TrueHoop: J.A. Adande

Pau Gasol's final scene in Lakerland?

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
1:39
AM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Pau Gasol looked out onto the court, where the team from his past played the team of his present, then looked up to the scoreboard, where the clock ticked down toward the start of his future.

The Memphis Grizzlies, Gasol’s team from draft night in 2001 until the 2008 trade that sent him to the Los Angeles Lakers, were finalizing the Lakers’ 55th loss of the season. Same old story for the Lakers: hang tight for a half, lose by double digits. And a frustratingly frequent tale for Gasol: sidelined by injury, missing his 20th game and counting, with a bout of vertigo guaranteed to keep him sidelined for the Lakers’ two remaining games on the road.

He’ll be a free agent this summer, which means this might have been his last home game at Staples Center. It certainly meant he felt the emotional impact. As the game drew to a close he reached toward the seat to his right and tapped teammate Jordan Farmar’s leg to signal that it was time for them to leave. Except Gasol wasn’t really ready to leave. He congratulated his brother, Grizzlies center Marc Gasol, then playfully shoved Marc away so he wouldn’t sweat on Pau’s nice, movie-ticket-taker- burgundy red jacket. He moved on to other players and coaches, stopped to talk to a couple of fans, then chatted with courtside regulars Jimmy Goldstein and Dyan Cannon.
[+] EnlargeMarc Gasol
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsMarc and Pau Gasol, the brothers who were traded for each other in 2008, greet each other Sunday.

He stopped and signed autographs for fans on the other side of the courtside seats. He leaned in behind a woman who took a selfie with her phone. He entered the tunnel and accommodated more fans who reached through the rails to have him sign programs, hats, tickets and -- just when he was ready to cut things off -- a fan who dangled a No. 16 Gasol golden Lakers jersey.

Finally he said no mas.

“I gotta go in,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

He blew the fans a kiss with both hands, bowed and moved on to the Lakers' locker room.

“I always appreciate the fans,” Gasol said. “You never know. The last couple years when I walked out of this building it’s been emotional. This year it’s been a little bit different because we haven’t been successful as a team, we had a lot of injuries, I haven’t been able to finish the season playing. So I kind of had it more in my mind.

“The last couple of years I didn’t know if I was going to be back. This year with even more reason, because now I’m a free agent. It’s just a way of me appreciating everyone and our fans.”

The fans showed their appreciation, giving him a warm cheer when he was showed on the scoreboard video screen late in the game. Will the Lakers do anything similar -- something along the lines of the golden parachute they granted Kobe Bryant? The Kobe contract might actually preclude a Gasol gift by eating up too much salary cap room. Gasol can’t expect to match the $19 million he made this season; he might get about half of that, from what some general managers say. It's also possible that the Lakers could sign him to a short deal that would give them the possibility of using him as a trade asset next season.

But a multi-year contract would alter any Lakers plans to make a big splash in the 2015 free agent market -- or even to bring in the additional pieces the Lakers would need around Bryant and Gasol.

That’s why Sunday was the night for sentiment. Come July 1 it will be all business.

“You’ve got to put heart and emotions aside a little bit and think what’s going to be the best position for me to succeed, not just individually but collectively,” Gasol said. “And hopefully help put myself in a position where I can win a championship. That will be the goal. Where can I win and where can I be a key piece to help a team win, whether it’s here or another team? I don’t know exactly what’s going to be the structure or the roster [with the Lakers], so there’s going to be a lot of question marks here. But I’m open to listen. I’m a good listener. I will listen to what’s offered.”

Then there’s the possibility of playing with his brother in Memphis.

“It’s appealing,” Gasol said. “We have a lof of fun always in the summers [playing together with the Spanish national team]. But I don’t know if it’s going to be completely 100 percent up to me, because there’s going to be a lot of teams that are going to be probably limited or conditioned to a trade, and the Lakers will probably have some say in that. We’ll see. It’ll be an interesting process. I don’t know if the Grizzlies are one of the teams that are most interested.

