Will Doc Rivers, Clippers build championship chemistry in Orlando?

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Through the first two weeks, the bubble has felt a lot like the regular season for the Clippers: They entered being mentioned as serious title contenders, they keep winning games, but injuries and personal situations have kept everyone from being on the court and developing chemistry together.

Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, and Lou Williams have all left the Orlando bubble — with the club’s blessing — to attend to personal, family matters. All three are expected to return to the NBA Orlando campus at some point. The Clippers looked strong in their first scrimmage in the limited minutes Paul George and Kawhi Leonard played together, but for a team trying to develop chemistry having players out is not ideal.

“I don’t think it hurts our team…” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said Friday after a team practice. “Today we have a practice, a lot of our guys aren’t here. That’s never healthy for your team, especially a team that really hasn’t been together. We’re a new team. We had Kawhi and PG miss training camp. PG missed the first, what, 16 games. Then Kawhi missed games. Lou. This year so far we really have not caught a great break as far as being able to work together.

“I got to say this team so far, they keep impressing me. as well with their ability to figure out a way of playing together even though we don’t have a lot of minutes on the floor playing together.”

“You know, we’ve been down and missed guys pretty much all season long, so we’ve been filling it in,” George said last week. “We’ve been holding it down until everybody has been available, and we plan on continuing to do so.”

“We’re not worried about our depth right now, these pre-season scrimmages, whatever this is,” Marcus Morris said Friday, noting this is a veteran team that knows how to fit together. “ We know what we’re getting back, what kind of team we’ve had. We’re not real worried.”

The rest of the NBA should be real worried if Doc Rivers can get his Clippers to build championship chemistry in the Orlando bubble.

We only saw the Clippers at full strength for a limited time this season, starting around the All-Star break — after that break Los Angeles went 7-2 with a +11.5 net rating that was best in the league by far. It’s small sample size theater, but they looked like a title team coming together.

Then the coronavirus hit the NBA and the nation.

“It was a little frustrating because we played our way all the way up until that point, we played ourselves into that chemistry, into that zone we were in…” George said. “It was tough to take this little break. But I think ultimately it’s going to pay off. Again, we had so many guys dealing with little nicks and bruises, and we were one of the teams that could have benefitted off of the healing process and coming together healthy. This break did wonders for this group, and we’re going to pick up where we left off at.”

What makes the Clippers legit championship contenders starts with Leonard and George. Talent wins and the Clippers bring two of the top 10 players in the league (when healthy). More importantly, these are two elite players wing, a position that grows in importance in the playoffs because of the versatility it provides. In Leonard the Clippers have a top-five, proven champion — he was the Finals MVP last season and looks healthy and poised to pick up this season where he left off. He is a force on both ends of the court.

George also makes an impact on both ends of the court. Rivers added that in this restart he is giving PG more responsibility in the pick-and-roll, and there is a good reason for that.

“Because he’s a great shooter…” Rivers said. “Paul George does a lot. Great post game. With Paul’s size, we just put him in a lot more pick ‘n rolls than he’s ever been in his career. With his size, it’s so effective that we’re doing it more, work on it every day, and he’s gotten better and better at it.”

What sets the Clippers apart as contenders is the depth around their two stars, assuming that Williams, Harrell, and Beverley all return to Orlando.

Up front the Clippers start Ivica Zubac (who has yet to arrive in Orlando), a quality defensive big in the paint who sets a strong screen and rolls to the rim hard. Then there’s the Sixth Man of the Year energy of Harrell. Now behind them is Morris (who just started practicing with the team) and veteran Joakim Noah, who looked spry and active in the Clippers one exhibition game. Morris and JaMychal Green will split time off the bench at the four, and both bring shooting and veteran presence.

Up top they have Beverley with Williams behind him, and don’t forget they added Reggie Jackson behind those two. At the two-guard there is Landry Shamet (who tested positive for the coronavirus and is not yet in Orlando with the team).

Coaching all this is Doc Rivers — a championship coach who quietly is one of the smarter Xs and Os coaches in the league and a guy who treats his veterans like adults, but knows how to push and motivate them when its time.

