Clippers stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George
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Report: Preferential treatment for Paul George and Kawhi Leonard causing waves within Clippers

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The 2018-19 Clippers were incredibly gritty.

The 2019-20 Clippers are incredibly gifted.

It hasn’t been the easiest adjustment.

Last year, the Clippers played hard and tough. They had one of the best-ever seasons for a team with no All-Stars, present or past. L.A. won 48 games and pushed the Warriors in the first round of the playoffs. That roster created an appealing culture.

Enter Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

The Clippers added those stars last summer and became an instant championship contender. That’s the primary goal – getting in that hunt.

But big-time players usually require more maintenance, and Leonard and George are no exceptions.

While with the Spurs, Leonard was reportedly envious of the star treatment other teams’ players received. Leonard’s uncle and advisor, Dennis Robertson, reportedly asked the Lakers and Clippers for illegal inducements during free agency last summer.

George has twice pushed his way off teams while still under contract. He didn’t request a trade from the Pacers, but by informing them he’d leave the next year, he essentially sealed his early exit. George made a big show of re-signing with the Thunder in 2019 then requested a trade to L.A. only one season later.

And of course, there are Leonard’s unique injury issues. He misses several games each season for what was confusingly called load management but is now dubbed injury management. That leaves his teammates to pick up the slack.

One of those teammates, Montrezl Harrell, sounded particularly upset with the Clippers’ outlook earlier this month. Harrell is a grinder, one of the key players on last year’s overachieving squad. And it turns out his tone amplified a larger concern.

Jovan Buha and Sam Amick of The Athletic:

Off the court, sources say there are some teammates who have struggled with the organization’s preferential treatment that is afforded to Leonard and George.

“I think it boils down to Kawhi not talking, and so who is their true leader?” one source with knowledge of the Clippers’ dynamics said. “How do you get around that?”

He isn’t necessarily standoffish, sources say, and there are times when he lives up to that “Fun Guy” reputation that has become part of his one-of-a-kind profile — even more so recently as he’s grown more comfortable around his teammates. He’s certainly more talkative and playful behind the scenes than in front of the media, when he rarely says a word outside of the scrum of reporters who speak to him, on average, for a few minutes at a time. But there can be a tangible distance, sources say.

Multiple players, according to league sources, don’t feel the team practices as hard or as seriously as it should at this point in the season.

Nearly every team in the NBA would trade its problems for the Clippers’ problems.

The Clippers are 31-14. They’ve gone 21-6 when Leonard and George both play. Winning cures most ills, and that will likely take care of these.

In the meantime, everyone involved should take a step back and be just a little more understanding.

Leonard, George and everyone else in charge – including coach Doc Rivers – should see how this looks to everyone else. Other players are scraping every night. It can be frustrating to see Leonard and George reaping the benefits without exerting as much energy right now.

In particular, Leonard should understand how his quiet nature can come across. That might be natural for him, but teammates are far more likely to rally behind a leader with whom they have a personal connection.

The upset Clippers also ought to realize this is how it works. Stars get preferential treatment. They’ve often earned it. Practicing a lot is more likely to wear down the team – especially Leonard – than help. Ditto Leonard playing more often.

With a few months left in the regular season, the Clippers have plenty of time to get past these issues. This team is still well-equipped to win in the playoffs, and lot of this tension is just about how to proceed through the long regular season to that point. Get through it, and a championship is still well within reach.

Report: CJ McCollum has been playing through fractured lower back

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CJ McCollum hit two critical free throws late Tuesday to put Portland up three late on Dallas and secure the win.

But he had a rough night overall, shooting 2-of-14 overall. His shooting numbers are down across the board through this restart, not terrible but down from the level the world has seen from one of the games most feared scorers.

Now we know why: A fractured lower back. Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest broke the news.

Sources told NBC Sports Northwest prior to the game that McCollum has been playing with a L3 vertebral transverse process fracture (non-displaced) since last Thursday. In layman’s terms, he has a fracture in his lower back. He has played three games since the injury.

While this injury is not as bad as “a fractured back” sounds, it has slowed other players who had it, including Utah’s Mike Conley.

Portland has had success despite a slowed McCollum, in part because Gary Trent Jr. has stepped up and taken on a larger role on both ends of the court (including drawing a charge on Kristaps Porzingis that sealed the Blazers win over the Mavericks).

That win put Portland in as the eighth seed in the West, a spot they can hold with a win against Brooklyn on Thursday. That would put them in a play-in series — where if they won the reward would be LeBron James and the Lakers. To reach that point and threaten Los Angeles, Portland is going to need a lot out of McCollum. The question is how much does he have to give with this injury?

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.

 

Damian Lillard scores 61 points, win vaults Portland to eight seed

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The Portland Trail Blazers control their own postseason destiny — and they can thank Damian Lillard for that.

Lillard got all the respect he wanted when he tied his career-high of 61 points Tuesday, and the Portland Trail Blazers needed every one of them to beat the Dallas Mavericks 134-131.

Lillard was 9-of-17 from three, plus got to the line 18 times and hit every free throw.

Portland’s win combined with Memphis’ loss to Boston puts the Trail Blazers into the eighth seed in the West — win on Thursday against Brooklyn and Portland is the eighth seed. That is a massive advantage heading into the two-game play-in series, the eighth seed just needs to win one of those two games to advance to the playoffs (and a first-round date with LeBron James). The ninth-seeded team needs to sweep the two games to advance.

Memphis can maintain the nine seed with a win Thursday. Should the Grizzlies lose again (to the Bucks, who have nothing to play for) it opens the door for the Suns or the Spurs to get the nine seed. Or maybe higher.

Portland is not safe just because of the win Tuesday: If it loses to Brooklyn on Thursday and two of Memphis, Phoenix, and San Antonio win, the Trail Blazers will be watching the first round of the playoffs on television like the rest of us. The race in the West is that tight.

It’s hard to imagine Portland losing a critical game, however, with the way Lillard is playing. He said he wants some respect on his f ****** name – and he’s more than earned it.

Watch Devin Booker score 35, keep Phoenix perfect 7-0 and in play-in hunt

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Devin Booker scored 35 points and the Phoenix Suns protected their playoff hopes by beating the Philadelphia 76ers 130-117 on Tuesday to remain undefeated in the NBA restart.

Booker became the Suns’ career leader with his 91st 30-point game, breaking a tie with Walter Davis.

Mikal Bridges added 24 points and Ricky Rubio had 16 points with 10 assists for the Suns, who began the day only one game behind eighth-place Memphis in the Western Conference playoff race.

Phoenix is 7-0 as the only undefeated team in the restart and an unlikely factor in the tight race for a spot in this weekend’s play-in for the final playoff spot.

Phoenix pulled away late after leading only 105-102 following back-to-back baskets by Alec Burks, who led the 76ers with 23 points.

A dunk by Cameron Johnson capped a 10-3 run that stretched the lead to 115-105.

The Suns continued their high-scoring play in the bubble after averaging 120 points in the first six games.

Philadelphia, No. 6 in the East and already assured of a playoff spot, is attempting to prepare for the postseason after losing Ben Simmons to a knee injury.

Shake Milton was Philadelphia’s only healthy starter against the Suns. The 76ers also were without Joel Embiid (left ankle), Tobias Harris (sore right ankle) and Al Horford (sore left knee). Josh Richardson was rested.