“I’d love to play with Kobe more, because he’s a friend, he’s a winner and he’s a guy that I’ve been through a lot and won championships with. I would love to play with my brother, but you can’t have everything. Just try to think where is the best position for me to succeed collectively and individually.”

Time passes so quickly in the NBA, turning from ally to enemy. Gasol made the Lakers championships contenders when he arrived in February of 2008, and they were on their way to three consecutive NBA Finals. In April of 2014, the only player in uniform who was around for that heyday was Farmar. It’s no accident that he was sitting next to Gasol.

“[The bond is] even sweeter for us because we lost one [NBA Finals] first,” Farmar said. “ We got all the way there, we lost, and then we learned as a group and came back to win back-to-backs. So we’re a little closer. It’s a little more special. It’s experiences you can’t really teach. You just have to go through it and know what it takes. It’s hard to pass that knowledge on to young guys. There’s just no way they can understand the dynamics of a championship team unless you’re on that caliber of a team.”

You can see why playing for another team consisting primarily of those young players wouldn’t appeal to Gasol at age 33. You also can see how a 33-year-old who has missed 53 games over the past two seasons with injuries stretching literally from his feet (plantar fasciitis) to his head (vertigo) might not have GMs filling his voicemail inbox this summer. But he’s still an experienced big man who averaged 17.4 points and 9.7 rebounds this season.

“In this league, no one person can do it by themselves,” Farmar said. “You need to put a team together of guys that understand the importance of winning,
that are committed to it and fit well together. I think that’s what it comes down to. The front office knows that. I think Pau, whether it’s here or someplace else, will be on a team like that.”

For the past three seasons we’ve wondered if the Lakers would send him someplace else before the trade deadline. Now it could be of his own volition. That’s why this wasn’t just another night in Staples Center, the building where the two most recent Lakers championship banners hang as a result of his handiwork.

Silver's un-Stern stern move

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
4:43
PM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
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If the NBA’s decision to fine the Dallas Mavericks for public address announcer Sean Heath’s tweets about the officiating seems very David Stern-like, it could be because new commissioner Adam Silver is doing his best to NOT be like Stern.

In 2010, Stern revealed that one of the biggest regrets of his tenure as commissioner was that he didn’t crack down on Phil Jackson and Pat Riley when they kept insinuating that league agendas were behind the officials’ calls during their playoff battles in the early 1990s.

“I wish I had to do it all over again and, starting 20 years ago, I’d be suspending Phil and Pat Riley for all the games they play in the media,” Stern said.

Stern believes that failing to do so allowed the conspiracy theories to fester, making the default explanation for any blown whistle become either “the TV networks want the series to last longer” or “the NBA wants the biggest TV markets to meet in the Finals.” If the most prominent coaches said it, why wouldn’t the fans believe it? Every fan believes the league is out to get his favorite team. Hearing the same thoughts come from the participants themselves only encourages them.

Apparently, Adam Silver’s regime won’t make the same mistake as Stern. When Heath took to Twitter to complain about the officiating following a Mavericks loss to the Golden State Warriors on April 1, Heath’s biggest mistake in a series of tweets was writing “@NBA: the ONLY professional league in the US with the reputation that the games are rigged. Know why? Because of games like tonight. #shame”

Actually, the shame is that a representative of a team would do anything to fuel the conspiracy-minded fans. “Rigged” is too serious an accusation to casually toss around without consequences. This week we learned what they were: a $25,000 fine for the Mavericks, as reported by Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com.

MacMahon wrote that the league’s first impulse was to suspend Heath, but that action would be complicated by the fact that he is technically a contract worker, not a team employee. That still sounds like the revised mindset of which Stern spoke four years ago.

I bet it’s something that Silver will not regret upon reflection 20 years from now.

Clippers keep drawing successful combos

April, 6, 2014
Apr 6
9:38
PM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Credits earned in the regular season don’t always carry over into the playoffs, as the Los Angeles Clippers learned last year when their first Pacific Division championship, home-court advantage and a 2-0 lead in the first round quickly vanished into the teeth of the Memphis Grizzlies.

