The Extra Pass: Clippers offensive fireworks cover up struggling defense, plus Monday recaps

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LOS ANGELES — The Clippers know how to put on a show — they dropped a highflying 137 points on the Rockets and blew the up-and-coming team out of the water. Through four games the Clippers are averaging 116.7 points per 100s possessions, that is almost 7 points better than the second place team (Houston). They are 3-1.

But the offensive fireworks are masking a more serious issue — the Clippers defense is not good.

The Clippers also have the worst defense in the NBA to pair with that offense, allowing 110.1 per 100 possessions. They have given up 100 points in each game this season, and are allowing opponents to shoot 48.2 percent overall and 42 percent from three.

Doc Rivers and all the Clippers know the truth — you can win a lot of regular season games just flat out outscoring your opponents, but you won’t last long in the playoffs.

“Our (problem) is simple right now: Second shots and turnovers,” Rivers said before the game. “As crazy as it sounds… I think it’s 46 points is what we’re giving up if you combine those two, second chance and turnovers. And if you’re giving up 46 points a game on second shots and turnovers, you can be the ’85 Bears and you’re still going to struggle defensively…

“It’s absolutely killing us. It’s creating awful matchups. Transition is about matchups and if you get back matched up to your guy you have a chance of guarding people. If you’re turning the ball over and creating mismatches at some point something bad is going to happen. And it’s happening. So we have to do a better job of taking care of the ball.”

The Clippers gave up 118 points to the Rockets in an up-tempo game (107 possessions, according to NBA.com), and again it was transition defense the team pointed to as the weakness.

“We have a ways to go defensively,” J.J. Redick said. “I think we’re feeling more and more comfortable with out half-court defense. When team are going against our set defense, I think we’re doing a pretty good job and starting to really understand some stuff. We have to do a better job in transition, getting matched up.”

I’m not sure their half court defense is all that great right now, but transition is the bigger issue.

There are 78 more games to figure he team defense out, that’s plenty of time. But that is the mission — this team is going to score at an incredible rate and win a lot of games this season just blowing opponents out of the water. But if they don’t get better defensive habits they will be golfing much earlier than expected come the spring.
—Kurt Helin

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Cavaliers 93, Timberwolves 92: Cleveland isn’t really a better team than Minnesota, especially the way the T’Wolves had gotten off to a 3-0 start to the season behind a monster of a first week from Kevin Love that earned him Conference award-winning honors. But falling behind by 23 points midway through the third on the road will put any team in a tough situation, and despite Minnesota’s furious fourth quarter rally (led largely by Corey Brewer’s activity on both ends of the floor), the Cavs were able to hang on for the win.

Warriors 110, Sixers 90: Golden State is one of the few teams that seem to be ahead of the competition in the early part of the season, both due to the returning core of talent on the roster and because of the style of play that tends to put their opponents on the defensive. The Sixers were a nice little story, but the Warriors obviously had no interest in it after leading by as many as 39 points on the road before the final buzzer sounded. Rookie sensation Michael Carter-Williams was held to just 4-of-17 shooting in 35 minutes of action, and Andre Iguodala torched his former team for 32 points in 33 minutes to lead the way for the Warriors.

Grizzlies 95, Celtics 88: The Celtics organization is likely perfectly pleased with their team’s start to the season. Boston has been in all four games it has played, and battled enough to keep them close into the fourth quarter. But all ultimately ended in losses, which fits perfectly into the plans of a rebuilding franchise looking to secure as many draft lottery ping pong balls as possible. In this one, Memphis held Boston to just 33.3 percent shooting in the final period, and Jerryd Bayless poured in 15 points in the final 12 minutes to lead the Grizzlies to a come from behind victory.

