The Extra Pass: How the Clippers Grew Up

12 Comments

The Extra Pass is a new daily column that’s designed to give you a better look at a theme, team, player or scheme. Today, we look at the maturation of the Los Angeles Clippers.

For years and years, the Los Angeles Clippers were a failure on a systemic level. The on-court talent was faced with the permanent uphill battle of overcoming the ineptness of the franchise’s negligent caretaker and owner, Donald Sterling.

Very rarely did the whole overcoming thing actually happen. It happened so infrequently, actually, that calling the Clippers the worst franchise in professional sports wasn’t mud slinging, but rather an accurate moniker.

When the Clippers acquired Chris Paul last year, he understood the gravity of his decision to adopt the abused franchise as his own. Being great on the court simply wouldn’t be enough — he would have to be the new caretaker, the franchise’s new parent. After all, Sterling sure as hell wasn’t doing it, and for as great as Blake Griffin was, he was still just a kid trying to figure out his own game. The responsibility was squarely on Paul’s shoulders.

Like most new parents, Paul accepted that responsibility with a type of fervor that could be considered, at times, a little overbearing. The Clippers were now an extension of Paul, so everything was watched and controlled with an overly careful eye that only a great point guard can possess.

During their inaugural season together, the Clippers would often stumble through three quarters to teams with less talent, only to hope, or know, that Paul would bail them out in the last few minutes. And more often than not, Paul would play the role of both hero and enabler and come through.

The Clippers had managed to become a very good team throughout that process, but all their hopes stayed completely dependent on Paul’s performance. The rest of the team was generally incapable of any real success without Paul holding their hand, and in some ways, Paul was at least partially responsible for allowing the team to establish such a heavy dependence on his late game offensive heroics.

The playoff sweep at the hands of the Spurs was a reflection of this. With Paul banged up and limited by a defense hellbent on stopping him, the Clippers had little else to fall back on in terms of both experience and scheme. While they had ultimately changed for the better with Paul as a parent during that first season, the Clippers as a whole still had yet to mature.

With the guidance of Paul, the Clippers went into the offseason looking to speed up that maturation process. Their youngest substantial free agent signing was 32-year-old Jamal Crawford. They brought in traveled players like Grant Hill, Lamar Odom and Matt Barnes, and secured Chauncey Billups as the first act of business.

Those signings obviously matured the team on paper, but it was Paul who did the actual advancing. Instead of conserving energy for when his heroics would be needed in the fourth quarter like the prior season, Paul changed his approach this year by using his energy right away so the team wouldn’t need him at all — a real “teach a man to fish” move.

Behind Paul’s inspired first quarter play, the Clippers have had a much improved defense (18th in defensive efficiency last year to 4th this season), thanks to the example he’s established. If you flip to a telecast of a Clippers game in the fourth quarter this year, there’s a decent chance Paul will be seated on the bench, watching a suffocating second unit put the bow on another blowout win because Paul did his damage so early.

Playing that hard defensively early on accomplished a few different things for the Clippers. It made them the league’s most dominant defense against opposing point guards, something they can really hang their hat on. It sent the message that he trusted the depth behind him. It emphasized the importance of no player taking possessions off. The Clippers aren’t accomplishing what they are defensively with a scheme like Chicago’s or Boston’s — it’s almost all driven by effort.

A test for the Clippers’ progress defensively came about rather recently when they traveled to Memphis for another game in a long line of slugfests. This time, however, they’d be without their biggest puncher in Paul, who was sidelined with a knee injury.

How did they respond? Well, the Clippers held the Grizzlies to 30 percent shooting and destroyed them in their own house, 99-73. True to form, the game was essentially over in the third quarter.

On the very next night, the Clippers headed to Houston. All the excuses were readily available — they were on a back-to-back, on the road, without Chris Paul, against the league’s fastest team. But they won big again, going up by as much as 20 early in the fourth quarter before cruising the rest of the way.

An interesting narrative popped up after the impressive victories. How could Chris Paul be considered a real MVP candidate if his team was great — maybe even better — without him in the lineup for a few games? It’s a direct hit to the “valuable” part of the equation, isn’t it?

When considering that, I can’t help but be reminded of the conclusion of J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher In The Rye.” The “little brother” of Los Angeles is reaching for that ring, and while Paul is still responsible for the Clippers, he’s mature enough to know that his teammates won’t learn anything if he does everything himself. He’s mature enough to know that repeatedly gearing up and saving them in the moment last year didn’t actually save the Clippers from anything at all.

