When you mention contenders, consider the Clippers

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Sunday night, the Clippers went into the thin air of Denver and knocked off the Nuggets, the deepest and most steady team in the West (with the second best record in the conference).

Monday night they faced a rested Oklahoma City Thunder team and ran the team to best in the West out of the building. The final score was 112-100, but it wasn’t that close. While we were all buzzing over Blake Griffin’s latest and greatest ridiculous dunk, the Clippers were making a statement.

Chris Paul is back healthy and when you start talking about teams with a shot at the title you need to start mentioning the Clippers.

“They’re the best team we’ve played all year,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said after the thumping. “They have everything, they have a talented bench… they beat us.”

Maybe the Clippers are dark horse contenders. There are still questions about them — can you expose their lack of depth along the front line in the playoffs? Can they defend well enough in a playoff setting? Can Vinny Del Negro really coach a contender deep?

But a healthy Chris Paul — he had 26 points and 14 assists against OKC — directed the Clippers like a maestro the past two nights served notice on the league that the Clippers can play with anyone. They’re not playoff tested, but they should be feared.

Los Angeles raced out to an early lead Monday  behind Caron Butler getting good looks by finding his spots on the weak side then getting the kick out when the defense had to collapse on Paul or Griffin. Butler finished with 22 and was 4-8 from three. Both Butler and D’Andre Jordan have made the Clippers so much more dangerous by moving well off the ball and finding their spots to find good looks.

“We’re trying to see what the defense is going to give you,” Chauncey Billups said. “I had a couple looks tonight that I turned down. Caron was hot, so that was my shot but I moved (the ball) on. That’s the sign of a good team, you always want to have different guys that step up and be big. Last night (in Denver) I was rolling, tonight Caron, Chris was unbelievable, there was Blake. Look, it’s tough to prepare for four or five guys.”

The key to the game was the final 1:30 of the first half. While the Clippers had been up by as many as 15 the Thunder had cut it to 6 and seemed to have the momentum.

Then Mo Williams hit a three for Los Angeles. Williams next stole the ball from Russell Westbrook and Butler knocked down a three. James Harden missed a three on the other end, the Clippers came down and it was another Williams three. Then Durant with another turnover and that led to another Billups three. And the lead was 18 again. The Thunder never recovered.

To a man, the Thunder said it was by far the worst game they had played this season, the first clunker they have had. Westbrook and Durant combined for 67 — two thirds — of the Thunder’s points, the rest of the team shot just 38 percent. Brooks was philosophical about it and says it’s going to happen. Anyone who has watched the Thunder this season knows they can play better.

But part of their off night was the Clippers, a team thrown together before the season who are starting to figure it out.

“I definitely think we’re learning,” Paul said. “We just have to keep building our identity. We can’t say we’ve arrived after winning this game.”

PBT Extra: Can Rockets take Game 2 energy, execution on the road?

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Houston found its blueprint to beating Golden State in Game 2: Strong defensive pressure on the ball, quick switches and communication on defense, getting out in transition when possible, and starting sets earlier in the shot clock and attacking downhill with James Harden and Chris Paul.

Now can they do that on the road? Against a more focused and sharper Warriors’ team?

That will be the question in the next two games of the Western Conference Finals, and it’s what I discuss in this latest PBT Extra.

Cavaliers cruise past Celtics in Game 3, change complexion of Eastern Conference finals

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The Cavaliers were heavy favorites over the Celtics entering the Eastern Conference finals. LeBron James has dominated the East for years, and Cleveland appeared to hit its stride in a sweep of the Raptors last round. Boston was shorthanded and inexperienced.

Were the Celtics’ two wins to open the series, as impressive as they were, really enough to override everything else we knew about these teams?

The Cavs walloped Boston in Game 3, 116-86, Saturday. Cleveland now has four of the NBA’s last five 30-point playoff wins – two against the Celtics last year, one over Toronto last round and tonight. (The Cavaliers lost the league’s only other 30-point game between, to the Pacers in the first round.)

Boston still leads the series 2-1, and teams up 2-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 80% of the time.

But the team up 2-1 is usually the one seen as better entering the series. That isn’t the case here, not with LeBron on the other side. And the leading team usually isn’t so woeful on the road, which will remain a major storyline entering Game 4 Monday in Cleveland.

The Celtics bought themselves margin for error, but they blew a lot of it tonight.

It’d be an oversimplification to say the Cavs just played harder, but they did, and it went along way. They chased loose balls, tightened their defense and moved more off the ball offensively. Cleveland jumped to a 20-4 lead, led by double digits the rest of the way and spent most of the game up by at least 20.

LeBron (27 points, 12 assists, two blocks and two steals) dazzled as a passer and locked in as a defender. He received help from several players:

In a low-resistance effort, Boston didn’t goon up the game at all.

The Cavaliers still have plenty of work ahead to reach their fourth straight NBA Finals, but tonight, they showed a path to advancing. Climbing out of their early series deficit now looks far less intimidating.

Luka Doncic named EuroLeague MVP at age 19

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Luka Doncic, the likely top two pick in the upcoming NBA draft, has led his Real Madrid team to the EuroLeague finals at age 19.

Now he has been named the youngest player ever win the EuroLeague MVP.

For those unfamiliar, EuroLeague is the equivalent of the Champions League in soccer — the very best club teams from around the continent face off against each other. On this biggest of European stages, Doncic has been a force. He is a gifted passer with great court vision. He can take his man off the dribble. He can hit threes. And he knows how to be a floor general and run a game. Did we mention he’s just 19?

Doncic said before the start of EuroLeague that he hasn’t decided what he is going to do about coming to the NBA or going back to Real Madrid. Don’t buy it. This is like asking a major college basketball star right before the NCAA Tournament if he is coming back to “State U” next year, they don’t want to say “no” right before the tourney so they give a non-committal answer. Same here. He’s not leaving millions on the table, he’ll be in the NBA next season.

And he’ll bee good.

Playoff losses wearing on LeBron James: ‘I lose sleep’

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Last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers lost one game before reaching the NBA Finals. The season before that, two. The season before that also two. In Miami before that, the last couple of years they went to the Finals the Heat lost three and four games before reaching the Finals.

This year, the Cavaliers have lost five games already and find themselves down 0-2 to the Boston Celtics heading into Game 3 Saturday night in Cleveland.

The losses do weigh on LeBron, as reported by Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“I mean, I lose sleep,” James said after shootaround Saturday morning. “I mean, at the end of the day, when you lose any game in the postseason, [you lose sleep], so it’s never comfort. Playoffs is never comfort. There’s nothing about the playoffs that’s comfortable until you either win it all or you lose and go into the summer.

“So, for me, it’s always [a] day-to-day grind to figure out ways that you can be better.”

Cleveland has a lot to figure out to win the next two games because if they don’t and go down 3-1 in this series, it’s hard to envision how LeBron can drag this roster back to the Finals (what would be his eighth straight trip).

Offensively Cleveland has to get consistent play from guys other than LeBron (and to a lesser extent, Kevin Love) — J.R. Smith has been awful and needs to find a rhythm at home, George Hill needs to make some plays, Kyle Korver needs to get open and knock down some looks, and some help from the bench is needed.

But that’s not even the end of the floor that is the Cavs real problem. Defensively the Cavaliers recognition and communication has been dreadful, and the passing and player movement of the Celtics has carved them up. Cleveland has outscored teams and not defended all that well for a long time now — that’s how they made the Finals a season ago — but it’s not enough now. The offense and LeBron can’t carry them all the way.

We’ll see after Game 3 if LeBron is going to be able to get any sleep Saturday night.