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Finally whole and healthy, can Clippers build championship chemistry in time?

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LOS ANGELES — Doc Rivers has been here before. Sort of.

He has entered a season the coach of a team that, thanks to some bold off-season front office moves, looked like a contender. The difference is the core of the 2008 Celtics — Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen — were all healthy and pushing each other in training camp.

“They came out of training camp running…” Rivers said of his Celtics. “We played Toronto in Rome in the first exhibition game, and Kevin [Garnett] was diving around on the floor, and I turned to [assistant coach Tom Thibodeau] and said, ‘We’re going to win it this year.’ And I said, ‘I’m sure of it.’

“But [these Clippers] didn’t have that chance this year. Kawhi [Leonard] didn’t play much in preseason or training camp, Paul [George] didn’t play at all. Then when Paul came back, Kawhi was out. But it was just one of those things.”

This Clippers’ season has been a study in long-term thinking. It has been about taking time with recovery from injuries (Paul George returning from off-season shoulder surgery, Kawhi Leonard‘s knee issues, Patrick Beverley‘s strained groin, and that is just the tip of the iceberg).  It has been about rest to prevent more injuries. The Clippers target has been the playoffs, not the regular season.

It has been a contrast with the other team in Staples Center, a Lakers’ team led by LeBron James that has placed a higher value on the regular season. The Lakers focused on building good habits and chemistry and banking on that to pay off in May and, maybe, June.

The Clippers — finally healthy and whole, with Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson in the rotation — now have weeks to develop the chemistry they will need in the playoffs. The cohesiveness needed to take advantage of their deep and talented roster.

A locker room that has had tension, dissension, and lacked cohesion at points this season now needs to come together and pull the rope in the same direction.

“You can feel our guys know they have to get it. They know that…” Rivers said. “There’s a positive urgency about that, but there’s not a panic about that, which I love. They know they need it, they know they’re going to work.

“They know they have time, but they know they don’t have a lot of time.”

“If we serious about this, we got to show it and work towards it now,” Paul George said. “I think coach made a great comment about turning it on now and not thinking we can [flip the switch] late. There’s got to be some steps that we take if we’re serious about our journey down here.”

The healthy Clippers have been impressive — they are 16-4 when Leonard, George, and Beverley are all in the starting lineup. There have been flashes, like beating the Lakers on Christmas Day, when the Clippers looked every bit the title contender.

Those Clippers also still have a lot of steps to take, the on-court chemistry remains a work in progress.

On that play from a week ago, sharpshooter Landry Shamet ran to the corner for a transition three, Leonard made a pass expecting him to cut to the basket for a layup. That’s just a lack of time playing together manifesting in a turnover.

“We got to get guys on the floor, we need minutes together,” Rivers said after his team easily handled Memphis on Monday night. “Even tonight, we played great, but then there were stretches I thought we got bogged down. You can see, we just don’t know the stuff yet.”

“We all know we got to get better, we got to get healthy, we got to be more consistent,” Leonard said. “You can’t panic, you have to stay even keel.”

The bright side for Rivers and the Clippers is the defense — it has been intimidating when healthy, holding their last two opponents below 100 points (granted, Memphis and Phoenix are both slightly below average offenses). There also was a change in plan of attack from Rivers: He put Leonard on star rookie Ja Morant from the opening tip Monday night. No easing the load on Leonard and letting someone else do the hard work early, Rivers wanted to set a tone. Leonard did exactly that. The Clippers raced out to a 35-9 lead in that game.

Rivers is still doing some experimenting. Against Phoenix he broke out some five-out, small-ball lineups with Morris at center, leaving starter Ivica Zubac and possible Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell on the bench (Harrell usually closes games for the Clippers at the five).

Rivers also is putting another ball-handler on the court with Lou Williams in the form of Jackson. For the past couple of seasons, the Williams and Harrell pick-and-roll off the bench has been the Clippers’ best offense (and what they counted on in crunch time). Now, the lineups are different and Williams could even see a reduction in minutes. Rivers added he thought having a second ball-handler on the court would be good for Williams.

Maybe. It just takes time to figure all that out, and the Clippers are running out of it. Longer shootarounds to go over sets and longer film sessions (things that have happened with the Clippers of late) can only go so far.

“We have to learn our own stuff, because we’ve had so much disruption this year. We’ve had 28 different starting lineups,” Rivers said. “It just hasn’t gone the way we wanted it to go as far as the continuity part.”

The players, for all the bumps that come in a culture shift when superstars like Leonard and George are added to the mix, seem to get the time is now.

“It feels better having all of us on the floor,” Shamet said. “It felt good to have everybody full force, to see what that big picture looks like.”

The Clippers as an organization chose this path — it was always all about the playoffs. And, hopefully, a ring. The games in November and January took a back seat to the big picture. The Clippers focused on getting healthy and some rest, and now they will see if that bet pays off.