It feels like this season’s Clippers squad has a higher credit rating. If there’s one thing the Clippers have earned, it’s the benefit of the doubt even as they carry an array of injury issues with them into the final stage of the season. Sixth Man of the Year candidate Jamal Crawford might not suit up in any of the remaining regular-season games? That might go for Danny Granger as well? Blake Griffin and J.J. Redick are walking around like they could use a day spent at the chiropractor’s office? Shouldn’t matter.

The Clippers have proved their adaptability over the course of the season. They have played at least nine games with four versions of their starting lineup, and have winning records with all four of them. They’re 11-5 with Chris Paul, Redick, DeAndre Jordan, Griffin and Jared Dudley. They’re 8-3 with Paul, Crawford, Jordan, Griffin and Dudley. They’re 6-3 with Darren Collison, Redick, Jordan, Griffin and Matt Barnes. They’re 12-2 with Paul, Collison, Jordan, Griffin and Barnes.

Sunday was the first time they used the lineup of Paul, Redick, Jordan, Griffin and Barnes, and they’re 1-0 with that combo after beating the Lakers 120-97.

[+] EnlargeBlake Griffin
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsBlake Griffin has jammed on successfully with a rotating cast of Clippers.

“Our mindset as a team -- and you can just feel it before every game, no matter who’s playing or who’s not playing -- we’ve just got to go execute our stuff and we’ve got a chance to win, every single night,” Griffin said. “I think that was really evident, especially when CP went down [13-6 without Paul in the starting lineup]. Because everybody kind of wrote us off a little bit. And then when he came back, J.J.’s out. Guys don’t really make excuses. ‘Oh, he’s not playing tonight? It’s my turn, it’s his turn, it’s somebody’s turn.’

“That’s encouraging going into the playoffs, just to know that whoever we have on the court, we’re going to compete.”

It’s the best thing they have going for them. And sometimes all it takes is having one best thing.

“I think we know who we are,” Griffin said.

They have to realize that they’re not defensive stalwarts. They’re also the second-worst team in the league in allowing opponents offensive rebounds, even though Jordan is the NBA’s top individual rebounder. But they’ve maintained the NBA’s top scoring offense despite the lineup fluctuations. That has to start with Griffin, of course, averaging 24 points a night with only five games with fewer than 20 points since Dec. 16.

More attention should be paid to Collison, who has gone from backup point guard to starting point guard to starting shooting guard depending on the situation.

It looked bad Jan. 4 when, in Collison’s first game starting after Paul injured his right shoulder, the Clippers lost by 24 points in San Antonio. Reflecting on it later, Doc Rivers realized they let Collison down by asking him to fill Paul’s role rather than play his own. After that, the Clippers won five in a row and 12 of their next 14 while Paul recovered. Collison averaged 14 points and six assists and shot 51 percent during that stretch.

“If I’m going to start, I’m going to play my game,” Collison said. “That’s when I play my best. I firmly believe that. I’m an aggressive player -- sometimes I can be overaggressive -- but that’s just how I play.”

You’ll often hear Rivers and other Clippers players say they’d like Chris Paul to share that mindset -- to look for his shot from the get-go. That’s especially true now that Paul has regained his 3-point shooting touch. His 3-point percentage of .349 this season is one of the lowest of his career, but he made all four of his attempts Sunday, the fourth time in the past six games he’s made at least four 3-pointers.

So here are the safe bets for the Clippers heading into the playoffs: Griffin and Paul playing like top-10 players. Double-doubles from Jordan. Collison quietly doing what’s necessary. Group confidence in Doc Rivers.

That’s a lot to work with, before adding the possibilities of Redick (who made 7 of 11 shots Sunday) and Crawford.

At this point, the knowns are outweighing the unknowns.

