Doc Rivers the GM’s lack of bench doomed Clippers. Can he fix it for next season?

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This season’s Los Angeles Clippers were slightly better than last season’s Los Angeles Clippers. It was baby steps. They were incrementally improved — but that was not near enough to live up to the lofty expectations.

The reason they fell short of those expectations was Doc Rivers.

Not the coach — he’s still elite on the bench — but rather Doc Rivers the GM let this team down.

The Clippers much-discussed — and dismissed by Rivers — lack of depth came back to bite them. After a grueling seven-game series against the Spurs, the Clippers wilted as the second round series went on against the Rockets. Los Angeles led Houston 3-1 but were flat and tired for Game 5. In Game 6 they wilted in the fourth quarter and blew a 19-point lead (there were a number of factors in that epic collapse, but fatigue was one of them). They fell behind early in Game 7 and didn’t have the role players stepping up nor energy to complete the comeback. The Clippers would make a push but could not sustain it. The fast pace of Game 7 — 106 possessions according to NBA.com — wore them down.

Throughout the series the Clippers players looked tired and after losing Game 7 they admitted they were exhausted.

That’s all on Rivers. This team’s lack of depth was key to their undoing.

Last summer Paul Pierce had interest in coming to the Clippers, but Doc Rivers spent the full mid-level exception on Spencer Hawes. Rivers’ other signings last summer were Jordan Farmar, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Jared Cunningham and Ekpe Udoh. Farmar and Cunningham were waived. Douglas-Roberts was packaged with Reggie Bullock and a 2017 second-round pick to get Austin Rivers (who was terrible most of the regular season but improved to up-and-down in the playoffs).  Rivers signed guys like Dahntay Jones, Jordan Hamilton, and Lester Hudson, but none of them were going to help the bench in any meaningful way.

The Clippers had their starting five and had to hope the younger Rivers, Jamal Crawford (-22 in Game 7) or “Big Baby” Glen Davis would step up. That didn’t happen nearly enough, and an enormous burden fell on the starters.

If the Clippers are going to do anything more than take another baby step forward — one that is likely not enough again — next season they have to get a deeper bench. Well, first they have to make sure free agent DeAndre Jordan doesn’t bolt for Texas, but after that Rivers needs to add some actual bench help to this team.

But Rivers doesn’t have a lot of room to add quality players.

“Contractually, and I don’t think everybody gets that, it’s very difficult (to add players) when you have the contracts we have,” Rivers said after Game 7, referring to the huge contracts of Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, plus one coming for Jordan. “Bringing J.J. (Redick) in here was great, but we’ve got to get this team more support. The problem is, with the contracts we’re hinged from, they’re probably doing to be minimum deals for the most part. There’s no big deals we’re going to make, most likely.”

Those large contracts certainly make it harder to put quality players around their stars, but other teams do it. The Rockets have max deals in James Harden and Dwight Howard, but added Trevor Ariza last summer, Josh Smith mid-season (he chose the Rockets over the Clippers and others), and have drafted and developed guys like Terrence Jones.

Rivers is not a cap guy, and maybe bringing in a cap guy he would listen to would help — giving Spencer Hawes the full mid-level put the Clippers under a hard cap that limited their flexibility through the season. The NBA salary cap and tax system is tax-code level complex and unless you want to delve in and understand every nuance, you need to have someone who does and who you listen to.

Steve Ballmer is not about to strip Rivers of his GM powers, but could he persuade Rivers to bring in a co-GM? Someone else that would have final say if there is a divide in the front office? While it’s hard to imagine Ballmer investing so much power in one person in his other businesses, I expect he’ll let Rivers continue to run the entire show for the Clippers. At least for another summer.

And when the Clippers return next summer, the core will look the same.

“I like our group…” Rivers said. “Teams that have stuck it out, on the long run, have done better than teams that blow it up. We’re really close, clearly. Maybe it’s a defensive guy, one more guy; I don’t now yet. Again, it sounds so easy, ‘why don’t you go get him?’ It’s not that easy, in terms of structure. Maybe we can do something, we will do something, but we’re not going to bring in another max guy.”

They don’t need to. But can they find and get the right role players who can turn that next baby step into the leap forward they need to challenge for an NBA title?

It’s all on Doc Rivers the GM to give Doc Rivers the coach the pieces he needs to win.

