Are these Clippers as good as last season’s version? No. Or at least not yet.

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LOS ANGELES — Last season after 32 games, the Clippers were 21-11.

This season after 32 games, the Clippers are 21-11.

But this season doesn’t look or feel the same.

“I don’t think we’ve played as well,” Blake Griffin said after a hard-fought 101-97 win against a scrappy Utah team Monday night. “I mean maybe to this point, it is kind of hard to remember exactly how we were playing, but we hit a stretch last year, late in January early in February, when (Chris Paul) came back where we really hit our stride. That’s what we have to find again, we have to find our stretch.”

That stretch of play at the start of 2014 meant the Clippers entered this season talked about as potential title contenders. However, in a loaded Western Conference the Clippers flaws — defense and depth — have the team looking so far like it might not get out of the first round.

To a man the Clippers own up to their spotty performance so far, they know they are not playing at the level of the other top teams in the West right now. But they also are taking a big picture view that there are 50 games left in the season, they have just gone through a crowded and tough stretch of the schedule, and that they can get back to the team they were. They believe they can still build the needed good habits.

If they are going to do that, they are going to have to defend more consistently.

In last five games entering Monday night the Clippers had surrendered to opponents 6.2 points per 100 possessions more than their season average (which was already 18th in the NBA) and opponents had an eFG% of 56.2 percent. The Clippers are 4-6 in their last 10 games and their defense is 26th in the league in that stretch.

“We’ve shown we can be very good defensively, we just pick and choose to do that,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “We played Golden State the other night (Christmas) and our defense looked as good as anybody in the league…. I think we’re going to be a really good defensive team at the end of the day.”

But they are not now and the Utah game Monday night was an example of why. After a rough 18-point first quarter the Jazz scored at a 120.8 points per 100 possessions offensive rating in the second and third quarters (a number that is phenomenally high). The Jazz were led by 15 points from Gordon Hayward in those middle 24 minutes and their guards were getting into the paint and breaking down the defense.

But then come the fourth — the game was tied 77-77 entering the frame — the Clippers became focused and the Jazz scored at an 83.9 points per 100 pace in those final 12 minutes. The Clippers got the win.

“Just a commitment, effort,” Clippers starting three Matt Barnes said of what is needed to change team’s inconsistency on defense. “Not to make any excuses but we’ve been on a hell of a schedule lately, playing every other day for like a month.”

While there are no excuses in the NBA, the Clippers have a pretty good one with their schedule and practice concerns — they are just coming through a loaded stretch of the schedule with a lot of games. Rivers, who already practices less than pretty much any other coach in the league, decided to keep his players fresh by not practicing on off days.

The Clippers last real “lace up, get after it” practice was Dec. 5, according to Blake Griffin. That’s going on nearly a month. While there are fewer practices in the NBA than many fans realize (due to travel schedules and the volume of games) that is a long time.

“When you don’t practice there’s slippage,” Rivers said. “Offensively we’re catching the ball in the wrong spots, one foot off. Defensively we just need to be reminded of what we should do. We take pride in a lot of things — making them make the second pass, defending the three-point line — and we’re slipping on a lot of those areas. I think we’ll have the time to fix those because it’s nothing new.”

The other big area of slippage is transition defense, that’s the area which let the Jazz hang around on Monday night. The Clippers defense in the paint with DeAndre Jordan has been pretty good (he had four blocks vs. Utah) but on the perimeter the Clippers are virtually matadors waiving their cape as the guy with the ball slashes into the lane and breaks the defense down.

The other issue has been the lackluster bench play — Monday night Rivers played Griffin the entire fourth quarter, including with the second unit, to give them another scoring option. That came after the bench couldn’t hold the lead they had been given in the first half.

In a brutally tight Western Conference, these inconsistencies and concerns about defense and depth could have the Clippers sixth or seventh in a power ranking of the conference (in PBT’s latest power rankings they are sixth in the West).

Both Rivers and the locker room embraces big picture — they think they have plenty of time to fix this. To get back to the team they were last season.

And they do — there are 50 games left before the playoffs start, more than three months of basketball.