“We’ve been put in the place we’ve been put in, there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t fight it. What were we going to do, play PG hurt?” Rivers asked. “The injuries and all the things just kind of added up on us, it’s not what we expected. But we didn’t expect Pat (Beverley) to miss games, and Lou (Williams) to miss games, and PG to miss the games he did.

“But I told the players, ‘so what? It happens.’ The key is being ready, win as many games as we can, and be ready when it really counts. That’s all we can do. That’s the hand we’ve been dealt, and we have to play that hand.

“We can play that hand and still win it.”

Returning to Finals, LeBron James talked about motivation from doubters

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LeBron James is headed back to the NBA Finals for the 10th time.

The Los Angeles Lakers are headed back to the NBA Finals for the first time in 10 years, the longest the iconic franchise has ever been off of the league’s biggest stage.

When last season ended all of that seemed a long shot.

The Lakers had just missed the playoffs for the sixth straight season (the longest drought in franchise history), LeBron had missed 17 games with a groin injury leading to questions about his durability as he was about to turn 35, and the fit between LeBron and a young core of Lakers players seemed off.

What LeBron heard through all of that was doubters, and that fueled him.

“This is what I came [to the Lakers] for,” LeBron said after the Lakers’ eliminated the Nuggets in a game he took over late. “I heard all the conversations and everything that was said about why did I decide to come to L.A. — the reason I came to L.A., it was not about basketball. All those conversations, just naysayers and things of that nature. I understood that, with the season I had last year and my injury, it just gave them more sticks and more wood to throw in the fire to continue to say the things that they would say about me.

“But it never stopped my journey and never stopped my mindset and never stopped my goal.”

All season long LeBron has said he was fueled by doubters, even when they weren’t really there. He said he was motivated by the people calling him washed even if nobody outside of Twitter trolls did that. Creating strawmen motivations is something Kobe Bryant did for years with the Lakers, LeBron continues on that tradition — and the tragic passing of Kobe was another motivation for LeBron as well.

It took a lot more than LeBron James’ willpower to get the Lakers back to the Finals. The Laker roster underwent an overhaul, with most of the young players going to New Orleans in exchange for Anthony Davis. Then those roster spots were filled in by veterans that other teams were slow to snap up — Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee — and appeared to give the Lakers unpredictable chemistry.

Then there was the coaching change, with Luke Walton out and Frank Vogel — with a veteran staff of assistants led by Jason Kidd — in.

“He’s been great,” LeBron said of Vogel. “He’s been unbelievable. I mean, we’ve faced, it’s been a crazy obstacle course for our franchise this whole year. I’m not going to sit here and give all the details, but you guys, everyone can go back and just see from the start of the season all the way up until now what we’ve gone through as a team. He’s been able to manage it the whole time. Bringing in guys, losing guys. He’s just always been the anchor, and our coaching staff has been right behind him. I can’t say anything more than that.”

LeBron brought it all in line and kept everyone focused on the goal.

That goal was not just to reach the NBA Finals but to win it. LeBron hasn’t lost sight of that. Now his body gets a few days off before that final journey starts.

And he has time to find a few more doubters to motivate him.

 

Minnesota’s Malik Beasley arrested, charged with receiving stolen property

Malik Beasley arrested
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Malik Beasley — the Minnesota Timberwolves guard heading into free agency this offseason — has been arrested at his home in Minnesota and taken into custody, facing a couple of charges: receiving and concealing stolen property, and marijuana possession.

Shams Charania and Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic broke the story.

Police arrived at Beasley’s home in Plymouth, Minnesota, on Saturday night and took the 23-year-old into custody. Beasley was being held without bail at Hennepin County Jail until he sees a judge, which could be another 24 hours, sources said…

Steve Haney, Beasley’s attorney released the following statement to The Athletic: “At the time of the incident, multiple individuals were present at the residence. The allegations against Malik will be defended vigorously.”

“We’re aware of the situation with Malik and are gathering more information,” Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders said Sunday morning.

He added that Beasley — a restricted free agent this offseason — had worked out at the team facilities in previous weeks but had not been with the franchise this week as they moved into 5-on-5 play and scrimmages. The Timberwolves are in the middle of their off-season, voluntary training camp.

Beasley played the best basketball of his career in the 14 games after being traded to Minnesota (before the coronavirus shut down the league). He was the floor-spacing wing the Timberwolves desperately needed with D'Angelo Russell at the point and Karl-Anthony Towns at center. Beasley averaged 20.7 points a game, and he brought a needed feistiness to the lineup.

Beasley is in line for a big payday as a restricted free agent (he turned down a three-year, $30 million extension offer from Denver before the season and that looked like a smart move). Timberwolves GM Gersson Rosas said he wanted to bring Beasley back next season and he has the right to match any offer.

If or how Beasley’s arrest changes his free agency and the demand for his skills remains to be seen.

