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NBA Sunday: Chris Paul’s Quiet Motivation

With the past two playoff runs ending in heartbreak, Chris Paul and the Clippers want to rewrite their obituary.

Moke Hamilton

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Everything matters—every step, every turnover, every play and every point.

Chris Paul has known this since the beginning. And on this day, he treated a fateful possession in Game 4 of the 2016 playoffs in Portland in much the same manner. The attitude and motivation are what enabled a routine, meaningless play to have a tremendous impact on the way his career’s narrative, if it all ended now, would be written.

With a packed house of opposing fans, Paul sprinted up the floor, ball in hand. He took a dribble with his right hand, but feeling an unfamiliar pain, alternated dribbles with his left until—as usual—he found J.J. Redick for an in-stride jumper.

Just a few moments prior, with about seven minutes remaining in the second quarter of a six-point game, Paul refused to give up on Gerald Henderson’s drive to the basket. As Henderson slowed for his two-step and gather, Paul—en route to successfully stripping the ball—suffered a broken third metacarpal in his right hand.

For the Clippers, their season ended right then and there.

But of course, a new one has begun. And for Paul and his Los Angeles Clippers, their collective pursuit of greatness, glory and, yes, sweet redemption, continues.

* * * * * *

In the same manner that the cat can be skinned in more than one way, different people can view the exact same scenario and come away with different interpretations.

For a great many, the Clippers are nothing more than a band of losers, led by Paul.

In most arguments, as attorneys are trained to do, certain facts—the ones that help one’s case—are highlighted. Those that don’t are ignored.

Case in point: Paul has never played in a conference finals and has zero championship rings to show for what has been one of the most impressive point guard careers we have ever seen. He was the leader of a Clippers team that was desperate to prove its mettle but—in squandering a 3-1 series lead to the Houston Rockets in the 2015 playoffs—failed embarrassingly, in flaming and dramatic fashion.

Up 3-1, at home, the Clippers famously led James Harden and his Rockets by 19 points late in the third quarter of a close-out Game 5. Yet somehow, for the next 13 quarters of that series, the Rockets badly outplayed team CP3 and pulled off a miraculous upset.

While it is true that Paul has had a few playoff moments wherein he has fallen short, most superstar players have. Nobody—not Kobe Bryant, not Tim Duncan and not LeBron James—has an unblemished record in that regard. The most that the contemporary superstar can hope for is an opportunity to write over the shortcoming.

After being obliterated by the Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals, what would Bryant’s legacy have been had Ron Artest not nailed the biggest three-pointer of his life to help the Lakers defeat the Celtics in 2010?

Similarly, what would LeBron James’ legacy have been had Ray Allen not hit the biggest three-pointer of his life in the waning moments of Game 6 in 2013?

What would his legacy have been had Draymond Green not lost his cool? Or if Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut all had been 100 percent healthy?

Of course, these questions are all rhetorical. There may be thousands of permutations and “what if” questions that can be asked, but only one reality. And the reality is this: to whom much is given, much is required.

Of Paul, we required exactly what we required of James and, before him, Bryant. Like Paul, they each had their fair amount of shortcomings but in each instance, they were able to exorcise the demons that haunted them and their legacies.

At this point, that’s what Paul is playing for.

* * * * * *

DeAndre Jordan learned that although Christmas only comes once per year, sometimes, it does come early. In December 2011, with Blake Griffin and Caron Butler by his side, he learned that the Clippers had acquired Chris Paul from New Orleans.

The duo was so ecstatic, that it took quite a few moments for Jordan to even realize that at least a few of his former teammates would be given up in the deal. Griffin, excited to have Paul joining the club, famously declared the Clippers to be “Lob City.”

Since then, everything has been different. To Paul, much had been given. Accordingly, much has been required. So with the Clippers on his back and with a bevy of basketball talents at his disposal, the critics and the basketball-watching public only cared about what Paul’s acquisition will yield.

Almost isn’t good enough. That’s why, despite winning 56 games with the 2007-08 Pelicans and putting the Spurs on the ropes by taking a 3-2 series lead in the second-round battle, nary a soul remembers that year for Paul. The public only recalls that Paul failed to win the Most Valuable Player Award that went to Kobe Bryant and that his team couldn’t ultimately put the Spurs away.

