Thunder 117, Clippers 111: A Chris Paul survival guide

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Chris Paul is terrifying, and he knows it. Paul doesn’t score just to score — he does it to establish the threat. When you’re 6-foot-nothing in a league filled with giants, you manipulate instead of overwhelm. Paul can have 6 points and it will feel like he’s dominating, just because he made his shadow look a little bigger.

Stopping Paul isn’t easy, but the Thunder did it better than any team has in a long, long time. In the Clippers 117-111 overtime loss in Oklahoma City, Paul was denied everything. Passing lanes closed up. Avenues to the hole were non-existent. Paul was regularly caught in the air, just hoping for something to materialize — a shocking sight for any long time viewer of his brilliance. It was jarring. Paul is the NBA’s greatest dictator, a player who is in control of himself and everything around him at all times. He makes roster decisions. He distributes the touches. He tells guys where to go and what to do. But tonight, it was the Thunder defense that took control, forcing Paul into a dreadful 2-for-14 effort from the field.

How’d they do it? Let’s take a look at Oklahoma City’s Chris Paul survival guide:

Keep your distance

Because Paul doesn’t attack in a straight line, you can’t just slap a speedster on him and call it a day. You need gobs and gobs of length to disrupt his patented side-step jumper and other horizontal attacks. If you were to construct a Chris Paul stopper from scratch, it would probably be Thabo Sefolosha. Paul is able to trick more physical defenders like Tony Allen, but Sefolosha does a wonderful job of playing off of Paul and giving him space, knowing that he can use his long arms to at least partially contest any pull-up jumpers. As a general rule, the farther Paul stays away from the rim, the less damage he can do. Sefolosha did a wonderful job of deterring Paul’s penetration in the isolation setting, forcing CP3 into an 0-for-9 shooting night from outside of the paint.

Don’t Switch

Paul loves toying with big men ill-equipped to stay in front of him, so the Thunder wisely went “blue” on pick-and-roll coverage and turned down the screens by showing CP3 mobile bigs like Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison instead of switching. It’s the same strategy Gregg Popovich used for much of the Los Angeles-San Antonio playoff series, and the Thunder were able to implement it well here with good foot speed all across the floor. One of the best examples of the Spurs refusing to switch was Russell Westbrook staying at the top of the key in the Clippers last possession in regulation and not letting Kevin Martin have to deal with CP3. Westbrook is a pretty good defender when he’s both motivated and directly attacked, and he took over the defensive stopper role just fine once Martin came in for Sefolosha for offensive purposes.

Make him defend

Covering Westbrook (23 points) is a full-time job, simply because you can’t predict his actions. He takes pull-up threes off his own dribble, he drives when there is no lane to drive, and he does it all at a speed you can’t possibly hope to keep up with. Paul was off and the defense on him was great, but give Westbrook credit for applying constant pressure on the other end as well. With Westbrook flying around and Kevin Durant getting to the line a whopping 21 times, Oklahoma City’s offense felt a little more unrelenting than the Clippers did. Those pindowns for Durant (35 points) just kept coming, and Durant just kept attacking off it. Paul knew it wasn’t his night, but unless it was Jamal Crawford doing something similar in a clear isolation, the Clippers got nothing designed down the stretch and simply survived off improvisational plays from the like of Matt Barnes (19 points).

While Westbrook and Durant functioned like an occasionally bumbling but ultimately effective two-party democracy that took turns wielding power, the Clippers dictatorship failed them late in the game. Blake Griffin played a nice offensive game and had 23 points, but he only shot the ball 3 times in the fourth quarter and overtime combined. Paul is one of the best point guards the game has ever seen and nearly every night his decision-making will be as good as it’s going to get for the Clippers, but like the oh-so-wise Kanye West says, no one man (especially on a night like this) should have all that power.

Report: Mutual interest in Cavaliers keeping Tristan Thompson

Tristan Thompson
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Tristan Thompson has played every one of his nine NBA seasons in a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform.

There have been questions about where the free-agent big man will play his 10th season. The Cavaliers traded for Andre Drummond to become their starting five, limiting both Thompson’s role and the money Cleveland would spend for the backup center role.

There is still “mutual interest” in a return, Cavs GM Koby Altman told Chris Fedor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

“I think it’s fair to say there’s mutual interest for sure,” general manager Koby Altman said about the possibility of re-signing Thompson. “He’s been with this franchise his entire career since we drafted him. He’s won a championship here. Obviously, he means a lot to the players on the team right now, but it has to make sense. There are some events coming up — the draft, free agency — where we have to see if it makes sense for him. He’s earned the right to be an unrestricted free agent and explore opportunities at this point in his career. So, we’ll see.”

Tristan Thompson, 30, has battled nagging injuries in recent seasons but started most of the Cavaliers’ games before the shut down of the league last season, stayed healthy, and averaged 12 points and 10.1 rebounds a game playing 30 minutes a night.

How much of a market there will be for Thompson remains to be seen, especially in uncertain financial times around the league, but it will not be anywhere near the $18.5 million he made this season. He brings rebounding, defense, and a veteran presence to a team, but in general teams are not spending on the center spot right now, seeing that as a mercenary position where they can get a solid player at a cheap price. Thompson may have other suitors offering a larger role than Cleveland can, but the money is not likely to be much different.

Thompson’s camp asked for a trade at the deadline this past season (Cleveland couldn’t find a deal it liked), but when it comes time to decide this offseason he may want to stay with the organization he knows not a new one, if the money is the same. It’s going to be an interesting offseason for Thompson and the Cavaliers.

 

Bam Adebayo: “I played like s***… I’ll put that game on me.”

