Clippers win ‘nice, boring’ Christmas Day battle with Warriors

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LOS ANGELES — The Clippers and the Warriors have been one of the league’s best rivalries over the last year, and if the way the past battles have gone was any indication, with players needing to be separated following hard fouls and on-court scuffles that resulted in ejections, it was worth wondering whether or not this season’s Christmas Day matchup would produce similar fireworks.

But while the level of competitiveness and relative animosity was palpable, there was zero in terms of the types of physical confrontations we’ve seen in the past. What we were treated to, however, was plenty of missed shots.

Both teams went cold for an extremely lengthy stretch, and since L.A.’s came at the beginning of the game and Golden State’s came near the end, the final result was a 100-86 Clippers win that the team cautiously praised as being among its best of the season.

“It’s a good win for us,” Chris Paul said afterward. “I mean, it’s not like everything is right, or all that different type of stuff. But in the West, you’re just trying to get as many wins as possible and it’s a good win for us.”

It started out as anything but a winnable effort from the Clippers. After opening the game with a DeAndre Jordan dunk, L.A. missed its next 16 shots. But the Warriors couldn’t capitalize — their biggest lead in the period was 10 points, and a 2-of-9 shooting performance from three-point distance allowed the Clippers to stay in the game after the first 12 minutes.

Jamal Crawford was the one who was finally able to ignite L.A.’s offense. When nothing else was working, he came off the bench to score 10 points late in the first to drag his team back into it and give them a chance.

“I could see we were struggling a little bit,” Crawford said, after finishing with a team high 24 points. “They weren’t scoring a lot, but tonight I knew I was going to be more aggressive because I knew I needed to get the score up a little bit.

“We all started making shots. That kind of changed the game, and we were able to with stand it from there.”

The Warriors found their groove a bit in the second, and had the lead back to eight with just 1:23 remaining in the half. Steve Kerr elected to sit Stephen Curry with two fouls, not wanting him to pick up a third in the small window of time that was left. But it proved to be a costly decision, as L.A. closed the half on a 7-0 run to trail by a single point at the intermission.

Then came the third, and then came Chris Paul.

With the game tied at 59 apiece, Paul got going. He found Jordan for an alley-oop slam, shook Curry with a one-handed crossover before getting to the rim for an and-1 finish, and then drained a contested three before ending the period with a layup at the buzzer.

His play seemed to give the team the confidence boost it needed to finish the job. It was Golden State’s turn to go through an offensive drought, and a 19-3 Clippers run sealed it — one that fittingly ended with a dagger three from Crawford that pushed the lead to 20 with just under three minutes left.

“A signature win, right” Crawford said. “There are games during the course of a season where no matter what you say it means a little bit more. Obviously the whole country, the whole world was watching this game. They’re playing as good as anybody in the NBA. We’re trying to continue to be consistent and get back on track, so I thought it was good.”

The Warriors weren’t about to overreact after suffering a second straight loss, because they still sit with a record of 23-5 atop the league-wide standings.

“Overreacting would mean questioning our system or questioning individual abilities or the reasons that got us here,” Curry said. “The system works, we just have to execute. Our defense works; obviously we showed in the first half we could do it. But it’s important to not doubt what we’re about and what it means to play Warriors basketball regardless of these last two games.”

There were no fights, no confrontations, and no real battles — even though the feelings appeared to be seething just beneath the surface. Draymond Green seemed to want to up the ante, and spent time trying to engage Paul in trash talk for much of the night.

“He was telling me Merry Christmas and he was telling me to tell Little Chris (Paul’s son) Merry Christmas,” Paul joked afterward.

Green, though, took things more seriously.

“I didn’t think we were intense, as far as our fire, but I didn’t think they were either,” Green said. “I don’t know what the cause of it was. Maybe everybody was a little too jolly, but it was too nice. It was boring, I mean, I’m sure that was not the prime time game everybody expected. I’m not saying you have to have the elbows and all the crazy stuff, but the battle? It just wasn’t there.”

What was there was an impressive win for the Clippers. But don’t ask Blake Griffin if it had any additional meaning or significance just because it happened to be played on Christmas.

“We’re just so proud to represent the NBA on this blessed day,” he said.

Wes Unseld Jr., Kenny Atkinson reportedly top list for next Chicago coach

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Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley, the two guys at the top of Chicago Bulls basketball operations, fired a coach in Jim Boylen that the team owner liked. Which means they have to nail the next hire.

Chicago in on to the second round of interviews and four names stand out, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Bulls are narrowing to finalists for their head coaching job and expect to conduct final interviews soon, sources said. Denver assistant Wes Unseld Jr., Philadelphia assistant Ime Udoka, Milwaukee assistant Darvin Ham and former Brooklyn head coach Kenny Atkinson are among the coaches who have had strong interviews so far.