“It just shows we have a lot of experience out there,” Collison said. “No matter who’s down, no matter who’s hurt, it seems like another guy’s coming in, stepping in and contributing the way he needs to contribute.”

Thunder fall out of first as Clippers close in

March, 9, 2014
Mar 9
9:33
PM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Big win for the Los Angeles Clippers in Sunday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. That’s not a mistake. Even though the scoreboard said it was the Lakers that beat the Thunder, 114-110, the Clippers were the biggest beneficiary.

When the Clippers beat the Lakers by 48 points last week the accomplishment was lost amid nationwide scuba diving to determine just how low the Lakers had sunk. Maybe now the Clippers’ accomplishments in that landmark victory and their seven-game winning streak can bob to the surface. People can realize that the Lakers didn’t simply roll over, the Clippers did plenty of kicking. The Clippers turned a 15-point lead against the Lakers into a 52-point lead. The Thunder turned an 18-point lead into an 18-point deficit, and then an L. “You can’t play the score, you have to play the game,” Oklahoma City’s Derek Fisher said, in one of those veteran-y quotes.

Oh, and the Clippers are now within 2½ games of Oklahoma City’s second spot in the Western Conference standings. So, yeah, Sunday was a good day for the Clippers.
[+] EnlargeKevin Durant
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesKevin Durant had 27 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists but OKC fell to the Lakers.

The one thing you haven’t heard the Clippers do lately is lament. As in: “We did not come with the defensive intensity that we needed in the third quarter,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks lamented.

That’s a verb used only when you don’t get what you want. The Clippers have gotten the W in their past seven games, making them the hottest team in the league at the moment. They’re beginning to grasp the defensive concepts Doc Rivers is preaching, and held four of seven opponents to less than 100 points during the streak, a standard they failed to meet in nine of their previous 10 games.

While they’re reaching a crescendo, the Thunder have fallen into what Coach Brooks called “a defensive valley,” allowing opponents to score 110 points per game and shoot 47 percent while losing five of their past eight games. They dropped into second place in the Western Conference, a half game behind the San Antonio Spurs, who’ve won six straight and have to be feeling good about themselves as well.

Brooks was as critical as he gets about his team, saying, “It comes down to taking pride in guarding your man and we had trouble staying in front of the basketball tonight” as well as “In the third quarter we did not come out with the defensive toughness it takes to win in this league.”

The Thunder aren’t making excuses about the absence of the injured Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins, but it’s clearly an issue.

“Thabo is a defensive player,” Brooks said. “Perk is one of our best defensive players. He’s not only good on the post, he’s good on the pick-and-roll coverage and he’s good at communicating.”

Perkins communicates not only on the court but in the locker room and through the media, quick to call out insufficient efforts from his team. He wasn’t around Sunday, so that left it to Fisher.

Yes, Kevin Durant, a 40 percent 3-point shooter on the season, has shot 33 percent on 3-pointers in February and is 9-for-32 (28 percent) in four games in March. And just when it seemed Russell Westbrook had regained his shooting touch by making 58 percent of his shots in the previous five games, he cratered to a 7-for-23 (30 percent) shooting performance Sunday afternoon.

Those aren’t the type of things that have Fisher concerned.

“It’s a larger perspective in terms of just where we are as a team, our mentality, our mindset, our ability to bring the right type of focus to the game,” Fisher said.

“As a team we have to decide what’s most important to us. And if it’s the team’s success, then you’ll start to see offensively and defensively things tighten up the way they need to tighten up. … Just in terms of respecting the game, respecting each other, bringing the right sense of urgency to our jobs.

“I don’t question guys’ commitment to the team, I’m just saying we’re not right now putting it out there on the court."

The Thunder left the arena muttering to themselves, the Lakers were granted a temporary reprieve from their miserable season, and Jodie Meeks had a career-high 42 points to savor. Nobody had it better than the Clippers, though. They had a day off to enjoy a beautiful afternoon in L.A., and their status improved at the same time.

