His solid grey crew neck sweater appeared to be choking the life out of him. His eyes appeared to glisten as brightly as the gold chains dangling from his neck.
And to everyone who had their eyes on Chris Paul, the most appropriate word to describe both he and his Los Angeles Clippers was “stunned.”
For just the ninth time in NBA history, a team had successfully dug themselves out of a 3-1 playoff series deficit to come back and win it, and this time, the Clippers just so happened to be on the wrong end. In these trying times and in these moments, a basketball team either finds itself or falls victim to its own mental weakness.
“So close? I don’t even know what that means anymore,” Paul said in the aftermath of the Game 7 loss back on May 17.
“If you’re not first, you’re last,” he said. “Being close ain’t good enough.”
And as he sat there, stunned, detached and seemingly with no answers and even less words, Paul publicly admitted what I had already known was one of the motivating factors for him through all of last season.
“I’m getting old, too, to tell you the truth,” Paul said.
During the first round battle with the San Antonio Spurs, Paul admitted to being nervous to the point where he had trouble sleeping. Yes, Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich kept him awake at night, but James Harden and Dwight Howard have been giving him nightmares.
One year from now, I wonder what we will be saying.
* * * * *
Although not to the extent of either Kobe Bryant or Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul has emerged as one of the more polarizing figures in the National Basketball Association. There are those, like me, that believe that Paul is one of the most talented point guards in the game’s history. I have made the argument that if Paul had found himself playing with a player the caliber of an in-prime Kevin Garnett or even the aforementioned Anthony, he may have already won a championship or two. That class of Paul supporter–of which I am one–would tell you that Paul’s talent and drive, even without hardware, is enough to give him a unique place in basketball history.
Others, however, feel differently. There is a healthy and growing segment of the population that look at Paul, the dearth of his success, and his failures and judge him in the same manner they judge the likes of Kevin Love.
How can you consider this man to be one of the greatest when you consider the lack of accolades and accomplishments on his personal résumé?
And the truth is, that is a magnificent question.
Heading into the 2015 NBA Playoffs, before Paul publicly admitted it, I wrote about him and his fears. Paul never has and never will play the game to get a participation trophy. Since he entered the league from Wake Forest University back in 2005, he has worked tirelessly not in pursuit of riches, flashing lights, branding opportunities or status. No, Paul has worked to elevate the likes of Morris Peterson, Bonzi Wells, David West, Emeka Okafor, Jamal Crawford, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and now, Josh Smith.
Still, whatever side of the Paul equation you are on, one thing we all agreed on was that he needed to find a way to defeat the Spurs. Thanks in part to the officials swallowing their whistles on the final possession of the Clippers’ thrilling Game 7 victory over the Spurs, Paul did just that.
But alas, the crashing and burning of his team’s title hopes after squandering a 3-1 series lead has not only opened a fresh wound, it has also given Paul and his detractors something more to think about as he begins yet another journey alongside the likes of Doc Rivers and what seems to be an ever-changing cast of running mates.
* * * * *
Doc Rivers sat at the podium. He was humbled. And as he shrugged his shoulders and searched for answers, he couldn’t hide his disappointment. As the first head coach to yield a 3-1 series lead on two different occasions, Doc felt that “it” was on him. And secretly, Doc knew that if DeAndre Jordan left the Clippers for Dallas, that there was no way his team would ever recover. Rivers felt that they were on the brink of breaking through, which is why, without hesitation, he immediately did all that he could do to reenlist the services of Jordan.
He swallowed his pride, broke unwritten rules and has become the ire of quite a few around the NBA, but like Paul, Doc’s only concern is leading this Clipper team to the promised land. As much as wanting to prove to the world that his leading the Boston Celtics to the 2008 NBA Championship wasn’t the result of him being handed a ready-made team, Rivers wants to prove himself to reward the loyalty of Paul. After all, it was Paul who led the charge against Vinny Del Negro and advocated for the hiring of Rivers.
Now, here they stand, side-by-side, fighting for each other. The only question they now must face is whether or not it will all ultimately go down as being in vain.