It’s true, the Clippers don’t need Chris Paul in every waking moment anymore. It’s clear that they’ve grown out of that.

And if that’s not a reflection on Paul’s value, I don’t know what it is.

Donovan Mitchell goes off for 19 in fourth quarter, Jazz hold off elimination with win

Leave a comment

This game just felt different — the Utah Jazz were playing with a passionate desperation we had not seen from them all series. Down 3-0 to Houston, Utah did not want to be swept out of the playoffs on their home court. The Jazz defended better, got a big night from Jae Crowder (14 points in the first quarter alone), and were knocking down shots.

But Utah could not pull away. Houston was always within striking distance.

Until the fourth quarter.

That’s when Utah went on a 12-1 run early, sparked by Donovan Mitchell who had 19 in the fourth, and the Jazz created some separation and held on for the 107-91 win.

Mitchell finished with 31 on the night.

Mitchell had some help. Crowder finished with 23 points, while Ricky Rubio added 18 points and 11 assists.

“We were okay until the last quarter… again, they had more of a desperation than we had,” Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni said.

James Harden got his, 30 points on 19 shots, in part because he went 6-of-12 from three. Chris Paul had 23 as well. All the other Rockets combined to shoot 29.3 percent on the night. In the fourth, the Rockets were 0-of-13 from three.

For the Rockets this is a blown chance to get more rest. The Warriors play Wednesday night in Game 5 of their series, if the Rockets had closed the series out they could have had a little more rest. Instead, they also now have a Game 5 Wednesday.

For the Jazz, this was a matter of pride, they finally found what it would take for them to beat the Rockets. It was their most energized defensive performance of the series, and the shots were falling. The series is not in doubt — no team has ever come back from a 0-3 deficit to win a series — but the Jazz showed the fight and resilience we have come to expect from a Quin Snyder coached team.

Will that be enough Wednesday night is another question.

Phoenix Suns fire coach Igor Kokoskov

Getty Images
1 Comment

Following a 19-63 season where the man who hired him — GM Ryan McDonough — was already shown the door, there was a lot of speculation that coach Igor Kokoskov was next on the chopping block.

That happened Monday night, the Suns decided to move on from Kokoskov.

“After extensive evaluation, I determined it is best to move in a different direction with our head coaching position,” said Suns general manager James Jones in a statement. “I want to thank Igor for his work this past season and wish him the best with his future endeavors.”

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN added some detail.

The Suns recently hired Jeff Bower as their senior vice president of basketball operations. Bower gave Monty Williams his first head coaching job, hiring him to coach the Hornets back when Bower was the GM there.

Williams will have his second interview with the Lakers next week. Williams is rumored in some quarters to be the frontrunner for the Los Angeles job (he and Tyronn Lue will have second interviews coming), the Suns are starting this race from behind but do have a relationship there.

Kokoskov was the first European born person to be a head coach in the NBA. He was Luka Doncic‘s national team coach, but the Suns took Deandre Ayton No. 1 (reportedly at the urging of owner Robert Saver).

Kokoskov was handed a young roster that lacked a point guard or solid veteran leader, so it’s no surprise the Suns and Kokoskov got off to a slow start, going 4-18 and looking a mess. However, the team improved, Kelly Oubre Jr. was added, and the Suns went an improved 8-15 after the All-Star break, including wins against the Bucks and Warriors. Devin Booker improved, Deandre Ayton was growing, and the team showed improvement. That said, there were questions about Kokoskov’s rotations and communication with players.

Phoenix, with meddling owner Robert Sarver at the helm, is known for turnover and instability — whoever is hired next will be the team’s seventh head coach in eight years. This move just fits right in with the perception.

 

Bucks win first playoff series in 18 years, give Pistons longest playoff-game losing streak in NBA history

AP Photo/Carlos Osorio
Leave a comment

DETROIT – Between on-court postgame interviews, Giannis Antetokounmpo took a pit stop at the Bucks’ bench for a drink. He appeared to need a few moments to catch his breath, so Fox Sports Wisconsin reporter Katie George asked whether he was ready.

Antetokounmpo nodded as if he didn’t give it a second thought.

Of course he was ready.

Antetokounmpo was ready for everything tonight.

