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Griffin, Clippers Quietly Putting it Back Together

Blake Griffin is scorching since his return and it could mean big things for the Clippers, writes Ben Dowsett.

Ben Dowsett

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The Clippers have been here before, and so has Blake Griffin.

For a team whose top-heavy identity has long been so tied to three big-name stars, the Clips have played a surprising amount without at least one-third of their triumvirate over the last few years. Griffin himself is the most common absence, with a double-digit game absence now on his record in each of the last three seasons. Paul is only on his second extended absence in the last four, but he’s had a string of unlucky incidents in the playoffs. These various maladies have overlapped each other back and forth, with only DeAndre Jordan serving as a beacon of health.

One of those periods of overlap came earlier this season, with the Clippers going 3-7 over 10 games while both Paul and Griffin sat out. With Griffin back, some things are starting to feel similar to recent years – but others aren’t.

Paul’s last extended absence with Griffin healthy came all the way back in 2013-14, when CP3 missed about a month in January and February. Griffin went supernova: 28 points a night on 55 percent shooting, eight boards, nearly five assists and barely half that many turnovers. He shot a third of the Clippers’ free throws every night, and used a percentage of team possessions comparable with the Westbrooks and Hardens of the world. Los Angeles went 12-6 in those eight games.

“The last time Chris went out, Blake was playing,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “He was in rhythm, he was healthy. This time, Blake has not been playing.”

The period of inactivity doesn’t seem to be changing much individually. Griffin has still been very efficient overall, especially considering his long layoff before returning – he’s averaging a rounded 24-9-6 on 51.5 percent shooting, with a pretty similar workload to that stretch a few years ago. He also just won Player of the Week in the Western Conference.

From a team standpoint, the results started mixed and are trending firmly upward. The Clippers are 5-5 in the 10 games Blake’s been back, with an iffy per-possession rating that’s mostly influenced by the front end of that stretch, which contained two games against the Warriors. They’ve also won four straight, including a dominant win in a tough Utah Jazz building Monday night and another blowout Wednesday against the Atlanta Hawks.

“Our guys have not been playing with him, [and] they’re trying to get our rhythm with him,” Rivers said. “It’s a lot different… you can feel our team starting to get it.”

Whether it’s lingering injury effects or still being somewhat rusty, Griffin is sporting those healthy individual numbers despite serious issues (for him) finishing at the rim. This season would be by far the worst of his career for his percentages at the basket, and it’s been even worse during the stretch since he’s returned from injury: Blake is converting just over 56 percent of his shots within five feet, per NBA.com. For comparison, his figures here over the last three full seasons have been 69 percent, 64 percent and 69 percent.

“I’d love to finish better at the rim,” Griffin said. “But it’s encouraging because those are the easy ones.”

He’s doing a lot of the hard stuff well, too, and it’s a tantalizing preview of what could come once his legs are fully back under him in those closer areas. Griffin has long been mastering his midrange game, and he’s lighting nets on fire since returning.

From the longer midrange areas, he’s in LaMarcus Aldridge accuracy during this stretch – his silly 55 percent from between 20 and 24 feet will eventually come back to earth, but perhaps not as heavily as his rim finishing will rise up to it. He’s had issues in the past with the little “in between” floater area between five and nine feet from the hoop, but he’s found his touch there recently as well.

He’s even shooting over 40 percent on more than one three-point attempt a night, though this is another tiny sample that’s likely to regress. Still, it’s all part of the plan.

“Our team dynamic changes a lot with CP out,” Griffin said. “Trying to space the floor right is something I’ve met with Doc about a lot since I’ve been back, finding spots to space the floor, especially when we have certain lineups in there.”

When he’s doing this stuff well, there aren’t many more devastating offensive players in the game. Griffin has long been one of the league’s preeminent passers among guys his size – of 81 6-foot-10 or taller rotation players in the NBA, he trails only Giannis Antetokounmpo, Al Horford and Marc Gasol in potential assists created per game this year, per SportVU data. In this latest stretch since returning, he’d eclipse each of those guys as well.

Some of that feel was another struggle when he first got back, as well. He had eight turnovers in barely 53 minutes in his first two games back, maybe a result of going a bit too fast.

