Clippers showing a lot of room for improvement… and still winning

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Chris Paul is still trying to get his guys to know what he wants them to do. Chauncey Billups is still firing away without enough consideration and dribbling like he’s the point guard at times. Caron Butler is still finding his legs. DeAndre Jordan is still adapting to being the anchor of the defense down low and how to create offensive rebound opportunities without clogging the lane.

Blake Griffin has to either find or abandon his mid-range shot and has to do a better job of controlling space down low and on the block.

And yet, the Clippers keep winning.

The Clippers beat the Lakers 102-94 Saturday night behind 33 points from Chris Paul and 22 points and 14 rebounds from Blake Griffin. And still it was impossible to walk away from the game and not see that the Clippers are very much still a work in progress. While teams like the Knicks try and sort out who they are and struggle mightily, the Clippers have lodged wins now over the Blazers, Heat, and Lakers. It was assumed that the Clippers would struggle with the great teams considering they were pounded by Chicago and San Antonio and had poor defensive stats. Yet here they are, 6-3 and improving with each game.

They may take a step backwards in the next week with Paul recovering from a strained hamstring he suffered in the fourth quarter of the win over the Lakers, but the point remains. The Clippers are growing up and still producing wins.

This is the start of the hard part of their schedule, and thins may get considerably worse. But there’s a lot to be encouraged by. Their two primary issues of concern this season have been rebounding and defense, and both were stout against the big brother Lakers Saturday night. Kobe Bryant’s 42 points were hard-earned, and the rest of the team was largely held in check.

Griffin had a surprisingly great all-around game on paper, when after a sizzling start, he seemed to fade a little bit. Griffin continues to try and pull defenders away from the rim in order to create space on the drive by shooting mid-range jumpers, which continue to not fall. The shot is awkward and clunky, and his rhythm is stilted off the catch. He too often sprawl out in athletic leap instead of containing his man against his back on boxouts. And yet here is, racking up 22 and 14 and making Pau Gasol look silly the longer the game went on.

The big knock on the Clippers is that it would take some time for them to unravel how their team is going to function. And it is taking some time. But in the meantime, the have the talent to compete right now, and it’s working.

Report: Trevor Ariza ‘checked out mentally’ with Suns

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Why did Trevor Ariza leave the Rockets, who came as close as anyone to beating the Kevin Durant-boosted Warriors in the playoffs, for the lowly Suns?

Money.

Ariza signed a one-year, $15 million contract with Phoenix last summer. That salary likely far surpasses what Ariza could have gotten elsewhere – especially Houston, where the Rockets are wary of the luxury tax.

Predictably, a veteran signing with bad team for a quick paycheck turned out poorly. The Suns traded Ariza to the Wizards essentially as soon as he became eligible to be dealt.

Duane Rankin of azcentral:

According to league sources, this was a “mutual” decision between Ariza and the Suns.

Ariza checked out mentally early in the season, according to sources. After practices would ended, he’d leave before everyone else, when that’s usually an opportunity to bond.

He’d break from the team huddle before his teammates and wasn’t engaged.

Signing Ariza to that contract was always part of a bad plan. He didn’t put the Suns over the top, and that money could have gone to a player with a future in Phoenix.

Sure, it would have been nice for Ariza to lead and mentor more. He could have served as a better example for the young Suns.

But it’s not easy to go from the peak of competition to a quickly lost season. Ariza’s misery was predictable and understandable.

It spread to the court, too. He’s having arguably the worst season of his career.

Washington hopes Ariza will play better there. He’s better cast as a glue guy on a good team.

However, it’s unclear whether Ariza will actually be rejuvenated by the Wizards, who’ve been stuck in their own turmoil. There’s also risk Ariza, 33, has declined due to age in ways that won’t simply reverse in a better environment.

At least he ends his depressing Phoenix chapter. This will be the lasting scene of his time there. Gina Mizell of The Athletic:

Devin Booker calls out Enes Kanter’s defense after Suns beat Knicks

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In a Knicks’ win over the Suns last January, Enes Kanter irritated Devin Booker into pushing him. The Phoenix guard got ejected then had to deal with Kanter’s online trash-talking afterward.

So, this retweet – following the Suns’ win over New York last night – was nearly a year in the making.

Booker:

There are two possible responses here. I’m not sure which is correct.

