PBT Second Round Playoff Preview: Los Angeles Clippers vs. Houston Rockets

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SEASON RECORDS

Clippers: 56-26 (third place in Western Conference)
Rockets: 56-26 (second place in Western Conference)
Season series tied 2-2 (Dwight Howard played in none of those games, Blake Griffin only two, so don’t read too much into it)

KEY INJURIES

Clippers: Chris Paul strained his hamstring in Game 7 against San Antonio and, while the MRI was negative, it not clear if will be able to go in Game 1. However, even if he does, he is not 100 percent.

Rockets: Patrick Beverley had wrist surgery and is out for the postseason. Donatas Motiejunas is out for the playoffs (spinal surgery). K.J. McDaniels has a fractured elbow and will be out for this series.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (regular season)

Clippers: 109.8 points scored per 100 possessions (1st in NBA); 103 points allowed per 100 possessions (15th in NBA).
Rockets: 104.2 points scored per 100 possessions (12th in NBA); 100.5 points allowed per 100 possessions (6th in NBA).

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1) How healthy is Chris Paul’s hamstring? The answer to this question can swing the series. CP3 is the best point guard in the game, a guy who can beat you scoring or passing, is a very good defender, but more than all that he is the smartest point guard going. Nobody can orchestrate the flow of the game like he can. Maybe the bigger issue for the Clippers, he’s backed up by Austin Rivers — a guy who should be on the bubble of even being in the league. If CP3 can’t go expect a lot more Rivers and Jamal Crawford (who can score but is a defensive liability). Which is to say, if he can’t go or is extremely limited the Clippers are not near the same team. Paul was nothing short of brilliant against the Spurs — 22.7 points and 7.9 assists a game, not to mention the series-clinching shot over Tim Duncan — and if there is a significant drop off against the Rockets then Houston becomes a clear favorite. The Clippers had the best offense in the land in the regular season, but it’s not the same if CP3 can’t go. Paul gutted it out against the Spurs and expect him to give it a go against Houston, and even 70 percent of Paul is far better than any alternative for Los Angeles.

2) Can the Clippers continue to defend well and keep James Harden in relative check? Despite Doc Rivers pitching DeAndre Jordan for Defensive Player of the Year, the Clippers were an average defensive team this season. Los Angeles was inconsistent on that end of the floor. However, against the Spurs Los Angeles’ aggressive, pressure defense was fantastic, with much crisper rotations, much better physicality, and Jordan owned the paint making it far more difficult for the Spurs to score inside. Houston’s offense looked much better in the first round thanks to the return of an active Dwight Howard — someone who will keep Jordan busy and limit his ability to help — but it is also far more conventional than what the Spurs run. The Clippers will welcome the respite. In the regular season series the Clippers held Harden to 38.5 percent shooting thanks to pesky defense mostly from J.J. Redick. He and Matt Barnes will both get time on the beard (and defending Harden is a team job anyway). The Clippers held Harden in check better than most teams. If Los Angeles can do that again, Houston will need another strong performance from Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones and the rest of the supporting cast like they got against Dallas. But this is not the pathetic Dallas defense that the Rockets will have to do it against now.

3) Can Josh Smith have another big series? Dallas simply had no answer for Josh Smith, who averaged 17.4 points and 3.8 assists per game in that series, both second best on Houston. More than that, he was efficient shooting 51.5 percent overall and 39.1 percent from three. If he can provide depth it is something the Clippers will struggle to match — Los Angeles does not have a bench Doc Rivers can trust. (He should really talk to his GM about that.) The Clippers would have to use a lot of Blake Griffin on Smith and that could start to wear down Griffin, who struggled at times with energy in the fourth quarter against San Antonio (although games six and seven he played well). Smith can be the real X-factor in this series if he has another strong performance.

