Three Things to Know: At 26-12, Clippers still trying to mold championship identity

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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.

1) At 26-12, Clippers still trying to mold championship identity. Doc Rivers was blunt. Nearly halfway into the season, does the Clippers’ coach know what his team’s identity is?

“No. And that’s a concern,” Rivers said Saturday after a frustrating blowout loss at home to Memphis.

We know is the Clippers are good — 26-12, on pace for 56 wins and home court in the first round — with a couple of victories against the measuring stick team in the West, the Lakers.

What we don’t know, what we haven’t seen consistently, is a team identity. That leads to losses to Memphis or giving up 132 points Sunday to the Knicks (a game the Clippers won by scoring 135, led by Harrell’s 34 off the bench). Those kinds of games should be wakeup calls.

“We’ve had a lot of wake up calls,” Kawhi Leonard said after the Memphis loss. “I feel like it’s the middle of the season and some of the mistakes that we’re making, we shouldn’t be making at this time.”

“We’re not a great team. We’re not a great team…” Harrell said more bluntly in a frustrated rant after the Memphis loss. “I think that’s what we need to realize and wake up. We’re a team that still has to figure out things to win night in and night-out.”

When the Clippers are at their best they are a gritty, defense-first team that can shoot the three and has ball handlers in Leonard and Paul George who can create shots and get to their spots on the floor in crunch time. At their heart, this is a lunchpail squad that wants to outwork opponents — even their stars are not anointed top picks, they didn’t go to elite college programs (George at Fresno State, Leonard at San Diego State), but they outworked everyone to maximize their talent and get where they are

Patrick Beverley — the ultimate lunchpail guy and the emotional heart-and-soul of the Clippers — said in no uncertain terms Sunday the Clippers know who they are, they just haven’t put it together consistently.

Injuries and keeping players healthy is a part of that — Doc Rivers has had a fully healthy core of his roster for exactly one game this season. Paul George and Leonard have played fewer than 500 minutes together (461) across 18 games, although the Clippers have a +10.7 rating in those minutes. (For comparison LeBron James and Anthony Davis have played 817 minutes together this season, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray at are at 977 minutes together in Denver).

“It’s been tough, I won’t deny that. It’s been tougher than I thought it would be because of (the injuries)…” Rivers said.

“The continuity that we need to be a champion, to me, it’s hard to work on that or even have, because you don’t have time. I’m not worried about it yet, but it’s actually on my mind.”

There is time, 46 games to be exact. As an organization, the Clippers have played the long game this season, being willing to sacrifice wins now to have Leonard and the rest of the squad rested and healthy when the games really matter in April. The focus is the ultimate prize, one that is earned in May and June.

But that prize requires sweat equity be put in on dull January days, and Rivers knows it. Good habits need to be built, chemistry worked on. The little things come together in those games, not by Rivers snapping fingers in May. That’s where the Clippers are right now, still trying to put things together. They need to put in the work now to mold that championship identity. They have time, but unlike that team down the hall, the Clippers are not far down that road yet.

2) Hassan Whiteside returns to Miami, gets booed, Heat shrug and pick up win. It seemed a bit of an overreaction from Miami fans, but they booed Hassan Whiteside upon his return to Miami Sunday. Booed him when he was introduced and when he touched the ball most of the game. Whiteside may not have lived up to the hype (or his contract) in Miami, but he was himself. He put up numbers — 14.1 points and 11.9 rebounds a game average in his five seasons — but they were mostly empty calorie numbers.

The “we got shooters” chant by Heat fans in the second half was clever. (When Whiteside was traded to Portland over the summer, he posted a video reaction on social media where he praised Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum saying, “We got shooters,” Heat fans didn’t forget.) This season, Miami has plenty of shooters.

Jimmy Butler was out on Sunday, but Miami still had enough shooters to get the win. The Heat got 29 points and 13 assists from Goran Dragic, while Bam Adebayo added 20 points and eight rebounds. Derrick Jones Jr. chipped in 19.

Part of Miami’s leap forward this season has been their play in the paint, with Adebayo and Meyers Leonard giving the Heat quality minutes and points. The fans may have had animosity toward Whiteside, the team has shrugged it off and moved on.

3) The Lakers blocked 20 shots in a win against Detroit Sunday. The Lakers are a long team up front. The Detroit Pistons learned that the hard way Sunday.

Anthony Davis led the way with eight blocked shots, and as a team the Lakers rejected 20 Pistons’ shots on their way to a 106-99 win.


Davis had eight blocks, JaVale McGee six, and Dwight Howard five (four of those came in the fourth quarter). Laker guard Avery Bradley had the other block. Los Angeles had given up 60 points in the paint in their last game (against New Orleans) and Davis said the focus on protecting the paint was a reaction to that.

Watch Kawhi Leonard score two clutch buckets, including game-winner, in his return

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Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return for the first 47 minutes Monday night: 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

But that final minute was special.

