ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Los Angeles Clippers

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Last season: After adding Doc Rivers as head coach and Alvin Gentry as the lead assistant to coordinate the offense, the Clippers finished the season number one in offensive efficiency and seventh on the defensive side, thanks to a marked improvement from DeAndre Jordan on that end of the floor. L.A. finished third in the West, and overcame the distractions that the team’s former owner provided at the worst possible time to take out the Warriors in a seven-game series in the first round of the playoffs. Oklahoma City proved to be more talented in the second round, however, and eliminated the Clippers in six.

Signature highlight from last season: On a team that features the game’s best point guard and two of its more electrifying dunkers, there really is no shortage of highlight plays to choose from. And frankly, too many are worthy that could accurately describe just how devastating L.A. was offensively last season. So enjoy this mix of the team’s Top 10 plays, and if we were to single one of them out, let’s go with number five — Chris Paul uses his wizardry to navigate through multiple defenders, before lobbing a perfect pass up to DeAndre Jordan for the thunderous slam.

Key offseason moves:

Keys to the Clippers season:

Blake Griffin and Chris Paul: The Clippers two best players last year were arguably the best tandem on any team in the league. Griffin finished third in MVP voting behind only Kevin Durant and LeBron James, while Paul led the league in assists by averaging almost two more per game than his closest competition. As long as Griffin continues his evolution and Paul remains as rock solid as ever in running what was the league’s most efficient offense last season, L.A. will remain one of the elite teams in the Western Conference.

Improved front line depth: The addition of Spencer Hawes should be a big one for the Clippers this season, considering just how steep the drop-off was a year ago when looking at the team’s frontcourt positions. Griffin and Jordan played at an elite level, but once they came out of the game, the team’s identity completely changed due to a lack of reserve options. Rivers has used Hawes in a reserve role to this point in the preseason — a wise decision to have him firmly in place as a legitimate back up big that the team has been so desperately lacking, especially in the playoffs. Udoh, meanwhile, could provide defensive help in limited stretches, which would allow the team to be more consistent in its approach when the starters are getting their rest. Glen Davis and Hedo Turkoglu are options too, of course, but both played a bit last season, and the results were hit and miss.

The fifth starter: L.A. has four members of its starting lineup essentially locked in with Paul, Griffin, Jordan, and J.J. Redick. But the fifth spot is seemingly up for grabs. Jared Dudley played below expectations last season (likely due to trying to play through injury), and was subsequently traded out of town. It’s now guys like Chris Douglas-Roberts and Reggie Bullock who will attempt to fill that void, though Matt Barnes could see plenty of time there as well, just as he did last season. The team will want more consistency here than it saw a year ago, and not having to constantly scramble for starting-five production could make the unit a more cohesive one, especially defensively where the improvement is needed the most.

Why you should watch: This Clippers team features two of the league’s best players in Paul and Griffin, and a third in Jordan who can jump out of the gym. It’ll be interesting to see if the offensive principles remain now that lead assistant Alvin Gentry has moved on to a position with Steve Kerr and the Golden State Warriors, but the talent is there to entertain wildly on a nightly basis.

Prediction: Here’s where things get interesting. If the roster upgrades (especially the addition of Hawes) pay the expected dividends, and if L.A. can commit to improving on the defensive end of the floor, then there’s no reason that the team shouldn’t be right there with the rest of the elite in the Western Conference. The Spurs and the Thunder are the most pressing threats to the Clippers’ ability to reach that lofty status, but the injury to Kevin Durant may help L.A. get a bit of a head start in the standings, which could affect home court advantage in a postseason series.

That’s a long way from here, obviously, but the Clippers seemed poised to make their long-awaited leap this season. A top-two finish in the West and a trip to the Conference Finals is how things should ultimately play out in Los Angeles.

Watch Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic dunk all over Bol Bol

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Bol Bol had some impressive blocked shots during exhibition games at the NBA’s restart, but he hadn’t gotten one in his 16 limited minutes since the seeding games started. He wanted one.

So Bol tried to get in front of Jusuf Nurkic of Denver on Thursday and… that did not go well.

Bol did later get a blocked shot on Hassan Whiteside.

Nurkic, however, ended the night with 22 points, seven rebounds, and the Trail Blazers got a 125-115 win that has Portland comfortably as the ninth seed, just half-a-game back of eight-seed Memphis. Portland is setting itself up with a better-than-average chance make the playoffs

Kawhi Leonard’s 29 leads Clippers past Mavericks in potential first-round preview

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Kawhi Leonard scored 29 points to help the Los Angeles Clippers beat the Dallas Mavericks 126-111 on Thursday night in a possible playoff preview.

