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Luc Mbah a Moute Key For Clippers’ Defense

Luc Muc Mbah a Moute has been key for the Clippers on both ends of the court this season.

Jesse Blancarte

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Throughout his college and NBA career, Luc Mbah a Moute has mostly flown under the radar. Over his three seasons at UCLA, Mbah a Moute played alongside notable players like Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Arron Afflalo, Darren Collison and Jordan Farmar. Now with the Los Angeles Clippers, Mbah a Moute is the small forward on a starting lineup that has been one of the most efficient offensive units in the NBA over the last few seasons.

The starting small forward position has been an issue for the Clippers in recent years, but Mbah a Moute stepped in last season and has done a good job of fortifying the position ever since. He has received credit for being the team’s defensive stopper, but don’t assume that he has made some major leap forward this year on that end of the court despite the team’s impressive defensive play. The understated forward confidently asserts that he has always been a top-notch defensive player; the only difference now is people are recognizing it more often since he is playing for the team with the best record in the league.

“It’s not taking another step forward. I’ve always been doing this,” Mbah a Moute told Basketball Insiders when asked how his defense has seemingly improved in his ninth NBA season. “I think with the success of the team so far, it’s obviously showing more. But ever since I’ve been in the league, I’ve always been guarding the other team’s best player. I’m doing the same thing here.”

Mbah a Moute is right to be unwaveringly confident in his past and present defensive prowess. Anyone who has paid attention to his game over the years knows that he is one of the more versatile defenders in the NBA. Mbah a Moute’s defensive impact has been on full display early this season as he has matched up against athletic wings like Andrew Wiggins, high-scoring forwards like Rudy Gay and explosive point guards like Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard.

In this play, Mbah a Moute fights over a pretty decent screen from Karl-Anthony Towns and stays on Wiggins’ hip as he curls off of the screen. Too often the average defender won’t fight over the screen, which would have forced DeAndre Jordan to jump out and contest Wiggins’ jumper, which would have created a clear path to the basket for Towns. Instead, Mbah a Moute sticks to Wiggins and times this perfectly, putting him in position to block Wiggins’ jumper.

Having Mbah a Moute is a big bonus for the Clippers since no one else on the roster is particularly well-equipped to match up on athletic wings like Wiggins. Wesley Johnson has the size and build to do so, but too often he misses rotations or fails to stay close enough to his opponents to adequately contest their shots. That isn’t the case with Mbah a Moute.

Rudy Gay has been playing well this season, which is why Doc Rivers would want Mbah a Moute covering him as often as possible. In their matchup on Friday night, Mbah a Moute repeatedly hounded Gay and helped the Clippers hold him to just three made field goals on 11 attempts.

In this play, Mbah a Moute again fights over a screen and sticks with his opponent. He fights to stay close to Gay, which puts him in a good position to contest his fall-away jumper.

Mbah a Moute has even checked some of the most explosive point guards in the league this season, which preserves Paul and allows him to focus on leading the team on offense. Opposing point guards like Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard have struggled against the Clippers since Mbah a Moute joined the team last season and that trend has continued this season.

Here, we see Mbah a Moute’s ability to stay in front of a point guard as quick as Lillard, as well as his ability to effectively swat at the ball with his long wingspan. This used to be Paul’s job on a nightly basis, but now he can focus on less explosive wings while Mbah a Moute draws the Clippers’ toughest assignments.

Mbah a Moute isn’t the most athletic forward in the league, but his footwork is disciplined and he uses his body effectively to wall off opponents without fouling, which can be frustrating for point guards who are used to blowing by opponents with relative ease.

Guarding athletic wings, high-scoring forwards and point guards in isolation isn’t all Mbah a Moute is capable of. Coach Rivers is asking Blake Griffin and Mbah a Moute to switch a lot on picks, utilizing Griffin’s above average lateral movement and Mbah a Moute’s ability to check power forwards and even centers.

