Clippers try to jump-start defense for playoff run. Hapless Pistons help out.

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LOS ANGELES — Since the start of the season there have been two questions that seem to define just how far the Clippers can go:

1) How good is DeAndre Jordan playing at the five?

2) How good is the Clippers defense?

The answer to both of those questions of late was “not good.” Which is why a lot of people have crossed the Clippers off their contenders list. Teams like the Thunder, Spurs and Nuggets have made them look bad recently.

Vinny Del Negro admitted his team was not playing well heading into Sunday night, then said the usual coach speak about it being all effort and focus. What he really needed was a nice easy blowout win with some good defense.

Enter the Pistons.

The Clippers played good defense early, the hapless Pistons couldn’t capitalize when they did find holes and the Clippers got their rout, 129-97.

It’s a start. Now they need to carry it over to a bigger test against Memphis Wednesday.

“I thought defensively we were really tuned in, trying to take away some things, our energy level was up,” Clipper veteran Chauncey Billups told PBT after the game. “It wasn’t about who we was playing, it was about kind of us and our mindset and what we was going to do.”

The Clippers can defend. On the season, the Clippers have given up 100.2 points per 100 possessions, eighth best in the NBA. They have defended the pick-and-roll well (both the ball handler and roller, top five in the NBA according to Synergy Sports) by mixing up coverages.

But in the last five games that is up to 107.3 points per 100 possessions, 27th in the NBA during that stretch. In those games teams are shooting 47.8 percent overall and a very good 39.5 percent from three. Go back 10 games and the Clippers are giving up 104.3 points per 100 (20th in the league).

“We have to start playing better, I don’t think we’ve played well in a while…” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said before the game. “I think we just got to get our intensity up. Deny one pass away, be more physical, execute the plan better, talking, communicating, sprinting back in transition, loading up on the ball, running three point shooters off the line, boxing out, just all the fundamentals.”

Oh, well, if that’s all that’s wrong….

The Clippers did that in the first quarter. The Pistons pregame goal was to draw the Clipper big men out in the pick-and-roll, to get them in space, but the Clippers dropped off a lot. Why? Well, they were playing the Pistons. This was not a team that could make the Clippers pay for that strategy. Even when it worked and Jose Calderon made a nice pass to Greg Monroe, who had rolled inside to good position, he couldn’t finish when contested (he started the game 1-of-5). And the Clippers didn’t fear Jason Maxiell. Rightly.

As the game wore on the Clippers were more aggressive against the Pistons guards, trapping and challenging. And everybody not named Calderon struggled against that challenge.

It’s hard to take any defensive stats from this game after the first half too seriously because it became such a blowout. The Pistons had no answer for the Clippers on the offensive end. The Pistons defense could not keep stop Blake Griffin early — he hit on post moves, dunks in transition, cuts through the lane and, of course, a transition alley-oop. Throw in some vintage Chris Paul cross over and step backs and the Clippers were up 12 in the first quarter. Griffin finished with 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting.

DeAndre Jordan was more active as well. Plus, he had a monster, monster dunk. The Pistons just had now answers.

And this was a Clippers team that was without Jamal Crawford and Eric Bledsoe off the bench.

To a man the Clippers all talked about defensive intensity and focus, to getting back to the kind of defense they were playing when they won 17 in a row. The Clippers are the current three seed in the West however both the Nuggets and Grizzlies are playing great ball and either of those teams — or sides like the Warriors or Rockets or Lakers — could expose the defense if the Clippers are not focused and not building good habits heading to the playoffs.

If not, the Clippers playoff stay could be shockingly short. There is no margin for error in a deep West.

Raptors hire Spurs video coordinator, who just happens to be Kawhi Leonard friend

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Jeremy Castleberry played his high school ball in Riverside, California, on the same team as Kawhi Leonard. When Leonard went on to San Diego State for college, Castleberry went too and was a walk-on for that team.

When the Spurs drafted Leonard, it was not long before Castleberry was a video coordinator and on the staff in San Antonio. Now Leonard is a Raptor so… you know what’s coming. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN explained it well.

The Toronto Raptors are hiring San Antonio Spurs staffer Jeremy Castleberry — a close friend of Kawhi Leonard — to a position on their coaching staff, league sources told ESPN.

