Clippers bench propels team to 102-81 win against Trail Blazers

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LOS ANGELES — Terry Stotts’ adjustments worked.

Portland’s Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum were playing off the ball more, using cuts, pin-down screens, and other ways to get the ball in better positions, with that they were getting up shots they could not find space to take in Game 1. The Blazers shared the ball (Mason Plumlee threw a couple beautiful passes to backdoor cutters), guys got open looks (46 percent of Portland’s shots were uncontested), and Portland’s spacing was improved.

The Trail Blazers still lost by 21.

The reason was they couldn’t knock down those shots — Portland shot 34.1 percent overall and 19.2 percent from three. Lillard and McCollum were a combined 12-of-39 from the floor.

The Los Angeles Clippers pulled away in the fourth thanks to their bench for a 102-81 victory at Staples Center Wednesday. The Clippers are now up 2-0 in the first round series, which heads to Portland Saturday. Los Angeles has won the two games by a combined 41 points. The odds are stacked in the Clippers’ favor— teams that win the first two games at home in a seven-game playoff series win it 94 percent of the time.

“Actually, I was pretty pleased with (our execution),” Stotts said. “I thought we got some good looks, especially early. We struggled to shoot the ball all night, we were under 40 percent most of the night [they finished at 34 percent]. I thought we did a good job of changing things up, as far as changing things up as far as getting different looks and moving people around.”

According to NBA.com, 46 percent of the Blazers shots were uncontested (42-of-91), they hit just 31 percent of those.

The shooting woes started with the big guns of Lillard and McCollum. In Game 1 the pair wasn’t getting enough shots, in Game 2 the pair seemed rushed on the perimeter and bothered by DeAndre Jordan when they drove the lane.

“Especially at the start of the game, I got a lot of good looks,” Lillard said. “I missed a wide-open, point-blank layup. When you get those looks early in the game, you’ve got to knock them down….

“So I got a lot more clean looks tonight. The ball didn’t go in as much as I would have liked it to, especially with us being in the game. I think if I would have had it going, it would have come down to the last couple minutes. But they didn’t.”

It wasn’t just the stars. Stotts has said that players such as Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless have to step up because the Clippers are willing to give them clean looks to trap and challenge Lillard and McCollum. Aminu and Harkless were a combined 9-of-26.

The Clippers starters were not sharp — 42.6 percent shooting on the night for the group, although Chris Paul did end up with 25 points — however in both the second and fourth quarter it was the Clipper bench that stretched out the lead to double digits.

“They just changed the game for us,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said of his bench players. “They were spectacular tonight. I thought on both ends they saved the game for us. Our starters were up-and-down a little bit today. I thought we were sloppy in a lot of ways, but I thought our bench saved us.”

Despite having the newly minted Sixth Man of the Year in Jamal Crawford, the Clipper bench was maligned for much of the season. However, over the past few weeks that unit has come together with Cole Aldrich (8 points Wednesday), Jeff Green (10), and Crawford (11). More importantly, that unit has been strong defensively. The group was playing so well that Griffin and Paul were set to check back in during the fourth and decided to withdraw for a minute and went back to the bench to let second unit keep doing it’s thing.

“The biggest place we have had an impact is defensively,” Aldrich said. “That’s where we can leave our stamp on the game. Offensively, we just came out together and played with a lot of energy while we were on the floor.”

Lillard and Mason Plumlee each had 17 points to lead the Blazers.

Stotts will make a few more adjustments, and his role players will thrive better at the Moda Center in Portland. But there’s nothing he can adjust for if Lillard and McCollum are missing.

Rudy Gobert says lack of Team USA stars in World Cup will continue

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The 2019 FIBA World Cup is over, and the United States did not medal. It was a disappointing showing for Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, and Jayson Tatum, who led the U.S. national team in a year in which several stars did not want to participate.

Instead it looks as though players like Stephen Curry and Draymond Green will play next year in the 2020 Olympics in Japan. Meanwhile, what can FIBA do to entice stars to play in their tournament?

There are lots of issues with how the World Cup works, including the wonky qualifying windows and the fact that the Olympics come in short succession. That’s not to say that folks back in the States don’t want the World Cup to be a big deal — USA basketball head Jerry Colangelo has said that he wants the FIBA contest to be a premier event.

But some, like Utah Jazz and French national team big man Rudy Gobert, don’t ever see that happening. Speaking to the New York Times’ Marc Stein, Gobert said that he doesn’t believe players will join in on the FIBA games thanks to how the modern NBA works.

Via NY Times:

“I wish all the best players would come, but it’s never going to happen,” Gobert said of the modern N.B.A. player’s approach in the Load Management Era. “They think about themselves more than anything — and it’s understandable. It’s a business. We all have families to take care of.”

Although FIBA has been around since 1932, it’s not a part of American culture yet and thus the Olympics seem to be what both players and fans care about in comparison. That the U.S. men’s team didn’t come away with the gold doesn’t even seem to be that big of a deal, culturally.

