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DeAndre Jordan

Heart and Hustle

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It is hard to decide whether the circumstances surrounding the Los Angeles Clippers’ latest postseason disappointment makes their fate easier to swallow than their last surprising playoff exit.

Last season, a franchise that had barely even sniffed second round in its existence was a quarter away from a conference finals berth that would have greatly altered the perception of the franchise and its core before choking it away. This year, a seemingly cursed franchise suffered two cataclysmic injuries just when promise seemed to be on the horizon.

What is more painful: Having firm control of your situation and failing to meet expectations or never even getting that opportunity?

At the end the day, the details won’t matter for the Clippers. They don’t change the bottom line, which is that this was another lost season for a franchise in desperate need of a breakthrough, a lost season for a core that might not have another season together and a lost season for a point guard whose prime is closer to its end than its beginning.

But the details do matter, at least in one respect.

The poignant difference between the final games of the Clippers’ season during the past two years was their disposition. This time around, the Clippers did not go down without a fight. They were not befuddled by unexpected circumstances like they were when the Rockets made their furious comeback last year in Game 6. Even without their two best players and with J.J. Redick looking like a shell of himself, the Clippers scrapped, clawed and fought back against the Blazers, and they were on level terms with Portland for seven of the final eight quarters of this series.

Doc Rivers and his players said all the right things about trying to move on from the injuries to Paul and Griffin. They talked about coming to terms with the situation and trying to fight through it. It wasn’t an unfamiliar rhetoric; what was surprising was that the Clippers actually lived up to their words. It would have been natural and completely forgivable for the Clippers to fold once their postseason dreams turned into heartbreaking nightmares. Instead, they tried to persevere and did not concede an inch to the Blazers.

The two players who most embodied the Clippers’ undying pride in the final two games were DeAndre Jordan and Austin Rivers.

Jordan played a fantastic series altogether. Los Angeles came into the series with a staunch dedication to its gameplan for Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, which required its bigs to extend high to trap Portland’s star guards before scurrying back to the paint in time to protect the basket. For a player who has become synonymous with the prevalent “ice” coverage, which allows him to sag back in the paint on pick-and-rolls, Jordan showcased an ability to pressure the ball well beyond the 3-point line while still acting as an effective rim deterrent. Things did not get easier for Portland once Paul and Griffin went down, which is a testament to how good Jordan was on the defensive end in this series.

Then there was Rivers, who took an elbow to his left eye during the first quarter of Game 6 and was a bloody mess as the trainers ushered him to the locker room. Rivers only missed about a quarter of the game before returning with 11 stitches under and above his eye. There were times when you could see blood streaming down his face from the fresh wound, but Rivers didn’t care. He managed to pour in 21 points to go along with eight assists and six rebounds with one eye practically shut, a la Steve Nash in the 2010 semifinals against the Spurs.

When the final buzzer sounded, Rivers was emotional. You could tell he mustered up everything he could to get back in the game and play through his impairment for his teammates, and he literally left his blood, sweat and tears on the court.

Given that his coach is also his father and that his tenure in New Orleans didn’t go particularly well, Rivers has been one of the league’s most maligned players during the past two seasons. Many believe he wouldn’t have a spot in the league if it weren’t for his dad’s role as coach and general manager, but this game helped confirm that isn’t the case. This was the fourth time he has scored 15 or more points in a postseason game for the Clippers, and his defense on Lillard was phenomenal. Rivers has a player option for next season, but don’t be surprised if he opts out in search of a better deal.

What happens next for the Clippers will be one of the biggest stories of the offseason. Or maybe it won’t. Much like this season, when the Clippers were an afterthought hidden in the footnotes of historical seasons for the Warriors and Spurs, Kevin Durant’s free agency (and who knows, maybe LeBron’s, too) might push any shakeup in Los Angeles to the backburner.

I hope this isn’t the end for the Clippers as we know them, though. Doc Rivers talked before the season about change being necessary if a core becomes stale, but the way this season ended was obviously not a product of that. Los Angeles certainly needs to upgrade to stay on course with the Warriors, and Doc’s extremely spotty record as a GM leaves little room for hope on that front, but after all this team has been through, it doesn’t deserve for its present era to be ended by untimely injuries.

