Behind pressure defense, Chris Paul, Clippers pull away for 20-point win against Portland

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LOS ANGELES — First rule of playoff defense: Take away your opponent’s option No. 1. Followed by take away option No. 2. Make someone they don’t trust as much beat you.

The Los Angeles Clippers did that in Game 1 against Portland. During the regular season, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum combined to take 41.3 percent of the Trail Blazers shots, on Sunday night that fell to 33 percent. The Clippers aggressively trapped the pick-and-roll and forced Portland’s backcourt to get the ball to other players — Al-Farouq Aminu and Gerald Henderson both had more shots than McCollum. The Clippers will take that every game this series.

Meanwhile the Trail Blazers’ defense — just 22nd in the NBA after the All-Star break — could not get the ball out of the hands of Chris Paul (28 points and 11 assists), Blake Griffin (19 points) or DeAndre Jordan (18 points, 12 rebounds). The guys the Clippers wanted to shoot were getting shots, and exactly where they wanted them.

The result was Los Angeles pulling away in the second half for a comfortable 115-95 Clippers win to take a 1-0 lead in their playoff series.

There was good news for the Clippers besides the win — this was the best Blake Griffin game since his return from injury and suspension late in the season.

“I felt good. I felt really good,” Griffin said postgame. “Our offense was really clicking. I thought we were doing the things we wanted to do and that helps when you’re getting easy shots. I got some right at the basket early, so that helps. But pretty close, pretty close to how I want to feel.”

Portland’s defense allowed the Clippers to shoot 53.8 percent on the night as a team and have an offensive rating of 122 (points per 100 possessions, via NBA.com) — and that may be the most difficult thing for coach Terry Stotts to adjust, just because there are no good matchups.

“We got to get back in transition, we’ve got to rebound and prevent offensive rebounds, especially on free throws,” McCollum said. “I’ve got to get back and watch the film, but they got middle a couple times on the pick-and-roll and that always creates a lot of problems because you’ve got a shooter like J.J. (Redick) on the weak side or you’ve got Jamal (Crawford) on the weak side so it’s hard to help.”

The Trail Blazers switched a lot of pick-and-rolls in this game, but the Clippers responded by posting up Blake Griffin (with Aminu or someone else smaller on him) and taking advantage of their size. The Trail Blazers may move Aminu or Maurice Harkless to guard Paul (they needs to do something, Lillard was torched much of the night), but either McCollum or Lillard would still need to guard Redick and his constant motion. Stotts is a fantastic coach, but his is limited with how he can match up defensively and keep his playmakers on the floor.

Portland’s other adjustment will be how to deal with the aggressive pick-and-roll traps Los Angeles used on Lillard and McCollum.

“It’s obvious they were really pressuring Damian and C.J., on pick-and-rolls, doubling them and forcing them to pass out,” said Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts. “We had some threes on the weak side, we had some rolls to the basket and weren’t able to finish them. But if they’re going to double-team Damian and C.J., then other players are going to have to make plays for us.”

“They trap a lot of ball screens and switch a lot of ball screens, similar to Golden State….” McCollum said after the game. “It was a tough game but we’ve got to move forward, figure out different ways to score in pick-and-rolls, figure out different ways to get guys shots when they’re trapping and when they are switching out off ball screens.”

“They were physical, they were ready every time, they communicated,” Lillard said. “It was tough to deal with. We had to make the play and get the ball in the middle to a big, and find a weak side guy. Just as a team we didn’t have a great offensive night.”

The big adjustments for Game 2 Wednesday fall on Stotts, who needs to both improve his team’s defense and also find a way to make the Clippers pay for their aggressive traps (just getting Aminu and Harkless to hit their shots would help). He didn’t have any answers during Game 1. He’s got until Wednesday when Game 2 tips off in Los Angeles to figure it out.

Reports: Kyrie Irving demands trade before Feb. 9 deadline

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Kyrie Irving‘s agent tried to spark contract extension talks with the Nets recently, but Brooklyn felt no rush to dive into those talks, and the offer they did make — not for a full four years and filled with guarantees for Irving to meet — increased Irving’s frustration with the organization. The Nets, wisely, wanted to see more out of Irving before talking about the future, while Irving has felt everything with Brooklyn has been conditional.

Irving responded with a bombshell, demanding a trade before the Feb. 9 deadline. Shams Charania of The Athletic was first with the news, but Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report have since confirmed it.

 

So much for a quiet trade deadline.

There are so many angles to this bombshell, but the sense of Irving feeling disrespected by Nets management and ownership is not new. Charania added this detail in his story at The Athletic:

The Nets recently offered Irving an extension with guarantee stipulations, according to league sources, an offer which was declined.

Irving wants a four-year, full max extension, no stipulations, Charania reports. That’s also what he wanted when he pushed for a contract extension with the Nets last summer, but after a couple of seasons of disruptions and him missing a lot of games due to his COVID vaccination status, the Nets were not interested in cementing their relationship long-term (Irving did look around for a new home, but that went nowhere).

The disruptions carried over into this season when Irving was suspended for what became eight games due to a Tweet promoting an antisemitic documentary. Through all this, the Nets fired Steve Nash as coach.

Whatever has happened off the court, when Irving has been on the court he has been his elite playmaking self, averaging 27.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game. Fans voted him in an All-Star starter, and he has carried the Nets while Kevin Durant has been out.

While the Nets don’t want to give away Irving in a trade, if he’s gone this summer as a free agent they need to find a deal to get something in return (and ideally keep their status as a potential, maybe fringe, contender in the East). The Nets are not wrong that all the places Irving would want to go as a free agent will require a sign-and-trade, which gives Brooklyn some leverage. Irving has some leverage here, too: If Team X comes up with a trade the Nets like but Irving lets it be known he won’t re-sign there as a free agent, it limits what teams will offer.