Paul George scored 24 points and Ivica Zubac added 21 points on 10-for-10 shooting and 15 rebounds for the Clippers, who strengthened their hold on the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference standings.

The Clippers entered the night a just half game ahead of Denver, but they shot 54% against the Mavericks to improve to 2-2 in the restart.

Kristaps Porzingis scored 30 points and Luka Doncic added 29 for Dallas, which fell to 1-3 in the restart.

Dallas likely will finish as the No. 7 seed, making a first-round matchup with the Clippers a strong possibility.

“That’s obviously going to be a tough matchup,” Porzingis said. “They’re one of the favorites to win it all. They have multiple guys that have been there already. But we’re looking forward to the challenge and getting experience in that.”

Doncic was coming off a monster game — 34 points, 20 rebounds and 12 assists against the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday. He made 10 of 21 shots against the Clippers, including 6 of 13 3-pointers.

“Luka’s just a handful,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “It takes a whole team to guard him. I thought our guys did a pretty good job overall. We lost him a couple times, which you can never do. So there’s a lot of room for improvement.”

The Clippers led Dallas by 12 in the third quarter before the Mavericks rallied and tied the game at 101 midway through the fourth. Los Angeles responded with a 9-0 run to regain control. The Clippers shot 62% in the fourth quarter to pull away.

“I just liked how we played overall,” Rivers said. “We played like a team tonight, on both ends.”

Though the Mavericks fell to 1-3 in the restart, Doncic remained confident.

“We’re a great team,” he said. “We’ve always got chances, no matter what. I think some people count us out, but we’re not out. We’ll give our max.”

Devin Booker says after latest Suns’ win ‘Kobe’s with me every day’

Devin Booker Kobe
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
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Devin Booker grew up a huge Kobe Bryant fan. When Booker made the league in 2016 he got to play against his idol and threw up 28 points on the night. Kobe was impressed. The two talked after the game and Kobe gave him an autographed pair of shoes with an inspirational message:

“Be Legendary.”

Booker took that to heart. He got the phrase as a tattoo. He’s been writing “Be Legendary” on his Nike’s before every game in the bubble. And after he scored 20 against the Pacers Thursday, helping the Suns remain undefeated for the restart, he said Kobe is still inspiring him every day.

“Kobe’s with me every day. You guys see what I put on my shoes with the ‘Be Legendary.’ It’s a reminder.”

Whatever he’s doing, it is working. Booker hit a Kobe-like turnaround game-winner to beat the Clippers. He’s averaging 28 points and 6.5 assists a game for the restart, and shooting 40% from three. Defenses are keying on him, but with a healthy Deandre Ayton and other players stepping up — Cameron Johnson has been a surprise standout in Orlando — the Suns look sharp and keep on winning.

Kobe would be proud.

Giannis Antetokounmpo drops 33 on Heat, Bucks secure No. 1 seed

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton scored 33 points each, and the Milwaukee Bucks overcame a huge early deficit to get a 130-116 win over the Miami Heat on Thursday to clinch the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

The Heat led by as many as 23 points in a first half where the team piled up 73 points despite playing without Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic. Miami cooled off after the break and the Bucks took the lead in the third quarter but were down by 6 to start the fourth.

Antetokounmpo, the favorite to win his second MVP award, sat out about five minutes of the fourth quarter after collecting his fifth foul with 11 minutes to go. Milwaukee trailed by 1 with about five minutes remaining before using a 20-0 run, with three dunks from Antetokounmpo, to make it 130-111 with less than a minute to go and cruise to the victory.

Antetokounmpo and Middleton played 30 and 34 minutes respectively after the stars both sat out the entire second half of their last game on Tuesday.

Duncan Robinson had 21 points for the Heat, who lost to Milwaukee for the first time this season after winning the first two meetings.

The Heat led by 6 with about 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter when Antetokounmpo picked up his fifth foul on a charge and headed to the bench. Andre Iguodala made a 3 for Miami before the Bucks scored the next 13 points, capped by a 3 from Bledsoe, to take a 107-103 lead with about seven minutes remaining.

Robinson made a 3-pointer to end a scoring drought of almost four minutes for Miami with about 6 ½ minutes to go and Antetokounmpo re-entered the game soon after that.

The Heat led by 12 with about 10 minutes left in third quarter before Milwaukee used a 16-3 run to take an 82-81 lead with five minutes left in the quarter. Antetokounmpo and Wesley Matthews each had five points each in that span to help close the gap.

The Bucks cut the lead to 3 with a dunk by Antetokounmpo late in the third. But the Heat wrapped up the quarter with a 5-2 spurt to take a 98-92 lead into the fourth.