Reminisce with '96

March, 6, 2014
Mar 6
2:07
PM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
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The right side of the NBA Draft Class of 1996 book is getting very thin. Not many pages left to tell the story of this remarkable group of players. The first overall pick in that draft, Allen Iverson, just watched his No. 3 go up to the rafters in Philadelphia, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ No. 11 is on its way in Cleveland. In Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash have been betrayed by their bodies and played a combined 16 games this season. In Miami, Ray Allen is flirting with the lowest three-point shooting percentage of his career.

Time’s running out on this distinguished group that has accounted for four Most Valuable Player awards, the all-time leader in three-pointers, 62 All-Star appearances (including four All-Star MVP awards), 17 first-team All-NBA appearances, 11 times on the first-team All-Defensive squad, a defensive player of the year award, six times leading the league in scoring, five times leading the league in assists, three times in steals and once in blocks.

For those lucky enough to still be playing these days it’s the little things that matter, the moments that won’t be stand out on the final recaps of their careers, but the signs that they’re still doing what they love. Jermaine O’Neal, the 17th pick of that draft, makes a critical late-game block and pauses to stare at the crowd and soak it in. Derek Fisher, the No. 23 pick, finds himself making five three-pointers to give his team a chance at a Sunday ABC game.

This season I had a chance to talk to Fisher and O’Neal about their reflections on the beginning of their careers and they push to extend it. Interestingly, they both had connections to Kobe Bryant. Fisher’s was obvious, as they spent they joined the Los Angeles Lakers together as rookies and wound up winning five championships in the purple and gold uniforms.

“The memory of how bad we both wanted to be successful, even though we were coming from two completely different planets and obviously had different levels of ability and what our so-called legacy and what you could accomplish could be, that’s what kind of has always drawn us together,” Fisher said. “Even though he’ll go down in history as a handful of, maybe one of the greatest players to ever play the game, we’re still very similar -- just in our drive to be the best that we could be and be successful. Even though I [attended college] and I’m still older, I still learned so much from watching him and observing him, just about greatness and toughness and work ethic. It’s amazing how much I owe him in terms of the success I’ve been able to enjoy in my career.

“The same love for the game that we had when we came into it in 1996 is still there,” Fisher said. “Just like any other industry or business in life or job that you take, there’s a point where it becomes less about the money and how much you’re making at the job and all the things that come with it and just enjoying and having a passion for doing it. But also still wanting to be successful, to win a championship. I think that’s what continues to drive guys that have been in this game as long as we all have. That’s what keeps you coming back.”

O’Neal came to the NBA straight from high school, just like Bryant, at a time when that was still a novelty. (O’Neal still has a framed newspaper article in which a Charlotte Hornets executive said O’Neal wasn’t ready to make the jump and predicted he would be out of the league in a couple of years.) The other connection was more recent: a phone conversation with Bryant recommended O’Neal head to Germany for the same platelet rich plasma treatment on his knee that rejuvenated Bryant. That allowed O’Neal to give the NBA one last season, with the Golden State Warriors.

“It’s about ending your career the way you want to end it, not have somebody else do it,” O’Neal said. “There’s too many people who feel like they have say in what you’re going to do. For us, people have to understand this is our life. This ain’t just basketball, going out there for 48 minutes. We have many nights we don’t eat, worrying. Your body, injuries -- it’s real for us. To get an opportunity to do this for 18 years is unbelievable. That’s what’s driving me, to end this on my own terms. Whatever happens, happens. You walk into the second chapter in your life and try to be as competitive as you were professionally.

“It’s funny, because you notice things a lot more. You notice things about the plane rides, the bus rides, bus rides to the hotel. Everything is slow motion. You don’t know if you’re going to do it again next year. You observe and you really cherish this opportunity. This is an opportunity that most people don’t get to ever do, let alone for 18 years.

