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.”

Russell Westbrook sneak-snacking steals show on NBA’s opening night

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NBA’s opening night was quite tame. The Celtics and Warriors won as expected, neither the 76ers nor Thunder mounting much of a challenge.

That allowed Russell Westbrookout with an injury — to have the most fun moment when he looked around deviously, turned to his side and ate something.

What did did Westbrook eat? Was he not supposed to be eating? Did he not want to share? Big questions remain unanswered surrounding this important incident.

Joel Embiid on 76ers-Celtics: ‘This is not a rivalry … They always kick our ass’

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The 76ers-Celtics rivalry is being renewed.

But it’s not there yet, according to Philadelphia center Joel Embiid.

The 76ers are 3-19 against Boston since drafting Embiid, and though that includes multiple tanking years, Philadelphia hasn’t fared much better since getting good. The 76ers went 2-7 against the Celtics last season, including 1-4 in their second-round playoff series. Philadephia followed that with a season-opening loss to the Celtics last night.

Embiid, via Matt Haughton of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

“JJ (Redick) mentioned it earlier, this is not a rivalry,” Embiid said to reporters after the Sixers’ 105-87 season-opening loss to the Boston Celtics (see observations). “I don’t know our record against them but it’s pretty bad. They always kick our ass.”

I appreciate Embiid’s directness. We can all see the problem. There’s no point denying it.

The subtext is Embiid’s motivation to change this status quo, and a lot of it does fall in Embiid. Al Horford has given him fits. Even Aron Baynes worked him at times last night. Embiid is talented and far younger than those two. He’ll eventually get there.

In the meantime, he’s not mincing words.

Vinsanity grinds into a 21st season, rare company in the NBA

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ATLANTA (AP) — Vince Carter feels like a 20-something again.

Always does when this time of year rolls around.

Never mind the specks of gray in his beard, all the wear and tear on his body, a resume that shows he entered the NBA the same year teammate Trae Young was born.

Carter has made it to another opening night. The thrill of a new season flows through those creaky ol’ bones. Once again, it all seems worthwhile: the monotonous practices, the tedious film sessions, the long plane flights, the grind of 82 games.

“If I had that old `heck, here we go again’ feeling, then I wouldn’t play,” Carter said Tuesday, having finished up practice with a few extra jumpers. “This is like I’m in my third, fourth, fifth year. I’m excited about the opportunity. I’m excited about playing. I still love playing. I still love competing. I still enjoy the traveling, the ups and downs of the league. That’s what it’s all about. It’s hard to let go.”

The league’s oldest player – Carter is 41 and will turn another year older in January – is back for his 21st season. That puts him on the cusp of some very exclusive company: Robert Parrish, Kevin Willis and Kevin Garnett are the only players to last that long in the NBA (Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki also has a chance to join the 21 Club this year).

Carter is hardly chasing a championship, signing on with a rebuilding Atlanta Hawks team that is years away from having a realistic shot at competing for a title. He’s here to mentor to a bunch of young players and serve as a virtual player-coach on a first-year staff led by Lloyd Pierce.

“When we have our locker room and on-the-bus debates and conversations, he’s on our side,” quipped Pierce, a rookie head coach who is only about eight months older than Carter. “He can relate a little closer to the coaching staff than he can with the players.”

Kent Bazemore, the last holdover from a 60-win team that reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2015, lost most of his golfing buddies – including Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver – when the Hawks embarked on a rebuilding plan that send them tumbling to 24-58 last season.

With Carter on the roster, Bazemore again has someone to tee it up with on off days.

“I’ve got a new golfing buddy,” said Bazemore, who at 29 is one of the oldest players on the roster not named Vince Carter. “I’m excited about that. (The younger players) haven’t gotten into it yet.”

As expected, Carter takes some good-natured ribbing from his teammates, a grandpa joke here, an “ain’t it past your bedtime” there.

But all in all, he seems to fit it quite nicely with all these kids.

“We have a lot in common, believe it or not,” Carter said, breaking into a smile. “I make it my business to know what’s going on in the millennial world.”

While expected to fill a largely backup role for the Hawks, Carter will be in the starting lineup when they open the season Wednesday night against the New York Knicks. He’s subbing for power forward John Collins, a first-round pick in 2017 and one of those building blocks for Atlanta’s future, who is sidelined by an ankle injury.

Never mind that Carter is only 6-foot-6 and has spent his entire career at shooting guard and small forward.

Wherever he’s needed, he’s ready to give it a shot.

“I prepare myself in the summer for any situation,” Carter said. “I tell the coach first thing: `I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”‘

Young, the No. 5 overall pick and cornerstone of the Hawks’ makeover, looks forward to gleaning all he can from a player who was once one of the league’s brightest stars, a guy who threw down sick jams and averaged more than 20 points a game in 10 of his first 12 seasons.

Carter’s above-the-rim antics earned him a variety of nicknames – from “Vinsanity” to “Half-Man, Half-Amazing” – and a likely spot one day in the Basketball Hall of Fame, even though he’s never won a championship and there was griping early in his career about whether he was giving it his all.

These days, he’s a respected senior citizen, a player who draws nothing but awe for hanging on as long as he has, even though he’s bounced around to six teams in the past decade and hasn’t been a regular starter since 2012.

“He’s experienced so many things,” Young said. “I can go to him about anything and just ask him questions. He’s a future Hall of Famer. I’m just blessed to be around him and get advice from him.”

Carter hasn’t decided how long this ride will last.

Twenty-one years might be enough.

Then again, if he still feels that same sort of excitement that he’s feeling right now, he might go where no one has gone before in the NBA.

A 22nd season.

“At year 18, 19, I just said I’ll assess how I feel and the situation at the end of each year,” Carter said. “Just because I’m close to a bunch of different accomplishments, I don’t want to change my routine. I’ve had a lot of success doing it this way.”

With that, Carter hustled off to the locker room, the last guy to leave the court.

There was another flight to catch.

Another opening night to get to.

 

Nuggets agree to contract extension with coach Mike Malone

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Mike Malone was one of the names on the coaching hot seat lists this season. Not that his seat was warm just yet, a lot of pundits were high on his Nuggets (I predicted them to be fourth in the West), but after just missing the playoffs the past two years, if Denver got off to a slow start this season….

Cross Malone off your list, he just got a contract extension from the Nuggets.

This reportedly adds two years to his existing contract, so it now runs through 2021, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Expectations are high in Denver with a return to the playoffs the only acceptable outcome. The Nuggets have improved each season under Malone and won 46 games last season (that gets you in the dance most years). The Nuggets have a deep and impressive roster led by a top 20 NBA player in Nikola Jokic, a point guard in Jamal Murray who is poised to break out in his third season, plus quality rotation players such as Gary Harris and Paul Millsap.

Malone can earn that new contract — and get the team into the postseason — just by finally improving the Denver defense, which was 26th in the NBA last season. If they move up to the middle of the pack, with the Nuggets’ elite offense, they are in.

Whatever happens, Denver is a team to watch this season. And Malone isn’t going anywhere.