Kurt Helin

LeBron James, JaKarr Sampson

LeBron James had his own dunk contest vs. Clippers in first half (VIDEO)

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The Clippers played some matador defense Thursday night — Olé — and LeBron James took advantage. He drove the lane with impunity, he got out on fast breaks, and he had his own little dunk contest.

LeBron had 15 points in the first half (and was +20) as Cleveland cruised to a 105-94 win over the Los Angeles Clippers. That made it a dozen wins in a row for Cleveland.

Three Things We Learned in NBA Thursday: The waiting for Cleveland to arrive is over

LeBron James, Blake Griffin
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If you watch closely every night in the NBA you can learn a little something. We know you are busy and can’t keep up with every game, so we’re here to help with those lessons from another night in the Association. Here’s what you missed while taking offense at a Budweiser ad because you like craft beer

1) Remember when we said it would take time but Cleveland would eventually figure things out? Eventually is here. Before the season we kept saying it: It’s not how the Cavaliers are playing in December, it’s how they improve over the season, it’s how they play in April. Or, maybe they got there by February. The Cleveland Cavaliers have won 12 games in a row now and Thursday night they dismantled the Los Angeles Clippers on national television. What have been the knocks on them recently? That they can’t get Kevin Love involved? He had 24 points on 14 shots, he was attacking and got to the line a dozen times Thursday. Another issue was the Cavaliers don’t play defense? The Clippers had the best statistical offense in the NBA this season and yet shot just 41.8 percent and scored 96.1 points per 100 possessions, 14 below their season average. In their last 10 games the Cavaliers have allowed 96.9 points per 100 possessions, fourth best in the NBA. The Cavaliers have hit their stride, they could be the No. 2 seed in the East by the time the playoffs start, and they are contenders. Oh, and they still are putting up some highlight plays.

2) Charlotte is not going away just because Kemba Walker went down. Since Kemba Walker went down with a knee injury (he is out another five weeks at least) the Hornets have gone 4-1. And after Wednesday night’s win that includes a sweep of a home-and-home series against Washington. They aren’t doing it with offense, which has been feeble all season and been worse without Walker. However, the Hornets are back to playing lock-down defense — the Wizards scored just 91.1 points per 100 possessions Thursday — exactly the league-best average the Hornets have allowed the last 10 games. Charlotte is the seven seed in the East right now, just 1.5 games up on nine seed Brooklyn, but the way they are defending it’s hard to see the Hornets falling out of the playoffs.

3) As if the Wizards don’t have enough issues, Bradley Beal goes down. Washington is stumbling right now, going 3-7 in their last 10 games, and they just dropped a home-and-home with Charlotte. Now this: shooting guard Bradley Beal left the game Thursday night in the first quarter with a toe injury, not to return. Beal had been playing through a foot injury for a couple of games, according to J. Michael at CSNWashington.com, and seems to have aggravated it. Doctors will examine Beal on Friday and determine what the next step will be — he says he wants to play Saturday but the team likely will be cautious. Washington will miss Beal if he’s gone for any length of time; its offense jumps five points per 100 possessions when he is on the floor. Right now the Wizards don’t need any more steps back.

Chris Paul creates firestorm with criticism of female referee: “This might not be for her”

Lauren Holtkamp
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Above is the full post-game quote from Chris Paul — after his team was beaten soundly on national television and picked up five technical fouls in the process — that created a firestorm online.

“I think we’ve got to show better composure, but at the same time some of ‘em was ridiculous. Like the tech I got right there was ridiculous. I don’t care what nobody say, I don’t care what she say, that’s terrible. There’s no way that can be a technical. We try to get the ball out quick every time down the court and when we did that she said ‘Uh-uh (no)’ and I said ‘Why uh-uh?’ and she gave me a tech. That’s ridiculous. If that’s the case then this might not be for her.”

His use of the pronoun “her” and calling out a female referee led some on Twitter to rush in to defend Lauren Holtkamp, the female referee who handed out the technical to Paul. She is one of two female referees in the NBA this season and numerous people defended her right to be an official in the league saying Paul came off as sexist.

Of course, the combination of Twitter and small-minded people who don’t think women should be involved in men’s sports led to a backlash unleashed on Holtkamp and her defenders.

All because of the pronoun “her.”

Chris Paul is going to get fined by the league for this — not because of the pronoun but because any time a referee is criticized the player gets fined. The league protects its referees, even if the calls are wrong.

Holtkamp is a rookie promoted from the D-League to this job and rookie referees get little slack from veteran players (and coaches) as it is. They see the rookies as struggling to get used to the league, just as rookie players do. Players talk back to rookie referees faster than the veterans they trust. And the Clippers had issues with Holtkamp earlier this season (in a game against Miami).

The difference here with Paul was calling out the referee in postgame comments, and using the pronoun “she.” Even if it’s accurate, some would take offense.

From my interactions with Chris Paul, seeing him frustrated with officials in postgame comments before, I believe this is just him venting about the call, not making sexist remarks. I don’t think he meant it as an attack on all female referees, I think he just didn’t like the call against him. But it reads very poorly.

In this case it was a perfect storm of quick triggers from the officials (not just Holtkamp but the entire crew) and a frustrated Clippers squad that was getting blown out. All game the Clippers were whining to the officials as if the people with the whistles were the cause of their loss. They weren’t. The Clippers were down by more than 20 by the time the techs came flying, and that has been a symptom of the inconsistent Clippers this season — they complain on court when frustrated.

The Clippers’ style of play is predictable and that makes their margin for error smaller than many teams — if they are not at the peak of their game and executing cleanly top teams can run them out of the building. Which is what the Cavaliers did Thursday night.