“I thought this series was over in Game 5,” Rivers said back on May 17. “I thought [the Rockets] were ready to go home if we supplied the pressure and we didn’t,” he admitted.
“Obviously, what happened in Game 6, I’ll think about for a long time, and so will our players.”
Indeed, the memories of that playoff series will stay with the Clippers the same way that the memories of Ray Allen’s fateful three-pointer in the waning seconds of Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals will always stick with Gregg Popovich. The memories will stick the same way that Kawhi Leonard thinks about the free-throw that he missed that would have made all of the difference in the game.
And that’s the thing–memories never go away. Memories are never replaced. In the NBA, when you are haunted by a collapse or a shortcoming, it never stops hurting. The most you can hope for is somewhat alleviating the pain by avenging the shortcoming and exorcising the demons.
Indeed, coming up short in a huge moment is when an NBA player and coach are at their lowest moment. The best one can do is hope to have an opportunity for vengeance. And of all things, retribution feels best. This powerful image taken immediately after the Spurs defeated the HEAT in Game 5 of the 2014 NBA Finals says it all.
So as the 2015-16 season sets to tip off, you can rest assured that the Clippers, deep down inside, are hoping to have a shot at the Houston Rockets.
And next time–smarter, wiser, and much more talented–the Clippers should deliver a different result.
* * * * *
After a productive offseason that was highlighted by the re-signing of DeAndre Jordan, the additions of Paul Pierce, Lance Stephenson, Josh Smith and Pablo Prigioni have easily made the 2015-16 version of the Clippers the most talented team the franchise has ever assembled. Pierce, a former NBA champion and a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, still has plenty left in the tank. Over the course of last season’s playoffs, he would have certainly made a difference for the ball club, the same way he did for the Washington Wizards.
In Stephenson, Rivers has acquired a talented knucklehead who he will try to reach the same way he was able to reach the likes of Tony Allen and Rajon Rondo in Boston. Stephenson gives the Clippers a dynamic wing player who can create plays off the dribble and has a versatile scoring ability. And in Josh Smith, Rivers now has at his disposal one of the best front court defenders in the entire league. Though he has not done much for us lately, Smith is still regarded as a very talented two-way player and, with an astute offensive IQ, exquisite timing and explosive athleticism, he will fit right in with Paul.
Prigioni is a pesky and determined on-ball defender who takes excellent care of the basketball and has never met a pass that he does not like. At the very least, he will provide Rivers with an experienced hand to run his offense and someone who will excel at finding Stephenson, Jamal Crawford and J.J. Reddick off of curls and screens.
Back in May, when Paul sat on the podium and thought about all that went wrong, he probably wondered whether and at what point Rivers would begin to believe that his team had plateaued. Deep down inside, he was probably concerned that Jordan would take his talents elsewhere and that his Clippers–at least in their current iteration–had just had their last dance.
Yet, less than six months later, the Clippers are restocked and reloaded. Paul, still in search of his basketball immorality has the best opportunity of his career to fulfill what many of us feel is his destiny. And from here, what we will witness, is the Clippers either taking a brick-by-brick approach and rising up to eventually emerge as champions, or Paul eventually going down in history as the second coming of Patrick Ewing. Of all superstars to never lead his team to a championship, it is Ewing who is afforded the least amount of respect.
One day, Paul may join that conversation, but for now, the fight continues.
And as I look back to May 17, the day he admitted to the world that his time is running out, Paul knows that there is still sand left in the hourglass.
Come the end of the 2015-16 season, together, he and Rivers hope that sweet retribution will have been theirs.
NBA AM: Don’t Count Out Cole Anthony, He’ll Prove You Wrong
Dylan Thayer discusses Cole Anthony’s long road to the Orlando Magic starting lineup and what the future may hold for the talented guard.
Needless to say, Cole Anthony has been one of the top rookies from the class of 2020 thus far. In the years leading up to the NBA Draft, Anthony – the son of long-time veteran Greg Anthony – had been one of the class’s most prized players, with most experts mocking him in the top five. But the first losing season of University of North Carolina head coach Roy Williams’ career led to scouts turning away from Anthony as a top recruit. The buzz was that ego and attitude problems would stop him from being a safe lottery pick.