“I don’t know, I cannot [speak for anyone but] me,” Mbah a Moute said when asked how he manages to guard all five positions. “But for me especially, I just try to do as much as I can. I’ve done it before, I’ve guarded from one to five. I try to kind of rely on my teammates to help me out, but I try to prepare myself, whether it’s through film or whatever, to be in a position to succeed defensively.”

The ability to switch with Griffin on defense has added a new element to the Clippers’ defense that was missing for large chunks of last season. Griffin has improved significantly on defense this season and has partnered up with Mbah a Moute to stifle opposing wings and big men.

In this clip, Griffin switches off of Gorgui Dieng to defend Wiggins. Wiggins can’t take advantage of Griffin, so the ball swings back to Dieng in the post, who tries to take advantage of his height and size advantage over Mbah a Moute. However, Mbah a Moute uses proper footwork and positioning to both swat at the ball and remain directly in between Dieng and the basket, which leads to a turnover.

While Mbah a Moute insists his defense hasn’t necessarily taken a significant step forward this season, it still seems as though something has changed for the Clippers. Mbah a Moute points to two things to explain the team’s improved play – continuity and the return of Griffin from injury.

“I mean, we didn’t play a lot together last year,” Mbah a Moute told Basketball Insiders. “We started playing and then Blake got hurt, so it was a different team. So I feel like this year, the fact that we’ve played more and just me finding ways to be efficient on the team with those guys, that’s it.”

In addition to playing lockdown defense, Mbah a Moute looks more comfortable this season on offense as well. Sure, Mbah a Moute is only averaging 5.8 points per game, but on a team that features several explosive players, Mbah a Moute doesn’t need to score in double-digits to help the team on offense.

Mbah a Moute is shooting 35.3 percent from three-point range this season, which is good enough to keep defenders at least somewhat honest. More importantly, Mbah a Moute is making timely cuts when defenses are locked in on guys like Paul and Griffin, which has led to easy baskets at the rim.

In this clip, Mbah a Moute and J.J. Redick set two screens for Griffin under the basket to get him an isolation post up near the rim. In the confusion, Matt Barnes loses track of Mbah a Moute. Mbah a Moute notices that Barnes is in no man’s land and dives to the basket, where Griffin finds him for the open layup.

Here, the Kings again forget all about Mbah a Moute, which he recognizes. He makes an easy curl into the lane and is rewarded with another easy layup.

Additionally, Mbah a Moute is simply being more aggressive with the ball in his hands. Several times this season, Mbah a Moute has noticed small cracks in the defense that he can attack off the dribble, which he is exploiting more consistently.

Karl-Anthony Towns is one of the most mobile centers in the NBA, but on this play, Mbah a Moute waits for Towns to overcommit before attacking him off the dribble. Towns takes a small step forward, which Mbah a Moute exploits in aggressively attacking the rim. Towns does as well as can be reasonably expected to contest the shot, but Mbah a Moute doesn’t hesitate and ends up with the bucket.

The Clippers’ offense has been trending up in recent games and part of that is due to Mbah a Moute knocking down the occasional three-pointer, cutting for open layups against inattentive defenses and opportunistically and aggressively attacking defenders off the dribble. Mbah a Moute will never be able to space the court the way someone like Klay Thompson can, but his movement and intelligence on offense should force defenses to remain honest when guarding him. Failing to do so will result in easy buckets like the ones we see in the clips above.

If the Clippers are going to break through this season and advance past the second-round of the playoffs, it will likely be based on their defensive improvements. The team has started to slip over the last two games, but Mbah a Moute is confident that not only can they get back on track, but can play even better defensively than they had over the first 10 games of the season.

“Yeah, definitely. We still make a lot of mistakes defensively,” Mbah a Moute told Basketball Insiders when asked if the Clippers’ defense still has room to improve. “We want to go out there and play the perfect game. I know it’s impossible, but we want to get as close as possible. I think if you’re consistent on defense for as close to 48 minutes as possible at a high level, that would be great. If we can do that for one, two, three, four, five games … but we’re far from there.”

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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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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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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