Clippers 137, Rockets 118: Defense? Who wants to watch defense? It was the King Midas game for the Clippers — everything they touched on offense turned to gold. They scored 42 points in the first quarter and a team record 78 in the half as they ran J.J. Redick off screens that James Harden wouldn’t fight through, and quickly Redick was racking up points on his way to 26. Chris Paul had 23 points and 17 assists. Jamal Crawford had 21. The Clippers shot 52 percent on the night. Houston’s offense wasn’t bad — Omri Casspi was able to get space from Blake Griffin and had 19 points, Harden had 15 but needed 16 shots to get there.  Dwight Howard got booed every time he touched the ball and was in early foul trouble keeping him on the bench, then said after the game the crowd reaction didn’t bother him. Something clearly bothered the entire Rocket team. — KH

Report: Making 2020 NBA Finals could swing whether Giannis Antetokounmpo signs super-max extension with Bucks

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The honeymoon between Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks is over.

Milwaukee’s superb season ended tonight with a Game 6 loss to the Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals. Already, attention is turning to the 2020 offseason, when Antetokounmpo can sign a five-year super-max extension that projects to be worth $250 million. If he doesn’t, the pressure will turn way up as he approaches unrestricted free agency in 2021.

Antetokounmpo is already applying some.

Malika Andrews of ESPN:

a source close to Antetokounmpo said that getting to the NBA Finals is not just an ambition, it could tip the scales as he weighs his contractual future.

And if they can reach the NBA Finals next season, the Bucks can improve their chances of signing Antetokounmpo to the supermax in the summer of 2020.

Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon will be free agents this summer. It’s unclear how much luxury tax Milwaukee is willing to pay.

This leak could be Antetokounmpo trying to convince the Bucks to pay to keep this team intact.

Would he actually leave Milwaukee? At every turn, he has praised the city and organization. But the Bucks have also been on an upward trajectory for years. As they get closer to the top, it becomes more difficult to maintain that positive momentum. They’re now entering a crucial season with the clear goal of a conference title. That doesn’t leave much room for error.

The Lakers are rumored to be plotting to get Antetokounmpo. If there are signs he’ll actually become available, many other teams will line up just for a chance to sign him. Antetokounmpo is a special player, a superstar at age 24.

He also needed this loss. Having never advanced past the first round before this year, he didn’t fully grasp the high level of play and intensity this deep into playoffs. He hadn’t felt the heartache of coming so close and falling short, a highly effective motivator. Raptors like Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol had already faced these tests, and that had a lot to do with Toronto winning.

I have no doubt this experience will make Antetokounmpo even better.

Antetokounmpo wants to ensure the Bucks match his desire to win. If they do, he and Milwaukee will remain committed to each other. The honeymoon isn’t the end.

But this is when it gets real.

Raptors’ summer gamble pays off with trip to Finals after Game 6 win over Bucks

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Toronto’s big gambles paid off.

Last summer, after five years of winning at least 48 games and looking impressive in the regular season only to stumble in the playoffs, Toronto’s team president Masai Ujiri went all in. He fired the NBA’s coach of the year in Dwane Casey to hire his assistant Nick Nurse, with the hope of installing a more creative offense.

Then they traded fan favorite and (at least to that point) the greatest Toronto Raptor in franchise history to get Kawhi Leonard, a guy coming off an injury that essentially sidelined him for a season. A guy who would be a free agent after one season. Leonard could bolt — like other stars had done north of the border — and leave the Raptors high and dry.

It was all a massive roll of the dice.

Toronto hit their number with that roll — the Raptors are headed to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

Toronto stormed from 15 points down in the third behind another monster game from Kawhi Leonard — 27 points, 17 rebounds, 7 assists — and held on to win Game 6 in front of a raucous home crowd, 100-94.

Toronto will host Game 1 of the NBA Finals Thursday night against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.

The Raptors may not be familiar with that stage, but Leonard knows both the Finals stage and that opponent (recall that the last time he faced them Zaza Pachulia slid under his foot on a jumper, spraining Leonard’s ankle and ending San Antonio’s playoff hopes that season). Thoughts about July 1 are banished for now in Toronto, the party is on.

“It means a lot,” long-time Raptor Kyle Lowry said about making the Finals. “It’s taken a long time to get here in my career, 13 years, seven years here [in Toronto]….