But those other teams in the West are improving too, they are making moves to give them an edge (the Rockets have been the most aggressive). There is time to make personnel moves to add depth, although the Clippers are not far below a hard cap (which kicked in when they gave Spencer Hawes the mid-level exception last summer) so they don’t have much money to offer the few players out there.

Every team goes through down stretches over the course of 82 games. Maybe the Clippers are getting theirs out of the way early, maybe the schedule and lack of practices to fine tune things are the issue. Maybe they can find their stride again.

But right now, they do not look like the same team from last year.

Warriors nine-day layoff before NBA Finals one of longest in NBA history

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The NBA Finals will begin May 30 – their earliest start in 33 years.

The Warriors will still have to wait a while to begin play.

Golden State, which completed a sweep of the Trail Blazers in the Western Conference finals Monday, is in the midst of nine straight off days. That’s tied for the fourth-longest layoff during a postseason in NBA history:

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The Warriors probably don’t mind the long break. Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and DeMarcus Cousins are battling injuries and can use the time to recover.

The big question: Is rest or rust more important?

Of the previous 10 teams with such long layoffs, seven won the ensuing Game 1 and seven won the ensuing series. But we’re dealing with varying levels of team quality, major differences in opponent rest and a small sample.

It seems clear rest matters more for a banged-up Golden State. But that doesn’t mean rust won’t be a challenge against the Bucks or Raptors.

Magic Johnson not keeping his stories straight (video)

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As Lakers owner Jeanie Buss repeatedly asked Magic Johnson about problems within the organization, he reportedly said there were none. Then, he went on television and detailed a ton of internal dysfunction.

After resigning as team president, Johnson said he had a good working relationship with general manager Rob Pelinka:

Then, Johnson went on television and accused Pelinka of betrayal.

In that same interview, Johnson also said Buss approved his part-time status while running the front office:

I told her, I said listen, ‘I can’t give up all my businesses. I make more money doing that than becoming president of the Lakers. So, you know that I’m going to be in and out. Is that OK with you?’ She said yes

In this case, Johnson went on television and contradicted himself… TWO YEARS EARLIER.

Darius Soriano of Forum Blue & Gold:

Johnson:

If it was probably any other situation, I probably wouldn’t have left my business aside, left my business to concentrate fully, 150 percent on Lakers business. But because of her leadership – and I know she wants to win so bad – I decided hey, I wanted to work side-by-side with her.

So, Johnson and Buss (who was at his side for that interview) apparently knew the importance of saying Johnson was fully committed to running the Lakers. They apparently didn’t understand the importance of Johnson actually being fully committed to running the Lakers.

No wonder he was so bad at his job.

Reports: Michigan hiring Heat assistant Juwan Howard as head coach

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Juwan Howard made an All-Star team and an All-NBA third team. He spent 17 seasons in the league. He has been a Heat assistant coach the last five years.

But he might best be known as a member of the Fab Five.

That connection will resonate even more strongly as Howard returns to Michigan.

Miami Heat Beat:

Jeff Goodman of Stadium:

Michigan needed a coach after losing John Beilein – who had no NBA-coaching experience – to the Cavaliers. So, the Wolverines are hiring Howard, who has no college-coaching experience.

Shifting levels will be an adjustment for Howard. So will becoming a head coach for the first time.

But Howard was has established himself as a steady contributor to the Heat’s respected coaching staff. He interviewed for the Lakers, Cavs and Timberwolves head-coaching positions. Howard brings far more credibility than just his Michigan-alumnus status to this job.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Marcus Smart headline All-Defensive teams

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NBA teams scored more points per possession this season than ever.

But a few players stood out for slowing the offensive onslaught.