Coming out of high school, Anthony was the second highest-ranked prospect in the ESPN Top 100 for 2019. The Oak Hill squad Anthony led went 23-5 with him on the court, making the national semifinal against fellow recent draftee Isaiah Stewart. Anthony put on a show in his senior year averaging 18.0 points per game, 9.8 rebounds per game and 9.5 assists per game, per Oak Hill Hoops. In April of 2019, he committed to the University of North Carolina Tarheels over other top NCAA basketball programs.
The 2019-20 NCAA season was a very rocky one for the Tarheels, to say the least. The team finished 14-19 and had their first losing season since 2001-02. Injuries hampered the team throughout the year and the lack of consistency within the team’s lineup did not lead to the best product possible. Anthony had his own right knee injury that caused him to miss time during the season, and he later revealed that he only played about five games at 100 percent, per Sports Illustrated.
But after an underwhelming tenure at UNC, the biggest thing that sticks out is how Anthony matured and reacted to it. In an interview with the front office, Anthony spoke highly of his teammates:
“At the end of the day, we really didn’t get much time to play together as a whole unit,” Anthony said. “But those are my brothers.”
One of the biggest knocks on Anthony’s game coming into the NBA was that teams feared he would not have a good effect on the locker room, but where did that stem from? For starters, UNC’s record – and the fact that Anthony was supposed to be the star – lead outsiders to place the blame on him due to their collective failures. In an article for The Athletic, opposing coaches did not speak very highly of Anthony’s skillset. In fact, they said his shot was very inefficient, his defense was not consistent, his dribbling was not strong enough and, worst of all, he would just be another player that inefficiently scores points for a bad team. Leading up to draft night, Anthony’s stock had definitely taken a hit – but he managed to go No. 15 overall, the first non-lottery pick of the night.
Without a doubt, so far this season, Anthony has been a steal for the Orlando Magic. Originally, he was in charge of running the team’s second unit, but once starter Markelle Fultz suffered a season-ending injury, Anthony was handed the keys to the point guard position. Losing Fultz was a big blow to the Magic’s season, but Anthony is a very good replacement for him as their high motor play styles are similar.
Anthony has not been the most consistent or efficient player as of yet, but he has shown plenty of promise throughout the early part of his rookie season. Additionally, an insanely short offseason means there are still major adjustments that these young guys must make at the NBA level. On Monday night against the Charlotte Hornets, Anthony had his best game of the season by putting up 21 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists over 31 minutes.
Already, the scorer has cashed in on 15-plus points in five games so far. Even better, Anthony is averaging 11.0 points per game, 4.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game while ranking in the top five among rookies in those respective statistical categories.
Still, the downside to Anthony’s play is definitely how inconsistent he has been on a game-to-game basis. On the season, he is shooting a meager 36.9 percent from the field, placing him sixth-to-last in that category, per NBA Advanced Stats. Surprisingly enough, he has shot the ball at a better clip than No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards. His three-point percentage is just under 34 percent and he has shot the ball at a very good level from the free-throw line at 84.6 percent. Regardless, there’s plenty of room to improve.
But with the guidance of Anthony’s talented hands – including a shocking buzzer-beating game-winner already – the Magic find themselves in ninth place in the Eastern Conference. The Magic have been a familiar face in the lower half in the conference’s playoff bracket over the past few seasons, but Anthony is hoping to aim higher than ever. With the lead guard duties belonging to the blossoming rookie, he needs to step up and perform in big moments if this team wants to go anywhere this season, a ton of that responsibility will fall upon Anthony’s shoulders – fair or not.
From what Anthony has shown throughout his career, however, betting against him would not be a very wise decision.
ICYMI: Atlantic Division
To kick off our new “ICYMI” series, Basketball Insiders’ Ariel Pacheco breaks down what you might have missed from the Atlantic Division this season.
Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re introducing a new series called “ICYMI” where we’ll fill you in on some of the NBA’s biggest storylines that you may have missed, division by division. Today, we’ll focus on the Atlantic Division.
