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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.

Report: Suns signing Cheick Diallo to two-year contract

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The Suns went old in the draft, picking 23-year-old Cameron Johnson at No. 11.

Phoenix will go younger in free agency with 22-year-old Cheick Diallo.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Barring another move, the Suns have only the minimum available. Diallo will get $1,678,854 next season and $1,824,003 the following season.

The No. 33 pick in the 2016 draft, Diallo worked his way into the low end of the rotation during his three years with the Pelicans. He’s a hustle big, committed rebounder and athletic player. But at 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds, he’s not strong enough to bang with most centers. His skill level is low for power forward.

Phoenix will stick him behind Deandre Ayton, Dario Saric, Aron Baynes and Frank Kaminsky in the frontcourt. Diallo might receive situation minutes, but he must develop further to hold staying power.

Report: Chris Paul increasingly expected to start season with Thunder

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Last week, the Thunder had an expensive point guard who’s into his 30s and didn’t fit a team shifting into rebuilding without Paul George.

Same story now.

Oklahoma City traded Russell Westbrook for Chris Paul to acquire draft picks and shed long-term salary. Getting Paul as a player was of minimal concern. That’s why the Thunder worked with him to flip him. But a team like the Heat wanted draft picks just for taking the three years and $124,076,442 remaining on Paul’s contract.

So, Oklahoma City might hold onto Paul, after all.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The 34-year-old Paul is past his prime. But he’s still good. It’d be interesting to see him once again as his team’s best player after he spent so much time stuck in the corner watching James Harden.

Paul, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams could form the core of a solid team this season. Paul can run an offense, and Adams (pick-and-roll) and Gallinari (pick-and-pop) offer nice complementary skills. If Andre Roberson is healthy or if a young player like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Nerlens Noel, Terrence Ferguson or Hamidou Diallo takes the next step, Oklahoma City could make real noise.

The Thunder’s biggest challenge: They play in the loaded Western Conference. That makes it far more difficult to make the playoffs. But in terms of team quality, Oklahoma City could be in the thick of competitiveness.

If Paul and Gallinari stay healthy. That can’t be assumed, though Adams can do some dirty work to keep those two clean.

The Thunder have tremendous draft capital – so much of which is tied to the fates of the Clippers, Rockets, Heat and Nuggets. Oklahoma City could tank and improve its draft position further and sooner. But owning so many picks from other teams allows the Thunder to try to win now while simultaneously rebuilding. They don’t necessarily have to waste seasons in the basement just to build themselves back up.

It will probably be easier to trade Paul on Dec. 15. That’s when most free agents who signed this summer become eligible to be traded. Right now, too many teams have untradable players, making it difficult to match Paul’s high salary. Generally, the more of Paul’s contract the Thunder pay out, the easier it’ll be to trade him.

But if Paul declines sharply or gets hurt, his value could diminish even further. There’s risk in waiting, though an injured Paul might allow Oklahoma City to tank anyway.

The Thunder must also cut a few million of salary before the final day of the regular season to avoid the luxury tax. That’s a priority.

So, Oklahoma City will make some move – Paul or otherwise.

But it appears likely we’ll see Paul play for the Thunder. It’ll be a return to Oklahoma City after he played home games there with the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets following Hurricane Katrina.

This isn’t the reunion Paul or the Thunder appeared to desire when the Westbrook trade was agreed upon. I still think it could be pretty cool.

Ben Simmons reverses course, withdraws from Australia’s Word Cup squad

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Ben Simmons‘ new contract extension with the Philadelphia 76ers came with bad news for Australian basketball fans: The Melbourne-born NBA All-star won’t play for the Boomers at the World Cup.

Hours after Simmons and the 76ers agreed to a $170 million, five-year contract extension on Tuesday, Simmons said he preferred to spend time with his new teammates in September instead of travelling to China for the Aug. 31-Sept. 15 World Cup.

“I wanted to let everyone know that after consulting with my representation, I’ve made the difficult decision to forego playing in the World Cup in China,” Simmons said in a statement.

“Ultimately, we decided it was best that I use the time in September to return to Philadelphia to acquaint myself with my new teammates and prepare for the upcoming NBA season.”

Simmons had been selected for Australia’s World Cup squad and had earlier indicated he planned to play the tournament in China.

He now plans to play only for the Boomers in two exhibition games against the United States in Melbourne on Aug. 22 and 24 at a stadium that is expected to be sold out – 50,000 fans – for each game. He also said the Olympics next year in Tokyo remain on his schedule.

“I will still be heading back home to Australia to host my camps as well as train and play with the Boomers in the upcoming exhibition games,” Simmons said. “I’m really excited about the talent we have on the Boomers squad, especially moving closer to 2020 where I will be honored and humbled to represent my country on the world’s biggest sporting stage at the Olympics in Tokyo.”

Simmons was the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2016. He made his NBA debut in the 2017-18 season and was the Rookie of the Year. He was an All-Star for the first time last season. He has averaged 16.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 7.9 assists in his two seasons.

Australia’s World Cup lineup is set to feature San Antonio’s Patty Mills, Joe Ingles of Utah Jazz, Phoenix center Aron Baynes, Cleveland’s Matthew Dellavedova, former No. 1 draft pick Andrew Bogut, Detroit center-forward Thon Maker and Simmons’ 76ers teammate Jonah Bolden.

 

Just a reminder, after draft and free agency Wizards have still not named official GM

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When Wizards owner Ted Leonsis finally ended Ernie Grunfeld’s run as team GM back in April — to the joy of Wizards fans everywhere — it was expected they would have a new head of basketball operations in place by the draft.

Nope.

So by the start of free agency, to guide the Wizards through this tumultuous summer?

Nope.

Tommy Sheppard has been doing the job on an interim basis, and as Jeff Zillgit of the USA Today points out a lot of league talk in Las Vegas was about why Leonsis just hasn’t given Shepard the job.

Team executive after executive had the same question when the Washington Wizards’ unresolved top front-office job opening came up. “Why not just give Tommy the job?”

Tommy is Tommy Sheppard, the Wizards’ longtime exec, who has been running basketball operations since owner Ted Leonsis decided not to bring Ernie Grunfeld back. Sheppard ran the draft, free agency and the Wizards’ Summer League team, but he doesn’t have the full-time job.

A couple of more prominent names were linked to the Wizards job at points. There were reportedly talks with Tim Conley, who built Denver into a real threat, but he decided to stay in the Rockies. There were rumors of Masai Ujiri, but he has chosen to stay in Toronto after winning a title.

At this point, after Sheppard has built the team for this coming season, is Leonsis really going to bring in someone else?

The Wizards have decisions to make. This is a young roster not ready to be a threat in the East, but with Bradley Beal and the injured John Wall (likely out for the season after tearing his Achilles), they also are capped out. So far they have turned away calls from other teams about a Beal trade (nobody is calling about a Wall trade with his max contract extension just kicking in).

Come July 26 the Wizards can offer Beal a three-year, $111 million extension, both sides are talking and the offer is expected to be made. That’s when the big decision comes — if Beal doesn’t sign that offer the Wizards have to look at trading him. Beal has spoken numerous times in the past about wanting to stay with the Wizards, but there was plenty of informed league speculation at Summer League that he is frustrated with the franchise and may not sign the extension, essentially forcing his way out. It’s something to watch in the coming weeks.

It probably would be nice to have a locked-in head of basketball operations by then, but who knows what Leonsis will do.