The critics won’t rightfully criticize Blake Griffin for not watching old tape of the likes of Larry Johnson and Charles Barkley and learning how to effectively use a pivot foot, balance, patience and his hips to create easy, back-to-the-basket scoring opportunities in the paint. They also won’t acknowledge what most people know to be true—that the Clippers would be nothing more than a marginal playoff team without the dynamic point guard. They also won’t acknowledge that he has almost single-handedly transformed two franchises from being mere afterthoughts in the NBA’s hierarchy to ones that had legitimate expectations and hopes for competing for championships.

No, Paul may not be a championship-winner, but he certainly is a contender-maker, and not many NBA players can say that for themselves.

Unfortunately, in our winner-take-all sports culture, we have been taught to undervalue and downplay that.

* * * * * *

With sweaty palms and a racing heart, Kawhi Leonard stepped to the free-throw. Merely 19 seconds away from cradling the Larry O’Brien trophy, here in Miami, Leonard saw his basketball life flash before his very eyes. A two-point lead separated his Spurs from LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. In all likelihood, had Leonard hit his two free-throws, the game and championship would have been clinched.

The normally unflappable Leonard stepped to the line and with a deep sigh and a glossy eyed gaze, missed the first of his two free-throws. Although he made the second, that missed point was the difference between Ray Allen’s fateful three-pointer tying the game or Miami still trailing by a point.

The rest, again, is history.

To a man, the ensuing season, the Spurs admitted that their summers were long. Leonard himself admitted that the missed free-throw kept him up at night while Danny Green said that he still thinks about that Game 6.

Only today, nobody talks about it. Nobody talks about Leonard’s failure just like nobody talks about Kobe quitting on the Lakers in his infamous Game 7 performance against the Phoenix Suns back in 2006 or LeBron laying an egg the size of Dan Gilbert’s wallet in Game 5 against the Boston Celtics back in 2010.

Nobody talks about the shortcomings of those Spurs just like nobody talks about the 12 years that Kevin Garnett spent in Minnesota. His Timberwolves were eliminated in the first round seven consecutive years and managed to advance to the conference finals only once.

Finally, after 13 years, in Boston, Garnett was able to win it all. Along the way, just like Paul, he faced a tremendous amount of criticism. There were many that wondered whether he was truly great, as the farce that the public is routinely sold is that great players, somehow, single-handedly, can “will” their teams to victory.

Nobody talks about the failures because history is written by the victor, and a few moments of glorious triumph can wipe away a lifetime of futile shortcomings. Just ask the Chicago Cubs.

From Kevin Garnett to Kobe Bryant and from LeBron James to Kawhi Leonard, we routinely see great players rewriting the obituaries of their shortcomings.

Titles can help erase the painful memories. Or, at the very least, make them more bearable.

So if you look around at Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers and wonder what’s been motivating them, look no further than that. The wise man knows that tomorrow will bring forth another opportunity. But the wisest man knows something far greater—sometimes, in life, one victory can erase all of the painful memories of failures past.

When Paul walked off the court at Portland’s Moda Center, he was visibly shaken. His eyes welling with water, he took the long, slow, painful walk to the locker room. With a broken spirit and heavy heart, he carried his team’s championship aspirations with him.

Collectively, as the Clippers have begun the season looking like the best team in the Western Conference, with their pain and tremendous shortcoming as their pen, they are attempting to rewrite their narrative.

And if what has transpired over the course of the team’s first weeks of the young season are indicative of what is to transpire in the future, for Doc Rivers, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, their story may be far from over.

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NBA Daily: Tyus Jones Thriving in Bigger Role

Minnesota’s Tyus Jones speaks to David Yapkowitz about his growing role with the Wolves.

David Yapkowitz

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It was the last game of the 2016-17 NBA season. The Minnesota Timberwolves had been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention for quite some time. Their opponent that night, the Houston Rockets, had an impressive year and were on their way to the postseason.

Although the Wolves would go on to lose that game, 123-118, Tyus Jones came off the bench to have to his best game of the year. He would finish with 17 points on 66.7 percent shooting from the field, 75 percent from the three-point line, seven assists, four rebounds, two steals, and a blocked shot.

Jones had just finished up his second year in the NBA, which had gone a little bit just like his first; a few games played here and there followed by some DNP-CD’s. Rookie Kris Dunn was ahead of him on the depth chart at backup point guard for the majority of the year. That stat line he put up on the last night of the season, however, should have been a sign of things to come.

Now in his third year, and second playing under Tom Thibodeau, Jones has firmly seized the backup point guard spot. Thibodeau is notorious for playing short rotations, and along with Jamal Crawford and Gorgui Dieng, Jones has solidified himself as one of Minnesota’s most dependable reserves.

