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Clippers’ Focus Returns to Basketball

With the Donald Sterling drama behind them, the Clippers can focus their attention on basketball.

Jesse Blancarte

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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.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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NBA PM: Patrick Beverley Set the Tone for Clippers in Season Opener

Patrick Beverley set the tone for the L.A. Clippers with his aggressive defense in their season opener.

Jesse Blancarte

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“The LA Clippers are going to the Western Conference Finals. Guaranteed.”

That bold statement was made by Charles Barkley during TNT’s coverage of last night’s matchup between the Lakers and Clippers.

While Barkley may have had his hot take canon primed and in mid-season form, that should not overshadow the fact that the Los Angeles Clippers put together a strong showing in their first regular season game since the departure of Chris Paul.

Blake Griffin logged 29 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two steals and knocked down three of his six three-point attempts. Griffin was aggressive and showed no hesitation on his jumper, which seemed to open up lanes for him to drive to the basket (where he is most effective). DeAndre Jordan was fantastic as well, contributing 14 points, 24 rebounds, one assist and one steal.

While the Clippers lost some significant contributors from last season, including J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute and Jamal Crawford, the team had some returning and new players show that they are capable of filling the void.

Milos Teodosic was just 2-9 from the field, but knocked down two three-pointers and looked comfortable and effective running the team’s offense. Danilo Gallinarni shot just 3-13 from the field but looked healthy and spry, displaying the kind of mobility that is necessary to play the small forward position. His ability to act as a secondary playmaker wasn’t on full display, but there were moments where it was apparent that he could be a big help in generating open looks for his teammates. Lou Williams also looked good in his Clippers debut, scoring in a variety of ways off the bench and contributing six assists as well. Wesley Johnson continues to look confident and aggressive, a continuation from his preseason performances, and is starting to knock down the open shots his teammates are creating for him (which has been a problem for him in the past).

While the Clippers looked solid in their opening act without Paul, it should be noted that the Lakers are a young team overall and their defense has been a major problem for the last few seasons. While the Lakers have added some promising young talent over the offseason, like most young teams, they are going to struggle to slow down veteran teams with potent offenses. It would be a mistake to think the Clippers can replicate this sort of offensive performance every night, especially against the better defensive teams in the league. However, perhaps the most promising part of the Clippers’ season debut was the fact that they seemed to feed off of and embrace the gritty demeanor and style of play that Patrick Beverley brings to the court each and every night.

Last night’s game was the NBA debut for rookie point guard Lonzo Ball, who many predict will develop into a star player. Unfortunately for Ball, his opening night matchup came against Beverley, who earned a spot on the 2017 All-Defensive First Team. Beverley repeatedly guarded Ball past half court, pushed him around and did everything he could to throw him off of his game. He held Ball to three points, nine rebounds and four assists in 29 minutes of action.

Beverley, like every NBA player, has heard the hype and noise surrounding Ball and his future in the league (most of it from his outspoken father, LaVar).

“I just had to set the tone,” Beverley said. “I told him after the game that due to all the riffraff his dad brings, that he’s going to get a lot of people coming at him. I let him know that after the game. What a better way to start than spending 94 feet guarding him tonight — welcome the young guy to the NBA.”

Beverley is one of the more aggressive defenders in the NBA and is known for trying to get under the skin of his opponents, so Lonzo may not face this level of intensity in every game. But based on Beverley’s comments, it’s clear that he expects other players around the league to defend Lonzo aggressively as well.

Snoop Dogg, the rapper and passionate Lakers fan, summed up the issue for Ball arguably better than anyone else has so far.

“His father put him in the lion’s den with pork chop drawers on,” said Snoop.

For his part, Lonzo complimented Beverley on his aggressive defense.

“[Beverley] plays hard. He knows his job. He does it very well,” said Ball. “He gets under people’s skin and plays defense and does what he can to help his team win.”

Beverley set the tone for the Clippers, who looked crisp and confident throughout the game. Griffin’s three-point shot looks like it could finally be a reliable part of his offensive arsenal. Jordan was very active on the glass, pulling down 24 rebounds (possibly inspired in part by his commitment to donate $100 per rebound this season to help the effort to rebuild his hometown of Houston after the damage inflicted by Hurricane Harvey). The rest of the supporting cast played with the sort of cohesion and confidence that takes at least a few weeks into the season to develop. Again, the Clippers’ performance could have stemmed primarily from the Lakers’ shaky defense, but it was encouraging to see the team play with such force and confidence in the absence of Paul.

The Western Conference is extremely talented and deep, so it’s unlikely that the Clippers will make it to the Western Conference Finals as Barkley predicted. However, challenging for a spot in the playoffs and perhaps even doing some damage once there seems to be in the realm of possibility. This is especially the case considering how much of an impact Beverley had Thursday night, both defensively and in setting the tone for the rest of his new teammates.

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