If there is one coach who can bring this crew together, it’s Rivers.

On paper, the Clippers can (and maybe should) beat anyone. In reality, they have only put that version of the Clippers together for a short stretch. The Clippers have not been bad (fourth-best record in the NBA, top five in both offense and defense) but we have only seen the fully formed, championship-level version of this team for a short stretch.

If George can reach his peak and the Clippers’ depth can stay healthy and in Orlando, the Clippers could have their first title, an incredible turn around from the franchise that just more than a decade ago was the laughing stock of the league.

But can complete that turnaround? Doc Rivers and crew have a lot to prove still. Doing it on paper is not enough.

Are struggling Mavericks on the clock with Luka Doncic?

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Luka Doncic is in the first year of a five-year, $215.2 million contract. More than that, when asked recently if Mavericks fans should be worried about him wanting out as the team has stumbled at points to start this season, Doncic didn’t sound like a guy looking to bolt:

“I don’t think they’re worried about it right now. I got what, five years left here, so I don’t think they should be worried about it.”

The Mavericks’ front office should be worried about it — teams are always on the clock with a superstar.

The Mavericks let Jalen Brunson get away in the offseason, then brought in Christian Wood (whose defense is an issue and he is coming off the bench). This remains a team a player or two away from contending despite having a potential MVP in Doncic carrying a historic offensive load.

That doesn’t mean Doncic will ask out at the deadline or this summer (he won’t), but if his frustration grows over the next couple of years… who knows. Tim MacMahon of ESPN put it well on the Hoop Collective podcast (hat tip Real GM):

“I think they have a two-year window. This season and next season going into that summer [2024]. I think they have a two-year window where, you know, like Milwaukee did with Giannis [Antetokounmpo], I think in that window they really need to convince Luka that he has a chance to contend year in and year out right here in Dallas. If they can’t get it done in that two-year window, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that he’s going to force a trade or ask for a trade. I’m just saying at that point if he’s not happy, he has all the leverage in the world if he would be looking to leave..

“I don’t think Luka will look for reasons to leave. I think he’d be perfectly happy spending his entire career in Dallas. But if he doesn’t have to look for reasons and they’re slamming him in the face, then that’s a problem. He’s also a guy who is a ruthless competitor, which means he loves winning. He’s used to winning. He won championships with Real Madrid. He won a EuroBasket championship with the Slovenian national team. He also detests losing. Like can’t handle it.”

The Mavericks made the Western Conference Finals last season, knocking off the 64-win Suns in the process — this team is not that far away. Not with Doncic handling the ball. But it feels like a team that has taken a step back from those lofty levels this season. There are many more questions than answers, and it’s impossible to guess how Doncic will feel after this season’s playoffs, let alone the ones ending in the summer of 2024.

But the Mavericks stumbles this season have to put the Dallas front office on notice — this team is not good enough. And if we know it, you can be sure Doncic knows it.

Curry thinking retirement? ‘I don’t see myself slowing down any time soon’

2022 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Awards Presented by Chase
Kimberly White/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated
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Stephen Curry is playing at an MVP level this season: 30 points a game, hitting 43.2% from 3 with a 66.4 true shooting percentage, plus pitching in seven assists and 6.6 rebounds a game. He remains one of the best-conditioned athletes in the sport.

In the face of that, even though he is 34, asking him a retirement question seemed an odd choice, yet a reporter at the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award ceremony — Curry won the award, if you didn’t know — asked Curry about it seems he’s not interested.

Curry should not be thinking of retirement, but there is a sense around these Warriors that this era, this run is coming to an end in the next few years. Curry may be defying father time, but Draymond Green and Klay Thompson (especially post injuries) are not. There is a decline in their games (and this season, the role players have not stepped up around them the same way). With that comes a certain pressure to take advantage of the opportunities, there aren’t going to be as many.

Which is why the Warriors are a team to watch at the trade deadline (and will they sell low on James Wiseman to a team that still sees the potential in him?).

As for Curry, he will still be around and producing for a few more years. Nobody is ready to think about his retirement. Including Curry himself.