Then the Clippers get frustrated and vent at the officials. And some officials have quick triggers — Holtkamp gave a technical to DeAndre Jordan when he yelled a loud swear word after a dunk. It was part of a string of technicals — Matt Barnes got one for grabbing Kevin Love’s arm at one point, something that was a foul, but not worthy of a technical. Not much later Barnes was ejected for a second technical.

Part of the story should be how the Clippers whine to officials when it’s often about their play. As Paul notes, the Clippers need to work on their composure.

But instead, the focus will be on a pronoun.

Who will be next coach in Orlando? I don’t know, but expect a yeller.

Scott Skiles
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Jacque Vaughn believes in the power of positivity. He was trying to develop a bounty of young players in Orlando using minutes as the water, hard word as the good soil, and positive comments as sunshine. There certainly were some successes, players such as Nikola Vucevic, Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton have developed well under him.

But the Magic did not coalesce as a team — they are a bottom five team on both offense and defense, they are 15-37 and have lost 10 straight.

That led to Vaughn getting fired on Thursday.

So who is the next coach in Orlando? (Well, after interim coach James Borrego.) What direction will the organization go?

Expect a yeller.

Maybe that’s too harsh. Still, don’t expect the next coach to be the kind of guy that puts his arm around a player and has a few encouraging words after a rough night. Expect a coach who gets in players’ faces, who is very vocal about accountability, who is a bit of an old-school disciplinarian.

Management is saying all the usual things about casting a wide net and getting the best available guy, but what they seem to be looking for is a bit  of a culture change in that locker room. Keep the work ethic, but aside that a dramatic change of style. By the way, do you notice how often the franchises that struggle keep changing cultures rather than letting one take root? That’s the bigger picture issue in Orlando — the issues with this roster are certainly not all on Vaughn — but in the short term they likely are going for an 180-degree shift in coaching philosophies.

Here are four names to watch:

1) Scott Skiles. This is the guy Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, and everyone else, says looks like the front runner because he checks a lot of boxes for the organization. He checks the box as a popular former Magic player that the fans will embrace. He checks the box as an old-school disciplinarian. He checks the box in that his teams defend with energy. That said, his offenses have not been great, and he’s pretty much been a career .500 coach whose teams have never gone past the second round of the playoffs in his 13 seasons.

2) Mike Malone. Another name mentioned by Wojnarowski. This is the coach the Sacramento Kings brought in to create a real culture of accountability and toughness — and he did that. He got DeMarcus Cousins focused and playing the best ball of his career. So the Kings fired Malone in the middle of this season because they wanted to change their style to more of a running team. (To repeat: Do you notice how often the franchises that struggle keep changing cultures rather than letting one take root?) Malone would check the boxes as old school and a disciplinarian, plus he showed some real success in Sacramento doing what they want to do in Orlando.

3) Vinny Del Negro. Another guy mentioned as available by Wojnarowski. He’s been available for a while. The advantages he has is that he’s a fantastic interviewer who sells himself well as a player development guy, and he’s likable. To be fair, he’s a better coach than his reputation, he’s gotten teams to be respectable (it’s just the guys who came in after him got those teams to be a lot better). All that said, this would be a terrible hire for Orlando.

4) Mark Jackson. Because his name must come up for all coaching vacancies. It’s a federal law. He’s a motivator and the Warriors certainly did play defense for him, two things that would work in Orlando. But I don’t love this fit either, I’m not sure he’s the guy to develop this young roster.

Adam Silver: NBA needs to look at taking top 16 teams for the playoffs

New York Knicks v Milwaukee Bucks
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Adam Silver was at the Stephen Curry show in Oakland last night, and he had killer seats. It’s one of the perks of being commissioner.

He also went on the air on Comcast Sportsnet Bay Area and took some questions from fans posted for him on Facebook, with topics ranging from his basketball experience to expanding the NBA to Europe.

However, the most interesting answer was his to the question of if the NBA should change its playoff system and, rather than take the top eight in each conference, take the Top 16 teams and seed them regardless of conference. Here was his response (that part of the interview starts at the 5:05 mark on the video above).

“Ultimately we want to see your best teams in the playoffs. And there is an unbalance and a certain unfairness. There is a proposal (from one of the broadcasters)…  where the division winners would all automatically go into the playoffs and then you’d seed the next 10 best teams. I think that’s the kind of proposal we need to look at. There are travel issues of course, but in this day in age every team of course has their own plane, travels charter. I don’t think the discussion should end there. And as I’ve said, my first year I was studying a lot of these issues and year 2 is time to take action. It’s something I’m going to look at closely with the competition committee. I do think it’s an area where we need to make a change.” 

The owners in the East might well oppose this.

If you used that formula this season there would be two changes: Charlotte and Miami would be out, replaced by New Orleans and Oklahoma City. Meaning the better, more deserving teams would get in. As it should be.

The complaints about this system starts with the travel — you could have cross-country matchups in the first round. However, as Silver noted, with every team flying in private planes this is not so significant an obstacle. Plus, the way the first round of the playoffs is spaced out there would be plenty of off days for the flights.

Another major complaint is that it could hamper regional rivalries. The idea goes that we want to see Boston play Philadelphia or New York (someday, when those teams make the playoffs again), more than we want to see Boston vs. Oklahoma City.  Or we want the Clippers and Warriors in a California showdown as opposed to Clippers vs. Boston. But does that regional rivalry really spur interest, especially outside those markets? Would better teams playing draw more viewers? I  think so.

The other major issue is that the schedule is imbalanced — teams play the other teams in their conference four times and from the other conference just twice. Is that fair to the teams in the West right now?  No. But the thing is, it doesn’t matter, the better teams still have the better records and get in (for example OKC would if it happened this season).

I’m not sure the owners will go down this path, but I think they should. The playoffs should be for the best teams, regardless of conference. We just want the best possible basketball.