

“Physically I feel good,” Griffin said after the 102-81 Clipper win. “Didn’t score well tonight, but Doc stresses a lot of times, especially during the playoffs, when you’re not doing one thing particularly well find other ways to impact. So that was kind of more my thought process tonight.”

Clippers bench propels team to 102-81 win against Trail Blazers

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LOS ANGELES — Terry Stotts’ adjustments worked.

Portland’s Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum were playing off the ball more, using cuts, pin-down screens, and other ways to get the ball in better positions, with that they were getting up shots they could not find space to take in Game 1. The Blazers shared the ball (Mason Plumlee threw a couple beautiful passes to backdoor cutters), guys got open looks (46 percent of Portland’s shots were uncontested), and Portland’s spacing was improved.

The Trail Blazers still lost by 21.

The reason was they couldn’t knock down those shots — Portland shot 34.1 percent overall and 19.2 percent from three. Lillard and McCollum were a combined 12-of-39 from the floor.

The Los Angeles Clippers pulled away in the fourth thanks to their bench for a 102-81 victory at Staples Center Wednesday. The Clippers are now up 2-0 in the first round series, which heads to Portland Saturday. Los Angeles has won the two games by a combined 41 points. The odds are stacked in the Clippers’ favor— teams that win the first two games at home in a seven-game playoff series win it 94 percent of the time.

“Actually, I was pretty pleased with (our execution),” Stotts said. “I thought we got some good looks, especially early. We struggled to shoot the ball all night, we were under 40 percent most of the night [they finished at 34 percent]. I thought we did a good job of changing things up, as far as changing things up as far as getting different looks and moving people around.”

According to NBA.com, 46 percent of the Blazers shots were uncontested (42-of-91), they hit just 31 percent of those.

The shooting woes started with the big guns of Lillard and McCollum. In Game 1 the pair wasn’t getting enough shots, in Game 2 the pair seemed rushed on the perimeter and bothered by DeAndre Jordan when they drove the lane.

“Especially at the start of the game, I got a lot of good looks,” Lillard said. “I missed a wide-open, point-blank layup. When you get those looks early in the game, you’ve got to knock them down….

“So I got a lot more clean looks tonight. The ball didn’t go in as much as I would have liked it to, especially with us being in the game. I think if I would have had it going, it would have come down to the last couple minutes. But they didn’t.”

It wasn’t just the stars. Stotts has said that players such as Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless have to step up because the Clippers are willing to give them clean looks to trap and challenge Lillard and McCollum. Aminu and Harkless were a combined 9-of-26.

The Clippers starters were not sharp — 42.6 percent shooting on the night for the group, although Chris Paul did end up with 25 points — however in both the second and fourth quarter it was the Clipper bench that stretched out the lead to double digits.

“They just changed the game for us,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said of his bench players. “They were spectacular tonight. I thought on both ends they saved the game for us. Our starters were up-and-down a little bit today. I thought we were sloppy in a lot of ways, but I thought our bench saved us.”

Despite having the newly minted Sixth Man of the Year in Jamal Crawford, the Clipper bench was maligned for much of the season. However, over the past few weeks that unit has come together with Cole Aldrich (8 points Wednesday), Jeff Green (10), and Crawford (11). More importantly, that unit has been strong defensively. The group was playing so well that Griffin and Paul were set to check back in during the fourth and decided to withdraw for a minute and went back to the bench to let second unit keep doing it’s thing.

“The biggest place we have had an impact is defensively,” Aldrich said. “That’s where we can leave our stamp on the game. Offensively, we just came out together and played with a lot of energy while we were on the floor.”

Lillard and Mason Plumlee each had 17 points to lead the Blazers.

Stotts will make a few more adjustments, and his role players will thrive better at the Moda Center in Portland. But there’s nothing he can adjust for if Lillard and McCollum are missing.

What will Tom Thibodeau bring to Minnesota? A strong foundation.

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Tom Thibodeau spent his year on coaching sabbatical on a learning quest.

Sure, he took in a bunch of movies (he’s a filmophile) and he did some analyst stints on television, but what he mostly did was travel from team to team to team, watching them practice and talking to coaches with very different mindsets than his own. He asked questions, he watched how they worked. That includes time spent with Steve Kerr and the Golden State Warriors.

It’s one of the things that should make Timberwolves fans jubilant today.

Owner Glen Taylor opened up his pocketbooks and went big, bringing in Thibodeau in the dual role of coach and team president. Scott Layden will come in as the team’s GM and handle the day-to-day of that job, but Thibodeau will have the ultimate hammer on player/personnel moves.

What will that mean for Minnesota?

A strong foundation.

One that could take this team to the mountaintop in the future.

This is not about the Timberwolves making the playoffs next season — although that is not out of the question, depending on their offseason moves (and countless other variables). This is about three seasons from now. Five seasons from now.

What Thibodeau will do is establish a culture of working hard every game. He will demand defensive effort and focus each possession. He will bring attention to detail and will hold his players accountable to it. He will bring a genuine passion for the game. Thibodeau talked about this in his statement on the hiring.

“I started my NBA career with the Minnesota Timberwolves and it is an incredible opportunity to rejoin the organization at a time when they have what I believe to be the best young roster in the NBA. Together with a great owner in Glen Taylor and a terrific basketball partner in Scott Layden, I look forward to building a winning culture that Minnesota sports fans can be proud of.”

The guy who could benefit the most from this may be Andrew Wiggins. Karl-Anthony Towns is a special player who will be the cornerstone of whatever the Timberwolves ultimately become — and he already has a drive that Thibodeau will love. Wiggins could be the wing KAT will need around him — if Wiggins brings more focus nightly. If he defends like he’s capable on a consistent basis. If he is a professional and pays attention to the little things. You know, all things Thibodeau will demand.

The question is what kind of offense Thibodeau will bring to Minnesota? His Bulls teams ran a lot of 1/3 pick and rolls — “let’s put our two best players in a lot of pick-and-rolls together every game” — and isolation sets. It wasn’t creative or groundbreaking, but it fit with the roster he was handed with a young Derrick Rose. And it worked fairly well. That said, Thibodeau should not be pigeonholed on his offensive style based solely on what we saw in Chicago.

This is where that sabbatical tour could manifest itself. Thibodeau should use Towns in a pick-and-pop situation and let him stretch out to the three at times. The sets need to be creative to minimize the impact of Ricky Rubio’s lack of a jumper and other weaknesses. Thibs has spent a year looking at a wide variety of offenses, exposing himself to different philosophies, thinking about the game. His offense is not going to be revolutionary, but don’t believe that it will be predictable and simplistic, either.

Bringing in Thibodeau as a coach and GM invites some risk. He is unproven at team building, and coaches can be hit and miss in the big chair. He’s a guy who has worn players and teams down — something the Timberwolves do not want to do to their impressive young core. He has been hostile to analytics at points.

Has his year off and tour broadened his perspectives on the use of players? On taking in some information from the analytics side and giving it consideration? Has his hard-driving personality have some softer edges at times?

Whatever the answers to those questions, whatever the risks, they pale in comparison to what we know the Timberwolves will get. This was the best hire Minnesota could have made for the future.

What the Timberwolves ultimately will get a young core steeped in a culture that could benefit them greatly down the line (even if Thibodeau is not part of that future). They will get a foundation built in the next few years that will be needed to reach the heights they want.

Minnesota also will get a lot of wins.

They just became maybe the most interesting team in the NBA.