Gobert has the right idea in terms of the reality of the situation. Until respective national team organizations can entice their own players to join in, it’s not clear what the World Cup will mean for basketball fans in North America moving forward. As such, we are unlikely to see a star-studded World Cup Team USA in the near future.

Corey Brewer, Raymond Felton, Nick Young among players attending Rockets’ mini-camp

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The Houston Rockets have potential roster spots open.

With Iman Shumpert turning them down, the Rockets have just nine fully guaranteed contracts right now, plus eight guys on temporary deals. When the season starts, Houston has to have at least 13, and likely will have 14 or 15, players on the roster, even if some of those remain temporary contracts. In an NBA where guaranteed contracts are the norm, leaving very little drama for training camp, the Rockets are an exception.

Which is why a number of veterans — Corey Brewer, Raymond Felton, Nick Young, Thabo Sefolosha among them — are going to Houston’s mini-camp, reports Kelly Iko of The Athletic.

Mbah a Moute has since changed his plans and will not show up.

Can Brewer and Felton — at their age — beat out guys such as Isaiah Hartenstein, Michael Frazier, Ben McLemore, and Gary Clark for spots on the Rockets’ roster? I’m not sold that they can (Hartenstein is very likely to make the final roster), but the first step is a good showing at mini-camp, which can lead to a training camp invite.

The Rockets are not a deep team, at this point in the summer they may present the best opportunity for anyone to earn their way into an NBA contract.

James Harden wants to win multiple championships — and he hears the clock ticking

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James Harden has a Hall of Fame resume already: An MVP (and he is convinced he should have won more), six-time All-NBA and seven-time All-Star, a two-time scoring champ (averaging the most points per game since Jordan last season), an assist champ, and a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics. Right now he is the most lethal scoring threat in the game, and while I wouldn’t go as far as Daryl Morey he is undoubtedly one of the best scorers ever. His step-back is unstoppable.

However, there is one thing missing from that resume: A ring.

It’s something that irritates Harden but he cannot just get by himself. He has just turned 30 in the past month and told Howard Beck of Bleacher Report that he can hear the clock ticking, which is why he wants to win right now.

“I still haven’t accomplished half of what I want to accomplish,” he says. “Like, multiple championships. I want to be one of those basketball players that you won’t forget. And obviously, we all remember the Kobes and the Jordans and the D-Wades and all those guys. I want to be in that same conversation, obviously, in championships and all that good stuff, and best shooting guards to ever play the game…

“Of course [a championship] matters to me,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about it maybe the last year-and-a-half, two years. I’m on the right path. You can’t rush winning a title. Some win it early, some win it late. It’s perfect timing. The time is going to happen when the time happens. I’ve just got to be patient, continue to work my butt off, continue to be a great leader, great teammate, and just try to bring as much talent and as much guys that have that same drive that I have. I think we all have it right now.”

The Rockets have been the second-best team in the West — and maybe the second or third best team in the NBA — the past couple of seasons (by the playoffs last season the Rockets were back to that level). That has not been enough when faced with the juggernaut of Golden State, but Harden and company have been knocking on the door for years.

That door is now open. The Warriors, while still good, are not the fearsome force of previous seasons and the West is wide open — and seven teams think they can get through that door first.

Houston believes it should be at the front of that line, and they went and got Russell Westbrook as the latest and greatest superstar pairing of the Harden era. It’s a duo that will bring energy and, at least through mid-April, a lot of wins.

But there are questions: Can isolation players James Harden and Russell Westbrook strike a balance (especially in the playoffs when they will share the court more)? Can this team defend well enough with Harden and Westbrook on the court at the same time? Do the Rockets have enough depth to contend?

That’s a lot of questions, but every team in the West has questions, which is what makes this season so compelling.

Just don’t doubt for a second that Harden wants it and wants it badly. That alone, however, will not be enough.

Kevin Durant reverses course on championship: ‘Every day I woke up, I just felt so good about myself, so good about life’

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Following his first NBA title, Kevin Durant said, “After winning that championship (last season), I learned that much hadn’t changed. I thought it would fill a certain [void]. It didn’t.”

How does Durant now reflect on that time with the Warriors?

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“It’s very rare in our lives when we envision and picture something and it comes together the perfect way you envision it. [Winning a title] was the only time in my life that happened, and that summer was the most exhilarating time. Every day I woke up I just felt so good about myself, so good about life.… That was a defining moment in my life—not just my basketball life.”

It’s difficult to reconcile those two quotes. I’d love to hear Durant eventually explain.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t relish the championship aftermath as much he initially expected but, looking back, now realizes how much he actually enjoyed it. The end of his time with Golden State wasn’t totally pleasant. That might have provided perspective on the better times. Or maybe the difference is simply his mood on the day of each interview.

Durant is continuing to try to find himself while in the public eye. That isn’t easy, and it’ll lead to contradictions like this along the way. I appreciate his openness, even when he’s still difficult to understand.