Playoffs statement? Boston builds 40-point lead, routs Toronto

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — The way the NBA standings look right now, there’s a reasonable chance that the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors could be slotted to see each other in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

And Celtics coach Brad Stevens is already making it clear — if that happens, a blowout win over the Raptors now won’t mean anything then.

Jaylen Brown scored 20 points, Jayson Tatum added 18 and the Celtics never trailed on the way to an emphatic 122-100 win over the Raptors on Friday night. Kemba Walker scored 17 points in 23 minutes for the Celtics, who led by 40 at one point and kept slim hope alive of catching the Raptors for the No. 2 spot in the East race.

“This game will mean nothing if we get that opportunity again,” Stevens said. “They’re a really good team. I thought they missed a lot of open looks and it just wasn’t their night. Our guys played well, but it won’t mean anything in a couple weeks.”

Boston also won the season series against Toronto, taking three of the four meetings. The Celtics also won back-to-back games for the first time in the bubble.

“We’re enjoying each other and building chemistry,” Tatum said.

Fred VanVleet scored 13 for Toronto, which got 11 from Kyle Lowry and 11 more from Pascal Siakam. The Raptors’ starters — VanVleet, Lowry, Siakam, Marc Gasol and OG Anunoby — combined to shoot 16 for 45 (36%) from the field, 3 for 19 (16%) from 3-point range.

“One thing about this team, we always bounce back and we always stick together,” Toronto’s Norman Powell said. “I’m not too worried.”

Toronto’s biggest deficit in its first three games in the bubble was six points against the Los Angeles Lakers. The Raptors trailed Miami by three, then didn’t trail Orlando at any point in their game on Wednesday.

But only five minutes into this one, the Raptors were down eight.

And it would only get worse from there for the reigning champions.

The biggest deficit Toronto had faced this season was a 30-point hole against Dallas on Dec. 22, a game where the Raptors rallied to win. The Celtics didn’t allow anything close to a rally on Friday — after the Raptors closed within 10 early in the third, Boston went on a 36-12 run over the final 9:39 of the quarter.

It was 91-57 entering the fourth, and the Raptors went with subs the rest of the way. Making the night even worse for Toronto: forward Serge Ibaka left early in the fourth after getting hit in the face on a drive by Boston’s Gordon Hayward.

“I hate to say it, but there’s nothing really I learned,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “The only thing I probably did learn is we’ve got to get a couple of our guys playing a little better.”

Nets, Magic lock up playoff spots in East; Grizzlies help own cause in West

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — The NBA playoff picture is getting a little clearer, and the Eastern Conference field of qualifiers is now set.

Brooklyn and Orlando clinched the last two remaining East spots Friday, meaning no play-in series — a new wrinkle added to the rules of the NBA’s season restart at Walt Disney World — will be needed on that half of the bracket.

Brooklyn secured its trip by defeating Sacramento 119-106. Orlando’s spot was clinched when Washington lost to New Orleans 118-107 later Friday, eliminating the Wizards from contention.

The Nets and Magic will be No. 7 and No. 8, in some order, in the East playoffs. The No. 8 seed will face the Milwaukee Bucks in the opening round of the playoffs, which begin Aug. 17. The No. 7 seed could meet the reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors, who currently hold — but have not secured — the East’s No. 2 spot.

For the Nets, the clinching comes as something to savor in a topsy-turvy season.

Kevin Durant couldn’t play at all because of his recovery from Achilles surgery — yet still got a $1 million contract bonus because Brooklyn made the postseason. Kyrie Irving missed much of the year because of injury, the Nets had several regulars opt out of participating in the restart, changed coaches in March and have used 24 players so far this season.

“It’s great to punch our own ticket into the playoffs,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said. “I joked with the guys: I like my laundry being done, but nothing like doing your own laundry.”

Orlando could have clinched with a win Friday, but lost to Philadelphia 108-101. The Wizards lost about an hour later, falling to 0-5 in the bubble. Washington was one of nine teams from the East who qualified for the restart, but has since fallen behind Charlotte into 10th place in the conference.

Philadelphia’s win tightened the race for No. 4 in the East. The 76ers (42-27) are tied with Indiana for the fifth-best record in that conference, one game behind fourth-place Miami (43-26).

The race for the last unclaimed playoff spot in the Western Conference remains close, with teams vying to grab the No. 8 spot and play the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. If the eighth- and ninth-place teams are within four games of one another when the seeding game schedule ends next week, there will be a two-game series to determine who gets the last playoff spot.