“But I’m not satisfied.”

This series changed in Game 3 when Nurse changed things up and had Leonard as the primary defender on Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak still got his, but everything became harder, and as the Raptors slowed the pace their halfcourt defense locked in. On the offensive end, Leonard just made plays.

“He’s a great player, he made some very special plays, give him a ton of credit,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of Leonard.

For the Bucks, who had the best record in the NBA this season and a likely MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo, this was a learning experience about their shortcomings — both his and the Milwaukee roster. He had 21 points and 11 rebounds, but he was not able to dominate the game like Leonard did in crucial moments. That comes with being just 24 and making a deep playoff run.

“In our minds, we feel he’s going to get a lot better,” Budenholzer said of the Greek Freak. “At 24 some guys are… I don’t want to say they are who they are, but at 24 some of the great ones were the same at 30 and 32 and so forth. Giannis we feel has a lot of room to grow.”

So does the roster around the Greek Freak. Antetokounmpo sat just 7:28 in this game, and that proved to be too much — the Bucks were -9 in those minutes. They lost by six.

Eric Bledsoe struggled again, with 8 points on 9 shots. Khris Middleton — who is a free agent this summer — had 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting.

Still, this is a good team on a learning curve. One with some tough decisions ahead for the front office, but a team on the rise.

They showed that early.

Milwaukee came out playing with a sense of desperation – it showed in their energy and second efforts on defense — but they raced out to a 15-point lead early in the second quarter mostly because they just hit shots. In the first half the Bucks did not get the ball inside (only seven shots at the rim) but were 9-of-18 from three and hit 50 percent of their shots from the midrange. Antetokounmpo had 10 points and seven rebounds and Ersan Ilyasova surprised with nine points in the first 24.

That had the Bucks up 50-43 at the half, but it felt precarious. Then in the third, Milwaukee had an 8-0 run and the lead was pushed to 15 at one point. The Raptors were stumbling. Pascal Siakam hesitated on shots, not trusting himself. Danny Green trusted himself but couldn’t hit anything.

The tide turned thanks to Leonard. The Raptors finished third on 10-0 run — with Leonard scoring or assisting on every bucket — and the lead was down to 5 after three.

Early in the fourth was when Antetokounmpo sat again, and the Raptors went on a 7-2 run to tie the game at 78-78. That lead kept growing and then Leonard did this.

Milwaukee would not go away down the stretch, but Leonard kept making plays while Antetokounmpo and company got tight. Milwaukee could never get back in front.

For the Bucks, it’s a lesson.

For the Raptors, it’s the trip to the Finals they bet big on.

Watch Kawhi Leonard dunk all over Giannis Antetokounmpo, highlight of 26-3 Toronto run

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For most of the first three quarters of Game 6, the Milwaukee Bucks were in control of the game and looked to be on the way to forcing a Game 7.

But Kawhi Leonard sparked a 10-0 run for Toronto to end the third, scoring eight and assisting on a Serge Ibaka bucket.

That run carried over into the fourth and became a 26-3 run that was highlighted by this insane dunk by Leonard over Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Insane.

I’d say that’s Leonard’s best shot as a Raptor if not for the series winner against Philadelphia.

The Bucks responded with a 7-0 run and this game is going to go down to the wire.

Bucks play with desperation, lead by as many as 15 in first half

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If you think a 15-point lead is safe, go talk to a Portland Trail Blazers fan and get back to me.

The Bucks will still take it. Milwaukee has come out with a sense of desperation, but more importantly got to play with some pace and couldn’t miss early from three — they started 4-of-6 and were 7-of-13 from three as of this writing — and what we saw were play after play from the Bucks, the kinds of things we haven’t seen the last three games. They led by 13 after one, and the lead got as high as 15.

Can the Bucks sustain this, or will they cool down as the Raptors heat up? It’s going to be a wild rest of the game in Toronto.

The Raptors are up 3-2 in the series and playing for their first ever franchise trip to the Finals. The Bucks are playing to force a Game 7 Monday back in Milwaukee.