But if this was the last time we see this iteration of the Clippers, even if Paul and Griffin were absent, at least they went out fighting like a team that believed it could overcome its certain demise. For the Clippers franchise, that is a victory in and of itself.

Grass Is Greener, Pt. 3

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jeff green

There is some unidentifiable, likely illusionary, quality that Jeff Green possesses that turns NBA executives into overzealous caretakers who are stricken by the belief that they have the necessary infrastructure in place to extract whatever furtive ability still lies beneath Green’s surface.

That unfettered confidence has twice been the justification for trading a first round pick for Green. Memphis dealt a first rounder that is expected to convey in 2018 to Boston for Green in Jan. 2015, and the Los Angeles Clippers traded a lottery-protected first (likely to convey in 2019) to Memphis for Green on Thursday. After dangling Lance Stephenson to a number of teams before the deadline, Los Angeles opted to move him for Green rather than Channing Frye, and the cost of acquiring a more intriguing asset (and an expiring contract with Bird Rights) was a first rounder.

That is, in a vacuum, logical thinking. Frye would have been a nice addition, but his impact would have been muted when Blake Griffin returned from injury and resumed playing 35 minutes a night at power forward.1 Green is younger, can be let go this summer if this trial doesn’t work out and can play a position the Clippers haven’t filled with an above average player in several years.

The troublesome part is that the Clippers are betting on a potentially counterfeit asset, and that the executive who thinks he has the right environment for Green to thrive in is also the coach, spawning some kind of circular logic founded on unsubstantiated optimism. This is the second time Doc Rivers has acquired Green, and though he is in the middle of his prime now, Green is even less of a reliable quantity than he was when the Celtics got him from the Thunder in 2011. Who knows how Green’s career would have turned out if he didn’t have to miss the entire 2011-12 season while he recovered from heart surgery, but his time in the league since has mostly been cloudy and underwhelming.

Green is a combo forward who doesn’t have standout qualifications for either position. He’s a good athlete who can play in transition and has shown some ability to attack the rim against bent defenses and on cuts, but his efficiency has always been lacking (he’s never had a PER above 15.01), he is an inconsistent outside shooter (he’s shooting 31 percent deep this season and his career average is 34 percent), his defense is average for someone with his physical tools and he is not much a ball mover or someone who creates good shots for his teammates.2

But then there are those stretches, those games, those possessions, where Green looks like a player worth salvaging, a patient worth treating with alternative means. There was a stretch at the end of January when Green scored 30, 21, 29 and 24 in consecutive games, shooting better than 60 percent on each occasion. When a coach like Rivers gives up a first rounder for Green, he isn’t looking at modest per game averages and cantankerous shooting percentages; he sees those glimpses, which are sometimes as prolonged as a whole week, and figures that kind of production would be nice to have, even if it comes in spurts.3

For a team that has been on the edge of a conference finals appearance, which should not be treated as some sort of laughable consolation prize given the current state of the West, that is far from the most objectionable rationale, and yet this trade reeks of the kind of move that a desperate team makes.

Contextually, this deal looks much worse than it is because of what the Pistons did Tuesday. Stan Van Gundy, whose front office debut has restored faith in the idea of coaches duel-wielding basketball-related responsibilities after Rivers sabotaged it, acquired a player who is essentially a younger, more malleable version of Green, Tobias Harris, without sacrificing any future assets, instead completing the deal with two expiring contracts as trade chips. Operating under the assumption that Orlando did the deal to clear an expensive cog in its forward log jam and to open up cap space in the summer, then the Clippers might have been able to send Stephenson and Jamal Crawford’s expiring contracts for Harris, who is under contract for three more seasons on a declining contract.

Then again, Rivers has never coached Harris before, so that move never seemed to be on that table. That Rivers has yet to expand beyond the scope of players he either coached or coached against might be the most concerning part about his tenure as a front office executive. One way to break that cycle is to inject some fresh (and cheap) talent into your locker room via the draft, but Rivers made how much he values draft picks evident in this deal.