“It’s been good, I’m just trying to contribute to the team as much as possible,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I want to do whatever I need to do to help this team win more games.”

The Timberwolves have done just that so far. They won 31 games all of last season. This year, they already have 16 wins. They didn’t break that mark last season until mid-January. Jones’ impact on the Wolves this year has been a big reason for that.

His stats may not jump off the page; he’s averaging 3.9 points per game on 42.5 percent shooting, and 2.8 assists in about 17 minutes of play. But he’s become a reliable floor leader who is able to anchor the Wolves second unit. He’s also one of their best floor spacers at 38.2 percent from the three-point line, and he’s an improved defensive player.

“For me, having a little bit bigger role this year, it’s what I wanted,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just trying to make the most of it and take advantage of it.”

Jones has definitely taken advantage of his new role. Starting point guard Jeff Teague missed four games last month due to a sore right Achilles tendon. Aaron Brooks started in place of Teague for the first game he missed, but Jones was the starter for the next three.

In his first ever career start on Nov. 26 in a win over the Phoenix Suns, Jones had nine points on 50 percent shooting, four rebounds, seven assists, seven steals, and two blocks. The following game, albeit in a loss to the Washington Wizards, he finished with 12 points, four rebounds, and seven assists. In his final start before Teague returned, a win over the New Orleans Pelicans, he had his best game of the season with 16 points on 66.7 percent shooting, four rebounds, six assists, and four steals.

“It was a dream, I’m just trying to make the most of it,” Jones told Basketball Insiders about being a starter. “Once again, take advantage of the opportunity and just do my role.”

Although Jones only spent one season playing college basketball before entering the NBA draft, it was the program he attended that’s allowed him to make a seamless transition. He played at Duke under Mike Krzyzewski during the 2014-15 season, winning a national championship alongside fellow NBA players Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Quinn Cook.

“It’s the best program in the country. Coach K is the best coach, arguably ever, to coach the game,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “There’s nothing comparable on the college level, playing at Duke. They’re the brightest lights, so that helps prepare you for the next level.”

The Wolves are a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in over a decade. It was the 2003-04 season, to be exact. This year, however, they are hoping to change that. They currently sit in fourth place in the Western Conference, fighting for the right to host a playoff series in the first round.

“We’re trying to make the playoffs, that’s our goal right now,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “Each year, we’re trying to get better. We’re still trying to take that next step. This organization hasn’t been to the playoffs in a number of years.”

With Jones playing a pivotal role, the Wolves’ playoff drought looks like it will be coming to an end very shortly.

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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch — 12/12/17

Dennis Chambers updates the latest MVP watch rankings.

Dennis Chambers

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The NBA season is coming in hot on Christmas Day games, and before we know it the new year will arrive as well. As the second half of the season starts to come into sight, more stability among the league’s MVP candidates will prevail.

By now, most of the frontrunners for the award have staked their claim of consistent dominance over the last eight weeks of the NBA season.

For our list here at Basketball Insiders, the same names make up our ladder from the last MVP race installment. A slight juggling of the order is the only new wrinkle. Thus far, these individuals have put themselves ahead of the pack.

A full season in the NBA is a long race, but through the first few laps, these are the MVP leaders.

stockdown456. Steph Curry (Last Week: 3)

Coming in at No. 3 on the last list, Steph Curry sees a bit of a tumble in the standings. Unfortunately for Curry, he’s suffering from a sprained ankle that is going to cause him to miss some time. Fortunately for the Golden State Warriors, they’ve won three straight games without their star point guard.

This doesn’t discredit the type of season Curry is having, or his brilliance on the court when he’s healthy, but the fact that the Warriors have enough firepower to sustain his absence damages his claim to the most “valuable” player throne.

Nevertheless, for the Warriors to truly fulfill their championship potential, Curry needs to be healthy and playing. Otherwise, the Warriors aren’t as lethal as they could be.

Barring a complete meltdown from his ball club, Curry’s spot will likely continue to drop slightly as he sits on the bench watching his team win games without him.

stockup455. Joel Embiid (Last Week: 6)

Almost the exact opposite of Curry, the Philadelphia 76ers don’t seem to have a prayer at winning basketball games that Joel Embiid sits out of. Luckily for the city of Philadelphia, though, that hasn’t been nearly frequent of an occurrence as past seasons.