When checking with league sources,  the first name on everyone’s lips are the Lakers, with a package centered around Russell Westbrook and both of the Lakers’ unprotected future picks (a trade that was discussed last summer). The Lakers likely have to sweeten that pot a little with another young player. Adding Irving to the mix with LeBron James and Anthony Davis does make the Lakers a threat to come out of a West with no dominant team, and Los Angeles might be willing to extend or re-sign Irving to a longer deal, they are all in on winning now.

Other teams that come up in conversations are the Heat (a team looking for point guard help and a spark, but does Irving fit the Miami team culture?), the Mavericks need another star next to Luka Dončić, and the Clippers are always active and aggressive at the trade deadline. Shams Charania of The Athletic reports the Suns are interested. Other teams looking to make the leap up to contender status may try to throw their hat in the ring. Considering Irving’s reputation as a challenge for coaches and front office staff, it will be interesting to see how many teams are interested in Irving’s extensions/contract demands.

Whatever direction this goes expect the Irving trade rumors to fly for the next six days.

 

Damian Lillard reportedly to take part in 3-point contest All-Star weekend

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The All-Star Saturday night 3-point contest has passed the Dunk Contest in watchability because the stars still do it. Look at this year’s Dunk Contest, there are some interesting athletes involved, and maybe it becomes a memorable event. Still, there will be no Ja Morant, Zion Williamson, or Anthony Edwards (the way that Jordan, Kobe, and other greats took part in the contest back in the day).

However, the stars turn out for the 3-point contest. This year, that starts with Damian Lillard, according to Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report and TNT.

The coaches selected Lillard as one of the All-Star Game reserves, he was already headed to Salt Lake City. This is Lillard’s third time in the 3-point Shootout.

Over the coming week, expect a lot more big names to jump into the 3-point contest — the best shooters in the game want to do this event (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have each done it multiple times, although whether they will this year is unknown).

All-Star Saturday night: Come for the 3-point Shootout, hang around for the Dunk Contest.

Lakers reportedly exploring Westbrook trade in talks with Jazz

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This feels like a “let’s leak this so our fan base thinks we’re trying” report rather than something that will come close to happening.

The Lakers have re-engaged the Jazz in Russell Westbrook trade talks, reports Chris Haynes at Bleacher Report.

The Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz have had exploratory conversations centered around star guard Russell Westbrook, league sources tell Bleacher Report. However, the Lakers are said to be in communication with most teams to sift through the most reasonable and logical options available.

If the Lakers couldn’t pull off a trade like this over the summer, what has changed now?

The Lakers would be more than happy to move on from Westbrook and bring in more shooting and depth, but this is Danny Ainge they’re dealing with — the price would be both the 2027 and 2029 first-round picks, likely unprotected. The Jazz would send back some combination of Mike Conley, Malik Beasley, Collin Sexton, Jordan Clarkson and Kelly Olynyk — do any three of those players make the Lakers title contenders this season? Are the Lakers willing to give up those two picks to be a team that could make the second round of the playoffs?

Now, if the Raptors get in the trade game, would the combination of Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. get the Lakers to surrender Westbrook and both picks? John Hollinger at The Athletic says that scenario is floating around, although everyone continues to wait to see if the Raptors are going to jump into the trade market with both feet.

The smart money is on the Lakers making a smaller move close to the trade deadline, likely involving Patrick Beverley and some second-round picks. Something similar in size to the Rui Hachimura trade, although the Lakers want — or at least are going to project they want — to hunt bigger game.

The Lakers continue surveying the market for premium shooting. Detroit Pistons sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanović remains a principal target, but there is league-wide skepticism on whether the Pistons are really willing to unload the nine-year veteran. It’s been reported that it would take at least an unprotected first-round pick to get the Pistons’ attention.

The belief within the Lakers’ organization is that they need to make at least one more move by the Feb. 9 trade deadline to give themselves a legitimate shot at competing for a championship, sources say.

Road wins over the Knicks and Pacers have the Lakers thinking they are a player away from contending? Los Angeles is unquestionably better with Davis back, and there is reason for some level of optimism in a flat Western Conference. But we’re talking “we can make the playoffs” optimism, there is still a chasm between these Lakers and contending — the gap between their second and third-best players (and the rest of the roster) is just too great.

Still, look for some kind of Lakers trade at the deadline. They are one of the more active teams out there. Just don’t expect it to be Westbrook.

Dončić leaves game with heel contusion, could miss games

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Luka Dončić was in control — he scored 21 points in the first quarter — and the Mavericks were cruising to a win.

Then Dončić went for a dunk, Brandon Ingram slid in for the block from behind, and Dončić hit the ground. Hard.

Dončić tried to stay in, but after one more play went back to the locker room and did not return due to what the team called a heel contusion. He could miss a game or two of the upcoming Mavericks’ five-game road trip — which starts with a nationally televised game Saturday in Golden State — according to Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes.

There likely will be more information from the team over the next 24 hours.

How much the Mavericks need Dončić was on display the rest of this game. The Pelicans stormed back and might have had a chance to tie the game with 3.4 seconds left when a blown call by the referees — Ingram blocked an inbounds pass but was ruled out of bounds in doing so, when he wasn’t — robbed them of that opportunity. Larry Nance Jr. took his shot at the officials for that.

With this win, the Mavericks moved into fourth place in the West (ahead of the Clippers, who fell to the Bucks Thursday).