Block or charge: Alperen Sengun dunks on Zach Collins

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To borrow the catchphrase of the great Rex Chapman:

Block or charge?

The Rockets’ Alperen Sengun caught a body and threw one down on the Spurs’ Zach Collins but was called for the offensive foul.

NBA Twitter went nuts.

Rockets coach Stephen Silas challenged the call, but it was upheld (from my perspective, the replay officials are always looking to back the in-game officials if they at all can).

By the time Collins slid over and jumped, Sengun was already in the air — if anything that was a block. What the officials called was Sengun using his off-arm to create space.

I hate the call — that’s a dunk and an and-one. Not because it’s a great dunk — although it is that, too — but because Collins literally jumped into the path of an already airborne Sengun, Collins created all the contact. It’s on him. Under the spirit of the rules, Sengun’s off-arm is moot at that point — Collins illegally jumped in Sengun’s way and caused the collision.

Terrible call by the officials.

It was a good night for the Spurs, overall. San Antonio played its best defense in a while and Keldon Johnson — one of the few bright spots in a dark Spurs season — hit his first nine shots on his way to a 32-point night that sparked a 118-109 San Antonio win over Houston, snapping the Spurs 11-game losing streak.

Three things to know: Watch Jamal Murray drain game-winning 3 to beat Blazers

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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Watch Jamal Murray drain game-winning 3 to beat Blazers

This game felt like a 2019 playoff time capsule, with Damian Lillard and Jamal Murray trading blows in a dramatic game.

Lillard landed more of them, he finished with 40 points — and his final three were vintage Dame Time.

But Murray had the final word.

The final minutes of this game were insane.

It was a needed win for a Denver team that some nights look like they can compete with the best in the league, then turn around 48 hours later and mail in a loss to a tanking team. Nikola Jokic scored 33 against Portland (with 10 boards and nine assists) — he is again putting up numbers that will have him in the MVP conversation (even if it’s a longshot he wins it). However, the Nuggets’ bottom-five defense makes them inconsistent night to night.

Portland revamped their roster to get younger and more athletic around Lillard this past offseason, but one of the results of that is the inconsistency of youth. The Blazers don’t bring the same level of execution every night. If they don’t learn that lesson, they may be different in makeup but the results will be the same as many Portland teams of the last decade — an early playoff exit.

2) Brittney Griner is home on U.S.soil

After spending 10 months in Russian jails — including being convicted and sent to a penal colony — on trumped-up drug charges that made her a political pawn in a massive geo-political battle, Brittney Griner is finally home on U.S. soil, her plane landed in Texas overnight.

The Biden administration worked out a prisoner exchange with Russia that brings Griner home to be with her wife, family and friends — that is something to be celebrated.

Of course, there was some pushback online/in the media from people who care only about trying to score political points for their selfish ends. Fortunately, we had the family of Paul Whelan — a Michigan corporate security executive who has been behind bars in Russia since December 2018 on trumped-up espionage charges — who praised the president for bringing Griner home and making “the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.”

An American citizen is home. She happens to be a WNBA star and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, but those things are not what matters most, and are secondary to her family who are just happy to hug her and tell her they love her again. We all hope that day comes soon for American political prisoners held around the globe (including Whelan), but we should celebrate the big victory of Griner being back on U.S. soil.

3) Spurs snap 11-game losing streak behind 32 from Johnson

Keldon Johnson — one of the few bright spots in a dark Spurs season — hit his first nine shots on his way to a 32-point night that sparked a 118-109 San Antonio win over Houston, snapping the Spurs’ 11-game losing streak.

“This has been the first game in a while where we were clicking defensively,” Johnson told the Associated Press after the game. “You can tell when we get stops, get out and run and be able to get out front. If we can keep that mindset of defense first, get stops and we let the offense take care of itself, we’ll be in great shape.”

All of that is interesting, but the real debate of the night: Was this an offensive foul by Alperen Sengun, or a block by Zach Collins?

Sengun was in the air when Collins came over, but he also used his off hand to create space for the dunk. This is a bang-bang call and the challenge of the block/charge call — I think that’s a block by Collins, but that’s not how the referee or many others have seen it. How would you have called it?