Backs against the wall, Clippers respond (again) with best effort, win Game 3 vs. Jazz

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LOS ANGELES — It felt a little like Game 3 against Dallas.

The Clippers, down 0-2 in the series and tipping off in a must-win Game 3, still came out with the energy of a Tuesday night road game in February. Los Angeles was down a fast 8-0 as Clipper defenders chose to ignore a wide-open Joe Ingles and he drained a couple of 3s.

Then the Clippers flipped the switch.

Their backs against the wall, the Clippers stepped up their defensive physicality, and with that they were far more disruptive than they had been in Salt Lake City. The new strategy was switching everything with Donovan Mitchell pick-and-rolls then throwing more random doubles at him worked for a half. Most importantly, the Clippers played with a frenetic desperation on that end.

On the other end of the court, Paul George couldn’t seem to miss.

“Just being aggressive, having an offensive mindset, to get up 20-24 shots,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said of what he needs from George. “That’s what we need him to do.”

They got it. Once again, it took truly desperate times to get the Clippers to give their best effort, but they did. They withstood every punch the Jazz threw in the second half and went on to win 132-106.

The series is now 2-1 in favor of Utah, with Game 4 Monday night in Los Angeles.

The biggest question for that game will be the right ankle of Donovan Mitchell. The Jazz All-Star — who had 30 points on the night — limped to the bench after tweaking his right ankle again with just more than seven minutes left in the game. He went straight to the locker room, returned to the bench a couple of minutes later, put his arm around coach Quin Snyder and spoke with him, but while they talked Leonard drained a three to make it an 18-point Clipper lead with under five minutes to play. Mitchell walked back to the bench with a slight limp, got his ankle iced, and never re-entered the game.

“He’s in good shape, he could have gone back in… but the game had gotten away from us at this point,” Snyder said after the game. “He’s fine.”

“It’s when I land,” Mitchell said of what is causing him pain. “It’s been just trying to manage it. I don’t really know what else to tell you. I don’t want to say too much. It was just the landing, but I’m good. I’ll be ready for Game 4.”

While Leonard had 34 and George had 31 in his best game of these playoffs — which sparked a ridiculous 140.4 offensive rating from L.A. — the real difference for the Clippers in Game 3 was on the defensive end. In particular, that was focused on making life difficult for Mitchell, who carries a huge load for the Jazz with Mike Conley out for the third straight game with what the team calls a “mild hamstring strain.” Leonard and George had the primary responsibilities for Mitchell, but the Clippers threw everything — and varied looks — at him.

“We just made a decision that he was not going to beat us tonight. We were going to make the other guys make plays,” George said of Mitchell.

“I think if you look at the possessions where they doubled Donovan, we got good looks,” Snyder said, adding the Jazz just had stretches where they missed those shots, and that led to transition buckets for the Clippers going the other way.

This was the other big thing for the Clippers, they sped the Jazz up this game and made them play faster and a little more out of control than normal. That is where Utah really misses the steadying influence of Conley.

That more energized Clipper defense held the Jazz to 23 first quarter points on less than 40% shooting overall. The Clippers were almost frenetic at times, except when Joe Ingles had the ball. Los Angeles seemed to use those moments to get some rest. Ingles had 11 first-quarter points and was 3-of-3 from 3, on his way to a 19-point game.

The Clippers led at half 64-49, playing their best half of basketball this series. At the half, the Clippers had a 145.5 offensive rating, led by George’s best half of the playoffs scoring 20 and hitting 4-of-7 from three. Reggie Jackson was 4-of-5 from 3 and had 14 at the break, on his way to 17 for the game.

The Clippers were playing faster and getting downhill, and once again they got a huge energy boost from Terance Mann off the bench. Mann has become the spark plug the Clippers need with their second units.

Led by Mitchell, the Jazz responded in the second half, attacking the basket more and making mini-runs — but every time the Clippers responded. Leonard took over at the start of the third, keeping Clippers up by double digits. The more aggressive Jazz scored 34 in the third, but the Clippers had 30 and were still in command of the game.

The Clippers found a formula that worked and allowed a comeback from 0-2 down against Dallas, but that will be a much tougher task against a better and more balanced Jazz team — especially if Conley returns for Game 4.

For the Clippers to win this series, they need to even it up at home on Monday — coming back from 3-1 down against Utah will border on the impossible.

If Lue can get the Clippers to recognize their backs are against the wall they have a chance.

Wembanyama scores 37 Scoot Henderson 28, both make case to go No.1

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The NBA league office hates tanking — the action, the word, the mere suggestion of it.

But there is going to be some serious tanking in the NBA this season, and anybody who watched the Victor Wembanyama vs. Scoot Henderson game Tuesday (also known as the G-league Ignite vs.  Metropolitans 92 from France) knows exactly why.

What. A. Show.

Victor Wembanyama, the projected No. 1 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, showed why he is a true 7’4″ unicorn who can do seemingly anything. He finished the game with 37 points, hitting 7-of-11 from 3, with five blocks, showed off some handles and even brought the ball up court a couple of times.

This play sums him up well: at 7’4″ Wembanyama is the ball handler in a pick-and-roll, looks smooth, and when the defender goes under the pick casually drains a 3.

Scoot Henderson, expected to go No.2 in the next draft, flashed his explosive athleticism to the tune of 28 points, nine assists, and five rebounds.

Ja Morant was impressed.

There was a lot for fans, scouts, and GMs to be impressed with.

