Blake Griffin sets tone, sets off PJ Tucker as Clippers hang on to beat Suns

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LOS ANGELES — Apparently the Phoenix Suns players didn’t read the scouting report on Blake Griffin and went by last year’s version — he has a jump shot now and if you give him space he will make you pay.

Phoenix’s effort was not the kind of defensive performance a team fighting for its playoff life can afford. Griffin had 22 points in the game’s first quarter on 8-of-9 shooting, and sure there were dunks — including a Mailman tribute dunk — but there also were 18-foot fadeaway jumpers and shots knocked down from the elbow. After the game Chris Paul admitted he should have given Griffin the ball more.

“If you let a guy tee-up that 12-foot shot, he’s going to make it all day,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said after the game. “We were playing off the guy, trying to put an arm out. Not once did we ever get into the guy.”

Eventually the Suns did get into him — PJ Tucker really got into him and got ejected for trying to elbow Griffin in the head after the two got tangled up in the fourth quarter. But by that point it was too late — Griffin finished with 37 points on 14-of-16 shooting in one of the best offensive performances of his career.

And that still almost wasn’t enough against a scrappy Phoenix team.

The Clippers led by 25 in the third and had to hang on at the end for a 112-105 win over the Suns.

That is the Clippers eighth win in a row but they remain the four seed (in a virtual tie with three seed Houston) as every team not based in Oklahoma City remains hot at the top of the West.

For the Suns they fall half a game back of the Grizzlies for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. With that on the line it frustrated Hornacek his team didn’t play with more urgency early.

“It didn’t seem like we were ready to play,” he said. “We were soft. In the second half we got after it better defensively, but we need to put that kind of effort that we had in the late third quarter and through the fourth quarter. We need to do that more often.”

Both of these teams are in the top 10 in the league in pace but early on it is the Clippers doing a better job of pushing the tempo and punishing the Suns in transition (12 fast break points in first 10 minutes). That pace pushed the Clippers out to a 34-23 first quarter lead.

The Clippers pulled away in the second again as Griffin continued to make everything, including a couple 16-foot bank shots ala Tim Duncan.

“When shots are falling, honestly, just keep shooting,” Griffin said. “But at the same time we were all hitting shots. Guys were scoring, our offense was going. Just kind of one of those zones where you feel like everything you’re throwing up is going in.”

Pretty much everything did go in — the Clippers shot 61.5 percent in the first half. A 17-8 run in the third quarter had Los Angeles up 25. Darren Collison chipped in 20 and Danny Granger had his best and clearly most comfortable game as a Clipper with 14 off the bench.

But if you take your foot off the gas pedal against the Suns you pay. The Suns fought to get it down to 11 late in the third and hung around that margin for most of the fourth quarter. Then Griffin fouled out with 3:23 left and the Clippers up 10. The last two were offensive fouls on Griffin, who never really adjusted to a tightly called game.

Goran Dragic then had a couple twisting layups and the lead was down to six (he finished with a team high 23, seven Suns were in double digits in a balanced attack). Chris Paul said he and the Clippers offense froze up a little when Griffin left the game because they had relied on him so much.

But then it was the Clippers turn to be a little scrappy and hold on for the win.

“It was good for us to win a grind-out game like that,” CP3 said.

The Clippers will take the wins as they come now.

So will the Suns, frankly, but they need to get back to being the relentless Suns who played 48 hard minutes or they will be able to schedule their vacations for April this year.

Celtics’ Terry Rozier on Game 3: “We needed to get our butts whooped”

Associated Press
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Cleveland dominated Game 3 Saturday night. They played harder, to start. The Cavaliers’ defensive pressure on the ball was better, they were sharper rotating out to shooters and covering passing lanes. Cleveland’s role players stepped up and helped LeBron James.

Boston, meanwhile, wilted in the face of that pressure Saturday, something it has done a few times on the road these playoffs. The Celtics got away from the things that got them to the Eastern Conference Finals. Guard Terry Rozier put it more bluntly, via A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston:

“I feel like we needed this (loss) to get us back … to get us ready for Monday,” Rozier said.