PREDICTION

So much of this swings on Chris Paul’s hamstring — if he cannot play or is truly limited Houston is the favorite. No doubt Houston looked good last series, but that was against a Dallas team playing no defense and with an offense that leaned on Rajon Rondo for a few games. The Clippers just took out the Spurs and are simply playing at a much higher level than what Houston has seen. The Clippers may have a hangover from the Spurs series, but that is only going to last one game (at most) then the team with championship aspirations with turn its focus to the task at hand. And if CP3 is anywhere near healthy, that will be too much for even this good Rockets’ team. The Clippers win in six.

Australian NBL pumps breaks on report LaMelo Ball has bought a team

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It was a stunning headline, especially considering LaMelo Ball is just 18:

He bought a team in the Australian National Basketball League, specifically the Illawarra Hawks, the team he played for some last season. It’s an insane story.

And it’s not quite true. At least not yet. The NBL released a statement that pumped the breaks on the idea of a sale to Ball and his manager, Jermaine Jackson. Part of the statement reads:

“The league can confirm LaMelo Ball and his management had discussions about being involved with the club while he was playing in the NBL last season. At this point we are continuing to work with current licence holder Simon Stratford on a number of options for what we hope will be a fruitful outcome for Illawarra and the NBL.

The NBL has final approval on any transfer of licence and no application has been made to date. The NBL has no further comment at this stage.

Did LaMelo and his manager jump the gun? Or, is this a negotiating ploy by the NBL and Stratford to get more money by jacking up the price on a sale?

Those two follow a host of other questions, including what percentage of the team would Ball and his manager own? What would their involvement be?

Ineligible for college stateside, Ball chose to play in Australia under the NBL’s Next Stars program. It worked, he’s projected to be a top-five, maybe top-three pick. He left the NBL after suffering a season-ending foot injury, although that came under a cloud of criticism from Hawks owner Stratford.

The ultimate revenge would be to buy the team, if that is actually happening.

Doc Rivers’ reaction when Clippers traded for Lou Williams, “I was not having Lou”

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Lou Williams is integral to the Clippers’ title dreams.

Since coming to the Clippers, he has averaged 20.6 points a game off the bench, twice winning Sixth Man of the Year, and his pick-and-roll with Montrezl Harrell is as smooth and dangerous a combo as there is in the league. Come the playoffs, while teams are trying to deal with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Lou Williams will be a change of pace scorer with a second unit that can quickly tilt the game towards Los Angeles.

But when Williams first got to the Clippers, Doc Rivers was not thrilled.

Rivers talked about Williams on The Bob Ryan and Jeff Goodman Podcast (hat tip SI).

“When we traded for Lou, I was not having Lou,” Rivers said. “I saw a guy that kept getting traded. And I appreciated his offense, but not nearly, never thought it was this good… When he finally showed up three days before training camp, I was not having him. I was like, ‘We’re not gonna work’, you know?..

“I brought him up in the office and I told him my feelings,” Rivers said. “I said, ‘Lou, you’re one of these guys that wanna do whatever you wanna do, and you don’t want to buy-in. We asked everybody to come in. Everyone did except for you… I don’t know how this is gonna work.’ And he said, ‘I’ve been traded five years in a row. Why would I buy-in to you?’, and I didn’t have an answer.”

Both Williams and Rivers have bought into each other now. Williams has control of the offense when he is in and Rivers said he just wants Williams to “be in the right place” on defense. That defense leads to issues playing Williams at the end of big games, but used as a scorer Williams is tough to deal with.

He can still get buckets with the best of them.

 

For NBA coaches, the new game is a waiting game

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MIAMI (AP) — Orlando’s Steve Clifford figures he’s like every other NBA coach right now: Wake up, go to whatever now serves as the office, study his own team, maybe think about possible opponents, and resume planning.

Of course, nobody knows what they’re planning for — or when these plans will get used.

A stoppage in play doesn’t mean vacation time has arrived for NBA coaches, especially those like Clifford in position to take their teams to the postseason — assuming this pandemic-interrupted season is able to resume. They’re all spending more time at home, not able to run practices, but none seem to be sitting idly either.

