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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.”

NBA playoffs schedule 2020: First round dates, times, matchups

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We’ve all had our fill of the seeding games appetizer, it’s time to dig into the main course: The playoffs. On Thursday, the NBA released the first-round playoffs schedule for 2020.

Those seeding games saw unexpected stars — Indiana’s T.J. Warren looking like an elite scorer — and teams we didn’t expect exploding on the scene, such as the 8-0 Suns. The playoffs promise even more of that — and a few upsets.

Here are a few more notes on the NBA’s first-round playoff schedule 2020:

• The NBA is continuing with the Summer League/AAU style format with four games a day spread out over the course of the day.
• Games are played every other day in all eight series.
• It will not be known who which team the West’s top seed (the Lakers) will face in the first round until the play-in games on Saturday and, if necessary, Sunday.
• The first Western Conference Play-In game is Saturday, Aug. 15 at 2:30 ET (ABC). If the eighth-seeded team wins the series is over and that team moves on to the Lakers; if the eighth seed team loses a second game will be played on Sunday at 4:30 ET (ESPN).
• The Heat and Pacers played last Monday, meet again on Friday, then next Tuesday start a best-of-7 series. Miami won that first game in impressive fashion.
Chris Paul, now wearing a Thunder uniform, will take on his former team, the Houston Rockets.
• The NBA has released an NBA Finals schedule to teams.

NBA playoffs schedule 2020, first round, by date (all times are Eastern):

Western Conference

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. Play-in winner

Game 1: Aug. 18, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 8:30 p.m. (ABC)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

No. 2 L.A. Clippers vs. Dallas

Game 1: Aug. 17, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD

No. 3 Denver vs. No. 6 Utah

Game 1: Aug. 17, 1:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD

Oklahoma City vs. Houston (4/5 finish order yet to be decided)

Game 1: Aug. 18, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 6 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Milwaukee vs. No. 8 Orlando

Game 1: Aug. 18, 1:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 6 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 1:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 1:30 p.m. (NBATV)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

No. 2 Toronto vs. No. 7 Brooklyn

Game 1: Aug. 17, 4 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 1:30 p.m. (NBATV)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 1:30 p.m. (NBA TV)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD (ESPN)
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD (TNT)

No. 3 Boston vs. No. 6 Philadelphia

Game 1: Aug. 17, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 1 p.m. (ABC)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD (ESPN)
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD (TNT)

Miami vs. Indiana (4/5 finish order yet to be decided)

Game 1: Aug. 18, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 1 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 3:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 6:30 (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

Memphis advances to play-in; Phoenix goes perfect 8-0 but needs help to join them

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Memphis entered the bubble with a 3.5 game cushion as the eighth seed in the West. All Ja Morant and company had to do was hold on to that and they would be in the league’s new play-in series.

They didn’t.

Phoenix entered the bubble as a playoff afterthought, so far back of Memphis — and with so many teams between them — that Devin Booker would have to explode and the Suns would need to be perfect in the bubble.

They were. With a win over Dallas Thursday, Phoenix went 8-0 in the seeding games.

That still may not be enough.

Memphis beat Milwaukee 119-106 Thursday, with that the Grizzlies are assured of a spot in the play-in as at least the nine seed.

That means Phoenix needs Brooklyn to beat Portland later Thursday night. If the Nets pull the upset, the Grizzlies become the eight seed and the Suns would jump to the nine seed. If Portland wins, it is in the play-in against Memphis (with the Trail Blazers as the eighth seed), and Phoenix takes off for Cancun and the offseason.

The Grizzlies and Suns winning means the San Antonio Spurs historic playoff streak ends at 22 seasons, they are now mathematically eliminated.

Thursday’s games came with the promise of playoff-chase drama but ended up the kind of duds we see at the end of a typical regular season when one team has something to play for and the other is coasting and disinterested.

The Grizzlies didn’t win because Rookie of the Year to be Morant put up a triple-double (12 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists).

Rather it was a testament to the Memphis front office building out a solid, balanced roster around their young stars. Memphis got 31 from third-year player Dillon Brooks (a second-round pick they developed), plus 26 points and 19 rebounds from Jonas Valanciunas (acquired in a trade).

The Bucks were without Giannis Antetokounmpo who was suspended one game for headbutting Moe Wagner of the Wizards. That certainly helped the Grizzlies, although it’s unlikely the Greek Freak would have played significant minutes.

Phoenix got 27 points from Devin Booker, plus balanced scoring behind him. Dario Saric added 16 points off the bench.

A lot of fans had hoped to see Booker and the electric Suns in the play-in game, but in the NBA winning games matters — and not just the last eight in the bubble. All of them. The Suns didn’t do enough of that before the coronavirus shut down the NBA for four months.

The Grizzlies did, so they advance.

Adam Silver: Players not in bubble have heard such positive reports, they’ve asked to join

NBA commission Adam Silver and Warriors star Stephen Curry
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NBA commission Adam Silver warned that everyone involved must be comfortable with some positive coronavirus tests in the bubble.

So far, there have been none.

Silver, in a Q&A with Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated:

SI: The bubble—sorry, the campus—is operational. Is it what you hoped it would be?

AS: It’s better than what we had envisioned. Players have taken to it in a more spirited way than we thought they would. We knew that this would require enormous sacrifice on everyone’s part, but I think that what is hard to calibrate—and this maybe goes to my experience when I first came into the arena—is the human emotion that comes with being around other people. And I think everyone realized they missed it more than they even understood. There are players either whose teams are not participating, who were unable to engage this summer because of injuries or other issues, who, once they spoke to fellow NBA players, have asked to join the experience down in Orlando.

People generally enjoy being around other people. Basketball players like to play basketball.

The NBA bubble has made those activities – otherwise dangerous due to coronavirus – sufficiently safe.

That surely must be fulfilling for participating players (even if the reason for the whole operation is money, not fulfillment).

Warriors star Stephen Curry admitted his FOMO, and the Trail Blazers – presumably with Trevor Ariza on board – reportedly tried to get Ariza late admission into the bubble.

But I wonder whether there’s a level of “grass is greener on the other side” from the players who asked to join. The bubble participants are away from their families and friends for at least a month, longer if their team advances. That’s easier to accept in theory without actually experiencing it.

2020 NBA Finals schedule sent to teams (but it’s tentative)

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In a typical NBA season, the start date of the NBA Finals is set before training camps ever open.

Nothing about 2020 is typical, including the NBA’s bubble restart in Orlando. While we had known the league had a Finals start date of Sept. 30, and we knew games would be roughly every other day, there were not a lot of details.

At least not until the league sent a memo to teams on Thursday detailing the 2020 NBA Finals schedule, a memo obtained by Shams Charania of The Athletic.

 

While times have not been announced, expect tip-off at 8 or 9 Eastern.

The 2020 NBA Finals schedule has games every other day, except for the two-day gap between Game 4 (Tuesday, Oct. 6) and Game 5 (Friday, Oct. 9).

There is a theory some subscribe to around the league that playoff series will be shorter this year because the weaker team will not have the home crowd to pump them up to steal games. When a team gets down, they will be more likely to stay down. If that proves true — and good luck to you predicting how these Finals will actually go — then the league might move up the Finals date. But don’t be on it, moving the Finals would take coordination with television partner ABC and more, and more than likely the games stay where they are.

The road to the finals, the NBA playoffs, start next Monday  Seven of the eight series are set, with the final spot in the West still up for grabs and headed to a play-in series (the teams in that series will be determined Thursday, with the games Saturday (Aug. 15) and, if necessary, Sunday.