Lakers-Clippers: 5 Things to Watch

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Saturday night is the first matchup of the new-look CP3-lead Clippers against the old guard Los Angeles Lakers. The Showdown at Staples, Part 1. The Lakers are coming in hotter than a pistol behind Kobe Bryant’s 40-point streak, while the Clippers have also managed to hold on despite some questions about their defense, standing just a game and a half back of the purple and gold. To help get you set for the biggest game of the night that doesn’t involve Tebow, here are five things to watch.

1. The Low Post Tango… with Giant Clubs: Andrew Bynum struggles with crafty defenders, players who can body him and also know how to disrupt his game in the little ways, by attacking his positioning and ball handling. But he’s very good against raw size, which is what he faces against DeAndre Jordan Saturday night. Bynum has a huge size advantage on most nights, but this is going to be quite he battle with Jordan and the massive frame he’s grown into able to hold his own against Bynum’s girth. The big separator here could be positioning. Bynum’s a terrific rebounder at both ends, while Jordan has struggled this season on the glass. His total rebound rate is 13.8%, the lowest of his career if it holds up. If Jordan can’t keep Bynum from tip-ins, it could be a long night for the Clips.

2. You Should Bring a Help Defender. Or Twenty.: The Lakers have improved greatly under Mike Brown at perimeter penetration, with Brown’s help defense cutting off lanes. But against Chris Paul, they’ll have their toughest challenge. Put simply, the Lakers don’t have a perimeter defender to check him. Derek Fisher is no longer physically in a position to contain him, Kobe Bryant has to save his energy for the offensive end, and can’t check him effectively or risk fouls, and Steve Blake is out with an injury… and couldn’t check him anyway. What the Lakers cannot do is switch on the pick and roll against Paul. In last year’s playoffs, Paul destroyed the Lakers’ defense by getting matched up on a big defender in space, then working him over off the dribble. The best bet for the Lakers is to trap Paul off the pick and roll, bringing a third defender if necessary, and risking the outside shot. As long as the big for L.A. has his hands up and active to prevent Lob City, that forces a reset of the offense or a perimeter shot. The Clippers can hit it, but you take that over Paul in space any time.

3. Encouraging Greatness: Kobe Bryant was brilliant last night. He was dominant, yet again, with 40 points. He is an unstoppable scoring machine, the likes of which we haven’t seen since 2007 or earlier. And despite that, the Cavaliers were right in the game at the end, a night after the Jazz forced the Lakers into overtime. Are you sensing a pattern? The more Bryant shoots, the less involved his teammates become. The less involved his teammates become, the harder it is for the offense to function and the more the Lakers struggle. They had this problem against two pretty bad teams (though not as bad as some would suggest, both Utah and Cleveland have looked at least decent this year). If that’s the case with the Clippers, it works to L.A.’s favor. Putting Bryant in a position where he’s encouraged to take long jumpers is going to wind up with him dropping a huge scoring total on you, but if you shut down the rest of the team, it works in your favor. This is nothing new. This is the same formula that worked prior to the Lakers becoming a more evenly distributed team in 2008 with Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. With Odom gone and the bench weaker than in years past, Bryant seems to feel obligated to both carry the load and prove a point. If the Clippers are smart, they’ll let him embarrass him with a huge scoring performance while they win the game with a complete set of offense.

4. Party up front, nothing in the back: The Clippers and Lakers have the second-worst and worst bench scoring units, respectively. So both teams are desperate for production off the pine. With Steve Blake out with a chest injury, the Lakers take a hit. Meanwhile, the Clippers have Mo Williams who is shooting 47 percent this season. The Lakers need a bench player to step up and contribute offensively to carry some of the load while some of the big three take a breathe. If they can get the ball out of Bryant’s hot hand, that is.

5. They Love L.A. But Only Really The Popular, Winning One: Crowd tonight at this game should be pretty amusing. It’s a Clippers home game, and yet 65 percent or more of the crowd should be Lakers fans. This “rivalry” will always lean towards which team wins more. It’ll be interesting to see if either team dominates how the fans will react. If Clippers fans will shrug and accept their usual fate, or if Lakers fans will start cheering for the Clippers if CP3 opens up Lob City. It’s going to be entertaining to say the least. The circus has come to town for Battle: Los Angeles.

Kevin Love being evaluated for concussion, out for second half

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It happened just five minutes into the game — Cleveland’s Kevin Love and Boston’s Jayson Tatum banged heads.

Love was in the midpost and part of his job was to set a screen for George Hill, who was racing out to the arc. In doing so, Love and Tatum banged heads and it wasn’t pretty.

Love spent a few minutes on the ground, went straight to the locker room, and has not returned to the game.

Tatum did not leave the game.

