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Three Things to Know: If the Clippers were trying to impress Kawhi Leonard it went poorly

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LOS ANGELES — Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. Today we come straight from Staples Center.

1) If the Clippers were trying to impress Kawhi Leonard Tuesday, it went poorly. When the discussion turns to speculation about where Kawhi Leonard could be playing next season, the Los Angeles Clippers are high on the list. He grew up in Southern California and wants to return there, sources say he doesn’t want to play with LeBron on the Lakers, and the Clippers have been surprisingly impressive this season but are a team without a true superstar that is looking to add one (or two, the Clippers reportedly want to add both Leonard and Kevin Durant).

Not that the notoriously media-shy Leonard cares about the speculation.

“I don’t buy into reading media, don’t have no social media, so just focus on what’s in front of me,” Leonard said before his Raptors took on the Clippers Tuesday night without him (due to a tweaked hip). “At that time it’s either my family or playing basketball.”

If the Clippers — or any team — is going to impress and entice Leonard, it’s not going to be with a well-crafted marketing plan to grow his brand (the people advising Leonard on the other hand…). Leonard presents the image of being focused only on what happens on the court.

That’s where the Clippers fell short Tuesday.

Actually, “fell short” is putting it kindly. The Clippers got thumped by 24 on their home court, their worst loss of the season. Playing without its superstar, Toronto looked like a team much closer to the NBA’s elite in terms of talent and execution than Los Angeles. The Raptors won 123-99 in a game that was not in doubt from early in the third quarter on.

“I think we just played bad,” Clippers’ guard Tyrone Wallace said, summing it up well. “We just had a rough night, we didn’t play well defensively.”

That was the starkest contrast: While the Clippers looked like a dazed team on the second night of a back-to-back (and without Lou Williams, who will miss a couple of weeks with a tweaked hamstring), the Raptors’ defenders were on a string — they switched, they rotated, they even threw in a zone for a few plays and the Clippers could not adapt fast enough.

Toronto turned the stops into shots in transition and the Clippers were not getting back or handling their scrambling defense well. Serge Ibaka feasted on the Clippers with 25 points.

However, the best news for the Raptors was the “return” of the real Kyle Lowry, who had 21 points on 8-of-13 shooting to break out of his slump (he had shot 8-of-42 over his previous five games).

Whatever Leonard decides to do this summer — stay in Toronto, come to Los Angeles, or choose from the 28 other teams that will be knocking on his door — the decision will not be based on the outcome of one December game. However, if the Clippers were trying to show off an impressive young core Leonard could join and elevate, this was not the effort that they needed.

Toronto, on the other hand, looked exactly like a team with an impressive young core. One Leonard is already elevating to the top of the East.

2) The good Rockets show up — especially the bench players — and Houston knocks off Portland. About once every week or so I watch a Rockets game and think, “they can get it together and turn this around.” Not turn around to the level they expected entering the season — they are not going to be a threat to the Warriors with this current roster — but there are nights they look like a playoff team and better than their sub-.500 record.

Tuesday was one of those nights, mostly thanks to hot play off the bench. Houston’s second unit outscored Portland’s 37-13, and they were the group that blew the game open at the end of the third and into the fourth. Danuel House and Gerald Green combined for 25 points, shooing 4-of-7 from three and 64.3 percent overall, and they had nine rebounds. Houston was +22 when they were on the court together.

James Harden had 29 points (which Chris Paul continued to struggle, with 11 points on 12 shots).

While the Rockets looked better, Portland struggled. There was too much isolation, not enough ball movement, and Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum took 53 percent of the team’s shots. The Trail Blazers were predictable, and that made the struggling Rockets defense look good.

I’ve seen too many good games followed by bad ones from Houston to suggest the Rockets have turned the corner, so let’s just say the good Rockets showed up for one night. We’ll see who shows up Thursday night against the Lakers.

3) Gregg Popovich passes Pat Riley, moves into fourth on the all-time coaching wins list. When it is all said and done, Gregg Popovich will go down as one of the best coaches in NBA history. The sustained excellence, the five rings, turning small-market San Antonio into an NBA franchise to be feared on the court and modeled off it, all will be part of his legacy.

So will all the wins he’s racked up — 1,211 of them after the Spurs win over the struggling Suns Tuesday night. That moved Popovich past Pat Riley into fourth on the all-time coaching wins list.

Popovich is just 10 wins shy of tying Jerry Sloan for third, something that will happen in the coming months. I don’t know if he’s going to coach long enough to catch Don Nelson or Lenny Wilkins at the top of that leaderboard (it would take more than 100 additional wins), but Popovich’s win total just adds to his legacy and place in history.

Phoenix Suns perfect 4-0 in bubble, growing, thinking playoffs

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — The last time Devin Booker walked off the court as a winner in four consecutive games, these were the opponents: Hampton, Cincinnati, West Virginia and Notre Dame.

That is, until now.

Booker and the Phoenix Suns – the team that came to the NBA restart at Walt Disney World with the worst record in the Western Conference and the second-worst record of the 22 teams in the field – are perhaps the best story of the bubble.

They’re 4-0 at Disney, breathing real life into playoff hopes that basically were nonexistent when the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 11. It’s the team’s first four-game winning streak since December 2018; Booker missed one of those games, so it’s his first run of four wins in a row since helping Kentucky make its Final Four run in 2015.

“It definitely feels like a tournament, a big AAU tournament, the March Madness tournament,” Phoenix’s Cameron Payne said Friday. “That’s something I never even got a chance to be in, but hey, I’ll take this.”

