It wasn’t pretty, but Clippers rout Rockets again to take commanding 3-1 series lead

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LOS ANGELES — This game was ugly.

Not only because of the parade to the free throw line in the first half — the Clippers shot 44 free throws in the first 24 minutes, DeAndre Jordan had 28 of them — but also because by the fourth quarter the Clippers were just clowning the Rockets. Well, maybe Clippers fans didn’t find that hard to watch.

Houston has struggled all series to get stops against Los Angeles. On Sunday night only one defensive strategy worked for the Rockets — foul Jordan intentionally. They did that 14 times in the first half, making the game about as entertaining as a video of a clock ticking.

“Well, we got Dwight (Howard) in foul trouble, got in foul trouble right away…” Rockets’ coach Kevin McHale said, referring to Howard picking up two fouls in the first 3:40 of the game. “We were just trying to see if we could muck up the game a little bit. We didn’t. We came back in, and we kind of had to play small, so we thought maybe we could just get them out of a rhythm a little bit.”

It seemed to throw the Rockets off their rhythm more. But at least that defensive strategy sort of worked — those 14 possessions the Rockets outscored the Clippers 11-10 (according to Kevin Pelton of ESPN).

The problem is when the Rockets stopped doing that in the second quarter the Clippers instantly went on a 9-0 run because they continued to get stops, get out and run, and then tear up Rockets poor transition defense. Then the Clippers came out in the second half and opened it on a 21-4 run, to push their lead north of 20 points —  Jordan pitched in and took his frustrations out on the rim with dunks. The Clippers grabbed 8 offensive rebounds (on 12 missed shots), scored 43 points, and had 103 points total after three quarters.

The game was all but over. So is the series. The Clippers won Game 4 128-95, and now lead the series 3-1.

It is clear the Clippers are the superior team. The Rockets do not have the defense to hang — and Patrick Beverley was not going to solve this problem, nor was Donatas Motiejūnas or K.J. McDaniels (all out injured). On Sunday night 55.7 percent of the Clippers shots were uncontested, according to the NBA’s player tracking data. The Clippers had the best offense in the NBA in the regular season and, even with a hobbled Chris Paul, the Rockets have no answers to slow it. Outside of fouling. Jordan hit 14 free throws (on 34 attempts) on his way to 26 points.

“I think both teams lost their rhythm for a while, so that’s the problem with it,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said of the second quarter fouling spree. “Especially if you’re then or us, teams that run, teams that like motion. It turns it into a half-court game, and, you know it allows us to set our defense.”

“Yeah, we’re not really moving,” the Rockets’ James Harden said (he had 21 points and got to the free throw line 10 times). “We’re not really moving on the offensive end. We’re pretty much stagnant, so it makes it easier for them to kind of load up and play their normal defense.”

That defense was good enough in the decisive third quarter to hold the Rockets to 33.3 percent shooting — and then the Clippers ran off the misses. They ran to the run and they ran to the arc. The Clippers put up 43 points in the third quarter with J.J. Redick leading the way with 15 points and hitting 4-of-4 from three.

The fourth quarter was simply a party for Clippers fans, who are about to see their team reach the Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history. The only thing those fans enjoyed more than the alley-oop dunks in the second half was seeing Dwight Howard get ejected for throwing the ball at the referee’s feet after picking up his sixth foul.

While the Rockets have struggled to slow the Clippers, Los Angeles has found ways to reign in Houston. Put simply, James Harden is the only real shot creator off the dribble and the Clippers have done a good job of not letting him get to the line — on every drive they put their arms straight up and seem to give a little ground. The goal is not to get the call, although Harden thinks the refs are just missing the calls.

“I’ve got a couple scratches on my arms to show you,” Harden said when asked about the Clippers’ defense.

The Rockets players said all the right things about needing to be more focused at home, to bring a better effort in the third quarter, and a host of other cliches.

But unless they find some defense back in Houston, by Wednesday they could be making tee times.

Magic Johnson: Former Pelicans GM Dell Demps leaked Anthony Davis trade-talk details

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The Pelicans reportedly blame the Lakers for details of Anthony Davis trade negotiations leaking.

