Three keys to Game 7 between Clippers, Rockets

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At the start of the week, if you had tried to tell everyone that the only second round playoff matchup to go seven would be the Clippers and Rockets, you would have been laughed off the Internet. The Clippers were up 3-1 and seemingly in control, while both Eastern Conference series seemed destined to drag out longer.

But the Rockets showed up and played desperate in Game 5 while the Clippers coasted. Then came an unforgettable and virtually unexplainable Game 6 — the Clippers were up 19 points with 2:30 left in the third quarter, then started to play a prevent defense and that lead went away. What the Rockets did late in that game is not sustainable — Blake Griffin was missing shots at the rim while Josh Smith was hitting step-back threes — but it doesn’t have to be, it just had to work for a short stretch.

That is true of Game 7 as well — neither team needs something that will work for over the long haul; they just need it to go right for one day. One game.

Here are three keys to watch in Game 7 Sunday.

1) Can the Clippers mentally bounce back from Game 6? This Clipper team has shown itself to be mentally tough — did you see Game 7 against the Spurs? Still, you have to ask this first question. The Clippers were on the verge of advancing to the franchise’s first-ever conference finals when they, to use the words of Blake Griffin, took their foot off the gas. Then when the game started to get close, they got tight. This team was understandably crushed after Game 6, and some teams don’t bounce back from that — I just don’t think this Clippers team is one of them. The extra day off between games helps, too. Expect to see the Clippers that put up a 19 point lead, not the version that gave it away.

2) Can DeAndre Jordan stay out of foul trouble? In this series, when DeAndre Jordan is on the court the Clippers allow 96.7 points per 100 possessions. When he is on the bench, the Clippers give up 118.2 points per 100 possessions. If you want to talk about what really got the Clippers in trouble in Game 5 in Houston, it was Jordan’s foul trouble allowing him to play only 1:50 of the second quarter (when the Rockets stretched out a lead). The Rockets have started to get James Harden back to playing his bowling ball style in recent games, playing downhill and rolling into the lane picking up points and drawing fouls. If Doc Rivers has to limit Jordan’s minutes, that’s bad news for Los Angeles. Although, one would hope in a Game 7 the referees would let the teams play a little.

3) Whose role players step up? For the Clippers, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul will be just fine and put up numbers. The question is who is going to help them out as a third scorer. J.J. Redick has averaged 17 a game in this series but has gone missing for stretches, Jamal Crawford has been even more invisible. The Clippers need one of them — or Austin Rivers, or Jordan, or Matt Barnes or anybody — to be the third scorer. The Clippers have been the better team in the majority of this series, they just need to play like it Sunday. For 48 minutes.

For the Rockets, we saw in Game 6 that for a stretch this bench can make plays — their entire comeback was with James Harden riding the pine (and credit Kevin McHale for leaving him there, plenty of coaches would have gone back to him). No doubt Harden will be pivotal in Game 7, but he can’t do it alone. Whether it’s Smith or Corey Brewer or Trevor Ariza, the Rockets need one more game where someone unexpected steps up and puts up numbers. It doesn’t have to be sustainable; it just has to work for one day and Houston can advance at home.

Damian Lillard opposes idea of later NBA season start running into summer

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At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference a few weeks back (although it feels like a lifetime ago), Atlanta  CEO Steve Koonin suggested the NBA should permanently shift its schedule to a mid-December start with the Finals running into August. The idea was to stop going head-to-head with the NFL and college football at the start of the season. Then the pushed back playoffs forced by the coronavirus have made that discussion more relevant. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has said everything is on the table.

Damian Lillard is not a fan of the idea.

He likes the schedule just the way it is, something he said during a video conference with the media on Tuesday, hat tip to Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Portland.

“I just don’t see it. I mean, the season starts when it starts now, then February all-star weekend, getting toward the end of the season in April and then getting into the playoffs. You get that early June Finals and then you get to go off into your summer…

“You get to enjoy real-time summer,” Lillard said. “Our break is into the summer and then you get to come back as summer is leaving. I think that’s been perfect…

“It’s been perfect for us,” Lillard said. “So, for that to change and for things to be pushed back, I’m definitely not a fan of that and I don’t see many guys being a fan of that.”

Lillard is not alone in thinking this way, but Silver is more open to change than most sports commissioners. That said, changes that break with long-standing traditions are hard to make a reality.