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The Miami Heat were one half of basketball away from the NBA Finals when a desperate Boston team cranked up its defensive intensity, started attacking the rim, and started playing at a level Miami didn’t match. The Celtics dominated the final 24 minutes of Game 5, forcing a Game 6 and keeping the Heat out of the Finals for now.

Bam Adebayo took the blame for the Heat loss. Via Manny Navarro of The Athletic.

“I played like s***. Bottom line: I can’t. I’ll put that game on me. It’s not my teammates’ fault. It’s not my coaches’ fault. It’s me. I missed too many shots I should have made… I wasn’t being the defensive anchor I should’ve been. I don’t think I was communicating fast enough. I feel like I was a step behind today. I wasn’t a difference-maker today. I didn’t get us into fast enough triggers. That’s on me.”

Game 5 was not Adebayo’s best outing: 13 points, eight rebounds, and Boston did a better job with its scheme pulling him away from the basket to defend smaller players on the perimeter, opening up the paint. Adebayo and the Heat as a whole struggled to slow the Celtics’ pick-and-roll actions, and Boston has figured out how to play against Miami’s zone (so the Heat have gone away from it).

“It’s not (Adebayo’s fault). It’s on everybody,” Jimmy Butler said after the game. “He does so much for us that it can feel like that at times but it’s definitely not on him. It’s on us as a whole. We all understand that because nobody was playing the way that we are supposed to play; the way that we have to play in order for us to win, nobody. And for him to say that, I respect it. I love him for it. But he can’t do it by himself. We’ve got to be there with him.”

Bam Adebayo was wearing a sleeve over his left arm, where he aggravated a wrist injury at the end of Game 4. Both Adebayo and coach Erik Spoelstra said that was nothing and not what led to his off night.

Miami needs a lot of things to go differently in Game 6: It needs to start hitting its threes again (19.4% from beyond the arc in Game 5, and below 30% from deep in each of the last three games). Miami has to take care of the ball and it has to get back in transition defense — Boston ran right past the Heat in the second half and got a lot of easy transition buckets. Mostly, however, it comes back to Miami shooters hitting more of their threes — the Heat halfcourt offense needs that.

The Game 5 loss was not on Adebayo. But he can be part of the solution.

Backs against the wall, Celtics play dominant half to beat Heat, force Game 6

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For Boston, it was the worst of halves, it was the best of halves. It was a half of foolishness, it was a half of wisdom. It was a half of tight play, it was a half of free-flowing offense. It was a half of despair, it was a half of renewed hope.

With its season on the line down 3-1, Boston came out tight in the first half of Game 5, with guys trying to do everything themselves, showing no patience, no ball movement, players gunning from three, and nobody in green was defending well. Boston shot 5-of-20 in the first quarter, and while things settled down Boston was lucky to be only down seven at the half.

Then a different Boston team came out in the second half — a team that was defending with intent, pushing the pace, and watching their best player, Jayson Tatum, attack to the tune of 17 third quarter points. At the end of the third, Brad Stevens told his team, “with all sincerity, that’s the first time I’ve seen Celtics basketball in the past few games” (via the ESPN mic’d up segment of the broadcast).

The Celtics pulled away in the fourth to win 121-108. The Heat still lead the series 3-2, with Game 6 coming on Sunday.

“We did not compete hard enough defensively and we paid the price for that,” Erik Spoelstra said of his Heat team.

“I thought we played with great tenacity defensively, and I think our offense followed suit,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of the second-half turnaround.

That defense included much more ball pressure out high on Miami and it worked. The Heat shot 19.4% from three, that’s the third straight game under 30% from three for the Heat, but Tyler Herro wasn’t able to bail them out this time around.

For Boston, Tatum finished with 31 points and 10 rebounds, and his third quarter helped save the Boston season.

Boston needs that Tatum from the opening tip on Sunday, not after 24 minutes (as we have seen the last couple of games). Boston is a good team but it needs Tatum to play at an All-NBA level to look like a contender.

Jaylen Brown added 28 points for the Celtics, while Daniel Theis proved an important role with 15 points and 13 rebounds plus some critical defensive plays down the stretch.

Miami may have led at the half, but when Boston started playing better out of desperation the Heat had no answers.

“No one was playing the way we’re supposed to play, the way we have to play for us to win,” Butler said.

Miami got 23 points from Goran Dragic and 20 from Duncan Robinson, who was a big part of Miami’s strong first half.

Miami was up 3-1, and they have seen how little that lead has meant in the bubble.

“I don’t think those series have anything to do with this. Our guys are well aware,” Spoelstra said. “We have great respect for Boston. We’re not expecting it to be easy. You have to earn it.”

Kings keeping Luke Walton, plan to play faster next season

Kings coach Luke Walton
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Kings coach Luke Walton works for a general manager who didn’t hire him and an owner who has shown frustration with him.

But Walton will keep his job.

New Sacramento general Monte McNair, via James Ham of NBC Sports California:

“Luke is going to be our coach next year, I’m really excited to work with him and I think we’re aligned in our vision and we’re going to start implementing it,” McNair said.

“This team showed some flashes last year,” McNair said. “I think De’Aaron is certainly a great young talent and I think his speed ability offensively to create really is going to be a huge catalyst for how coach Walton and I envision this team being up-tempo, creating the space to shoot threes and attack the rim.”

Walton has had four losing seasons in four years as a head coach between the Lakers and Kings. But this is how it works out for him.

A distressing aspect of Walton’s first season in Sacramento: The Kings played far slower than they did the previous season under Dave Joerger, who successfully implemented a fastbreak-heavy attack that particularly suited De'Aaron Fox.

Walton can coach that way. His Lakers teams typically played quickly. But Sacramento too often stagnated last season.

The Kings are still building around Fox. It’s on Walton to figure out how to maximize the point guard. For now.