First, there was a great hustle play from Paul George — also making his return — that got the ball to Leonard to tie it up.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner.

Los Angeles picked up the 119-117 win on the road. Not exactly pretty, but for a team just starting to get healthy and build some chemistry, they showed resilience and got the win. Leonard finished with 16 points on 7-of-15 shooting, and George looked sharp on his way to 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. It was a balanced Clippers attack, which is what Tyronn Lue is trying to build.

Kelly Oubre Jr. scored 28 and P.J. Washington added 26 for the shorthanded Hornets.

James Harden returns to 76ers Monday night, is on minutes restriction

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers
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The 76ers were able to keep their heads above water. For 14 games, James Harden was out with a right foot tendon sprain — both Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey missed games in that stretch as well (Maxey remains out) — and Philadelphia went 8-6 with a +2.9 net rating and the best defense in the NBA over that stretch.

Monday night in Houston, Harden returns.

This wasn’t a surprise, nor is the fact Doc Rivers confirmed Harden will be on a minutes restriction at first.

Harden averaged 22 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds a game before his injury, and while his 3-point shooting percentage was down (33.3%) he was still efficient and finding his footing as more of a facilitator than scorer.

The 76ers are 12-11 on the season and sit in a three-way tie for fifth in the East (with the Pacers and Raptors). If Harden can spark the Philadephia offense there is plenty of time for them to climb into the top four, host a first-round playoff game and position themselves for a deep playoff run. But it starts with getting their starting guards healthy again.

Harden is ready to take that on.

Trae Young frustrated ‘private conversations get out to the public’ about missed game

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers
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Rumors and chatter of tension in Atlanta — about how Trae Young was adapting to playing with Dejonte Murray, and his pushback on coach Nate McMillan and his efforts to get the ball moving more — have been all over the league since the start of the season. Over the weekend, a little of that leaked out, with reports Young chose not to come to the arena Friday after McMillan gave him a choice of participating in shootaround or missing the game.

Young addressed the report and seemed more concerned that it got out than the report’s content.

“I mean, it was just a situation. I mean, we’re all grown men here and there’s sometimes we don’t always agree. And it’s unfortunate that private situations and private conversations get out to the public, but I guess that’s the world we live in now. Yeah, I’m just gonna just focus on basketball and focus on helping my team win. And that’s what I got to be focusing on…

“Like I said, it’s a private matter, again, made public, which is unfortunate. And if it was to stay private, it probably wouldn’t have been as big of a deal. But like I said, it’s unfortunate in my job, and my goal is to win championships. And that’s what I focus on.”

Young went through shootaround  Monday and is set to play against the Thunder.

Murray has been professional throughout this situation, saying he didn’t see anything at the shootaround Friday and backing Young and McMillan when asked.

Bringing in Murray was supposed to take some pressure off Young and spread the wealth more on offense, ideally allowing Young to be more efficient. Instead, Young’s usage rate is nearly identical to last season, he is shooting just 30.3% from 3 and his true shooting percentage has fallen below league average. The Hawks as a team make the fewest passes per game of any team in the league (stat via NBA.com). The Hawks’ offense is still a lot of Young, but it’s not as efficient as it has been in years past.

Atlanta is still 13-10 on the season, has a top-10 defense and sits fourth in the East — they are not struggling. But neither have they made the leap to become a team that could threaten Boston or Milwaukee atop the conference, and that’s what the Hawks expected.

There could be personnel moves coming in Atlanta — John Collins is available via trade, again — but if the Hawks can’t smooth out their internal, existing concerns (and get Collins and DeAndre Hunter healthy) other roster moves will be just cosmetic.

Nike, Kyrie Irving part ways, making him a sneaker free agent

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Here’s the positive spin for Kyrie Irving: He will have the chance to remake his situation into something he’s more comfortable with during 2023. As a player, he will be an unrestricted free agent and can choose where he wants to play in coming seasons (how many teams are interested and for how many years will be interesting to see).

Irving also is a sneaker free agent — Nike has cut ties with him, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Irving is happy with this.

The separation is not a surprise. Nike suspended its relationship with Irving after he Tweeted out support for an antisemitic film, did not apologize (at first), and was suspended by the Nets. Here was the company’s statement at that time:

“At Nike, we believe there is no place for hate speech and we condemn any form of antisemitism. To that end, we’ve made the decision to suspend our relationship with Kyrie Irving effective immediately and will no longer launch the Kyrie 8. We are deeply saddened and disappointed by the situation and its impact on everyone.”

Nike founder Phil Knight said it was likely the end of the company’s relationship with Irving.

That’s not a small thing by Nike, Irving has had a signature shoe line since 2014 and is reported to have a deal with Nike worth more than $10 million a season because his shoes are popular. However, his contract with the shoe giant was set to end in October 2023, and there had been reports Nike did not plan to extend that deal before this current controversy started.

Nike is already looking in a new direction, at Ja Morant.

Irving now has the chance to choose his new direction.