There would be a lot of questions around a schedule change. Would the ratings still be as high for a Finals series in the heart of the summer? The NBA season no longer would sync with the NCAA or international leagues’ schedules, leading to questions about the draft and timing for players who want to test the waters. There would need to be reworked television contracts, both regionally and nationally. It could make scheduling a challenge at arenas used to having more concerts and other events in the summer.

Plus, all of this would need to be negotiated with the players union — and Lillard speaks for a lot of players on this issue.

If the NBA could somehow convince players that starting later meant more money in their pocket, those union negotiations would take on a different tone. But would the move increase revenue? That’s not an easy sell.

With this NBA season likely running late, the start of next season could be pushed back, and this theory could get a little bit of a test. Or, the next season could be shortened a little to get the league back on its regular schedule.

Which would make Lillard happy.

Report: NBA deprioritizing playing regular-season games for local TV

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The NBA is financially incentivized to play more regular-season games to satisfy local-TV contracts.

How does that square with resuming play – currently suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic – with a play-in tournament and playoffs?

It doesn’t.

Marc Berman of the New York Post:

According to one source, getting some teams to a magical number of 70 regular-season games had been a goal, but in the last week has taken on less of a priority.

This stoppage is going to cost the NBA a lot of money. There’s no way around that. Not every source of revenue can be preserved. It’s about finding the optimal setup.

Importantly, canceling games could allow the NBA to reduce player salaries through force majeure. Of course, the union would consider that action when negotiating how to proceed.

LeBron James advocated for playing some regular-season games before the playoffs so everyone could get back into shape. But Steve Kerr called it very unlikely the Warriors would play another regular-season game. Perhaps, playoff-bound teams like the Lakers will play tune-up regular-season games while Golden State – the only team officially eliminated from the playoff race before the hiatus – doesn’t. It’d be a little odd to have such different formats, though. (Then again, these are odd times).

Considering this report, we ought to give more credence to the idea that Kerr knows something about the NBA’s plan and that the regular season is finished.

Lakers update that all players ‘currently symptom-free of COVID-19’

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Nearly two weeks ago, the Lakers announced that two of their players tested positive for the coronavirus. “Both players are currently asymptomatic, in quarantine and under the care of the team’s physician… All players and members of the Lakers staff are being asked to continue to observe self-quarantine,” the Lakers said at that time.

On Tuesday, the team provided an update saying nobody on the team is showing any symptoms after a couple of weeks of quarantine.

“All Lakers players are currently symptom-free of COVID-19. The team will continue to follow the health and safety guidelines set by government officials, the Lakers and the NBA,” the statement said.

The Lakers’ players who tested positive were never publicly identified (in fitting with HIPAA regulations).

A total of 10 NBA players — plus five members of staff associated with teams — have tested positive for the virus that has upended life in the United States. None reportedly have had to be hospitalized. Players such as Marcus Smart and others have recovered and free from the virus.

The NBA remains suspended, with the league hoping to jump-start the playoffs in June, possibly with all the teams in one location.

Report: NBA won’t hold draft until after season

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The NBA draft is scheduled for June 25. Most expect that date to change as the coronavirus pandemic causes postponements around the world.

Apparently, the draft will come after the NBA season – whether the season is completed in a modified format or just cancelled.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

I think everybody in the league feels it’s almost impossible to have a draft if you still have a season that’s ongoing.

You can’t have a draft while teams are still playing. You can’t have some teams able to do trades because their season’s done and then some teams unable to do trades because they’re still playing.

It doesn’t strike me as difficult to hold the draft before the season ends. Teams wouldn’t be allowed to trade current players. The restriction would apply across the board, just like the interrupted pre-draft process. That’s not ideal, but compromises must be made amid this chaos.

Importantly, holding the draft sooner could appeal to both sides of the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

It’d be an opportunity to hold a revenue-producing TV event. Obviously, drafted players wouldn’t attend a mass gathering. But with sports fans starved for content, people would watch the selections. A handshake with NBA commissioner Adam Silver is only a small part of the festivities.

The National Basketball Players Association should also push for an earlier draft. Prospects want information sooner so they can prepare for their next step – whether that’s the NBA, returning to college or playing overseas. That said, the union has bigger priorities than potential future members.

So, it’s easy to see why postponing the draft has gained momentum, even if that’s not a no-brainer solution.