“The first thing you lose, for me, is always my rhythm,” Griffin said. “Just the stupid little turnovers, trying to do too much.

“When you’re more patient, it definitely slows down. Getting out in transition has been big for us, too.”

He sure isn’t kidding on that last bit. The Clippers have mostly been an average team attacking in transition the last few years, including this one – except for this most recent stretch. Since Griffin’s return, only the Warriors and Suns score more per-possession points on the break than the Clippers. LA’s pace has been significantly faster with Griffin on the court during these stretches.

And without his normal running mate in Paul, Griffin has begun forging a different connection.

“Blake and Austin [Rivers] have their little game going,” Doc Rivers said. “I’m not sure what they’re doing, but it’s been really good. They play their own little game now, and they talk about it. I don’t want to know. I really don’t. It’s been really good, and that’s something they didn’t do earlier. And that’s why our first unit now is getting out to good starts.”

Their own thing, indeed. Rivers has passed the ball to Griffin 224 times since Blake’s return, per SportVU figures – he hasn’t passed it to any other teammate even 100 times in that stretch, and hasn’t received it from any teammate more often than Griffin. Blake is shooting an even 50 percent on shots directly following Rivers passes; Rivers is 10-for-17 on threes attempted after a Griffin pass, a nod to how much defensive focus Griffin demands.

“He just draws so much attention, so it’s easy for him,” Rivers said. “They go and double, and we have a lot of shooters and scorers around him. He’s been great at finding us, picking and choosing his spots.”

Despite a negative overall team rating during his return stretch, the Griffin-Rivers duo is outscoring teams at a top-five per possession rate it the league. Rivers is playing one of his strongest stretches of basketball in his career, including an understated defensive improvement that really began last year.

And with Paul’s return finally within shouting distance as the All-Star break hits, the Clippers look to be quietly forming up for what might be one last charge at glory with this core group. Rivers’ strong play will be a real asset for bench units that have been the team’s undoing in previous stretch runs; Griffin’s clear confidence shooting the ball could be huge when it comes time for a hyper-specific playoff matchup.

The Clippers have managed to cede virtually no ground in the standings during their injured stretches, which is a major win. They sat two games ahead of the Jazz for the West’s fourth seed prior to Griffin’s first missed game on December 20; they now sit one game ahead of that same Utah team. Leave it to the always eloquent Jamal Crawford to tell you why.

“He’s flying through the air, he’s blocking shots, he’s getting steals,” Crawford said of Griffin. “He’s getting assists, he’s scoring. He’s just doing everything. There’s a top shelf of NBA players, and he’s on that shelf. Period. No matter who’s on there, he’s on there with them.”

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Daily: Spurs Enter New Territory After Moving Parker To Reserve Role

The San Antonio Spurs are seemingly entering a new phase as Tony Parker has been moved to a reserve role.

James Blancarte

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San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg made a significant change to his rotation earlier this week. On Sunday, January 21 Popovich placed guard Dejounte Murray into the starting lineup in place of Tony Parker. The Spurs went on to lose the game at home to the Indiana Pacers. The result was the same as a losing effort in Friday’s matchup against the Toronto Raptors in Toronto.

The San Antonio Spurs came into the 2017-18 hoping to bounce back from last year’s playoffs where the team suffered injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Parker and eventually lost to the Golden State Warriors. This season started off with the Spurs surviving without Leonard and Parker as the two continued to rehab from lingering injuries. As of now, Leonard is once again taking time off to rehabilitate after playing in nine games while Parker has been able to stay healthy so far. Unfortunately, being healthy enough to play doesn’t make up for the inevitable decline that comes with age and injuries.

On the season, Parker is averaging a career low in minutes (21.6), assists (4.0) and points (8.2), as well as free throws made and attempted per game. His usage rate, player efficiency rating (PER) and shooting percentages are also all at or around career lows. It’s hard to argue against the notion that Parker, at 35 years old with 17 years of pro basketball under his belt, is in the twilight of his impressive career.

Parker has acknowledged his demotion but seems to be handling it like a true professional.

“[Popovich] told me he thought it was time, and I was like, ‘no problem.’ Just like Manu [Ginobili], just like Pau [Gasol], you know that day is going to come,” Parker said recently. .