“I get a kick out of seeing people saying, ‘He’s still going.’ Now I’m playing with people that were five when I got drafted. It’s one of those things that, it’s like you think about all the things that you didn’t know and all of the things that you do know now. If it weren’t for basketball, I don’t know where I’d be. Basketball was a saving grace. My life, my wife and kids, mother, brother, my entire family, it’s given me an opportunity to be a pillar for my family for many, many generations. The amount of money I’ve been able to make in this game has been fantastic. The relationships I’ve been able to build. There’s a lot of things you have to respect and honor.

“Hopefully I can end this fantastic ride, this character-builder, this life-changing opportunity, the way it should be. Whatever that is, we’ll see come April. Maybe even June.”

What's in a name on the wall

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
3:31
PM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
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PHOENIX -- It had to be somewhere on this wall in the corridors of US Airways Center, the wall with the deep purple background and the name of everyone who has played for the Phoenix Suns painted in white letters. The one I was looking for eluded my memory, but I knew I would recognize it when I saw it. And there it was: Georgi Glouchkov.

There was a time when that name was a big deal. In 1985, back when the Cold War remained frigid and the Berlin Wall was still intact, the Bulgarian-born Glouchkov became the first NBA player from an Eastern Bloc country when he joined the Suns. Eventually, last names ending in "ov" or "ic" became common throughout the NBA.

On Sunday night, Russian Andrei Kirilenko played for the team owned by Russian Mikhail Prokhorov, and that wasn't the story. The news was the Brooklyn Nets signed Jason Collins, and Collins stepped onto an NBA court for the first time since he announced he was gay last year.

Collins is on a 10-day contract. The stats were minimal: zero points, two rebounds and one steal. The "SportsCenter" clips stretched the definition of “highlights” to the extreme, featuring shots of Collins helping out on defense or tapping a rebound out to a teammate.

It’s a shame the ordinary had to be so extraordinary, especially in 2014. But here's why it mattered so much: On the same day Collins played against the Lakers in Los Angeles, the front page of the Arizona Republic was filled with stories about a controversial state bill that would allow denial of service on the grounds of religious beliefs. That means if a restaurant owner wanted to deny Collins and his partner service because they're gay, he or she could. Opponents of the bill believe it would legalize discrimination against homosexuals.

The closed-mindedness isn't limited to Arizona. Californians, for example, donated $27.7 million (with another $11.3 million coming from out of state) to support passage of a 2008 proposition that would ban same-sex marriages.

That's a bit of the context to frame Collins’ 11 minutes on the court Sunday night. What constitutes news is always a matter of where things stand at that time. The hope is that some day Jason Collins will be like Georgi Glouchkov, just another name on another team’s wall, reduced to ordinary status by progress and the passage of time.

Ready for Lillardpalooza

February, 13, 2014
Feb 13
10:04
PM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
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The Portland Trail Blazers had just suffered their second tough loss to a top competitor on back-to-back nights, and Damian Lillard stood in the visitor’s locker room and discussed what lay ahead for the Blazers.

“I think the break will be good for us,” Lillard said. “Kind of come back fresh, and ready to turn up."

Except “break” and “fresh” are the only two things NOT on the schedule for Lillard over the weekend. He has an unprecedented five events tap: the Rising Stars game Friday night, the skills challenge, dunk contest and three-point shootout Saturday night and the All-Star game Sunday. That doesn’t even count all of the media sessions, community service events and promotional appearances that eat up players’ days.

So what’s Lillard’s energy-conservation approach? There is none.

“I’m going to jump in,” Lillard said. “I’m going to go out there in every event to compete. Most of all, I’m just going to go out there and have fun and enjoy it.
It’s a great opportunity for me. A lot of fans have been tweeting me about it and are excited about it. I’m going to go out there and do it with all my heart.

“I’m not going to do it halfhearted and act like I’m too cool for it. I’m going to do the skills and the three and the dunk, I’m playing both games. I’ll be fine.

“I think I have a chance to win all of them. If I didn’t think I had a chance to compete, I wouldn’t even put my name in it.”

We'll see if he sounds as enthusiastic on Sunday night. Blake Griffin had a similar slate during his rookie foray into All-Star weekend in 2011: the Rising Stars game, the dunk contest and the All-Star game. And then there was the Clippers’ schedule leading into the All-Star break.

