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.

Karl-Anthony Towns helped off court after non-contact calf injury

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Hopefully this is not as bad as it looks.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony was trying to run back upcourt and went to the ground — without contact — grabbing his knee and calf. He had to be helped off the court.

The Timberwolves officially ruled Towns out for the rest of the night with a calf strain.

A right calf strain would be the best possible outcome, but an MRI will provide more details in the next 24 hours. This had the markings of something much worse, but ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports optimism that Towns avoided something serious.

Towns is averaging 214 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his numbers are off this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers, down from 39.3% for his career — as he tries to adjust to playing next to Rudy Gobert, he’s still one of the game’s elite big men.

The Wizards went on to beat the Timberwolves 142-127 behind 41 from Kristaps Porzingis.

Suns promote GM James Jones to to President of Basketball Operations

Phoenix Suns Open Practice
Barry Gossage / NBAE via Getty Images
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James Jones put together the roster that took the Suns to the Finals two seasons ago and had the best record in the NBA last season (64 wins). At 13-6, the Suns sit atop the Western Conference this season.

The Suns have rewarded Jones, giving him the title of President of Basketball Operations on top of GM.

“In the nearly 15 years I have known James, he has excelled in every role he performed, from player to NBPA Treasurer to his roles in our front office, most recently as general manager,” Suns interim Governor Sam Garvin said. “James has the unique ability to create and lead high-performing teams in basketball operations and his commitment to collaborating with our business side, including at the C-level with partners like PayPal and Verizon, is second to none. We are fortunate for his contributions across the organization and this promotion recognizes his commitment to excellence.”

Jones moved into the Suns’ front office in 2017 at the end of a 14-year playing career, then became GM in 2019. The move gives Jones a little more stability during the sale of the franchise. Not that the new owner would come in and fire a successful GM.

“I am grateful for the privilege to work with and support the players, staff and employees of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury,” Jones said in a statement. “The collective efforts of our business and basketball operations have allowed us to provide an amazing atmosphere and best-in-class experience for our fans and community. I remain excited about and dedicated to driving success for our Teams on and off the court.”

Jones has made several moves that set the culture in Phoenix, including hiring Monty Williams as coach then, after an undefeated run in the bubble (that left Phoenix just out of the playoffs), he brought in Chris Paul to take charge at the point.

Report: Leaders in Lakers’ locker room think team ‘only a couple of players away’ from contending

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There’s a sense of optimism around the Lakers: They have won 5-of-6 and are expected to have both Anthony Davis and LeBron James healthy Monday night, plus Russell Westbrook has found a role and comfort level off the bench and other players are settling into roles. They may be 7-11, but it’s early enough there is a sense this could be turned around.

That is echoed by “locker room leaders” who think the team is just a couple of players away from being a contender in the West (where no team has pulled away), reports Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

There is belief shared by leaders in the Lakers’ locker room, sources said, that the team is only a couple of players away from turning this group into a legitimate contender. But acquiring the right players could take multiple trades.

Let’s unpack all of this.

• “Leaders in the Lakers’ locker room” means LeBron and Davis (both repped by Rich Paul). Let’s not pretend it’s anything else.

• If the Lakers don’t make a move to significantly upgrade the roster, how unhappy will those leaders become? How disruptive would that be?

• It is no coincidence that McMenamin’s report comes the day the Lakers face the Pacers, a team they went deep into conversations with this summer on a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade, but Los Angeles GM Rob Pelinka ultimately would not put both available Lakers’ first-round picks (2027 and 2029) in the deal and it fell apart. Turner said the Lakers should “take a hard look” at trading for him. The thing is, the Pacers are now 11-8, not tanking for Victor Wembanyama but instead thinking playoffs, so are they going to trade their elite rim protector and sharpshooter away? Not likely. At least not without an overwhelming offer, and the Lakers’ two picks may not get there anymore.

• While Westbrook has found a comfort level coming off the bench (and not sharing the court as much with LeBron), he is still a $47.1 million contract that no team is trading for without sweeteners. To use NBA parlance, he is still a negative value contract, even if it feels less negative than a month ago.

• Are the Lakers really a couple of players away from contending? While they have won 5-of-6, three of those five wins came against the tanking Spurs, the others were against the so-injured-they-might-as-well-be-tanking Pistons, and the Nets before Kyrie Irving returned. The Lakers did what they needed to do and thrived in a soft part of the schedule, but that schedule is about to turn and give the Lakers a reality check on where they really stand. After the Pacers, it’s the Trail Blazers (likely still without Damian Lillard), then an East Coast road trip that includes the Bucks, Cavaliers, Raptors and 76ers. The next couple of weeks will be a better marker for where the Lakers stand, and if they can build off of the past couple of weeks.

Dallas Mavericks near agreement to sign Kemba Walker

Oklahoma City Thunder v New York Knicks
Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images
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Looking for help spacing the floor and with secondary shot creation behind Luka Doncic, the Dallas Mavericks are turning to Kemba Walker.

Marc Stein was first with the news the sides were close to a deal, but since then multiple reports — plus comments from team owner Mark Cuban — confirmed it is happening.

This will be a veteran minimum contract (all the over-the-cap Mavericks can offer). To create the roster spot, the Mavericks will waive Facundo Campazzo, who was signed a few weeks ago and has barely touched the court for the team.

Walker averaged 11.6 points and 3.5 assists a game playing solidly in stretches for the Knicks last season, but the concern was his staying on the court — he appeared in just 37 games due to ongoing knee problems. Walker spent the offseason working on getting past those, but the Knicks traded him to Detroit for picks, but the Pistons were stacked at the point guard spot (at least before the season and injuries hit Cade Cunningham), so they bought out his $9.2 million for this season.

Walker worked to convince teams he still had plenty in the tank, but it was always going to take a situation where a team reached a certain level of desperation. Enter the Mavericks.