Castleberry has worked with Leonard as a Spurs staffer and played with Leonard in high school and at San Diego State, where he was a walk-on.

Is this alone going to keep Leonard a Raptor next summer when he’s a free agent? No. But this is how the game is played — make the star player you’re recruiting feel comfortable, wanted, a key part of everything. Bringing in a friend to a new city for him fits right into that plan.

The smart money is still on Leonard bolting next summer to go to Los Angeles, but if the Raptors are able to change his mind — ala Paul George — it will not be one big thing but a thousand little ones. And a lot of wins. But hiring Castleberry is a start.

Brandon Jennings signs to play in Russia next season

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Brandon Jennings has just never been the same since his 2015 torn Achilles. He hasn’t shot over 40 percent from the floor for a season since then, he hasn’t moved well defensivly, and he had a PER of 19.3 the season it was torn and it’s never been above 13.7 for a season since then. In the past couple of seasons he has played in the G-League and China, and he played 14 games at the end of the season for the Bucks last campaign.

This summer, there were no offers. He is now headed to Russia, according to multiple reports, including EuroHoops.net. He will play for Zenit St Petersburg.

He’s only 28 years old, there is time for him find a way to make his game fit into the NBA landscape again. He’s just not there yet, and maybe the opportunity in Russia will lead him there. If not, he’s still getting paid to play at a high level.

Some owners reportedly want access to mental health files of players

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If you read one thing NBA related today, it should be the first installment of Jackie MacMullan’s brilliant series at ESPN on the mental health of players and staffs in the NBA, and how the league is handling it. MacMullan not only got Kevin Love and Paul Pierce to open up about their challenges, but she also got into the challenges the league faces in confronting this issue head-on.

One such challenge: Owners wanting access to players mental health “files.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, players union executive director Michelle Roberts and their respective teams are reportedly working on a new mental health policy for the league. Privacy is going to be a big part of that. From MacMullan:

Yet there remain many obstacles to confront, chief among them the stigma attached to mental health that prompts many players to suffer in silence. The union also insists that mental health treatment be confidential, but some NBA owners, who in some cases are paying their players hundreds of millions of dollars, want access to the files of their “investments.” That is not, however, the league’s position. “The NBA fully supports protecting the confidentiality of players’ mental health information and, accordingly, committed to the players association that any mental health program we undertake would do so,” NBA spokesman Mike Bass says.

Confidentiality, says Love, has to be non-negotiable. Without it, he says, he never would have become comfortable enough to announce from that All-Star dais that he was seeking treatment.

Those files must be private. This is different from a torn knee ligament or sprained ankle (and on those we have HIPPA laws for good reason). For one, this is something more unpredictable in treating. Second, it comes back to the stigma of mental health issues and how the information about them might be used.

That stigma still exists, both in society and the NBA — McMullan gets into the players and their wives talking behind Love’s back All-Star weekend, and the players currently seeking treatment who do not want it public. The “real men don’t talk about this” mentality is everywhere, but it has fertile ground in professional sports locker rooms where players see themselves as invincible.

That mentality, that stigma will be the hardest thing to change in altering the culture of mental health issues in the NBA. There are no easy answers here. Does anyone think the owners who want access to those files wouldn’t use against the player in negotiations (never underestimate an owner’s effort to gain leverage)?

The players’ union will not allow that in whatever the framework is for the leagues’ new mental health policy. Nor should they.

Love, DeMar DeRozan, Royce White and others broke barriers stepping forward into the spotlight to discuss their challenges. But there are a lot of barriers still up, and a lot of work for both the NBA and society to do on this front. And privacy must be part of that.

Rebuilding Hawks add depth by signing Daniel Hamilton, Alex Poythress.

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ATLANTA (AP) — The rebuilding Atlanta Hawks have added depth by signing guard-forward Daniel Hamilton and forward Alex Poythress.

Poythress was signed to a two-way contract, so the former Kentucky player will split his time with the Hawks’ G League Erie team.

Hamilton is on a fully guaranteed one-year contract after impressing the Hawks playing for the Thunder Summer League team. He averaged 2 points in six games with Oklahoma City last season while on a two-way contract with the Thunder. He spent most of the season with the G League Oklahoma City Blue.

Poythress averaged 1 point in 25 games with Indiana last season. He began the season on a two-way contract.