The on/off numbers for Embiid are staggering. On both ends of the court, no less. Without their big man, the Sixers’ offensive rating drops off by more than five points and their defensive rating sees a 10-point spike in favor of their opponents.

In short, it’s worse for the Sixers when Embiid is tweeting rather than playing.

After missing back-to-back games over the weekend, Embiid’s value became more apparent to the Sixers. Among a myriad of injuries, Embiid’s was felt the heaviest as his team posted a defensive rating of 111.6 to the Cleveland Cavaliers and then a 130.2 the next night to the New Orleans Pelicans.

Both figures are a far cry from the 102.9 rating the team records with Embiid on the floor.

Much like Curry, the Sixers will need Embiid on the court moving forward to live their best life. So long as he is resting on back-to-backs, or sitting with back soreness, the Sixers won’t be as fortunate as the Warriors to pull out wins.

stockup454. Kyrie Irving (Last Week: 5)

Masked Kyrie joined Untucked Kyrie this season as another alter ego capable of taking the NBA and Twitter by storm on a nightly basis.

Irving, despite suffering an injury to his face that forced him to wear a protective mask a la Rip Hamilton, still has the Boston Celtics atop the league standings with his MVP campaign so far this season. Over Irving’s last 10 games, he’s averaging 25.8 points on 53 percent shooting from the field and 44 percent from beyond the arc. Over the course of that same span, the Celtics are 7-3.

Just to strengthen his already solid MVP claim, the Celtics went into Chicago Monday night to play the Bulls without Irving, as he sat out of the game with a quad contusion. All the league’s best team preceded to do was lose 108-85 to the league’s worst team.

At this point in the season, MVP candidates have their statistics in place. As viewers and fans, we really get to see the difference they make on their teams during the games that they aren’t playing, and Monday night for the Celtics was a microcosm of Irving’s season-long importance to the success of their team.

stockup453. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Last Week: 4)

The Greek Freak is still putting up absurd numbers, keeping him right in the conversation for Most Valuable Player. On top of his gaudy production, the Milwaukee Bucks are starting to pile up some wins as well.

Winning six of their last seven games — the only loss coming to the Celtics where Antetokounmpo put up 40 points, nine rebounds, and four assists — the Bucks currently hold a 15-10 record and the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.

It’s been well-documented up to this point how effective Antetokounmpo is for Milwaukee from a numbers standpoint. If he can really start translating those performances into wins over good teams, the narrative of him winning the award may begin to revert back the dominance it held over the first few weeks of the season.

As it currently stands, though, Antetokounmpo is ahead of the rest of the pack before a pretty sizeable gap at the two spots above him.

stocknochanges452. LeBron James (Last Week: 2)

After having his Cavaliers’ 13-game win streak snapped by an unconscious Victor Oladipo, LeBron James returned to business as usual by defeating the shorthanded Sixers without Kevin Love by his side. He did so in typical Year 15 fashion, posting 30 points, 13 rebounds, 13 assists, and three steals.

No big deal.

That’s the mantra for James’ 15th year in the NBA: Do it all, and do it well. He doesn’t have the supporting cast that many projected coming into this season, and Irving is out doing his thing in Boston. But for the King of the NBA, after a month of rough basketball, he seems to be figuring it all out for his club and putting them in the positions they need to be in to be successful.

Since the start of Cleveland’s winning streak up until the game against Philadelphia, James is averaging 27.5 points, 9.3 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.1 blocks, 55 percent shooting from the field and 44 percent shooting from beyond the arc.

His team is 14-1, Irving is in Boston, and Isaiah Thomas is on the bench.

Year 15 may very well end with James getting MVP number five.

stocknochanges451. James Harden (Last Week: 1)

The only man standing between James and his fifth MVP is the man who’s setting the league on fire trying to get his first.

James Harden is recreating his stellar season from a year ag but improving it, somehow. Harden’s averages are incredible: 32 points, 9.5 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 40 percent from downtown, and a 31.6 player efficiency rating.

Not to mention he’s led the Houston Rockets to a 21-4 record, and looks to be a real threat at knocking off the Golden State Warriors.

What Harden is doing on the defensive end is what is brining his game, and his MVP case, to the next level. Harden is posting his lowest defensive rating is four years and coming up big on D in crunch time situations.

On Monday night against the Pelicans, Harden came up with a clutch steal with under a minute to go (his sixth of the night) to extinguish a New Orleans rally and put the icing on his 26-point, 17-assist performance.

