Clippers win fifth straight over Knicks, finding their way in Chris Paul’s absence

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NEW YORK — The Clippers were a middle of the pack playoff team in the loaded Western Conference, before Chris Paul went down with a shoulder injury that could keep him out up to five weeks.

Common sense would dictate that they see an immediate drop-off in overall play and production, but the absence of the All-World point guard has allowed the team to focus more on its system, and see other individuals elevate their play in order to help the team continue to achieve success.

L.A. won its fifth straight without Paul on Friday, an easy 109-95 win over a depleted Knicks squad. But there hasn’t been one particular key to the team’s recent string of victories, as Clippers head coach Doc Rivers pointed out afterward.

“We’re kind of making it up,” he said. “We really are. At some point in a game we make a defensive run; we just need to do it for four quarters. The one good thing is offensively, we’ve moved the ball. We had five guys in double figures tonight. It’s tough to guard a team when the ball’s moving and you can’t key on one guy.”

Jamal Crawford finished with 29 points off the bench, and Blake Griffin continued his elite play with 32 points on 12-of-20 shooting, to go along with seven rebounds and three steals. The season began in Los Angeles with many believing Paul might put together something approaching an MVP campaign, and he was spectacular before the injury. But it’s been Griffin who has elevated his game to that level, and his play all season has been more than impressive.

“He’s just been great,” Rivers said of Griffin. “He really has. This run — it’s been all year. He’s doing everything — he’s rebounding, we put him on Carmelo down the stretch. He’s doing everything a coach could ask him to do And he’s leading, as well.”

Griffin has been consistent with his amazing performances, but as Rivers said, it’s not as though it’s a recent occurrence — it’s been all season long. Griffin sees Paul’s absence as an opportunity to test the team’s mettle, which he believes may pay dividends later when the postseason comes around.

“You learn everybody’s fight and resolve,” Griffin said. “I think we’ve really shown that we’ve kind of buckled down and really played within ourselves, and really relied on our system to get us there. Nobody’s trying to do too much, and that’s what you need when somebody like CP goes down, because you always worry about somebody trying to replace him. And from day one I think we’ve tried to say that you can’t replace him, and that everybody has to elevate their game.”

To this point, most have. DeAndre Jordan patrols the paint and cleans the glass, Darren Collison is allowed to try to score more than facilitate as Paul’s replacement, and the offense runs through Griffin in the post much more than usual in the team’s current situation.

The hope in Los Angeles is that Paul’s midseason absence could be a blessing in disguise. If the team can learn to trust the system and play to its individuals’ strengths while working toward common goals, then good things are likely to be on the horizon once Paul is back.

“You can’t really go into the playoffs and not know your identity, and not know what you’re trying to accomplish every game,” Griffin said. “For us to every game have a game plan, and have to go out and execute that game plan in order to win — it’s big. And hopefully it gives us some experience playing through adversity.”

Pelicans reportedly pick up option year on coach Alvin Gentry

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David Griffin, the guy with the hammer in New Orleans, likes Alvin Gentry. They have a relationship that goes back to Phoenix, where Gentry was the coach and Griffin was in the front office (and was eventually GM).

Gentry also has a style of play — he wants to run and be up-tempo. That should fit very well with soon-to-be No. 1 draft pick Zion Williamson.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise the Griffin and the Pelicans want to keep Gentry around, as reported by Malika Andrews of ESPN.

This is another smart, stabilizing move by Griffin. The Pelicans want to build an athletic, fast-paced team and Gentry is the right coach for that style.  Maybe it doesn’t pan out, maybe the Pelicans ultimately need to go another direction with their coach, but right now this seems a good fit.

Report: Utah “frontrunner” to land Mike Conley Jr. if Memphis trades him this week

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Utah feels like it is close — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. They look at the West next season, with a depleted Warriors team, and see an opening.

Yet when Utah fell to Houston 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs this year, it was reminded of what is keeping the team from being truly elite, and another shot creator and shooter is at the top of that list.