“We had just come off a five-game road trip,” Griffin said. “[Wednesday] was our last game, in Minnesota. We flew back here, then everything started for me Thursday morning and felt like it went non-stop.

"Every situation is different for every guy. That was also my first year, playing 38 minutes and still trying to figure out everything.”

In addition, Griffin learned the night of the game against the Timberwolves that his close friend Wilson Holloway had died of complications from Hodgkin's lymphoma. After the break, the Clippers went on the road to Oklahoma City, Griffins’s first game back in the state where he grew up and went to college. It's hard to imagine a more physically and emotionally draining stretch for a player. And it's worth noting that Griffin's scoring and rebounding averages and shooting percentages were all lower after the All-Star break than before.

Griffin had one piece of advice for Lillard: “Just get your rest when you can…because that second half is a beast, especially when you’re making a playoff push.”



Clippers, Blazers know the score in West

February, 13, 2014
Feb 13
3:10
AM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Just think of Wednesday night’s Trail Blazers-Clippers game as an alternate Western Conference finals, taking place in a world in which two-time MVP Steve Nash led Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns to back-to-back championships and rendered defense obsolete.

The Clippers and Trail Blazers are two teams that have spent this season among the upper echelon of the Western Conference, with aspirations of winning multiple playoff series. But if the postseason started today, they’d be matched up in the first round as the fourth and fifth seeds.

It’s not only that the Thunder and Spurs have better records, it’s that they are better equipped for the playoffs because of their superior defense. Both teams allow 97.5 points per game, the fewest among the current Western Conference playoff teams. The Trail Blazers allow the most, at 103.7. The Clippers are just over 100, at 100.6.

On the flip side, the Blazers and Clippers are the two highest-scoring teams in the league, and if nothing else, that can make for some entertaining regular-season ball. It helps that they’re so similar, with All-Stars at point guard and power forward, and an acceptance that they are offensively driven teams.

On Wednesday night, they hooked up for a game that produced 239 points and featured 40 lead changes and 18 ties. The Clippers used just enough defense at the end to prevail, most notably when Chris Paul pried the ball away from Damian Lillard, with DeAndre Jordan swooping in to scoop up the ball and commence a two-on-one fastbreak that led to a Matt Barnes alley-oop lob to Jordan. It put the Clippers ahead by three points with a minute and a half left, and they went on to win 122-117.

“It just felt like if you could get one or two stops in a row you would win the game,” said Jamal Crawford, who continued his role as the supplementary scorer to Blake Griffin with 25 points. “Finally at the end, we did.”

Still, the emphasis of this game was offense. It was really a matter of offensive efficiency more than defensive effectiveness. Even after his Clippers team shot 60 percent and scored 61 points in the first half, coach Doc Rivers said that during intermission, “I was upset offensively. We had nine possessions where we just didn’t get into anything. Maybe one of those games you’re going to need those possessions.”

It will be asking a lot to change either team’s identity to defense in the remaining two months of the season. So it becomes a matter of fine-tuning the offense. Griffin has become a player who can get 30 points at will; he scored 36 on Wednesday night. That they came on 21 field goal attempts shows how he has become more efficient as well as a better free throw shooter. Griffin was called “our MVP all season long,” which was most notable because the words came from Paul.

It will help the Clippers to get J.J. Redick back; he missed the game with a sore right hip. The Blazers will be served by the further development of C.J. McCollum, a promising rookie who went off for eight points in the final two minutes of the third quarter to give the Blazers the lead heading into the fourth. It was just his 17th game.

But these teams will have to beat some combination of the Thunder, the Spurs and possibly the surging Houston Rockets to advance deep into the playoffs. It’s worth noting that for all of Kevin Durant’s offensive fireworks of late, the Thunder’s defensive rating of 102.2 is their best since the franchise moved to Oklahoma City in 2008.

