Clippers get defensive, top Suns in another dramatic Game 3 showing

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LOS ANGELES — From the opening tip, two things were in Devin Booker‘s face.

One was the mask, something he wore to help protect the nose that he broke the game before. Despite the fact Booker said postgame, “the nose feels fine,” the mask clearly bothered him, he kept fidgeting with and adjusting it all game.

The other was Patrick Beverley. The Clippers’ most aggressive defender was in Booker’s face, up against his body and initiating contact — he would not let Booker get comfortable or any momentum of movement to create space.

The result was Booker shooting 5-of-21 shooting overall, 1-of-7 from three, and he picked up a frustration double-technical with Beverley. Chris Paul returned from COVID, but he couldn’t find a rhythm either and finished with 15 points on 5-of-19 shooting.

Tip your cap to the Clippers, who played their best defensive game of the series – the Suns had a 97.2 offensive rating — and got an offensive push in the second half from Reggie Jackson and Paul George. For the third time this postseason, the Clippers won Game 3 of a series after dropping the first two. This time it was a 106-92 Los Angeles win.

Phoenix still leads the series 2-1, with Game 4 Sunday in Los Angeles.

“This team is resilient, we never quit, we never say die, we never lose confidence,” Jackson said after he scored 23 points on the night.

The Suns and their fans look at the 10-of-40 shooting from their All-Star backcourt and rightfully think things will change in Game 4. They should also expect more Deandre Ayton to punish the Clippers’ smaller lineups. However, the Mavericks and Jazz expected bounce-back games against these Clippers well and found it far more challenging than expected.

Credit Clippers coach Tyronn Lue, who has instilled his steady demeanor to go with the Clippers’ confidence. First, after a gut-punch loss to the Suns in Game 2, Lue said he called George and Patrick Beverley as soon as the plane landed and they were driving home — some time in the middle of the night — to start to change the team’s mindset for Game 3.

“We landed, we got back home, first person I called was PG,” Lue said. “I just told him ‘we wouldn’t be in this position without you. That game’s over, it happens, it doesn’t mean anything…’

“I called him, I called Pat Beverley, a few guys.”

Then there were the adjustments. In the second half, the Lue leaned into the small-ball lineups that would drive, kick out, and replace over and over until they found a seam in the scrambling Suns’ defense that led to a 3-pointer or a lay-up.

“In the first half I thought we were stagnant, trying to do it all ourselves,” Lue said. “In the second half, we moved the ball, made plays for our teammates.”

The first half of this game was not pretty. In the first quarter, the Clippers shot 3-of-13 from 3 (missing some wide-open looks) while the Suns shoot 37.5% as a team and Booker starts 0-of-6 from the field. Los Angeles led 29-21 after one, but the game still felt very unsettled.

In the second quarter, the Clippers still had a small eight-point lead, but everything fell apart when George went to the bench. Los Angeles could not generate any offense and the Suns quickly took the lead and were up 48-46 at the half. That despite Booker and Paul starting the game 1-of-13 shooting.

“I shot terrible. I got to be better. I’ll be better next game,” Paul said.

Paul got extra run in this one because Cameron Payne injured his ankle and did not return. The status of Payne — whose pace of play has been a boost to the Suns this series — for Game 4 is unknown.

The Clippers came out in the third with a renewed defensive energy, and on offense Jackson and Beverley went at Booker to draw fouls. It all worked, and the Clippers went on a 21-3 run that ultimately decided the game.

The Clipper lead got up to 15 but had been trimmed to eight late in the third, and then Paul George did this.

At that point, it just seemed like the Clippers’ night (the Clippers were 9-of-17 from three in the second half). George finished the night with 27 points but on 9-of-26 shooting. Terance Mann had another key game for the Clippers, scoring 12 on 6-of-8 shooting and hounding CP3 defensively all night.

Game 3 has been the Clippers’ night all playoffs long, but replicating that in Game 4 against a Suns team bound to shoot better will be a tall order.

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?