Los Angeles Clippers: Kevin Durant
While most NBA players aspire to start, Crawford, in his 13th season in the league, realizes his value to a championship contender is as a scoring punch off the bench, and it’s a role he looks forward to returning to as soon as the injured J.J. Redick is ready to return.
“I can’t wait until he comes back because I get a chance to go back to the bench,” Crawford said. “We’ll hold down the fort until he gets back and healthy, until then we’ll get as many wins as possible.”
Redick is currently out with a bulging disk in his lower back and his absence has created a domino effect that effects the starting unit and the second team. Not only must Crawford start in place of Redick but Clippers coach Doc Rivers likes playing Redick with Jared Dudley in the starting lineup so with Redick out, Matt Barnes has also moved up into the starting lineup.
The combination of Crawford and Barnes is what made the Clippers’ second unit so potent earlier in the season and is a big reason that group is struggling right now. On Sunday against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Crawford and Barnes combined for 33 points while the Clippers’ second unit scored just 9 points and has been outscored 115-36 in the last three games.
“Our team is built for me to come off the bench and be that guy off the bench,” Crawford said. “Right now we’re a little undermanned and our second unit is struggling because of it.”
Crawford is arguably the favorite to win the Sixth Man of the Year award (and should win as long as he doesn’t start more games than he comes off the bench). He is still one of the most respected scorers in the league and one of only four players, along with Wilt Chamberlain, Moses Malone and Bernard King to score 50 or more points with three different teams.
“When Jamal Crawford is coming across the court shooting it with confidence,” Kevin Durant said. “You are going to see the ball go in the rim.”
Crawford and Barnes were particularly potent from long range on Sunday as they combined to go 11-of-18 shooting from behind the arc, including a combined 9-of-13 on guarded 3-point attempts. Both players entered the game shooting 33.5 percent on all 3-point attempts.
“It’s important for us,” Rivers said of the long ball on Sunday. “It’s a part of our game that hasn’t really come through a lot this year but it did tonight. We stretched the floor pretty well. It’s funny we’ve been trying to get Matt to run to the corners all year and now he’s doing it and that’s a good shot for him and we can get it in transition and when he does run there that’s why [DeAndre Jordan] gets the dunks because the guards have to make choice to take D.J. or leave the guy in the corner.”
No one took the recently passed trading deadline harder or more personally than Barnes. He was rumored to be involved in a variety of deals and fully expected to be dealt by Thursday.
Barnes, who signed a 3-year, $12 million deal in the offseason, says he’s playing more freely now than he did before, not because he no longer has to worry about being traded but because he thinks this could be his last season in Los Angeles and doesn’t want to hold anything back if it is.
“Since the trade deadline I think I know my days are numbered here,” Barnes said. “So, I’m going to out there and have fun and play as a hard as I can and help the team in any way. I think I was thinking too much and trying to read into trades and this and that.”
Chris Paul pushed the Clippers to sign Barnes to a minimum deal when no one was looking at him before last season and they both talked about re-signing in the offseason as their children became fast friends. Player movement is part of life in the NBA but Barnes wasn’t the only one on his phone checking to see if he was traded on that charter flight. Every other player was too. When Barnes thought he might have been traded, it was Blake Griffin who was on his phone next to him telling him that nothing was official yet.
“Trades and stuff that’s the business of basketball, but the good thing is our team, we talk, we talk a lot more than we used to in the past,” Paul said. “We try not to leave anything unsaid . . . If we’re going to win this thing, this is who we’re going to win it with. Nobody’s going anywhere. We’re going to each other.”
It’s no surprise that the Clippers have struggled with injuries this season. Besides Blake Griffin (23), DeAndre Jordan (24) and Eric Bledsoe (23), the Clippers aren’t exactly a young team. Still, they have arguably the deepest roster in the league, so if any team is capable of withstanding a myriad of injuries, it’s this group. With that said, keep an eye on the status of Paul’s knee -- if he’s banged up even a little bit, the Clippers are extremely vulnerable.
The Clippers have a relatively easy schedule down the stretch, playing 15 of their final 26 games at home, where L.A. is 21-5. They face San Antonio twice, Oklahoma City once, Memphis twice, Indiana twice and New York once, but besides those eight games, the rest of their schedule is more or less against subpar teams (they have 13 games against teams currently under .500). Expect the Clippers to head into the playoffs with considerable momentum.
Even when they reeled off their 17-game win streak earlier this season, the Clippers couldn’t separate themselves from the Spurs and Thunder. After suffering a setback with Paul out of the lineup, the Clippers (39-17) find themselves closer to the fourth-place Memphis Grizzlies (34-18) than they do to the first-place Spurs (42-12). Their cupcake schedule will give them some breathing room over the Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets, but do the Clippers have enough in the tank to make a run at a top-two seed? It could determine whether they advance to the conference finals or not.