For all his shooting an offensive game, Wembanyama was just as impressive on defense. His length and mobility forces players to change their driving angles to the rim. He also showed a fearlessness in going after the big block.

Henderson showed high-level athleticism and an ability to get to the rim at will, but he also set up teammates and an improving shot. Henderson is a dynamic athlete and a season playing against the men of the G League is only going to sharpen his skills.

Henderson made his case Tuesday to be the No.1 pick — scouts say he has the potential to be a franchise cornerstone point guard, a top-10 player in the league, and he looked it in this game. He showed no fear, even going at Wembanyama a few times.

However, Wembanyama will go No.1 because he just breaks the mold, there is nobody like him. Anywhere. He looks like a generational talent, even if there is some work to do to realize it. Wembanyama started to show that Tuesday night.

These two teams face off again on Thursday night in Henderson, Nevada.

Royce O’Neal on Durant, Irving trade rumors: ‘That was the summer’

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The Brooklyn Nets are trying to move on from a turbulent, awkward summer where their two best players tried to get tradedone throwing down a “me or the coach and GM” ultimatum — and they are tired of talking about it.

It sounds like they have moved on from the Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving drama in the locker room, at least based on what Royce O’Neal told Michael Scotto of Hoopshype.

“That was the summer. Nobody cares about it now. We’re all here, and we’re going to make it work. We have a lot of work to do to get to where we want to go. That’s what we’re focusing on.”

No doubt that is the mantra in the locker room, and it’s easy to do during the carefree, optimistic days of training camp or even the first preseason games. The players believe they have moved on.

The real question about these Nets is what happens when adversity hits? And it will hit, it does every team. How will Ben Simmons handle the stress? Irving? Can coach Steve Nash keep the Nets all on task, or will the finger-pointing start, and will the locker room get split?

Those questions are why everyone is finding it hard to predict these Nets — they could win a ring, they could have Durant demanding a trade again by Christmas. Most likely they land in the middle somewhere, but every possibility is on the table.

Speaking of teams being broken up, Scotto also asked about O’Neal’s former team, the Utah Jazz, and Danny Ainge’s decision to trade Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell this summer. Ainge said “this team didn’t believe in each other,” but that’s not how O’Neal saw it. He was surprised the team was blown up.

“I was definitely shocked. I had been there for five years. The team we had for a couple of years fell short. I thought we were going to build on it. Things happened, so keep it moving.”

The question is will the Nets keep moving when things get hard?

Collin Sexton expects to start for Jazz once he gets back to full speed

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After the blockbuster trade that was centered around Donovan Mitchell sent Collin Sexton to Utah, the immediate expectation was that he would start for the Jazz and have the ultimate green light.

However, that wasn’t the case in their first preseason matchup with Toronto on Sunday. In 18 minutes off the bench, Sexton finished with 11 points on 4-for-9 shooting (3-for-4 on 3-pointers) to go along with one rebound, two assists, two steals, and two turnovers.

It came as a bit of a surprise to most viewers that Sexton didn’t get the starting nod, but he told Sarah Todd of Deseret News that he expected to come off the bench for this game. He acknowledged that it was because he hasn’t played much since his meniscus surgery, but he expects to start once he gets back to full speed.

Utah hit the reset button by dealing away four of their five starters from last season. They’ve ushered in a new era that is centered around Sexton, Lauri Markkanen, Jarred Vanderbilt, and a ton of first round picks. Sexton has talked about wanting to improve on his assists numbers this season, which we should definitely see him get the opportunity to do.

The Jazz have cemented their place in the center of the Victor Wembanyama race, so they’ll have no problem letting their young guys learn through trial and error. Sexton averaged 4.4 assists per game for Cleveland just two years ago. However, he won’t be playing alongside another young guard like Darius Garland, so Sexton should have the ball in his hands more than he ever has in the NBA.

Ben Simmons looks fine in return, is ‘grateful just to be able to step on that floor’

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Ben Simmons played in an actual, live basketball game on Monday night.

It’s preseason, sure, but the Nets rolled out their likely starting five — Simmons, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Joe Harris, and Nic Claxton — and had Simmons initiating a lot of the offense early.

The results were not bad. Fine. Good in flashes. Simmons ran the floor well and finished with six points on 3-of-6 shooting, five assists and four rebounds. He missed both free throws he took and all three of his makes were at the rim, his three missed shots were all in the paint and included an ugly skyhook-like thing and a turnaround that missed. There was clear rust.

The Nets got him a lot of touches, having him initiate the offense early. Whether that is something that carries over into the season remains to be seen, the offense moved better with the crisp passing and decisions of Kyrie Irving.

Simmons sounded comfortable after the game, quotes via Nick Friedell of ESPN.

“I’m grateful just to be able to step on that floor,” Simmons said. “Step on an NBA floor again. I had a lot of fun out there.”

“That’s the one thing, I thought I was going to be nervous,” Simmons said. “But I wasn’t nervous. I was excited.”

Simmons pushed for a trade off these 76ers a year ago, then sat out all last season due to mental health concerns. Having him back on the court for 19 minutes over a couple of shifts was enough for the Nets.

The 76ers sat Joel Embiid and James Harden for the night, but Tyrese Maxey was the best player on the floor with 20 points in 14 minutes and showing a confident 3-point stroke.

Furkan Korkmaz, another player coming off an injury, added 15 His play will add depth to the Sixers roster.

Claxton ran the floor hard and finished with 12 points on 6-of-6 shooting (all at the rim), while Durant led the way with 13 points.