“Not knowing the restart date is the toughest challenge professionally,” Clifford said. “Obviously, we’re all limited in what we can do, and basketball takes a back seat right now to family and health. But I will say this: When I talk to our guys, the one common question that comes up is ‘When do you think we can start again?’”

And that’s a question with no answer. The waiting game is the only game in town right now.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra was coaching the fourth quarter against Charlotte on March 11 when the NBA announced it was suspending the season, a move made once it became known that Utah center Rudy Gobert was the league’s first player to test positive for COVID-19. Spoelstra found out right after the final buzzer, as he walked to the Heat locker room.

He instantly realized that losing to the Hornets that night didn’t ultimately matter much. Spoelstra and his staff are holding Zoom meetings every other day, but he’s also enjoying the benefits of time away — getting more time with his two young sons, his wife and grilling for the family most nights — and is emphasizing to his coaches and players that this is a time to help those less fortunate.

He’s checking the news as well, on a limited basis.

“My routine is checking after dinner, and I usually get on my computer, watch a little bit of what’s going on,” said Spoelstra, who often wears a T-shirt emblazoned with “Stay Positive” and like many coaches he taped a video telling fans the importance of hand-washing and other precautions. “So, I’m staying abreast of the current status of things, but I definitely do not try to start my day that way and I do not obsess about it during the day.”

Dallas coach Rick Carlisle also went the video-message route, doing one for the going-stir-crazy crowd to demonstrate his “Balance, Balance, Shot Drill” that allows players to work on their shooting form even when they don’t have access to a court or a rim.

Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan took advantage of downtime to appear on a virtual coaches clinic, and had a safety message for those who attended — online, of course — before spending about an hour breaking down his philosophy.

This is the first in-season stoppage of its kind in NBA history, but Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer is equating the unknown — in terms of when the next game will be — to what the league went through with lockout-shortened seasons in 1998-99 and 2011-12.

His message to his staff: Things may be slow now, but when the suspension ends the pace of everything will be frantic. So while some projects like things in the video room and breakdowns of his roster are being tackled, Budenholzer is also having staff get ready for potential playoff opponents with a first-round series against either Brooklyn or Orlando likely for the NBA-leading Bucks.

“Things happen really fast, whether it’s three games in three nights, or playoff series are shorter or the time between the end of the regular season to the first playoff game, everything can be shorter or can happen quicker,” Budenholzer said. “We can put a little bit of money in the bank now with preparation for first round but also if you go a little bit deeper, the East.”

For 30 teams, 30 coaches, there’s many ways to spend the down time.

And they all know that they’re in the same boat — waiting and wondering.

“It’s hard for all of us,” Clifford said. “It’s hard to set a plan for yourself that will have you ready. But that’s the parallel, not just for us, but for everyone around the world no matter what profession that you’re in.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci was a high school point guard

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You know Dr. Anthony Fauci as the guy trying to inject facts and reason-based decisions into the federal government’s response to the coronavirus epidemic. You’ve seen him, the guy with the Sisyphean task of standing behind President Donald Trump at press conferences and not reacting with shock or disgust.

It turns out he was a high school baller.

In a profile of Fauci, the Wall Street Journal’s Ben Cohen wrote about Fauci the high school point guard, who led his 1-16 team to a win against Fordham Prep, led by future Knicks executive Donnie Walsh.

Classic point guard, excellent ballhandler, pesky defender. Six of his classmates and teammates described him as a tenacious competitor in short shorts and striped socks whose feistiness on the court defied some parts of his personality and reflected others.

That sounds like a young version of the person he is now.

Dr. Fauci is one of the people the NBA is listening to as it tries to figure out if or when the league can re-start and what its next steps might be. Right now, all of that is beyond the NBA’s control and more in the hands of the rest of us and whether we as a society follow Dr. Fauci’s suggestions.