Clippers had chances early, Spurs executed late to pick up quality win on the road

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LOS ANGELES — Monday was the first night of a road back-to-back for the Spurs and everyone knows what that means for Gregg Popovich — he’ll shut his stars down and conserve the fuel for the next night if he feels the game is getting out of hand.

The Clippers had their chances to make that a reality — San Antonio shot 5-of-22 in the first quarter and with Tiago Splitter out (at least another week with a calf injury) the Clippers were getting shots inside, primarily Blake Griffin who went to the rim hard all night.

San Antonio was 9-of-36 on uncontested shots. (Oddly, they shot 51.1 percent on the shots the Clippers contested.)

Yet the Clippers never pulled away. It was a six point game after one quarter, and while the lead got up to 10 at one point by the half it was just 42-39 Clippers. The Spurs just hung around and hung around.

Then they looked like champions starting with just 5:30 left in the game — the Spurs went on a 12-0 run to take the lead, Kawhi Leonard was a defensive beast on Chris Paul, and San Antonio made enough plays to pick up an 89-85 win.

“To me those are the best games,” said Matt Bonner, who started for the Spurs with Splitter out but didn’t help their three-point shooting, San Antonio was 2-of-19 from deep for the game. “I don’t want to say it’s ever easy to win, but it’s a lot easier to win when you’ve got 13, 14, 15 threes in a game. When you’re not making shots you have to find other ways, and tonight it was defense and just making gritty plays, especially down the stretch.”

“It’s tough,” Paul said after the game. “They basically gave us a clinic down the stretch on how to close out a game. The fought part about it was the turnovers. That was very uncharacteristic of us turning the ball over like we did, and they converted.”

Specifically, Kawhi Leonard had a big game. The Clippers have struggled to defend good wings all season and Leonard had 26 points (tying a career high) on 10-of-18 shooting. The Spurs aren’t usually a team that calls many specific plays, but with other guys being cold from the floor (Tony Parker 3-of-13, Bonner 2-of-10, Duncan 6-of-14) the Spurs leaned on Leonard, knowing Jamal Crawford can’t defend him.

“We ran more plans for (Leonard) tonight than I ever have in his career,” Popovich said. “That’s the plan. We’ve got to start giving him the ball. He’s the future. I don’t think Tim (Duncan) and Manu (Ginobili) are going to play any more than six or seven more years.”

That’s Popovich humor. He could afford to laugh. He thought his team played their best game of the season. They moved the ball and he thought their pick-and-roll defense was more consistent and the best they had played this season. They did everything, save for make shots.

That left the door open and the Clippers had a chance with 10 seconds left and down two. Paul drove and got a fairly clean look at a little four-foot runner.

“I missed,” Paul said. “It was a great play. I told Coach I wanted the ball, he drew it up, but I missed.”

Both of these teams have looked sloppy to start the season. With the Spurs, it has just looked like a championship hangover that we all just kind of overlook because we have seen them raise their level as the season has worn on for so many years.

With the Clippers, the questions — particularly about their defense — are a little more pressing. The Spurs get the benefit of the doubt because of their history, the Clippers do not and they have not seemed to build on what they had last year. At least not yet.

And they know this was a night to catch the Spurs on a bad shooting night, and they blew it. This was a rough loss for Los Angeles.

Knicks’ Obi Toppin out at least 2-3 weeks with knee fracture

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Obi Toppin is a fan favorite and Knicks faithful were hoping to see more of him as the season progresses.

However, they are not going to see any of him for at least the next 2-3 weeks due to a fractured knee, the team announced.

Toppin suffered the injury in New York’s win Wednesday over Atlanta, the same game that saw Dejounte Murray sprain his ankle leading him to be out for a few weeks.

Toppin — the reigning All-Star Weekend Slam Dunk contest champion — is averaging 7.7 points in 25 games off the bench. With him out, coach Tom Thibodeau suggested he could lean more on RJ Barrett, asking him to play up at the four.

Report: Zach LaVine not available for trade from Bulls

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Front offices of potential contenders from Los Angeles to Philadelphia have their eyes on the Chicago Bulls — will the struggling Bulls pivot to chase Victor Wembanyama and the top of the lottery, making them sellers at the trade deadline? Teams have interest in Chicago’s three stars: Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic.

Except just-extended LaVine isn’t currently available, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said Wednesday on his network’s pregame show discussing the Knicks.

“The Knicks will be watching Chicago. Is Zach LaVine a player who before the deadline possibly can become available? He certainly isn’t now.”

Chicago is not yet ready to pivot to tanking, so none of its stars are truly available. That said, the Bulls don’t look like a playoff team, they miss Lonzo Ball, and even if things do come together where do they stand in the East hierarchy? If the Bulls do become sellers, they aren’t going to tear this team down to the studs, it would likely be trading just one star. Possibly a second if the offer was strong enough.

LaVine — who signed a five-year, $215 million extension this past summer — is the least likely to be available, league sources have told NBC Sports. The expectation is that Vucevic would be the Bull first made available if the Bulls decide to start seriously listening to offers. And that remains an “if.”

That said, front offices around the league have their eyes trained on Chicago.

Dejounte Murray added to growing Hawks injury report, out 2-3 weeks with sprained ankle

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John Collins is out for at least another week with a sprained ankle. DeAndre Hunter has been out with a strained hip flexor.

Now you can add Dejounte Murray to the Hawks’ growing injury report, he is out at least 2-3 weeks with a sprained ankle, Shams Charania and Sam Amick of The Athletic report.

The injury happened on a closeout from RJ Barrett of the Knicks.

The Hawks have already had chemistry and fit issues this season, and missing key players for an extended period only exacerbates the problem. Atlanta looked flat getting their doors blown off by the Knicks Wednesday night, 113-89, a game that added to a string where they have lost 5-of-7. Now they will have to find a way to right the ship without their second-best playmaker.

There also is an update on the Hawks’ play-by-play announcer Bob Rathbun.

NBA, WNBA players react to news Brittney Griner coming home

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Brittney Griner is finally coming home.

The WNBA and USA Basketball star has spent 10 months in Russian prisons — including being convicted and sent to a Russian penal colony — for having vape canisters with small amounts of cannabis oil in her luggage as she went through Russian airport security back in February. She became a political pawn in the tensions between the United States and Russia, mostly surrounding Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, and was freed via a prisoner swap announced Thursday.

The basketball world — WNBA players in particular — had worked to keep her name front and not let Griner be forgotten during this ordeal, pushing President Joe Biden and the government to reach a deal. With the news Griner was freed, NBA and WNBA players took to social media to react.

“Brittney has had to endure an unimaginable situation and we’re thrilled that she is on her way home to her family and friends,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “We thank the members of the NBA and WNBA community who never wavered in their efforts to raise awareness of Brittney’s unjust circumstances.”

“We are overwhelmed with relief and gratitude that our sister Brittney Griner is finally coming home,” the NBPA said in a statement. “Her strength and courage throughout this last year have been truly remarkable, as have the efforts of her wife Cherelle, our WNBPA sisters, Terri Jackson and the WNBPA staff, who have been relentless in their call to bring Brittney home. We know this homecoming would not have been possible without their unwavering support and continued work to keep BG always top of mind, and our players are honored to have contributed to those efforts. While this is a celebratory moment for our sisters and us, we must not forget the other political prisoners who remain in dire circumstances all over the world. These individuals must be remembered and fought for every single day as BG was so that they too can have this moment. Welcome home Brittney, we are so happy to have you back! #WeAreBG”