Before Sunday’s game, Parker had started 1151 of 1164 games played, all with the Spurs of course.

Popovich was asked specifically if the plan was either to start Murray at point guard moving forward or if this switch in the lineup was a part of some kind of injury management program for Parker. Never known for being overly loquacious, Popovich responded with little detail or insight.

“We’ll see,” Popovich stated.

In the starting lineup, Murray logged eight points, four assists, seven rebounds, three steals and one block in nearly 28 minutes of action. Murray had previously started before Parker returned from injury earlier this season but eventually relinquished that spot to career reserve guard Patty Mills.

Parker also spoke of the benefit of coming off the bench and potentially mentoring Murray’s growth in his new presumed role as the starter.

“If Pop [Coach Popovich] sees something that is good for the team, I will try to do my best,” Parker said. “I will support Pop’s decision and I will try to help DJ [Murray] as best as I can and try to be the best I can in the second unit with Manu [Ginobili] and Patty [Mills].”

If nothing else, this move will allow the Spurs to see if Parker can be more effective in limited minutes against opposing bench units. Additionally, Parker will hopefully benefit from playing alongside his longtime running mate, Ginobli.

Parker’s willingness to mentor Murray may come as a relief to Spurs fans watching the ongoing dismantling of San Antonio’s former Big-3, which began with the retirement of future Hall-of-Famer, Tim Duncan. At 6-foot-5, Murray benefits from greater size and athleticism than Parker, although Murray failed to keep the starting job when given an opportunity earlier this season. Coach Popovich gave another straightforward answer when asked which areas he thinks Murray can improve in.

“He’s 21-years-old,” Popovich declared. “He can improve in all areas.”

After asking for a trade in the offseason, the Spurs have benefited from focusing their offense around LaMarcus Aldridge, who is having a bounce-back campaign. However, Leonard is now out indefinitely and the Minnesota Timberwolves have now caught the Spurs in the standings. The pressure is on for this resilient Spurs team, which has again managed to beat the odds despite an injured and aging roster.

Parker became a starter for the Spurs at age 19 and never looked back. Now all eyes are on Murray to see how well he performs in his second stint with the starters at a crucial point in the season.

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Sources: Milwaukee Bucks Fire Coach Jason Kidd

Basketball Insiders

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The Milwaukee Bucks have fired coach Jason Kidd, sources ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

Source: Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 1/22/17

Spencer Davies checks into the DPOY race with his latest list of candidates.

Spencer Davies

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It’s a new year and Basketball Insiders is continuing its Defensive Player of the Year watch with sample sizes widening and new players emerging in the conversation.

There were a couple of names knocked out of the list, but that gives more of a spotlight to those who have really stepped up since our last edition ran on December 29. Without further ado, let’s get into it.

 6. Hassan Whiteside

After missing nearly a month of action with a knee injury, Whiteside has returned with a vengeance. The Miami HEAT were already a good defensive team before he came back, but he’s really bolstered that reputation even further. Since Dec. 26, the 7-foot center has recorded eight multi-block games. In five of those, he had at least four swats, including a six-rejection performance in a win at Milwaukee. Overall in ESPN’s Defensive Real-Plus Minus, Whiteside owns by far the best rating at 4.73. “Agent Block” is back and daring all comers to try him.

5. Anthony Davis

Slowly but surely, the New Orleans Pelicans are creeping away from the bottom of the league in defensive rating. Once ranked in the bottom five a few weeks ago, they’ve shot up to 18th in the league (108.4) rather quickly. While that’s not the most impressive statistic to provide, the obvious reason for their improved standing on that end of the floor is Davis. He’s been an absolute workhorse for Alvin Gentry in the restricted area as an elite rim protector, with a heavy responsibility and a ton of minutes. Without him on the floor, the Pels are allowing 8.9 more points per 100 possessions, which puts Davis in the 96th percentile according to Cleaning The Glass.

4. Josh Richardson

Notice there are two members of the HEAT on this list. It’s because they are on fire right now, no pun intended, so it’s about time they received some love in the conversation for DPOY. Whiteside was addressed first, but if we’re talking about a greater sample size with consistent evidence, Richardson fits the bill. Opponents are attempting over 11 shots per game against him, yet are only making 38.9 percent of those tries. That’s the lowest conversion rate in the league with a minimum of 10 attempts.