There still is no official word on if Love has a concussion. If he does, he will go into the league’s mandated concussion protocol — which means to be cleared he has to be symptom free through a series of physical tests — and it would be a challenge for him to be back for a Game 7, if there is one.

And their likely will be one. After struggling in the rest of the first quarter without Love, the Cavaliers have gotten solid performances out of Hill, Jeff Green, and of course, LeBron James has been brilliant. The Cavaliers have a comfortable 15-point lead late in the third quarter.

NBA Finals schedule drops, Game 1 Thursday, May 31

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We don’t know where the NBA Finals will be played, but we know when.

Next Thursday the eyes of the NBA world could be focused on Oakland or Houston, and the following Wednesday that may shift to Boston or Cleveland. All four of those teams still have a chance to make the NBA Finals.

What we know is the dates for the games. Here is the schedule:

Game 1, Thursday, May 31, at 9 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 2, Sunday, June 3, at 8 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 3, Wednesday, June 6, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 4, Friday, June 8, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 5, Monday, June 11, at 9 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 6, Thursday, June 14, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 7, Sunday, June 17, at 8 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Games 5, 6, and 7 are if necessary. All games will be broadcast on ABC.

There were no surprises here. The date of the start of the NBA Finals has been set since before the season started (it always is, to help broadcast partners and international media plan). The game pattern follows the same as last year, when the NBA changed it to make sure there was at least one day off in addition to travel days when the venue switches cities.

James Harden on shooting struggles: ‘Who cares?’

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A couple of years ago, could anyone have imagined James Harden not only saying he’s willing to give up scoring to do the little things to win but then actually doing it?

That’s exactly what Harden has done through five games against Golden State, and it’s why his Houston team is up 3-2.

Harden has struggled with his shot the past two games: He has shot 16-of-47 overall the past two games (34 percent) but also 3-of-23 from three. Yet he has done a good job setting up others. In Game 5, in particular, he did a better job getting into the middle of the paint, opening up passing lanes when the defense collapsed on him. He’s also worked hard on the defensive end, played Stephen Curry reasonably well, and been a solid team defender.

With his team one game from the Finals, he’s not concerned about his shot.

“Who cares?” Harden said to reporters after the game. “I’m just missing shots. But we’re winning, and I’m trying to compete on the defensive end and do other things to help my team win. But if we’ve got a guy like Eric Gordon making shots and being aggressive, who cares?”

A lot of players give that idea lip service, but in recent games Harden has backed it up.

“It’s just the shots [are] not falling, and a lot of it has to do with how hard everybody is playing,” Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Probably his legs aren’t the freshest things in the world. But he’s invaluable to the defense and offense.”

The Rockets are going to need more scoring from Harden to close this series out — Chris Paul is out for Game 6 with a strained hamstring, and it’s unlikely he plays if there is a Game 7. Eric Gordon will get the start and has lit it up the past couple of games (he led the Rockets with 24 points in Game 5), but more scoring and shot creation will fall on the Harden’s shoulders.

If the Rockets are going to close this series out, Harden is going to have to look every bit the presumptive MVP. The little things are great, but Houston needs him to get buckets now.

Suns GM: ‘Overwhelming likelihood’ team keeps No. 1 pick

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It takes a rare kind of courage, an extraordinary level of organizational backing, and a special kind of draft to do what Danny Ainge did a year ago trading the No. 1 pick. While a consensus had formed around Markelle Fultz as the best player in the draft, Ainge was a Jayson Tatum guy. Doubts about the top pick are common, but that alone is far from enough to trade that pick away — most GMs don’t have the job security to know if they miss on moving the pick and sliding down they will not be let go. Ainge had that, and he had his confidence in his scouting, so he made the move to trade the No. 1 pick to Philadelphia. (While it looks good now for Ainge, it’s too early to judge how that pick plays out — Fultz has barely played, we don’t know what extra pick the Celtics will get out of this, it takes time to fully judge these kinds of moves.)

This year is different. DeAndre Ayton is more of a clear No. 1, a guy with franchise changing potential. Plus Suns’ GM Ryan McDonough may not be standing on the kind of bedrock that allows for the trade of a No. 1 pick.

Recently McDonough said he’d listen to trade offers for the pick. That’s very different from trading it, as Scott Bordow of the Arizona Republic had the GM saying Friday.

Because they should do their due diligence, the Suns will look at Luka Doncic (who does have a relationship with new coach Igor Kokoskov) and Marvin Bagley III, among others. Rumors may leak, spun by agents or other teams. However, at the end of the day, good luck finding anyone around the league who thinks Phoenix will not take Ayton — who attended college in Arizona — to be the inside to Devin Booker‘s outside. It’s the smart play.

Kokoskov and the Suns have a lot of work to do to build a foundation for success with this franchise. However, that almost never starts by trading away the top pick in the draft.