Year one of the Doc Rivers era with the Los Angeles Clippers was in many ways a roller-coaster ride of high points and low points. The arrival of Rivers, and Chris Paul agreeing to a long-term deal with the team, started the season off on a high point. But there were several low points throughout the season as well, including injuries to Paul, J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes and Jamal Crawford. But the lowest point came during the postseason when TMZ released audio tapes of then-Clippers owner Donald Sterling making racist comments during a phone call.
What ensued was a public firestorm that drew attention away from the basketball court. Instead of focusing solely on Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors, the Clippers were considering, even if just briefly, whether they should hold out from playing Game 4 in response to Sterling’s racist rant. Cooler heads prevailed, and before tipoff the Clippers wore their warm up gear inside-out to hide the Clippers logo, showing that they were playing for one another, not Sterling. In addition, team sponsors suspended their support of the team, which led to an unusual Game 5, where typical corporate advertisements, promotions and half-time performances were absent. In addition, many fans wore black as their own form of protest against Sterling. The Clippers eventually advanced past the Warriors, but that was in spite of the inescapable distractions surrounding the team.
The situation played itself out over the summer and now Steve Ballmer is the new owner of the Clippers. With Sterling out and Ballmer in, the Clippers are now focusing their attention where it belongs— on the basketball court.
“We’re going to talk about basketball [this season]. That’s going to be really nice,” Rivers said at Clippers Media Day. “Last year, obviously, it was a strange playoffs when there was very few basketball questions. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a playoff like that, where, I mean I know for three or four games, I don’t think there was one basketball question asked. So it will be nice for all of us that we can focus on just being basketball players, and I can focus on just being a basketball coach.”
To their credit, the Clippers didn’t use the Sterling issue as an excuse when they lost in the second round to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“Honestly, we didn’t use it as a reason why we lost; we lost because Oklahoma beat us,” Rivers said. “We didn’t execute in Games 5 and 6, but the controversy had nothing to do with that, and we wouldn’t allow that to be a reason why we lost, and I think that was good.”
“Looking back, we felt like when we lost, we made mistakes ourselves,” Blake Griffin said. “We felt like it was the small things, and that’s something that Doc talked to us about all during the year. It’s the small things that end up being the big things that make you lose. We can’t sit and dwell on what happened last year in the playoffs. We have to be all about this year and this year we’re going to really harp on the small things and really stay on our teammates, and stay on each other about the mental side, taking care of the little things and letting everything else take care of itself.”
This season, the Clippers bring back a majority of the core from last season’s team, with a few significant free agent additions. With one of the deepest and most talented rosters in the league come championship expectations, but the Clippers have failed to advance past the second round in three consecutive postseason appearances.
When asked whether it’s time to “put up or shut up” after falling short the last few seasons, Rivers said, “Our goal is (to win a championship), with about 10 other teams in the West.”
“Our goal is the same as last year to be honest,” DeAndre Jordan said. “We know what we want to do and so we’re going to go after it.” “We’re looking to just improve this year and move forward, and be a championship basketball club.”
One thing that will help the Clippers this season is familiarity. As previously stated, last season was Rivers’ first with the Clippers, which meant training camp and the start of the season were spent learning completely new offensive and defensive systems.
“It feels different [this season]. It feels better. Obviously I know guys, and that helps,” Rivers said. “I think camp should be better than last year. We had a good camp last year, but this year we’re putting in stuff they already know as opposed to everything being new.”
“I definitely think it will be a more productive training camp in that we sort of know what to expect now,” Paul said. “We know what Doc expects from us. We understand. Even from ourselves, we expect a lot more. For us three (Paul, Griffin and Jordan), this will be our fourth year together, and we’ll just approach camp with a different mentality than last year.”
“I think it’s huge, I think it’s a huge step,” Barnes added. “Last year we had a lot of new guys, and a new staff. I think anytime you keep the core of your team together, a great coaching staff, even though we have new coaches, and we had some major, I think under-appreciated free agent acquisitions this year that are really going to help our team. So, to have your main seven or eight guys back with a few great additions, it’s going to be a huge advantage.”
Another issue for the Clippers last year was health. Paul separated his shoulder, Barnes struggled through several injuries to begin the season, Redick missed significant time with hand, elbow, back and leg injuries, and Crawford missed time with a calf injury. However, the team is reporting that everyone is now healthy and ready to start the season.
“My focus for that first six-to-eight weeks in Austin was getting my body back in shape, and regaining strength in my leg,” Redick said. “The strength in my right leg is healed, so I feel good.”
“I lost 20 pounds this summer, started eating right, yoga, everything I could possibly do to prevent all the [injuries] that happened last year,” said Barnes. “I feel great, as fast as I’ve been, jumping, I feel good. I feel great. I’m 100 percent healthy and 100 percent ready.”
“The calf is good,” Crawford said. “Dealing with a little foot issue, but nothing serious.”
The major hurdles for this team are now gone. Everyone is healthy. The core players have played with each other for several years. They have playoff experience. The team made significant additions in adding Spencer Hawes, Jordan Farmar, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Ekpe Udoh. And, perhaps most importantly, the Sterling scandal and era is over.
When asked about how the organization now operates under Ballmer, Paul simply responded, “We play basketball.” With last season behind them and new ownership in place, Paul and the Clippers can now focus on just that— playing basketball.
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.