Former Lakers president Magic Johnson blames former Pelicans general manager Dell Demps.

Johnson on ESPN:

I told Dell Demps, “Let’s just do it in private. What we offer, let’s keep it between us.” Well, Dell didn’t do that. So, that’s how it got out.”

The Lakers have intriguing assets – Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, the No. 4 pick, all their own future first-round picks. Los Angeles will likely try again to land Davis.

Johnson and Demps are out. So, maybe these sour grapes don’t matter.

But enough people remain in each organization – including Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, whom Johnson blasted today – from those winter trade talks. Whether or not there’s an edict in New Orleans forbidding new lead executive David Griffin from sending Davis to the Lakers, there’s clearly mistrust between these franchises. That makes it harder to reach a deal.

Lakers haven for failed coaches

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In the last two decades, 16 teams changed coaches, gave a majority of their minutes to returning players the following season and won 15 more games than the year prior (or equivalent in lockout-shortened season).

Only one of those 16 deposed coaches has gotten another non-interim NBA head-coaching job.

The Lakers will introduce him today.

His lead assistant is also one of the 16. Another member of the 16 was instrumental in hiring them.

Frank Vogel, Jason Kidd and Kurt Rambis make quite a trio.

The Lakers’ new head coach, Vogel is only one year removed from guiding Orlando to a 25-57 record. The Magic’s roster seemed to be the main culprit when they fired him, but Steve Clifford led a similar roster to a 42-40 record. That certainly didn’t reflect well on Vogel.

Ditto how the Bucks responded to Kidd’s departure. After going 44-38 and losing in the first round last season, Milwaukee ascended to 60-22 and is leading the Eastern Conference finals this season under Mike Budenholzer. Yet, Kidd – who’ll assist Vogel – was clearly a priority for the Lakers.

In 2011, the Timberwolves finished 17-65 and fired Rambis. Minnesota went 26-40 the following year under Rick Adelman. After bouncing around other jobs, Rambis is now playing a leading role in Rob Pelinka’s front office.

Every team changes between seasons. Players come and go. Those who stay get older and develop. Injuries happen inconsistently. The NBA hardly runs controlled experiments on coaches.

But these situations don’t instill confidence in Vogel, Kidd and Rambis. That they’re all working together now is remarkable.

Vogel has the most prominent role. Fortunately for the Lakers, he’s also the one least likely to be defined by his fixed-after-he-left tenure. Before Orlando, Vogel had plenty of success with the Pacers.

Kidd also did some positive things with the Bucks. Rambis…

People can learn from their mistakes. Second chances are sometimes warranted.

But the Lakers have LeBron James, whose prime years are dwindling. They’re a prestigious franchise in a premier market. High-end coaches and executives are particularly important and attainable.

The Lakers have given power to this group – maybe for good reason, maybe not.

I hope they explain why today, though there are several other issues they’ll have to address, too.

Magic Johnson on Lakers GM Rob Pelinka: ‘If you’re going to talk betrayal, it’s only with Rob’

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Around the time Magic Johnson stunningly resigned as Lakers president, rumors swirled about his poor work ethic. The source of that rumor was suspected to be Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka. Johnson acknowledged an internal problem the night he quit, citing “backstabbing” and “whispering.”

“If you’re going to talk betrayal,” Johnson said in an incredibly candid interview on ESPN today, “it’s only with Rob.”

Johnson admitted to spending only limited time on the Lakers. But he said Lakers owner Jeanie Buss approved that plan when hiring him.

“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,” Johnson said. “I said, ‘Do I have the power to make decisions?’ Because that was important for me to take the job, as well. She said you have the power to make the decisions. So, I said, ‘OK, let’s go do it.’ She said, ‘I’m going to put you with Rob Pelinka,’ because I didn’t know Rob.

“And then I started hearing, ‘Magic, you’re not working hard enough. Magic’s not in the office.’ So, people around the Lakers office was telling me Rob was saying things – Rob Pelinka – and I didn’t like those things being said behind my back, that I wasn’t in the office and so on and on. So, I started getting calls from my friends outside of basketball, saying those things now were said to them outside of basketball. Now, not just in the Lakers office anymore. Now, it’s in the media and so on.