He scored 41 points – the most so far by anyone this postseason – and blocked four shots to lead the Bucks to a 127-104 Game 4 win over the Pistons. By sweeping Detroit, Milwaukee got its first playoff-series victory in 18 years.

“Where we were and where we are right now,” Antetokounmpo said, “it’s been an unbelievable journey.”

The Bucks advance to face the Celtics in the second round, an awaited rematch of last year’s first-round series. But Milwaukee cared far more about its opening round than most 60-win No. 1 seeds do.

Every NBA MVP besides Kevin Garnett, who didn’t advance until his ninth year, won a playoff series in his first five seasons. Antetokounmpo, who’s favored to win MVP this year, just won his first series in his sixth season.

The wait has been even longer for Milwaukee, which ends the fourth-longest playoff-series-victory drought of all-time at 17 seasons:

image

The Bucks left no doubt, beating Detroit by 35, 21, 16 and 23. This is just the second four-game sweep with every game won by at least 15 points in NBA history (Celtics over Rockets in 1980).

The sweep gives the Pistons sole possession of the longest playoff-game losing streak of all-time, 14 games:

image

Detroit’s streak includes 2009 and 2016 sweeps by the Cavaliers, meaning the Pistons have now gone 11 straight seasons without winning a playoff game. That’s one of the longest such droughts of all-time (record during drought listed):

image

Detroit just had no answer for Antetokounmpo, who drew 16 fouls Monday. The most impressive came as he rose to dunk on Andre Drummond, withstood contact and shifted to make a circus shot:

The play left his teammates in awe.

Eric Bledsoe: “I had to tell him, ‘Bro, you don’t understand how athletic you’ve been all season and finessing at the rim.’ That one, it was just unbelievable. It was unbelievable, man.”

Pat Connaughton: “There are sometimes you’ve just got to shake your head at some of the things that he can do. … I think the nickname ‘Freak’ is for a reason.”

Nikola Mirotic: “It was just amazing watching him tonight”

The Bucks will have a little time to lock back in.

Milwaukee-Boston will be the first series between teams coming off sweeps since Lakers-Suns in the 2010 Western Conference finals. It’ll be the first such second-round series since Pistons-Bulls in 2007.

As Antetokounmpo repeatedly said in the locker room after tonight’s game, “I can’t wait.”

Report: Luke Walton sued for sexual assault

Getty Images
5 Comments

Luke Walton is being sued by a female reporter claiming sexual assault from a hotel room incident that dates back to before he was hired as the Lakers’ head coach (he was recently let go from that position and is currently the coach of the Sacramento Kings).

Kelli Tennant was writing a book and wanted Walton to write the forward, according to a lawsuit obtained by TMZ. The two had a business relationship and she agreed to meet him in a Santa Monica hotel to discuss him writing the forward to the book, according to the report. We’ll let TMZ take it from there:

In the suit, Tennant says when she arrived at Walton’s hotel, he convinced her to come up to his room so they could discuss the book. She claims when they got up to his room, Walton suddenly pinned her to the bed, placing his hips and legs over her body.

In the docs, Tennant claims Walton then began forcing kisses on her neck, face and chest. She claims she screamed for him to stop and tried to free herself, but he held her down, groped her breasts and groin, and rubbed his erection on her leg.

She says he eventually relented and let her get up from the bed, but as she was walking towards the door to leave he grabbed her from behind and again forced his body up against hers.

The lawsuit goes on to say Walton and her would interact after that, because of her job, and he would give her exaggerated hugs, kisses, and would make lewd comments to her.

Walton took over coaching the Lakers for the 2016-17 season. The alleged assault took place while Walton was still an assistant coach with the Warriors, however, some of the comments/actions that made her uncomfortable came later while Walton was with the Lakers.

Walton’s attorney released a statement to Sam Amick of The Athletic.

The Sacramento Kings have made a statement:

“We are aware of the report and are gathering additional information. We have no further comment at this time.”

The Warriors issued this statement:

“We became aware of the alleged incident and story this evening and are in the process of seeking more information. We’ll have no further comment at this time.”

The Lakers issued this statement:

“This alleged incident took place before Luke Walton was the Head Coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. At no time before or during his employment here was this allegation reported to the Lakers. If it had been, we would have immediately commenced an investigation and notified the NBA. Since Luke Walton is now under contract to another team, we will have no further comment.”