The Suns started their bubble run with a win over Washington and followed that with victories against three playoff-bound teams – first Dallas, then the Los Angeles Clippers (both of those games being 117-115 finals, the win over the Clippers sealed by a Booker buzzer-beater) and next a 114-99 victory Thursday over Indiana.

A team that had a stretch of four wins in 20 games during November and December, then a run of four wins in 15 games during January and February, got to the bubble and are now 4-for-4.

The Suns are riding a 10-year playoff drought, the second-longest current one in the NBA, but now they’re thinking big and for good reason.

“Well, you know, this is in the fledgling stages, for sure,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We’ve got a lot more work to do. And there’s a process that we’ve kind of gotten ourselves involved in and we’re going to stick to that. So, fun? I don’t have time to have fun right now. It’s always good to win, but I’m working right now. And I want guys to understand, it’s fun when you win – but then you’ve got to turn the page and get right back to work.”

Williams understands the reality for the Suns right now. They entered Friday 1-1/2 games out of ninth place and the play-in series that will decide the last postseason berth in the West. And while the 4-0 start has been noteworthy, even an 8-0 mark in the seeding games wouldn’t guarantee the Suns a trip to that play-in round.

The Suns play Miami on Saturday, then finish the regular season against Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Dallas.

“I’ve been in five years now and haven’t had that much success,” Booker said. “But, you know, I’m working hard every day to turn that narrative and change that narrative. We have a good bunch in here to do it. A lot of young players mixed with some veteran presence and it’s a good look for us. So, we’re going to keep our head down, keep working.

“I don’t think anybody here is worried about 4-0. We still have plans and goals for this team to reach and 4-0 wasn’t it.”

Booker is averaging 28 points in the four games. Deandre Ayton, another big piece of the young Suns’ core, is averaging 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. There are six players averaging double figures in all, including Payne, who is shooting 53% from 3-point range in his first four games with the Suns.

“We definitely feel good,” Payne said. “We’re not here for no reason.”

 

Rumor: Indiana coach Nate McMillan is on hot seat

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Last season, Indiana’s Nate McMillan finished fourth in Coach of the Year voting, taking a team that lost star Victor Oladipo after just 36 games and still got them into the playoffs. McMillan is going to get COY votes again this year for much the same reason — his teams play good defense and overachieve.

Indiana coach Nate McMillan is also on the hot seat.

It’s surprising, and it’s just a rumor, but ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe had this conversation on a recent episode of The Lowe Post podcast (hat tip PacersTalk.net).

Van Gundy: “I had two people come up to me since I’ve been here [in the NBA restart bubble] and say, ‘Nate McMillan’s in trouble.’”

Lowe: “It’s been the hottest rumor all season… What you’ve heard in Orlando’s been going around all season…

“Let me be clear: It’s just a rumor. I don’t know if it’s true. When you talk to people around the Pacers, they say, ‘It’s not true’ or ‘Where you’d hear that from?’”

Maybe management wants a more modern offense, the Pacers are bottom eight in both three pointers attempted and pace. Overall, Indiana’s offense is middle of the pack (18th in the league), which is not bad considering it was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level).

It’s hard to imagine that the Pacers would make a change this offseason, which will be short and give a new coach less time to ramp up a program. Plus, does owner Herb Simon want to pay two coaches? The finances of the league are helping other coaches keep their jobs.

More than all that, McMillan doesn’t deserve to be fired.

Not that “deserved” has had much to do with NBA coaches keeping their jobs in the past.

 

Report: NBA players bypassing ‘snitch’ hotline to call Adam Silver directly

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No NBA players have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the bubble. And they want to keep it that way. A championship and a lot of money are on the line.

That means preventing players from having close contact with anyone outside the bubble. And, in case someone contracts coronavirus, wearing masks (intact masks) to prevent a wider outbreak.

The NBA set up a hotline – quickly dubbed the “snitch” hotline – for players to report violations.

Chris Haynes of TNT:

Players have been circumventing that process. Sources informed me that multiple players are personally calling commissioner Adam Silver to issue their complaints with things they’re seeing in the bubble.

Adam Silver is accessible to players – particularly the president of the union.

I’m not sure about tattling straight to the top boss when there are other protocols in place. Are hotline calls not resulting in changed behavior?

Either way, it’s important for the NBA to keep players safe – both for their health and the league’s revenue (about half of which goes to players in salary). So, cut Chris Paul anyone calling Silver a break. They’re at least trying to help. And so far, violations inside the bubble have led to reminders, not harsher discipline.

Zion Williamson sitting out Pelicans-Wizards (rest)

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The Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams in the bubble. New Orleans has gone 1-3 at Disney World and fallen to 13th in the Western Conference.

Still (barely) hanging in the race to make the play-in, the Pelicans must face the Wizards without Zion Williamson.

Pelicans:

The Pelicans are treating Williamson carefully – and they should. He’s their 20-year-old franchise player with major health concerns.

But New Orleans still has its highest ceiling now with Williamson on the floor. He’s an offensive force. His interior scoring and gravity create efficient looks for himself and teammates.

Williamson has been woeful defensively, and the Pelicans have bigs – Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes – to take Williamson’s minutes. New Orleans can go small, too.

The Pelicans should still beat Washington, even without Williamson. Ideally, this will have Williamson ready for a closing stretch against the Spurs, Kings and Magic without sacrificing today’s game.

Yet, this is really just proof New Orleans isn’t as ready to launch as it appears during Williamson’s most exciting moments. His availability remains murky. His team has run hot and cold. I wouldn’t assume a win over the Wizards – though it’s a game the Pelicans need to preserve their fading playoff hopes.