Enter Mike Conley Jr. He averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three, and plays strong defense. Conley would be an upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the spot.

The almost All-Star point guard out of Memphis is available via trade. He’s the kind of veteran floor general, shooter, and shot creator Utah could use. The Jazz and Grizzlies talked but couldn’t come to an agreement at the trade deadline, but the sides are talking again and conversations are “intensifying” in the run-up to the NBA Draft Thursday, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Grizzlies are intensifying talks to potentially move franchise cornerstone Mike Conley Jr., league sources told The Athletic. Memphis has been in conversations with the Jazz and Utah is a frontrunner to acquire Conley should the Grizzlies trade the point guard during draft week, league sources said.

What would be in a trade package? Certainly the No. 23 pick in this draft, plus some young players the Grizzlies like (maybe Grayson Allen, Royce O’Neal, and even someone like Jae Crowder. Reports say Derick Favors is not part of the discussion.

While anything can happen the week of the draft — and things change quickly — don’t be surprised if some version of this trade gets done.

Kawhi Leonard wins day with last laugh — his viral laugh — at end of speech

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Kawhi Leonard just won again.

He won his second NBA title leading the Toronto Raptors to the franchise’s first crown. He earned his second Finals MVP in the process.

Then on Monday he had the last laugh and won the Raptors’ championship parade in Toronto by ending his speech with his laugh, the same one that went viral at the start of the season.

Of course, what Leonard will do on July 1 was a cloud hanging over the parade, Leonard is a free agent this summer. Kyle Lowry at one point started a “five more years” chant during the parade, which is the maximum number of years Toronto can re-sign Leonard for.

Leonard, exactly as we all should have expected, dodged the question, while praising his time in Toronto.

Unfortunately, this was a parade marred by more serious concerns.

How corrosive is tension between James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston?

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Golden State is not going to be contending for a title next season. Sorry Stephen, but you’re just not.

That throws open the doors to the West crown and, eventually, the NBA title, and teams will be lining up to take their shots. The Lakers just added Anthony Davis to go with LeBron James. Denver should improve and is looking for wing help. Utah feels just one playmaker away. The Clippers are big game hunting, and if they land one they become a threat.

Houston, however, should be at the front of that line… if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. Contract extension talks with coach Mike D’Antoni are stalled, and at ESPN Tim MacMahon put together a fascinating inside look at the tension between at his isolation-heavy and at his peak James Harden and the intense but declining Chris Paul.

But Paul noticeably lost a step last season, as evidenced by analytics and the eye test. Paul pushed for more plays and sets in the Houston offense, more screening and deception, despite Harden being in the process of putting together a historically dominant individual offensive season.

“Chris wants to coach James,” says a source familiar with the stars’ dynamic. “James looks at him like, ‘You can’t even beat your man. Just shut up and watch me.'”…

It has reached a point, team sources say, where Paul cherishes the chance to play without Harden on the floor. On several occasions, according to team sources, Paul barked at D’Antoni to keep Harden on the bench while he was running the second unit. Harden simultaneously would lobby — or demand — to check back into the game.

There’s tension there, but is it corrosive to the point of the team unraveling? Or, as GM Daryl Morey and everyone else with the Rockets says, is this just blown out of proportion? Time will tell.

Two things to point out.

First, tension between two stars and alpha personalities is far from new in the NBA (or any other professional sport), and it does not mean a team is in trouble. These things can be worked out, they just flared up more in the wake of the round two loss to the Warriors.

Second, these guys are stuck with each other. Obviously, the Rockets aren’t trading Harden. They would be open to trading CP3, but at age 34 and owed $124 million over three more seasons, there are no takers (unless the Rockets want to throw in a sweetener, which they don’t). The players around them may change, the coach could change, but Harden and Paul have years left together.

This team is so close to a title, it’s hard to envision them really coming apart at the seams next season. These guys are too professional for that… although in wild NBA crazier things have happened.