Boston focused on Miami three-point shooters heading into Game 6

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — There have been two undeniable truths about the Miami Heat this season.

They must make 3’s to win.

They aren’t invincible with sizable leads.

The Boston Celtics have scouting and analytics teams that undoubtedly know these trends. But, really, so would anyone who simply can read a boxscore.

Take away Miami’s 3’s, and the Heat are easier to beat. The Celtics proved that again in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals when they extended their season with a victory — and will aim to take the same tact Sunday night when they meet the Heat again in another must-win for Boston.

“They’re going to hit some shots, they’re going to make some plays,” Celtics forward Jayson Tatum said. “They’ve got some good players. We’re just trying to make it as tough as we could.”

The Heat have played 87 games this season and shot below 20% from 3-point range in just three of them — one of them being Friday night, when the Celtics prevailed 121-108 to cut Miami’s lead in the series to 3-2.

Miami was 7 for 36 from deep, just 19%.

For whatever reason, 31.1% is the magic number for Heat 3-pointers this season. When the Heat shoot 31.1% or worse from beyond the arc, they’re 2-17 (.105). When they shoot better than that, they’re 53-15 (.779).

“Regardless of whether it’s going in or not, that can’t affect your commitment on the other side of the floor,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “And it felt like it did.”

The Celtics confined most of their Saturday plans to a film session; the Heat were doing the same along with some optional workouts. Heat center Bam Adebayo, who blamed himself for the Game 5 loss despite teammates saying otherwise, said he would spend some of Saturday on the floor looking for answers.

“This team has good resolve,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said Saturday. “I thought we showed that last night. We’ll have to continue to show the ability to be able to handle good and bad throughout a game.”

Even though the disappointment was clear Friday night, the Heat still understand where they are: a No. 5 seed, one that didn’t even make the playoffs last season, one win from the NBA Finals. Miami needed two tries before ousting Milwaukee in the second round, saying then it learned at what level a team needs to be to win a closeout game.

The Celtics provided them another reminder of that Friday night, when they outscored Miami 70-50 after halftime and erased a 12-point second-quarter deficit.

“As you go on, the wins get harder and harder,” Heat guard Duncan Robinson said. “And doing what we want to do and advancing from this round is going to be the hardest thing we’ve done all season and our in our athletic careers for many of us. Fortunately, we have coaches and guys that have been there and know what it takes.

“But this is certainly a reminder — to think that we were just going to have a good first half and just kind of coast to a victory in this stage of the playoffs, we’re misguided for thinking that.”

Miami is 55-32 this season, and 18 of those losses have come in games where the Heat held a double-digit lead. Boston has beaten Miami four times this season, rallying from at least 11 points down in three of those games — including a pair of 12-point comebacks in this series.

Miami has lost games this year where it led by 10 points once, 11 (four times), 12 (five times), 13 (once), 14 (twice), 15 (once), 20 (once), 22 (twice) and 23 (once).

 

Jamal Murray: Had bone bruise on foot, “didn’t have the energy I needed”

Jamal Murray
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It ultimately may not have changed anything, not the way LeBron James was playing, but the Jamal Murray in Game 5 did not look like the Jamal Murray who had helped lift the Denver Nuggets to that point. He was clearly bothered and not moving with the speed and fluidity he had throughout the playoffs.

“I have a big bruise on my foot. Just hurt me all game,” Murray said after the loss that eliminated Denver from the playoffs. “I changed shoes and that didn’t help. Yeah, I have a bone bruise. I don’t like to tell everybody what I got. I just like to play through it. Yeah, I was in pain, but it’s cool.

“I was out there. I was struggling a little bit today. Eighty-something days in the bubble and a lot of minutes, I didn’t have the energy I needed to have for my teammates today. Without me moving as hard or cutting as hard or scoring as much… I could have played a lot better this game.”

Murray finished the game with 19 points on 7-of-17 shooting and dished out eight assists, and part of what slowed him down was the Lakers’ assigned LeBron to guard him for stretches. That said, Murray was not moving like the guy who carved up Utah or who dropped 40 on the Clippers in Game 7. Still, he was out there still trying.

“He was our leader,” Nikola Jokic said of Murray. “His energy through the whole playoffs. He was banged up. He was injured before, even when I came here [to the bubble], he was a little bit banged up… But he’s a dog. He’s a fighter. He’s a competitor. He’s an amazing shooter. He played amazing.”

Like his coach and teammates, Murray was frustrated to be going home but looked back with pride at the leap the Nuggets made this postseason.

“We proved we can challenge the Clippers, who were the favorites. We proved we can challenge the Lakers,” Murray said. “And it’s only our second year in the playoffs. I wish things went differently, but I’m just proud of our guys, proud of everything we have done, everything we have accomplished. It’s not the end goal, but to make it this far and surprise as many people as we did, it’s a good feeling.

“So just try to come back next year and try to come back stronger.”