Atkinson has a more proven resume after what he did in Brooklyn, but the other three are top assistants who have earned their shot in the big chair. Unseld Jr. is a hot name right now because his team is still in the bubble and playing well — he’s Mike Malone’s lead assistant on the Denver Nuggets — but every name on this list is qualified.

Whoever lands the job will head a team with plenty of potential but also plenty of questions. The Bulls have quality young talent on the roster — Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Coby White, Wendell Carter — but do they are fit together? How good Chicago is next season may depend more on the growth of White and the health of Markkanen than it does on who gets selected as coach.

Expect Karnisovas to spend a year putting his stamp on this roster and moving players around. First, however, he’s got to find his coach.

Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin form NASCAR racing team with Bubba Wallace driving

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Michael Jordan is getting into the NASCAR game.

The North Carolina native has teamed up with three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin to form a new NASCAR Cup Series race team — and they’ve signed Bubba Wallace to drive.

Wallace is the only Black man driving full-time in NASCAR’s top series (the previous three seasons he raced for Richard Petty Motorsports). Wallace has been at the forefront of bringing social changes to NASCARincluding the banning of the Confederate flags at NASCAR events and tracks.

“Growing up in North Carolina, my parents would take my brothers, sisters and me to races, and I’ve been a NASCAR fan my whole life,” Jordan said in a statement. “The opportunity to own my own racing team in partnership with my friend, Denny Hamlin, and to have Bubba Wallace driving for us, is very exciting for me.

“Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity and there have been few Black owners. The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more. In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”

Michael Jordan becomes the first Black owner of a full-time race team in NASCAR top series since NASCAR Hall of Famer Wendell Scott in the 1960s and early 1970s (he owned the team and drove the car). Bubba Wallace is the first Black full-time driver in the top NASCAR series since Scott.

Hamlin will be a minority partner in the new team and continue to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“This is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I believe is a great fit for me at this point in my career,” said Wallace in a statement. “Both Michael and Denny are great competitors and are focused on building the best team they possibly can to go out and compete for race wins. I’m grateful and humbled that Michael and Denny believe in me and I’m super pumped to begin this adventure with them.”

The car manufacturer, number, sponsors and more will be announced at a later date.

Jordan is the primary owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets.

NBA executives pick Luka Doncic as best player under 25 to build around

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Luka Doncic, in his second season, made the leap into the NBA’s elite — fourth in MVP voting and First Team All-NBA. All at age 21.

Not surprisingly, he’s the player under 21 NBA teams would want to build around.

Michael Scotto of Hoopshype polled 15 league executives (including four general managers) and players under 25 they want to build around and Doncic was the unanimous choice.

“To me, Luka is the clear No. 1,” one scout told HoopsHype. “He’s a guy who can be a lead ballhandler. He’s good enough to score and create at a high level, has the right mental makeup and is incredibly smart. He’s been a winner everywhere and will probably be a winner in the league.”

It’s hard to argue when Luka Doncic is already doing this in the playoffs:

Boston’s Jayson Tatum came in second, Phoenix Devin Booker was third, followed by Ja Morant (Memphis) fourth and a tie at fifth between Donovan Mitchell (Utah) and Bam Adebayo (Miami).

An interesting note about that top five: None of them was a No. 1 pick.

Zion Williamson had been on top of this poll a year ago, but after a season where he played just 19 games then looked a step slow in the bubble there are concerns about his long-term health.

“He’s just a special player inside the arc who’s an elite finisher,” one executive told HoopsHype. “Offensively, he can finish at an elite rate. He’s one of the best finishers behind Giannis (Antetokounmpo) and LeBron (James). He can hit the open man. He’s so physically dominant. His shooting shouldn’t be a problem, but we’ll see. I think he’s always going to be hurt, though.”

One healthy dominant season from Williamson and those opinions could shift, but even then Doncic will be an MVP level player the Mavericks can build a contender around. He’s the guy under 25.

Report: Raptors coach Nick Nurse earning $8M salary on extension

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Spurs president-coach Gregg Popovich reportedly had an $11 million salary in 2015 then signed a contract extension in 2019 that keeps him the NBA’s highest-paid coach. Doc Rivers was earning $10 million annually with the Clippers before his latest extension. Warriors coach Steve Kerr, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra also signed extensions in recent years.

What about Nick Nurse, who just signed an extension with the Raptors?

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Raptors coach Nick Nurse signed a new multiyear contract extension on Tuesday — a deal that pays him around $8 million per year, sources say.

That’s a lot for a coach, especially in these times.

But Nurse has proven his value. He might even be the NBA’s best coach right now. He checks so many key boxes.

He has shown the ability to prepare his team for the playoffs then adapt through a long playoff run. His players have developed under his watch. He has dealt with roster upheaval and kept everything humming.

After just two seasons as head coach, Nurse still must prove himself in more situations, especially as opposing teams become more familiar with his strategies. But Toronto should want to keep him.

Credit Raptors ownership for paying to make it happen.

Now onto Raptors president Masai Ujiri