Should that series take place, the ninth-place team would have to go 2-0 in a best-of-two series to advance.

Memphis remained alone in eighth out West, after the Grizzlies snapped a four-game bubble losing streak by beating Oklahoma City on Friday 121-92. The Grizzlies are one game ahead of Portland in the West standings.

“We channeled what we’ve done all season long,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “We played Grizzlies basketball. Grizzlies basketball equals Grizzlies wins, more often than not. We hadn’t done that in the first four games.”

San Antonio leaped idle Phoenix into 10th in the West by beating Utah 119-111, with the Spurs improving to 3-2 in the bubble. The Spurs (30-38) are one game behind Portland in the standings.

“At the end of the day, we can’t control what they’re doing,” Spurs center Jakob Poeltl said. “We can only control what we’re doing. We’re going to take every game as it comes. We’re going to try to win every game.”

Phoenix, Sacramento and New Orleans remain in the mix for a West play-in series spot. The Suns, who are 4-0 at Disney, play Miami on Saturday.

Training camps for “delete 8” reportedly might happen inside Orlando bubble

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Whether the eight teams not invited to the NBA restart will have training camps and get together for scrimmages depends on who you ask. There are some teams adamant they will be at a massive disadvantage if their young teams go nine months without playing competitive NBA basketball. The problem is bringing teams together creates coronavirus issues that are not easily eliminated.

Which led to an idea: Why not bring those eight teams into the Orlando bubble on the Walt Disney World Resort campus and let them practice/play there?

It’s being talked about as an option reports Sam Amick of The Athletic.

What if those eight teams joined the rest of their colleagues inside the Walt Disney World bubble for training after the eliminated teams departed? Sources say the NBA has been exploring that possibility for quite some time now, and that the idea was raised most recently on the aforementioned governors’ call. And in some ways, it makes perfect sense.

As NBPA executive director Michele Roberts has made clear all along, the union has been skeptical of any basketball setting that doesn’t match the Orlando approach in terms of precautions and protocol. But starting on Aug. 17, when six teams go home and the 16-team playoffs begin, space will be opening up inside this three-hotel, three-court, (seemingly) COVID-free community they have created.

More space will open up in the bubble as more teams are eliminated from the postseason, although some of those rooms were to be used by family of team staff still in the bubble. It’s a delicate balancing act for the league.

The eight teams in question are Golden State, Minnesota, Cleveland, Atlanta, Detroit, New York, Chicago, and Charlotte.

Putting together a second bubble for the “delete eight” was never likely to happen, it’s a logistical nightmare, and it’s expensive (but without the television money payoff of the actual bubble). There is some logic to inviting those eight teams to Orlando.

Whether it happens or not remains to be seen.

Memphis picks up first win since restart, beats Oklahoma City

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Dillon Brooks scored 22 points, and the Memphis Grizzlies claimed their first win since the restart with a 121-92 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday.

Jonas Valanciunas had 19 points and 11 rebounds and Ja Morant had 19 points and nine assists for the Grizzlies.

Memphis lost its first four restart games and would have fallen into a tie with Portland for eight place in the Western Conference standings with a loss.

“As a whole, we never doubted ourselves, doubted what we can accomplish as a team,” Morant said. “But like, we all was very confident in our team and feel like tonight, we just went out and played freely and we were able to come out with a win.”

Chris Paul scored 17 points and Luguentz Dort added 16 for the Thunder. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City’s leading scorer this season, finished with 10 points on 3 for 13 shooting.

The Thunder looked nothing like the team that rolled past the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday. Oklahoma City missed a chance to move into a tie with the Houston Rockets for fourth place in the West.

Oklahoma City led by 18 in the first quarter, but the Grizzlies rallied to take the lead in the second. The Thunder made 7 of 13 3-pointers in the first quarter but 6 of 30 the rest of the way.

“I thought it was a little bit of fool’s gold in the first quarter,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said.

Memphis led by nine in the final seconds of the first half. Danilo Gallinari hit a 3 for the Thunder with 4.6 seconds left, then Paul got a steal and hit a corner 3 to cut the Grizzlies’ lead to 63-60 at halftime.

The Grizzlies outscored the Thunder 32-18 in the third quarter to go up 95-78 at the end of the period.

“They started making shots,” Paul said. “We never really made them feel us all game long. They were just so comfortable. They got a little bit of everything. They got floaters, they got the threes, they got to the free-throw line. Our defense was just bad today.”