Associated Press

Players, coaches frustrated, trying to adapt to new clutching, grabbing calls from refs

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Stephen Curry raced from the post up to the arc to set a backscreen on Phoenix’s Trevor Ariza, freeing up Kevin Durant’s cut to the rim, where KD was wide open for the pass and dunk …

And then the whistle blew. Curry had held Ariza just a little on the pick to slow him — something common the past couple of seasons, but the kind of clutching and grabbing referees have been told to focus on and call tight this season. Curry got called for the foul, his third offensive foul of the game.

Curry was frustrated, but not as frustrated as coach Steve Kerr, who stormed out onto the court and got ejected from a preseason game for complaining about the call.

Welcome to this NBA preseason, where games have been especially choppy with the seemingly constant sound of whistles as officials crack down on “freedom of movement” for offensive players. It’s a point of education (what used to be called more accurately a point of emphasis) from the league. In the past couple of years, when a player set a pick he could hook the defender just a little to slow him, or, more commonly, the defender being screened or switching would do something — bumping him, grabbing his jersey, hooking an arm around him, sticking out a leg — to slow that offensive player down half a step. Do that now and the whistle blows.

Players and coaches are trying to adjust — and adjust their tactics.

“I think for the officials, they’ve been trying to set a standard, ‘hey, this is how we’re going to call games, this is what you’re going to get away with,’” Kevin Love told NBC Sports. “I think in the preseason they want to set the tone early and be transparent about what they are going to call out there on the floor…

“In our first preseason game it was pretty tight, at least in the first half, but as time went on they kind of let us play on but they had teaching points for us. Guys were asking on the free throw line what they did.”

The league had an idea on how to sell these new, tighter calls to players in a way they would appreciate.

“When we had our officials meeting, we heard how (the calls) were going to, for lack of a better term, help your scoring, it was going to be very conducive to scoring the basketball,” Love said.

Coaches know that the NBA has become about scoring — that is the show, it’s what drives ratings and ticket sales — and with that, the league will take steps to help the offense before the defense. That doesn’t mean coaches are enthralled with it, but they are telling players to adjust — show their hands while setting screens or defending them.

“Defensively, our guys have got to be smarter. One thing that we got caught up with in the first couple games is the contact,” Pistons’ coach Dwane Casey told NBC’s Dan Feldman. “We want our guys to be physical and into offensive players, but again, you can’t have two hands on him. The old instincts come back, and that’s what the league wants, that freedom of movement. But we’ve got to be smarter, especially early in the season when they’re really emphasizing it…

“Guys are going to have to have quicker feet. You’ve got to move your feet quickly, anticipate where guys going are or you’re going to get blown by, because a lot of guys use that so-called tactile touch to make sure they have balance and kind of slow the guy down. But now it’s about feet and anticipation as much as anything else. So, you’ve got to be on your Ps and Qs defensively more so than ever.”

At this point, for the coaches, it’s about adjustments, both mental and in tactics on the court.

“I think that’s what a good coach does. I think he understands the rules and adapts, like I said, on both sides of the ball,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said.

“We’ve already made those adjustments,” Erik Spoelstra said this preseason. “We’ve had to… Some of the things we have to adjust the way we used to defend it. We don’t bump people through the lane. And pick-and-rolls, we’re not hitting people. We’re just getting to our spots and being disruptive.”

One thing every coach and the veteran players talked about was how this emphasis on calls will fade as the season goes along. Every year the league comes out with its new focus for referees, and in the preseason they whistle everything. When the season starts, that slows, and by the middle of the season things have found their level — players are doing it less, but official allow a little more leeway.

“It’s a point of emphasis by the officials, 18 years in the league there is always a point of emphasis. In the preseason they really harp on that, they call it. A lot of times it kind of goes away once the regular season comes,” said Denver Nuggets coach Mike Malone. “Players can complain all they want but part of being a smart, disciplined basketball player is adjusting to the rules and adjusting to the whistle. They’re calling the grab, they’re calling the jersey pull and you have to recognize that, show your hands, and defend without fouling. So they are trying to clean it up, the league is all about scoring, they want to make sure that the offensive player is allowed to move on the court and every year it just makes it a little bit harder and harder to guard individually and collectively as a team because of the rules.”

NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman contributed to this story. 

PBT Podcast: NBA Finals preview, Los Angeles Lakers vs. Miami Heat

NBA Finals Preview
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It’s happening in October, not June. And rather than cross-country flights, everyone will be camped out in a bubble in Orlando.

But the NBA Finals are finally here: The Los Angeles Lakers vs. the Miami Heat. Which means it’s time for an NBA Finals Preview.

The Lakers are the heavy favorites but Miami posses some matchup challenges, starting with Bam Adebayo on Anthony Davis. Add in Jimmy Butler checking LeBron James for stretches, and the Heat shooters such as Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson, and this is not going to be a cakewalk for Los Angeles.

Mark Medina of the USA today joins Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports for this NBA Finals Preview. They break down the matchups, talk about what it would take for Miami to pull off the upset, and discuss how this matchup could influence how other teams build out their rosters in the future.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

With Doc Rivers out, three names to watch as next Clippers coach

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Point to the blown 3-1 series lead against Denver, pick apart his tactical decisions in the playoffs this season if you want, but know this: Doc Rivers is a natural leader of men. Players respect him and want to play for him, and they win for him (he has a ring from Boston and is the winningest coach in Clippers history). He was a key reason Kawhi Leonard came to the Clippers.

Which is why it caught everyone off-guard that Rivers is out as the Clippers coach. Even after the blown opportunity.

If Rivers is out, then who is next? Whoever takes the job gets a team that should contend on paper — two elite stars in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, plenty of depth and quality role players, and an owner willing to spend what it takes to win — but also a lot of pressure. The Clippers gave up a lot to get Leonard and George, and each can be a free agent after next season — the Clippers are the ultimate win-now team.

Here are three names to watch.

1. Tyronn Lue

His is the name you hear most around the league, and is the most reported. He has been the right-hand man for Rivers this season, the Clippers’ lead assistant who has won a ring as a head coach in Cleveland, and he’s used to working with big-name stars. He is respected and liked by the Clippers players and the transition of power would be easy. Lue can have the job, but he also has options — Houston, Philadephia, and New Orleans also are in line to speak with him.

2. Jeff Van Gundy

It feels like an obligation to bring his name up for every coaching opening in the NBA (and probably high school and college), but in this case there is a legitimate reason: Clippers’ president Lawrence Frank is a huge fan. The former Rockets and Knicks coach has the gravitas to get players to listen, even though he has been in the ABC broadcast booth for years. Both the Rockets and now the Clippers want to talk to him. For the next couple of weeks, Van Gundy will be talking about that other Los Angeles team as he broadcasts the NBA Finals.

3. Sam Cassell

After the top two names on this list, things get speculative. Would the Clippers have interest in Mike D’Antoni (who is the favorite for the Philadelphia job)? If not Van Gundy, how about his broadcast partner Mark Jackson? If the Clippers are looking at a former player who is a lead assistant, how about Jason Kidd (still in the bubble with the Lakers)?

We’ll throw current Clippers’ assistant Sam Cassell in there, too. He’s a longtime NBA assistant who has interviewed for some top jobs and deserves a shot somewhere. Again the transition would be easy, and he would bring some swagger to the locker room.

Another question worth asking:

What is next for Doc Rivers?

Whatever Rivers wants. If he wants to jump back into coaching, the Pelicans and 76ers reportedly are interested.

If Rivers wants to take a year off and golf more, he could quickly get a job working in studio or on the broadcasts with ABC or Turner/NBATV — he is phenomenal on camera.

Report: Timberwolves expected to draft LaMelo Ball if not trading No. 1 pick

LaMelo Ball Timberwolves
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The Timberwolves traded for ball-dominant, defense-deficient point guard D'Angelo Russell then landed the No. 1 pick… in a year the top prospect is ball-dominant, defense-deficient point guard LaMelo Ball. Even the other prospect often atop draft boards, Georgia shooting guard Anthony Edwards, wouldn’t be a simple fit with Russell and Malik Beasley already in the backcourt.