Rozier later added, “We needed to get our butts whipped. Come back to reality and take care of business on Monday.”

Cleveland is a championship team — from LeBron James on down through the core guys, they all have rings. They have been down before, and heading home it was expected they would play with force. Cleveland’s back was against the wall and they responded.

From the Celtics’ perspective, they also got a little too fat and happy and were not ready for what the Cavaliers came with in Game 3.

Now the pressure is on Boston to push back, to get back to their level of execution and do it under pressure. Make the Cavaliers prove the improved defensive effort was not a one-off game. The Celtics must move the ball and play with some pace, then see if the Cavaliers can keep it together in the face of crisp play.

When this series heads back to Boston Wednesday, it will either see the Celtics in control up 3-1, or the series will be a best of three (with the Cavs still having to figure out if they can win on the road). At home, the Cavaliers are going to play with force again and have some depth. We’ll see if Game 3 was enough of a wakeup call for Boston.

PBT Extra: Can Rockets take Game 2 energy, execution on the road?

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Houston found its blueprint to beating Golden State in Game 2: Strong defensive pressure on the ball, quick switches and communication on defense, getting out in transition when possible, and starting sets earlier in the shot clock and attacking downhill with James Harden and Chris Paul.

Now can they do that on the road? Against a more focused and sharper Warriors’ team?

That will be the question in the next two games of the Western Conference Finals, and it’s what I discuss in this latest PBT Extra.

Cavaliers cruise past Celtics in Game 3, change complexion of Eastern Conference finals

AP Photo/Tony Dejak
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The Cavaliers were heavy favorites over the Celtics entering the Eastern Conference finals. LeBron James has dominated the East for years, and Cleveland appeared to hit its stride in a sweep of the Raptors last round. Boston was shorthanded and inexperienced.

Were the Celtics’ two wins to open the series, as impressive as they were, really enough to override everything else we knew about these teams?

The Cavs walloped Boston in Game 3, 116-86, Saturday. Cleveland now has four of the NBA’s last five 30-point playoff wins – two against the Celtics last year, one over Toronto last round and tonight. (The Cavaliers lost the league’s only other 30-point game between, to the Pacers in the first round.)

Boston still leads the series 2-1, and teams up 2-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 80% of the time.

But the team up 2-1 is usually the one seen as better entering the series. That isn’t the case here, not with LeBron on the other side. And the leading team usually isn’t so woeful on the road, which will remain a major storyline entering Game 4 Monday in Cleveland.

The Celtics bought themselves margin for error, but they blew a lot of it tonight.

It’d be an oversimplification to say the Cavs just played harder, but they did, and it went along way. They chased loose balls, tightened their defense and moved more off the ball offensively. Cleveland jumped to a 20-4 lead, led by double digits the rest of the way and spent most of the game up by at least 20.

LeBron (27 points, 12 assists, two blocks and two steals) dazzled as a passer and locked in as a defender. He received help from several players:

In a low-resistance effort, Boston didn’t goon up the game at all.

The Cavaliers still have plenty of work ahead to reach their fourth straight NBA Finals, but tonight, they showed a path to advancing. Climbing out of their early series deficit now looks far less intimidating.

Luka Doncic named EuroLeague MVP at age 19

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Luka Doncic, the likely top two pick in the upcoming NBA draft, has led his Real Madrid team to the EuroLeague finals at age 19.

Now he has been named the youngest player ever win the EuroLeague MVP.

For those unfamiliar, EuroLeague is the equivalent of the Champions League in soccer — the very best club teams from around the continent face off against each other. On this biggest of European stages, Doncic has been a force. He is a gifted passer with great court vision. He can take his man off the dribble. He can hit threes. And he knows how to be a floor general and run a game. Did we mention he’s just 19?

Doncic said before the start of EuroLeague that he hasn’t decided what he is going to do about coming to the NBA or going back to Real Madrid. Don’t buy it. This is like asking a major college basketball star right before the NCAA Tournament if he is coming back to “State U” next year, they don’t want to say “no” right before the tourney so they give a non-committal answer. Same here. He’s not leaving millions on the table, he’ll be in the NBA next season.

And he’ll bee good.