LeBron may be having an MVP season, even by his standards, but Harden’s performance this year thus far is keeping the King at arms length of the MVP crown.

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NBA DAILY: What Is Really Wrong With The Thunder?

The Thunder continue to struggle to string together wins. What’s the problem in OKC?

Steve Kyler

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At Some Point It Just Doesn’t Work

The Oklahoma City Thunder continue to be middling, despite having the star level talent it takes in the NBA to be exceptional. With the clock ticking in the wrong direction, is it more likely that this combination of players won’t work, or is there something bigger at play worth considering?

Before we dive too far into this, keep in mind the Thunder have played their 26th game, and are just a half a game out of the eighth spot in the West. Equally, they are also three and a half games behind the fourth-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves, so the sky is far from falling. In fact, they have won four of their last six games, including wins over the Spurs and Timberwolves, which only makes the Jekyll and Hyde of all of this even more frustrating.

All of that said, what’s really wrong with the Thunder? Here are some thoughts:

Not Enough Touches

The Oklahoma City Thunder are dead last in the NBA in touches per game as a team at 384. To contrast that number, the Philadelphia 76ers lead the league in touches at 480.9 touches per game.

Thunder guard Russell Westbrook accounts for 94.4 touches per game, while forward Carmelo Anthony accounts for 61.3 touches with swingman Paul George bringing in 56.0 touched per game. Those three players account for 211.7 of the Thunders 384 touches per game.

That’s not as bad as you would think watching the Thunder play, but what it does illustrate is that neither Anthony or Paul are getting the volume of touches both are used to getting before joining the Thunder. It’s also why neither seems to be able to get into a rhythm on a game to game bases. They have had their moments individually, but it been far from consistent.

It’s more than fair to say that the Thunder offense isn’t generating enough touches to maximize what George and Anthony bring to the table. When the Miami HEAT brought their “Big Three” together, one of the biggest challenges they faced was how to generate the touches to get all their guys in a rhythm and rolling.

That seems to be the biggest part of the problem with the Thunder.

Russ Has To Be Russ

When you look at the Thunder’s “convincing wins” those wins in which they look like an elite team in the NBA, Russell Westbrook plays like last year’s MVP.

The problem for the Thunder is it seems Russell is trying to get other players, specifically Anthony, often to the detriment of his team and his own game. When Westbrook puts his head down and plays his game, the Thunder tend to come out on top.

Westbrook never seemed to have this problem playing with Kevin Durant, and maybe that’s why Durant opted to leave, but Westbrook seems to be trying too hard to get others going.

Where’d Offense Go?

The Thunder continue to talk about how good they are defensively, and that’s a real thing. They are currently the ranked second in the NBA’s defensive rating category. They rank second in point allowed per 100 possessions at 103, just behind league leader Boston at 101.6 points per 100 possessions.

There is no doubt their defense is keeping them in games, but what’s killing them is the long stretches of sub-par offense, many times in the fourth quarter where their offense comes to a grinding halt.

Some have suggested that head coach Billy Donovan simply isn’t creative enough for the construct of this roster. Looking at the stats this far into the season, there may be something to the idea that the Thunder, offensively, just are not creative enough to maximize the potential of their star players.

It’s Not A Selfish Problem

The easy answer on the Thunder is to say they are simply selfish players. There is enough historical evidence on Anthony and Westbrook to support the idea, however, if you really look at the Thunders’ games, it’s actually the opposite. Westbrook likely isn’t selfish enough; it’s likely why he’s struggling from the field on the season.

Part of the offensive problem may be Westbrook’s shooting. His averages this season is markedly down from a year ago—39.6 percent this season from the field versus 42.5 percent last season. Westbrook is also 31.1 percent from three this year versus 34.3 percent from three last season.

But Westbrook is not alone, George is tying his second worst season from the field at 41.8 percent shooting. Anthony is having his worst year as a pro from the field at 40.4 percent.

All three are producing some of their lowest efficiency ratings of their careers, so it’s not just one guy doing so much more than the other. None of them are playing particularly well together.

It’s easy to look at the Thunder and label them one thing or the other; there are enough polarizing personalities on the roster to draw the labels. The truth of the matter is the Thunder just are not very good or efficient offensively, and until they find a way to make that part work, they will likely continue to be middling.

That’s going to make things fairly tough on the Thunder front office, because come the February 9th NBA Trade Deadline, the Thunder may have to cut bait on some players before they potentially lose them in free agency for nothing. The trade deadline is only about 60 days away, believe it or not.

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