To his discredit, Rivers has an embarrassing draft rap sheet, and the fact that he treated a first rounder like the worthless fodder his selections have turned out to be highlights an insensible thought process. The Clippers were the only team to sacrifice a small slice of its future in a win-now move at the deadline, which means they were the only team that thought it could improve enough to have a better shot at Golden State. All the other buyers on the market decided against pushing for contention because they had the sense to recognize how far off they are.

The Clippers have decent reason to believe they can give the Warriors a series, but that isn’t exactly the kind of ringing endorsement that should push a team to sacrifice a first round pick for a slight upgrade at small forward. That leads to the most interesting part of this trade: That Green might not be a significantly better basketball player than Stephenson, if he is better at all.

Stephenson was a spotty performer and never earned a spot in Rivers’ rotation, so Rivers traded for a commodity he was more comfortable with even though the new player might be worse and the opportunity cost of such a transaction was a first round pick.4

Somewhere, in the back of his mind, Rivers has to realize the risk he took with this deal. He has to know that sacrificing a long term asset for a negligible upgrade in talent and fit is such bad business that even Kanye West wouldn’t consider it. He has to realize he has established a troubling trend of acquiring has-been and never-was players whom he has spent considerable time around and against.

Rivers must have considered of all of this before he decided to pull the trigger on a move in which he spent a first round pick on a perennially vague forward whose ideal situation is as hard to discover as gravitational waves. But despite all of the cons listed on his legal pad, Rivers was inebriated by Green’s imperceptible allure, and he is giving Green a third chance to prove that the grass can be greener if you find the proper pasture.

Footnotes


 

It’s Going Down!

in NBA by
NBA: Playoffs-Brooklyn Nets at Toronto Raptors

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The scene was set for a historic afternoon of Raptors basketball, with the city of Toronto showing up in huge numbers to support their team in its first post-season appearance since the Vince Carter era. The Air Canada Centre was filled to the brim and another 10,000 raucous fans waited outside the arena watching the game on a big screen. There was a palpable energy in the building from the tip and you could tell that everybody in the stands was waiting for that one moment that would allow them to blow the roof off of the building.

But that moment never came. The closest the Raptors came to giving their home crowd a reason to to go crazy was when Greivis Vasquez nailed a three to give the Raptors the lead with five minutes to go. The lead wouldn’t last for long, though, as Joe Johnson answered immediately on the other end. And that’s when Brooklyn’s wily ole vets, who had struggled just like most of the team throughout the afternoon, helped seal the game for the Nets with some tremendous crunchtime shot making that remind us that, though their glory days are past, they are still two bad dudes.

Kevin Garnett got things started with a turnaround jumper from the post, and then Paul Pierce, Boston’s closer for so many years, took control. Pierce nailed a three off one of Brooklyn’s most effective actions, a 1/2 screen-and-roll with Williams on the left side of the floor, which forced Toronto’s weakside defenders to slide into the paint for just a second, allowing for Pierce to slide up to the right wing, with Garnett setting a brilliant backscreen on Pierce’s man to get him free. Then Pierce rescued a poor Nets possession by driving into the lane late in the shot clock for a lay-up, though it’s hard to say he didn’t travel. And finally, with Toronto managing just two points over the last three minutes of game action, Pierce drilled a fallaway mid-range jumper off an inbounds pass to put the game away for good.

This was an extremely tough game for the Raptors to lose. Not only did they give up homecourt advantage in this game, but they lost in the most disheartening way possible. The Nets were putrid offensively, not because they ran bad sets, but because they’d get good looks and miss them. They shot 4-of-24 from three in this game and prior to Pierce’s dagger late in the game they had missed 19 three-point attempts in a row. Brooklyn wasn’t a great offensive team this season, but most of their line-ups with Pierce as the smallball four scored at a pretty good rate, so this kind of offensive outing is not something you’d expect from them again going forward.