“Just Rob. Other people didn’t bother me. It’s really funny, as I sit here. I don’t worry about those type of things. I’m not a guy who is like, oh man, he said this about and I worry about it. What happened was I wasn’t having fun coming to work anymore – especially when I’ve got to work beside you knowing you want my position. And I’m OK with that. Because this is what happened, Stephen A. I told him in year two, I’m only going to be here three years. So, my job is, Rob, to get you ready for this position. So, I was going to help elevate him to the president’s position. And so, when all this was coming back to me and guys calling me saying, ‘You better watch out for him’ – and then what crazy was, when I took the job, you know how many agents called me and said, ‘You’ve got to watch out for him.’ And I said, ‘Eh, I’ve got to give the guy a fair chance.’ I can’t listen to people. But he was a hard-worker, smart guy. But now you have that position, so I’m good with that.”

Though he said the backstabbing came from only Pelinka, Johnson clearly had friction with other members of the organization.

Johnson described mentoring Joey Buss (Vice President, Research & Development) and Jesse Buss (Assistant GM / Director, Scouting). Johnson made clear he had no problem doing so and liked those Buss brothers. But he also indicated he saw ambition that created complications.

“They felt they should have been in powerful positions, whether that’s the general manager or the president,” Johnson said.

And there’s Tim Harris President (Business Operations, Chief Operating Officer).

“The straw that broke the camel’s back was, I wanted to fire Luke Walton,” Johnson said. “And we had, Max, three meetings. I showed her the things he did well and the things he didn’t do well. And I said, ‘Listen, we’ve got to get a better coach. I like him. He’s great. Former Laker, the whole thing.’ The first day, ‘Well, let’s think about it.’ Second day, ‘OK, you can fire him.’ Then, the next day, ‘No, we should try to work it out.’ So, when we went back and forth like that and then she brought Tim Harris into the meeting with some of the guys. And Tim wanted me to – he wanted to keep him, because he was friends with Luke. Luke’s a great guy. He’s a great guy. So, when I looked up and said wait a minute, I only really answer to Jeannie Buss. Now, I’ve got Tim involved. And I said it’s time for me to go.”

Walton, since hired by the Kings, has been accused of sexual assault.

There’s a ton to digest here, but I can’t escape two ironies:

Johnson – who had never worked in a front office before, didn’t work hard enough running the Lakers, felt his power wasn’t concentrated enough, didn’t build a winner – said people should ascend in the organization only  “once you show that you can drive excellence.”

Johnson – who described the Lakers as a mess, called their general manager a backstabber, said their owner is failing to define clear roles – plans to help them recruit free agents this summer.

Report: Tim Connelly rejects Wizards, staying with Nuggets

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Nuggets president Tim Connelly could have led the Wizards’ front office, worked close to his native Baltimore and presumably gotten a raise from his reported $2 million salary.

Instead, he’s stay in Denver.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

This is a huge win for Denver and even bigger setback for Washington.

Connelly has put the Nuggets into a great position. They’re young and good in a combination rarely seen in NBA history. Connelly drafted Nikola Jokic in the second round then built around him a short time later. This season, Denver won 54 games and reached Game 7 of the second round with 24-year-old Jokic flanked by Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Paul Millsap.

More decisions always lie ahead – notably Millsap’s $30 million team option for next season. But the Nuggets’ core is already in place and mostly under team control.

The Wizards need far more work. John Wall‘s contract is arguably the NBA’s worst. Ian Mahinmi and Dwight Howard are also roadblocks. Several key players will be free agents this summer. If he makes an All-NBA team this season, Bradley Beal be eligible for a super-max extension – a tricky decision for the club.

It would have been great for Washington to entrust Connelly with all that. He has proven excellent at his job.

Troy Weaver, Danny Ferry or Tommy Sheppard might do well for the Wizards. But they’re candidates who offer far less certainty.