That’s why Minnesota is open to trading the top pick.

Jonathan Wasserman of Bleacher Report:

If the Wolves stick at No. 1, multiple sources say they’d bet on LaMelo Ball having the edge over Anthony Edwards.

Do these sources have actually insight into Minnesota’s thinking? The possibility makes this interesting.

However, they could just be supposing. Though the pre-draft process is far from complete, I tend to think Ball is the top prospect. I definitely think the Timberwolves should draft the top prospect available. But Minnesota’s view might not match my own – or Wasserman’s sources’.

Doc Rivers out as Los Angeles Clippers coach

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When the Clippers blew a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets and never got out of the second round of the NBA playoffs, changes were going to be coming to Los Angeles. A team with lofty aspirations — and that gave up a lot of their future to contend now — can’t fall on its face like that without consequences.

But nobody saw Doc Rivers being out as the Clippers head coach.

That’s just what happened, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. Both Rivers and the Clippers have since confirmed the decision.

“Doc has been a terrific coach for the Clippers, an incredible ambassador, and a pillar of strength during tumultuous times,” Clippers owner Steve Ballmer said in a statement. “He won a heck of a lot of games and laid a foundation for this franchise.”

Rivers helped lead the Clippers through the disastrous end of the Donald Sterling era and into the Ballmer era. In the bubble, Rivers also was a loud voice in support of social justice.

Kawhi Leonard came to the Clippers as a free agent in part to play for Rivers, and the coach was instrumental in recruiting Leonard to Los Angeles. That was the reason most around the league thought Rivers’ job was safe despite some questionable coaching rotation moves against the Nuggets (staying small and trusting Montrezl Harrell against Nikola Jokic when that clearly was not working).

There is no way Doc Rivers is out without Leonard giving his okay to the move.

Rivers signed an extension a year ago and Woj said he had two years remaining on his contract. That suggests a firing, but the Clippers called it a mutual parting of the ways.

Both the Pelicans and 76ers have already reached out to Rivers about their open coaching positions, reports Marc Spears of ESPN.

As for who is next in L.A., Tyronn Lue has been the Rivers’ lead assistant and makes a logical choice to step in and take over. He is popular with the team’s players and has won a ring as a coach before.

However, it’s possible the Clippers look elsewhere. Jeff Van Gundy was suggested by Wojnarowski. Mike D’Antoni is out there if the Clippers want to make a radical move.

“I am also extremely confident in our front office and our players,” Ballmer said. “We will find the right coach to lead us forward and help us reach our ultimate goals. We will begin the search and interview process immediately.”

The new coach will take over the ultimate win-now team. Los Angeles has elite talent in Leonard and Paul George, the Sixth Man of the Year depth (Harrell, a free agent, and Lou Williams), and quality perimeter defenders. In the clutch, they could turn to the two-time Finals MVP. 

Except all that talent really never meshed together, in part due to injuries and other things keeping the team’s core from playing much together. Yet there was a sense of entitlement around this team — the Clippers acted like they could flip the switch and win.

“I think a lot of the issues that we ran into, talent bailed us out; chemistry it didn’t,” Williams said after the Clippers were eliminated. “In this series, it failed us. We know this is our first year together. We are a highly talented group and we came up short. Chemistry is something that you’ve got to build. You build it over time.”

The Clippers are all in with this roster. To get George (and with him, Leonard as a free agent), Los Angeles traded Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, their own first-round picks in 2022, 2024, and 2026, two other first-round picks belonging to Miami (2021 and 2023), and agreed to pick-swaps with Oklahoma City 2023 and 2025. 

The Clippers pushed all their chips into the middle of the table to get two years, two playoff runs with those stars. They wasted the first one of them.

The new coach, whoever it is, will have a lot of pressure not to let another season slip away.