So far, the Atlantic has been arguably the most competitive division in the league. If the playoffs started today, all five teams in the division would at least make the play-in game. But what’s gotten those teams to that point? Who or what might have flown under the radar? Let’s take a look.
Chris Boucher: Sixth Man Of The Year Candidate
After a cold start to the season, the Toronto Raptors have started to figure it out, winning 5 of their last 7 games. And a huge part of that success has been due to the rise of Chris Boucher.
In just 23.7 minutes per game, he is averaging 14.3 points, 6.6 rebounds to go along with 2.2 blocks per game. He’s also shown touch from beyond the arc, shooting 45.3% from three-point range on almost four attempts a game. On the year, Boucher also has 4 double-doubles.
Boucher has provided a much-needed spark for the Raptors. In fact, while Nick Nurse has been reluctant to do so, many have been clamoring for Boucher to start. Still, as a starter or off the bench, Boucher has done more than enough to mask the loss of both Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. And doing so has placed him squarely in the middle of the Sixth Man of the Year conversation.
Is Immanuel Quickley the Knicks Point Guard Of The Future and Present?
The Knicks entered the season with a conundrum at the point guard position. Former Lottery picks Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina have both disappointed while Elfrid Payton, a proven but flawed NBA rotation player, has only exacerbated the team’s issues, especially their need for spacing.
Enter Immanuel Quickley, a rookie out of Kentucky that has not only shown the ability to shoot, but also defend and facilitate at a high level and has developed a floater game that has become his signature.
There’s no question that Quickley is currently the best point guard on the Knicks’ roster. While his 11 points and 2.6 assists per game might undersell his play, lineups with RJ Barrett, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson that feature Quickley have outscored opponents by 20 points, albeit in just 30 total minutes. That same lineup with Payton in Quickley’s place have been outscored by 6 points in 371 minutes. Quickley is simply a better fit.
While the Knicks point guard situation in the last decade has been lousy, the Knicks may not have only found their point guard of the future, but of the present as well.
Doc Rivers, the Tobias Harris Whisperer
After a disappointing year, Tobias Harris is in the midst of a bounce-back season. This should come as no surprise, however, with Doc Rivers now at the helm. Harris played some of the best basketball of his career as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers with Rivers as his head coach. Now, reunited in Philadelphia, Harris’ play has surged once again.
Harris has been an uber-efficient scoring option for the first place 76ers, averaging 19.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game on a 61.5 true shooting percentage. Rivers, meanwhile, has done an excellent job of putting Harris in the best position to succeed. With Brett Brown, Harris was used more as a floor-spacer and spot-up shooter, something that Harris is certainly capable of — he’s shot 45.8 percent from three-point range this season — but doesn’t exactly suit his game. But, under Rivers, Harris has attacked the basket and has been far more decisive with the ball in his hands. It also helps when Harris is shooting a scorching-hot 45.8 percent from three-point range.
Where other coaches have faltered, Rivers has seemingly unlocked Harris’ ultimate ability and, with the type of player he has shown himself to be, Harris might just be enough to push Philadelphia to a title. He’s certainly got them in the conversation.
Jeff Green’s Role in Brooklyn
The Brooklyn Nets’ trade for James Harden hurt their defense and their depth significantly. They’re betting on sheer star power and their new powerhouse offense to get them far in the playoffs.
They will need role-players to step up and knock down shots, however. Jeff Green has done just that.
Shooting 48.2 percent from three, Green has been playing a bunch of his minutes at center. And, with how the roster is currently constructed, the team may rely on him to play that spot throughout the season. Green, of course, is no stranger to the situation, having played the very same role with the Houston Rockets last season.
Since the Harden trade, he’s averaging 33 minutes per game. Green has also scored in double figures off the bench in 7 straight games. He’ll continue to play a major role for the Nets as the season goes and, if he can continue to perform at this level, Brooklyn will have someone in the rotation beyond the big-three that they can trust.
Be sure to check back throughout the week as we break down what you may have missed from the other divisions.