A point of contention this season has been the topic of who should close games. Vinny Del Negro has publicly stated he prefers the hot hand, but for the most part, the Clippers finish games with Griffin, Paul and Barnes, and then either Crawford or Billups at shooting guard and Odom or Jordan at center. The lineups with Crawford and either big man have crushed opponents, while Billups’ sample size is too small to yet reach a clear analysis of it. Either way, it’ll be interesting to see which lineup gets the nod in crunch time of a vital playoff game.
CP3 for MVP
If not for LeBron James and Kevin Durant’s otherworldly dominance, Paul would likely be the leading MVP candidate. Look no further than his performance at the All-Star Game in Houston to see his control over a glorified pickup game with the game’s best players. The Clippers’ record speaks for itself -- they’re 33-11 with Paul and 6-6 without him. To say they look lost offensively without him would be an understatement. If Paul can lead a late Clipper rally and the team grabs a top-two seed, he’ll have a shot at crashing the presumed two-man party for MVP.
Griffin’s second half improvement
Last season, Griffin’s shooting percentage in the 16-23 feet range improved to 39 percent after the All-Star break. Over the past 20 games, Griffin’s points, rebounds, assists and field goal percentage have dramatically risen, so there’s reason to think he may continue to improve after the All-Star break. In particular, his passing has been impressive of late -- he’s at nearly five assists a night over that stretch.
In most of the Clippers’ losses to lottery bound teams, the central theme has been their inability to defend 3-pointers. According to Grantland’s Zach Lowe (http://www.grantland.com/blog/the-triangle/post/_/id/42920/unit-watch-the-heats-problem-on-defense), only two teams have made the conference finals between 1998-99 and 2010-11 while allowing above-average 3-point attempts and an above-average 3-point shooting percentage. The Clippers do both, ranking 24th in opponent 3-point attempts and 25th in opponent 3-point percentage. The Spurs and Thunder are among the best 3-point shooting teams in the league, so the Clippers will be in serious trouble if they can’t shore up this defensive flaw come playoff time.
Small forward rotation
The emergence of a healthy Grant Hill has brought about an interesting question: How will the wing minutes be dispersed as the rotations tighten? Recently, Del Negro has deployed either Hill or Barnes at power forward to create a smaller, faster second-unit lineup and assure ample minutes for his three small forwards. But when the playoffs roll around, there won’t be as many minutes available. Playing time will likely fluctuate on a game-by-game basis, but there will be instances when someone who is accustomed to playing is relegated to the bench.
A Tribe Called Bench
Which “Tribe Called Bench” will we get for the rest of the season? After captivating the league for almost half the season, things have cooled down substantially. Replacing Ronny Turiaf with Ryan Hollins hasn’t been beneficial; the original bench lineup has a +11.3 net rating with Turiaf, and a -1.1 net rating with Hollins. The new small ball lineup (Odom, Hill, Barnes, Crawford, Bledsoe) has been even worse, posting an anemic -13.0 net rating. It remains to be seen if the group can regain its mojo. But if the Clippers keep winning, does it matter?
Stats for this piece are from ESPN.com, HoopData.com and NBA.com.
Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul has been named the Kia NBA Western Conference Player of the Month for April on Friday after leading the team to its first playoff berth in six years.
In the month of April, Paul averaged 20.7 points, 9.9 assists and 3 steals per game, sitting out one of the Clippers' 14 contests due to a strained left groin. He had seven 20-point performances and three 30-point outbursts, including 31 in a road win at Oklahoma City and 33 points at home against New Orleans this week.
The Clippers went 9-5 in April to finish as the fifth seed in the Western Conference playoffs. They open up their first-round series Sunday in Memphis.
Paul beat out Memphis’ Rudy Gay, Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant, San Antonio’s Tony Parker and Utah’s Al Jefferson to win the award. It is his first player of the month honor since January 2010 and the sixth of his seven-year NBA career.
New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony was the Eastern Conference award-winner.
LOS ANGELES -- As soon as Nick Young got into the game Monday night with two-plus minutes to go in the first quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder, OKC forward Kevin Durant made sure he was feeling a little anxious.
"You can't guard me," Durant told Young, which the Clippers' swingman relayed after the game. "You can't guard me."
Young took offense and put together arguably his best defensive effort since being traded to the Los Angeles Clippers a month ago at the trade deadline. It was also -- maybe not coincidentally -- by far his best offensive game since returning home to L.A.
He put together a solid effort against Durant and the Thunder in last week's win in Oklahoma City, but this was one better by all accounts.
In 21 minutes Monday, Young shot lights-out, scoring 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting, including 3-of-4 from 3-point range. From the time he entered into the game for Caron Butler until the final buzzer, Young actually outscored Durant in fewer minutes.
Speaking after the game, he said he could take two things away from his personal performance in Monday's 92-77 Clippers' win: For one, he plays better when he thinks less, and, for two, he plays better when people tell him he can't guard them.