Meanwhile, the Nets defense was completely locked in all game. They had the Raptors scouted well and their scheme neutered almost all of Toronto’s actions. Their combined length on the perimeter deterred drives and disrupted passes, forcing the Raptors into 17 turnovers while holding them to 39% shooting. The Nets showed on almost all pick-and-rolls, taking away any space for Kyle Lowry to launch from deep while rotating quickly on the outside. Just about the only consistent success that the Raptors had offensively in this one was with Jonas Valanciunas in pick-and-rolls as he was able to make a couple of clean catches on the way to the basket for some good looks.

Other than that, though, the Raptor offense was stagnant and bogged down. Despite playing some line-ups with three shooters spacing the floor around their pick-and-roll, Toronto was still unable to find space because of Brooklyn’s tremendous defensive effort. And, perhaps most importantly, Shaun Livingston submitted a sublime individual defensive effort on DeMar DeRozan, forcing DeRozan into one of his worst shooting games of the season (3-of-13 from the field, 0-of-4 from deep) and stifling a lot of the sets that the Raptors are used to flowing into to get DeRozan the ball in good spots. Take this play for instance, where Livingston and Pierce prevent DeRozan from getting any momentum off a pick-and-roll with Amir Johnson while Livingston recovers, sticks right on the hip of DeRozan and forces him into a bad shot.

Plays where DeRozan was able to get free from Livingston in this game were few and far between, and when Livingston sat with foul trouble, Joe Johnson did an admirable job defending DeRozan. Dwane Casey will have to find ways to get DeRozan the ball in space and with momentum going towards the rim to get him going in this series, because the Nets’ pick-and-roll coverages prevent him from turning the corner off a screen, and he’s been unable to get by his man in one-on-one situations. That’s easier said than done, though, and it’s entirely possible than the potential laden DeRozan simply needs another off-season to develop the kind of one-on-one maneuvers necessary to beat the tight defense he’s going to see in the post-season over the next decade.

The Raptors were OK themselves defensively, but the numbers would have looked much worse had the Nets made even half of the many good looks from deep that they got in this game. Toronto has to be much smarter with their double teams for the rest of the series, whether that means coming earlier, changing up where the help comes from throughout the game or simply trying to let Lowry, DeRozan or Ross defend in the post one-on-one, because Johnson feasted on their second and third rotations in this game when they came to double him in the post.

This was an extremely disheartening loss for the Raptors. The fans were pumped to have the post-season back in their city and the Nets played very poorly offensively for the majority of this game, opening the door for the Raptors to start the series off on a good note. But the Raptors just couldn’t capitalize. Brooklyn’s strong, smart defensive effort kept them from every establishing rhythm and Pierce’s late-game heroics fossilized them for good.

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It’s difficult to tell if the Warriors are going to make this a series or if the atrocious officiating, which hurt both sides in this game, muddied things up so much that there’s nothing to take away from this one other than that Mark Jackson really had his troops ready to play. Blake Griffin played 19 minutes in this game because of foul trouble, Andre Iguodala fouled out in the fourth quarter after picking up four in the first half, Chris Paul had to spend more time than usual on the bench because of a few ticky tack calls and David Lee had an early hook because of some quick whistles. Rarely did both teams have their best units on the floor – and, of course, Golden State never will because of the injury to Andrew Bogut – and during the rare stints when Griffin and Iguodala were able to be on the floor, they were tentative because of how poorly the officials were calling the game.

It’s possible that Blake’s early exit threw everything out of whack for the Clippers, who have come to rely on him more than ever this season, and it’s certainly true that the Warriors can more easily find a replacement for Iguodala than the Clippers can for Griffin. If foul trouble doesn’t play a major role in game two, then the Clippers may win handily against a Warrior team that is missing its defensive centerpiece.

But then again, the Warriors showed something in this game that is almost assuredly going to continue to cause problems for Los Angeles no matter who is on the floor for them: Mark Jackson is willing to go small again, and the Warriors play extremely well on both ends of the floor when Draymond Green is inserted at the power forward spot. The Warriors were insane defensively when Green was on the floor, limiting the Clippers to 78.5 points per 100 possessions during his 22 minutes. Even Harrison Barnes was great when he was asked to play power forward, and he had the play of the game in the fourth quarter when he blocked Chris Paul’s lay-up attempt in transition with two minutes to go before getting back on the other end and drilling a three that put Golden State up by two.