Battling injuries a season ago, Richardson has played in all 46 games for Miami this year. While it’s been a team effort, he is the heart and soul of Erik Spoelstra’s defense, taking on the most difficult assignments each game. For that reason, he deserves long overdue recognition on this list.

3. Kevin Durant

This isn’t a case where Durant is slipping because of his performances. He’s only ranked third this time around because of the job others have done outside of him. The Golden State Warriors are still a juggernaut on both sides of the court. He’s still a top-notch individual defender. The numbers don’t suggest otherwise and the eye test certainly confirms it.

In isolation situations, Durant is allowing only 0.53 points per possession, which is second in the NBA to only Tony Snell. When it comes to crunch time, he’s always locking up. In fourth quarters, he is limiting the competition to shooting less than 30 percent—and his defended field goal percentage and field goal percentage discrepancy is the best in the league at -17.2. He’s got as good of a chance as anybody to take home DPOY.

2. Joel Embiid

Everybody loves to focus on the off-court antics and hilarities that come with Embiid, but the man deserves his due when it comes to his reputation in the NBA as a truly dominant big. The Philadelphia 76ers have won seven out of their last eight games and it has started on the defensive end of the floor.

Take the games against Boston, for example. Al Horford is a crucial part of the Celtics offense and has had problems getting going against the 23-year-old. In the 22 minutes per game, he’s been on the floor along with him, Horford has been held to below 30 percent from the field on an average of nine attempts. With Embiid off, he’s converted nearly 73 percent of his tries.

Another matchup you can examine is with Andre Drummond. The two have had their fair share of words with each other, but Embiid’s had the edge one-on-one. Similar to Horford, the Detroit Pistons big man has had a rough time against him. Embiid has limited Drummond to under 38 percent on five attempts per game in an average of over 23 minutes on the floor together. When he’s not playing, Drummond has had close to a 78 percent success rate.

Regarding centers, Embiid ranks second in ESPN’s DRPM and fifth in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. Citing Cleaning The Glass, the Sixers are allowing 10 more points per 100 possessions when he’s sitting, which slots Embiid into the 97th percentile.

He’s altering shots. He’s blocking shots. He’s forcing kick outs. And that’s a big reason why the NBA gave Embiid its Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors. Trust The Process.

1. Paul George

Basketball Insiders was well represented this past Saturday in Cleveland when the Oklahoma City Thunder decimated the Cavaliers in their own building. The focus was on the “OK3” exposing a terrible defense, but the real story in this game was how in-tune and sound George was on both ends of the court. He was sizzling shooting the basketball, but perhaps more defining was shutting down LeBron James on a day that was supposed to belong to him.

Any time 23 got the ball to try and get the Cavs going, George was there. He suffocated him with pressure, forcing James into bad decisions and contested shots. The talk of the day was the 30,000-point mark, but PG-13 had other ideas.

“I was hopeful that it took two games for him to get to that,” George said after the 148-124 win at Quicken Loans Arena. “I actually didn’t know that stat until right before coming into [Saturday]. They told me he needed 25 to go to 30,000. I’ve been a part of a lot of those baskets that he’s had, so that’s an achievement or milestone I didn’t want to be a part of.”

Thunder teammate Steven Adams spoke to his prowess on that end of the floor.

“He’s a really good defender man,” Adams said. “It was like a perfect matchup, honestly. He played LeBron really well in terms of our system and what we want him doing. He did an amazing job there.”

Oklahoma City head coach Billy Donovan is a huge fan as well.

“He really I think puts forth good effort,” Donovan said pre-game. “He’s long, smart. He’s disruptive. He’s got good feet. He’s a physical defender. He’s hard to shoot over. Certainly, with he and Andre [Roberson] on the wings, that’s certainly bolstered our defense.”

That was one performance, but it’s obvious how much George brings to the table as one of the toughest guys to score on in this league. He’s got a league-leading 188 deflections and is tied with Eric Bledsoe at the top of the NBA with 2.2 steals per game.

Recently, the Thunder have allowed 91 points at most in three of their last four games. They are also in the top three allowing just 104.7 points per 100 possessions and George has been a huge part of that.

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