The All-Defensive teams (first-team votes, second-team votes, voting points in parentheses):

First team

Guard: Marcus Smart, BOS (63-19-145)

Guard: Eric Bledsoe, MIL (36-28-100)

Forward: Paul George, OKC (96-3-195)

Forward: Giannis Antetokounmpo, MIL (94-5-193)

Center: Rudy Gobert, UTA (97-2-196)

Second team

Guard: Jrue Holiday, MIN (31-28-90)

Guard: Klay Thompson, GSW (23-36-82)

Forward: Draymond Green, GSW (2-57-61)

Forward: Kawhi Leonard, TOR (5-29-39)

Center: Joel Embiid, PHI (4-72-80)

Also receiving votes: Danny Green, TOR (19-28-66); Patrick Beverley, LAC (14-20-48); Myles Turner, IND (1-37-39); P.J. Tucker, HOU (1-36-38); Pascal Siakam, TOR (0-24-24); Derrick White, SAS (4-7-15); Russell Westbrook, OKC (2-5-9); Jimmy Butler, PHI (2-5-9); Chris Paul, HOU (1-5-7); Robert Covington, MIN (1-3-5); Paul Millsap, DEN (0-5-5); James Harden, HOU (2-0-4); Al Horford, BOS (0-4-4); Kevin Durant, GSW (0-4-4); Malcolm Brogdon, MIL (1-1-3); Josh Richardson, MIA (0-3-3); Kyle Lowry, TOR (0-3-3)
Stephen Curry, GSW (1-0-2); Thaddeus Young, IND (0-2-2); Anthony Davis, NOP (0-2-2); Ben Simmons, PHI (0-2-2); Donovan Mitchell, UTA (0-2-2); Derrick Favors, UTA (0-2-2); Joe Ingles, UTA (0-2-2); Jaylen Brown, BOS (0-1-1); Kyrie Irving, BOS (0-1-1); Ed Davis, BRK (0-1-1); Gary Harris, DEN (0-1-1); Nikola Jokic, DEN (0-1-1); Andre Drummond, DET (0-1-1); Andre Iguodala, GSW (0-1-1); Jordan Bell, GSW (0-1-1); Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, LAC (0-1-1); Mike Conley, MEM (0-1-1); Kyle Anderson, MEM (0-1-1); Bam Adebayo, MIA (0-1-1); Khris Middleton, MIL (0-1-1); Brook Lopez, MIL (0-1-1); Terrance Ferguson, OKC (0-1-1); Damian Lillard, POR (0-1-1); De’Aaron Fox, SAC (0-1-1); Ricky Rubio, UTA (0-1-1); Bradley Beal, WAS (0-1-1)

Observations:

  • This voting could foreshadow a tight Defensive Player of the Year race. The three finalists for that award – Rudy Gobert, Paul George and Giannis Antetokounmpo – each received a high majority of votes, but not unanimity, at their positions. Or Gobert could just cruise to another victory.
  • I have no major complaints about the selections. I would have put Danny Green (who finished fifth among guards) on the first team, bumped down Eric Bledsoe and excluded Klay Thompson. I also would have give second-team forward to P.J. Tucker (who finished fifth among forwards) over Kawhi Leonard. Here are our picks for reference.
  • P.J. Tucker came only one voting point from the second team. If he tied Kawhi Leonard, both players would have made it on an expanded six-player second team.
  • Leonard hasn’t defended with the same verve this season. He remains awesome in stretches, particular in the playoffs. But his effort in the regular season didn’t match his previous level. Defensive reputations die hard.
  • It’s a shame Thaddeus Young received only two second-team votes. My general rule is you can complain about a lack of votes for only players you picked, and I didn’t pick Young. But he came very close to P.J. Tucker for my final forward spot, Young had a stronger case than several forwards ahead of him.
  • James Harden got two first-team votes. Did someone think they were voting for All-NBA? Stephen Curry also got a first-team vote. Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard got second-team votes. Nikola Jokic got a second-team vote. Kevin Durant got a few second-team votes. There’s plenty of All-NBA/All-Defensive overlap with other frontcourt players. There could easily be an incorrectly submitted ballot.
  • But that still leaves a second Harden first-team vote with no other plausible explanation. Someone must really love steals, guaring in the post and absolutely no other aspects of defense.
  • Jordan Bell got a second-team vote at forward. He’s a decent defender, but someone who played fewer minutes than Dirk Nowitzki, Bruno Caboclo and Omari Spellman this season. Bell also primarily played center. Weird.