NBA Daily: Khris Middleton Should Be The Bucks’ Closer
Bobby Krivitsky breaks down Khirs Middleton’s season and explains how the Milwaukee Bucks second star has earned more opportunities in crunch time.
For the Milwaukee Bucks, being one of the NBA’s best regular-season teams doesn’t mean much. In each of the last two seasons, the players and their fans have enjoyed this movie’s rising action but, as winning the title is the ultimate goal, left the theatre disappointed.
In order to get that satisfying conclusion, Milwaukee must make some changes. And, to start the 2020-21 season, they’ve tried to do just that. As expected, Mike Budenholzer is more flexible in his approach this season than in year’s past. They’ve reshaped their five-out offense, which now features someone, often Giannis Antetokounmpo, occupying the dunker spot. Those are the two areas just outside the paint along the baseline, where a player can catch the ball, take one or two steps, and dunk.
The Bucks are also pursuing their missed shots far more aggressively than they used to; two seasons ago, Budenholzer’s first at the helm, Milwaukee ranked 26th in offensive rebounding percentage, last year, they ranked 28th. But, through the first 16 games of this season, they’re snatching up 29.2 percent of their misses, good for the sixth-highest percentage league-wide.
Another meaningful difference, arguably the most meaningful, is how the team has allowed Khris Middleton to initiate the offense far more frequently at the end of games. In the final three minutes of games within five points, Middleton’s usage rate has spiked from 30.1 percent in 2019-20 to 40 percent this season.
Once again, Middleton has put together a fantastic season that’s receiving little fanfare. After he averaged a career-high 20.9 points per game last season, he’s improved to 21.8 points through the Bucks’ first 16 games. Middleton is also taking 5.9 three-point attempts per game (knocking them down at a 42.6 percent clip, the second-best mark of his career) and has increased the amount of two-point field goals he’s attempting to 9.8 per contest, making 58 percent of them.
That combination has produced an effective field goal percentage of 60.2 percent. Additionally, Middleton has shot 92 percent from the foul line on an average of 3.1 free-throw attempts per game, giving him a true-shooting percentage of 63.7 percent. Those shooting percentages mean Middleton has a legitimate chance to join the 50-40-90 club; only eight NBA players have accomplished that feat. Middleton’s also gone from averaging 4.3 assists per game the last two years to dishing out 5.8 dimes this season and has grabbed 6.3 rebounds per game.
Add it all up and you have a two-time All-Star that ranks fourth in the NBA in offensive win shares, fifth in total win shares and has delivered a compelling opening statement as to why he should make an All-NBA team for the first time in his career.
While it may not seem so noteworthy that one of the best wings in the NBA is off to a hot start, the way Middleton has responded to shouldering more responsibility in crunch time should serve as an ingredient to the elixir that can cure the postseason issues that have plagued them in recent seasons. Out of every player that has made more than one appearance in crunch time, which is defined as the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime of a game within five points, the sharpshooting Middleton is eighth in points per game. He’s also yet to turn the ball over in that span.
As the pressure mounts and the clock counts down, Middleton’s approach doesn’t change from how he’s played the game’s previous 43 minutes. Whether he’s attacking off a screen from Antetokounmpo or Brook Lopez, shooting off the catch, or using a jab step to create the necessary space for him to rise and fire, Middleton knocks down his shots with the same ruthless efficiency.
That said, he could stand to be a bit more assertive in the game’s waning moments. Yes, his usage rate has jumped in the fourth quarter, but there have been instances where Middleton has taken a backseat; in Milwaukee’s recent 112-109 win over the Dallas Mavericks, Middleton managed just two shots in the entire fourth quarter, back-to-back threes that turned a two-point deficit into a four-point lead the Bucks never relinquished.
Of course, there’s a balancing act that Budenholzer must work out between Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Late in the game, Budenholzer can’t simply take the ball away from Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP, and Holiday, a fantastic player in his own right, needs opportunities to have an impact.
But Middleton has done more than enough to show he’s deserving of even more opportunities than what he’s taken for himself this season. And, if the Bucks want to win a title in the near future, it may be in their best interest if Middleton’s the player primarily in charge of initiating their late-game offense.