What’s even more troubling for the Clippers is that the Warriors destroyed their defense even when it was Lee and Jermaine O’Neal sharing the floor, as Lee’s expert passing in the paint helped lead to numerous defensive breakdowns of the Clippers. In the first half DeAndre Jordan was doing an adequate job protecting the rim, racking up five blocked shots, but in the second half he was nowhere to be found, sucked in often by dribble penetration with nobody else on the backline there to help the helper. Again, it’s tough to evaluate the Clippers’ overall performance because of how little Blake played, and putting Glen Davis on the floor for any length of time will lead to some defensive issues, but the Clippers had no rim protection in the second half and they got slaughtered on the boards, allowing 15 offensive rebounds for the game.

Blake is obviously one way for Doc Rivers to counter Golden State’s smallball attack as he can get him on the block and have him attack Green downlow, but another flaw emerged in this game for the Clippers, and it’s one that could wind up being fatal for the Clippers if they don’t adjust: They can’t guard Stephen Curry on high pick-and-rolls.

Curry is an offense all unto himself. A simple screen-and-roll with him up top can result in countless breakdowns for the opposition, whether it’s someone slipping up and giving an inch of space to launch a three or the backline rotations not being quick enough to recover for the big man that had to come up to prevent Curry from stepping into a shot. The Clippers chose to trap Curry on his high screen-and-rolls, and with Lee being such a great passer and decision maker on the move, the Warriors were comfortable using the pick-and-roll as an invitation to bring a Clipper big away from the rim. Curry would wait until the perfect time to hit Lee on the roll, allowing for Jordan or Griffin or Davis to come out far enough to make it difficult for them to scurry back into the paint. The result was driving lanes for Lee, who was able to get a few buckets at the rim and find shooters on the weakside as the Clippers were forced to breakdown to protect the paint.

Take a look at a sampling of Golden State’s tremendous ball movement against the trap in this one. And remember, all of this happens because the Clippers are frightened by the idea of Curry coming off one of those picks and launching a three-point attempt.

Los Angeles will have to change things up going into game two. All season long they’ve had Jordan and Griffin become comfortable sagging back on pick-and-rolls on their ICE coverage, but in this one they decided to come out and be aggressive to keep Curry from beating them. Well, even though it’s a dramatic shift in philosophy, having their bigs play a little further back and forcing Curry to beat them without getting others involved may be an optimal strategy, or at least one worth trying after their original plan was torched in game one.

The Clippers should be fine on the other end. Paul was brilliant in this game despite his late free throw misses and six turnovers and J.J. Redick was on fire from deep. If they can get Jamal Crawford’s game out of the gutter and a full performance from Blake, they have to like their chances going forward. That said, the Warriors took the fight to them in this game and Curry showed that even when he’s not lighting up the scoreboard himself, he can still have a dramatic impact on the outcome.

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Before this series, it seemed radical to suggest that the #1 seeded Pacers may have to take the player that they’ve built their entire, incredibly successful, defensive scheme around off the floor because of how he matched up with the 8th seeded Hawks, who finished the season six games under .500, but you can’t argue with it after game one. Whether it was by directly involving him in a pick-and-roll or having him hang around the perimeter to guard a spot-up shooter, the Hawks exploited their schematic advantage time and time again, running pick-and-pops with the floor spaced with shooters, putting the Pacers at odds with their principles.

Indiana wants to clog the paint and keep ball handlers out of the middle of the floor, but against the Hawks starting five, there is no weak link to sag off of to help pack the paint, and the usually statuesque Hibbert is required to leave his comfort zone to guard Atlanta’s stretch bigs. At first, the Pacers stuck to their gameplan and let the Hawks bigs get some open looks on pick-and-pops, but as the game wore on and they started drifting further and further out to guard the shooters, Jeff Teague began ripping apart their interior defense, routinely blowing by George Hill, who had no help on the backline thanks to Atlanta’s floor spacing bigs.