"I guess he heard in the papers that I was locking him up," Young said of Durant. "So that kind of motivated me."
Durant, who was whistled for a double technical foul with the Clippers' Mo Williams, late in the second quarter, wasn't the only one talking abnormal amounts of trash. Young said he started talking back more and more as the game went on, and several Clippers players noted chippy exchanges at various points in the game.
Paul had done everything in his power to put the Clippers in position to pull off their biggest win of the season on the road against the Oklahoma City Thunder, but it didn’t seem like it would be enough.
Moments earlier, Paul had cut to the basket, missed an off-balance layup and amazingly tipped it in over Oklahoma City’s Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka to give the Clippers a 98-93 lead with 1:19 left in the game. The next time down the court, Paul passed the ball to Blake Griffin in the paint with a 98-95 lead and 45 seconds on the clock. Griffin panicked; he passed the ball to Kenyon Martin, whose three-pointer was blocked. On the other end of the court, Kevin Durant tied the game, 98-98, with a three-pointer after being left open thanks to a textbook screen on Paul by Perkins, who dropped the 6-foot point guard.
After Paul picked himself off the ground, he sat on the bench during a timeout as Vinny Del Negro drew up a play. After the huddle broke, Paul gathered Del Negro and the coaches together for a quick huddle as if to say, “With all due respect to whatever you just said, I’m doing whatever I have to do to win.”
Every Thunder player on the court knew Paul would take the last shot for Clippers. As Paul dribbled the ball all the way down to two seconds on the shot clock and 10 seconds remaining in the game, they all seemingly braced themselves for the inevitable. Every last one of them was within arm’s length of Paul as he drove past them and scored what would be the game-winning basket to give the Clippers a 100-98 win.
Paul finished with a game-high 31 points, six rebounds and four assists; even more impressively, he scored 24 points in the second half and 11 points in the fourth quarter, hitting five of six shots in the final period. This season, in the last five minutes of games with the Clippers within five points, Paul is third in the NBA with 119 points. He is only behind Kobe Bryant and Durant in such situations. Despite being down by double-digits in the second half for the second consecutive road game, he would not let the team be denied, as it was Monday night against the Memphis Grizzlies, when they came back from a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter only to lose.
“This wasn’t the same team that played in Memphis the other night,” Paul said. “We defended well and we need to watch this tape and learn from it.”
After the Clippers lost to Memphis, the coaches wrote a number of telling statistics on the dry erase board in the visiting locker room. They had been outrebounded by 12 and only posted 15 offensive rebounds and 15 assists. The numbers showed a lack of effort and teamwork that simply wasn’t going to cut it with 10 games left in the season and seven of those on the road. The Clippers not only responded after that loss, but they answered with the kind of win that may make some rethink their playoff predictions now.
“This is a big win for us in a hostile environment,” Paul said. “It was a playoff-type game where we had to make adjustment after adjustment and our bench was huge for us.”
The win was even more important considering the Los Angeles Lakers beat the San Antonio Spurs and the Grizzlies beat the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday. A loss would have dropped the Clippers to the fifth seed in the West and virtually eliminated them from any hope of winning the Pacific Division. Now with games coming up against the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Golden State Warriors, the Clippers are just a game and half behind the Lakers and are still a half-game in front of the Grizzlies -- and hold the tiebreaker with Memphis.
“We needed that to keep our playoff run alive,” Paul said. “We haven’t locked up a spot yet but that’s what we’re trying to do.”
After the way they Clippers played Wednesday night, it looks like the Clippers might do a little more than just lock up a playoff spot by the end of the month.
Five storylines to track:
1. Dynamic duos: As good as the duo of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have been this year, nothing in the league has compared to the tandem of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook this season. Durant and Westbrook are currently the highest scoring duo in the NBA, averaging a combined total of 51.8 points per game. Against the Denver Nuggets on Feb. 19, the duo combined for 91 points with Durant scoring 51 points and Westbrook adding 40 points. They became the first pair of teammates in NBA history to each score at least 40 points on two separate occasions during a single season. Meanwhile in L.A., with Griffin averaging over 20 points and Paul averaging over eight assists per game, the duo is the first set of Clippers teammates with those numbers in the same season since 1993-94. The Clippers have only had six other teammates average at least 20 points and 8 assists per game since moving to Los Angeles in 1984.
2. Tough trip: The Clippers will play six of their last nine games on the road, including three sets of back-to-back games away from home. After losing to the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday, the Clippers are now 13-14 on the road this season. The Clippers are attempting to finish the season with a .500 or better road record for the first time since 1984. The most road wins for the Clippers was 20 when they went 20-21 during the 2005-06 season. The Clippers lost to Oklahoma City when they last played the Thunder in March. Earlier this season, the Thunder registered a 14-game home winning streak which represented the longest home win streak for the Thunder franchise since the 1994-95 season when they were the Seattle Sonics.