1. Booker shouldn’t criticize anyone else’s defense before looking in the mirror.

2. Kanter’s defense is so bad, even Booker is mocking it.

James Harden on double-stepback uncalled travel: ‘What do you want me to say? Tell on myself?’ (video)

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James Harden is difficult enough to defend when officiated correctly.

When he can get away with this? There’s nearly no stopping him. That was a big uncalled travel in the Rockets’ win over the Jazz last night.

Harden, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“What do you want me to say? Tell on myself?” Harden said.

Fair.

Unlike that call.

Three Things to Know: Rockets beat Jazz behind Harden’s 47, has Houston turned it around?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Rockets beat Jazz behind James Harden’s 47, is Houston turning it around? It was a “battle” of the two most disappointing teams in the Western Conference — just about every pundit (myself included) projected the Rockets and Jazz to finish second and third in the West in some order. They came into the night 10th and 13th in the West — both out of the playoffs if they started today.

And both needed a win — in the tight Western Conference any game between playoff contenders counts double (and there seems to be a game or three like this every night now).

Houston got the win, 102-97, because MVP James Harden showed up and took over: 47 points, six rebounds, five assists, and five steals.

That’s the second time in four days Harden has been in vintage form, he dropped 50 on the Lakers and frustrated them just days before. Harden is the master and showing the ball and drawing fouls, and he has the best step-back in the game — although this one was more than a gather and step. Harden got away with one.

The Rockets have now won four in a row, are over .500 at 15-14 for the first time since Nov. 23rd. They are just half a game back of the final playoff slot in the West.

Have the Rockets turned it around?

Depends on how you define “turned it around.”

The Rockets offense has been elite and their defense average — which is a big step up, they are still fifth worst in the league on the season — in these four games. Harden has taken over two of them. That recipe, if it continues, should get Houston into the playoffs in the West. In that sense, they have turned it around, they are performing at the level of a playoff team, which is a step up.

But just making the playoffs was never the goal in Houston — this was a team that was ahead of Golden State at halftime of games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference Finals last season and within a step of reaching the Finals (and winning a ring). This season they wanted to take that next step.

The Rockets aren’t at that level yet, and this roster — as currently constructed — cannot get there. Houston was a top-10 defense last season and this roster has not shown it can get near, let alone sustain, that level. Houston’s defensive switching isn’t as smooth as a season ago, and teams are attacking it differently (not just trying to post up Harden or Chris Paul). Houston doesn’t have the personnel on this roster to adapt and thrive against the way the NBA is adjusting, they are thin at the wings, and come the playoffs they are farther away from Golden State, not closer.

Which is why everyone expected them to go harder for a Trevor Ariza trade, not only do they miss him the Rockets need wing help and he’s the best one available. They didn’t. And here we are:

Houston is playing a lot better, but not at the level they had hoped. If you want to call that turning it around, go ahead.

2) Milestones night in Bay Area: Stephen Curry reaches 15,000 points, Kevin Durant passes Larry Bird on the all-time scoring list. For Stephen Curry, it appropriately happened on a deep pull-up three — he passed the 15,000 point mark in his career.

Curry is the fifth Warrior to score 15K all in a Warriors’ uniform, and the other names are all legends and Hall of Famers: Wilt Chamberlain, Rick Barry, Paul Arizin and Chris Mullin. Chamberlain scored the most as a Warrior at 17,783, a number Curry likely passes next season.

With all the attention paid to Curry — still the golden child for Bay Area fans — nobody seemed to notice Kevin Durant passed Hall of Famer Larry Bird for 33rd on the all-time scoring list during the same game. (Durant is 38th if you count ABA scoring in the mix, just for the record.) KD is going to finish way up that list by the time his career ends.

By the way, the Warriors cruised past the Grizzlies 110-93 in the kind of easy win Golden State hasn’t seen enough of this season.

3) Taj Gibson doesn’t need two shoes to play good defense. Credit Tom Thibodeau for coming up with a new way to play defense.

Taj Gibson had the ball in his hands and had gone at the Kings’ Nemanja Bjelica in the post, eventually scoring but losing his shoe. Gibson picked up his shoe and ran back down the court with it in his hands, but Sacramento pushed the ball back up the floor and decided to have Bjelica attack the one shoe/one sock Gibson.

Gibson was up to the challenge and got a little help from Karl-Anthony Towns.

Pretty sure that’s coming up in a Kings’ film session.