Just look at how much space there is behind the initial defender and how beautifully Teague goes about getting by his man to get into the wide open lane.

Teague was excellent, putting up 28 points and five assists, and the Hawks also got a huge game out of Paul Millsap. When the pick-and-roll game stalls for Altanta, Millsap is the one player that the Hawks can count on to get something going on his own, and he wound up with 25 points and eight boards for Altanta, in addition to hitting a pair of threes. And though Kyle Korver had an off night by his standards, the Hawks got him some really clean looks off some pretty pindown and curl screen plays, and they’re likely to be there again in game two. Picking up the slack for Korver was DeMarre Carroll, who played a hell of a game, scoring 12 points, pulling down 10 boards (five offensive), hitting a couple of threes and playing some really good defense on Paul George.

The worst part about this game for the Pacers wasn’t necessarily that they lost, it’s that they got down by 20 at one point in the fourth quarter and the team started slumping its collective shoulders like we saw many times during their tumultuous stretch to close out the regular season. Coming into the game the team preached about having a clean slate in the post-season, but they showed the same signs of losing faith in each other when things got tough in this one.

And let’s be honest here, Indiana’s struggles don’t have everything to do with attitude. It plays a part, but the real issue here is that the Pacers just can’t score the basketball efficiently, and despite solid games from George and Lance Stephenson in this one, there’s just nothing else there aside from the occasional C.J. Watson outburst. George Hill is better suited for a utility role like the one he filled for the Spurs, not as the creator for an offense that doesn’t have any space, David West struggled with foul trouble and never got going, Luis Scola was 0-of-6 from the field and Hibbert has always been an average offensive player at best unless he’s got a colossal size advantage.

Indiana’s offensive ineptitude finally caught up to them when their defense slipped even the slightest bit, and against a team like Atlanta that further minimizes the impact of Indiana’s usually stellar defensive scheme, the Pacers are in big trouble now that they’ve surrendered homecourt advantage, something I’m sure can only damage what was already a deteriorating team psyche.

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You have to credit the Grizzlies for fighting their way back into a game that they trailed by 25 in during the first half. Memphis didn’t even make a shot outside of the paint for the first 23 minutes and 59 seconds of this game, finally getting a three to go at the halftime buzzer. The came out strong in the third against a Thunder team that clearly thought they had closed the coffin on them in the first half, putting together a 31-13 run that made it a game going into the fourth quarter. The Grizzlies even cut Oklahoma City’s lead to two in the fourth when Mike Miller hit a three with 8:45 to go in regulation, but that shot was just about all the Grizzlies had left in the tank. They wouldn’t score another field goal over the next three mintues of game time, allowing the Thunder to go on a 13-1 run that put the game out of reach for good.

Most of the credit for Memphis strong third quarter effort has to go to Tony Allen. He held Durant to 5-of-14 shooting, allowing just 13 points compared to the 20 points Durant dropped on his teammates on 73% shooting. His activity off the ball often prevented Durant from even getting a touch, a familiar sight after seeing Allen do this to Durant twice over the past two post-seasons, and he created turnovers that led to easy buckets for the Grizzlies on the break, which was huge for a team that struggled to create good looks in the halfcourt all game long

Even though Memphis made up some ground in this one, it still feels like the gap in talent between these two teams is too large. The Grizzlies just have no space offensively, and it’s just something have to accept because Allen, who, despite a decent shooting outing in this game, remains an impotent outside threat, is their only defender that can slow down Durant. I’m sure Conley will rebound after his poor shooting performance in this one, but the Thunder also have the length and athleticism to throw at Conley all game long and there help defenders can be aggressive in digging down on him when he drives, too. If there’s any hope for the Grizzlies in this series, they’ll need Allen to replicate those same results each and every night and hope that Conley and Marc Gasol can work enough magic in the two man game to create any kind of rhythm for their offense.

But right now, I wouldn’t bet on that happening.

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