“In the playoff situation, we can be a dangerous team,” Portland’s Lillard said. “There can be a three-game stretch where we just really get hot. We can really score the ball. We defend well in spurts. Once we figure out what we need to do to defend more consistently, we can be a really dangerous team.”

Can defending well in spurts get it done in the playoffs?

“I don’t think it can get done what we would like to get done,” Lillard said. “Offense can be fool’s gold. It might carry you. Last year, I think Golden State’s offense carried them. I think if we can find a way to be more consistent on D, we’ll be tough to play against.”

Until then, they’re at least fun to watch, especially when they’re up against their reflection in the Clippers.

Chris Paul returns with offensive fireworks

February, 10, 2014
Feb 10
1:17
AM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- So how would Chr -- sorry, there wasn’t even enough time to ask the question before we had the answer. Chris Paul’s return from a shoulder injury after Blake Griffin occupied the driver’s seat for the past 18 games immediately showed what the Clippers' offense would look like with Paul back: a devastatingly effective force. It produced the largest margin of victory in Clippers franchise history, a 45-point drubbing of the Philadelphia 76ers.

Turns out it was like wondering if water would still run down the riverbed after the next torrential downpour.

The pregame curiosity didn’t stem from if it would work so much as how it would work with Paul running the show again after Griffin had grown accustomed to occupying whatever spot on the court he wanted during Paul's absence. All parties insisted it wouldn’t be a problem, with coach Doc Rivers saying the only noticeable difference would be more outlet passes directly to Griffin, which had been a thing lately. We saw some of those, in addition to times when CP3 gave the ball to Griffin on the fast break much earlier than he usually does.

“We just kind of let it happen,” Griffin said. “If he’s out ahead, I’m going to give him the ball 99 percent of the time. But if I’m out ahead or on the side and we’ve got runners, why not. That’s something we kind of learned throughout this stretch.”

So Paul trusts Griffin with the ball in transition, while Griffin was content to return to playing off the ball in the half-court offense. It took just a couple of minutes to get that point across.

The Clippers won the tip and Paul fed Griffin along the right baseline for a layup. Then he flipped a pass to Griffin for an open jumper that Griffin missed. Next came a Paul pass ahead to Matt Barnes for a transition layup. It was 4-0 and the Philadelphia 76ers wouldn’t come anywhere near that close again. The Clippers led 28-5 after six minutes and 46-15 after one quarter. It was a spectacular 12-minute display of efficiency. They made 72 percent of their shots and assisted on 14 of their 18 baskets.

Yeah, um, so about that reintegration of Chris Paul?

You guys talked about it,” Rivers told the media. “I said we wouldn’t have to. And we didn’t, as you could tell.”

“It was tough,” Griffin deadpanned. “But we managed.”

Paul said, “It was just tempo,” and that he could figure out where to fit in just from watching games from the bench.

With the compulsories out of the way, the Clippers started freestyling in the second quarter. Paul threw the ball off the backboard to Griffin, who windmill-dunked it home. Then Griffin flipped a behind-the-back pass to Paul, who lobbed it back to him for another windmill dunk.

The Clippers led by as many as 56 points in the second half. Keep in mind, they did it without J.J. Redick, who makes the Clippers even better offensively with his outside shooting and constant movement off the ball. Redick missed his third consecutive game with a sore hip; he is expected to return for the Clippers’ important Western Conference showdown against the Portland Trail Blazers Wednesday night.

The Clippers will be more potent. And Paul, whose moves seemed a bit slower and jump shot a little flat, should be a better scorer as he gets his timing back. His court vision is already there. He had eight assists in 23 minutes, which was enough time for him to log a plus-minus rating of plus-42 in the Clippers’ 123-78 romp.

Griffin had 26 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists. DeAndre Jordan rebounded 20 of the 73 shots the 76ers missed.

“They just beat us down,” Philadelphia’s Evan Turner said.

That much was obvious. Apparently, so was the matter of Chris Paul’s impact on the team.

Durant storming his way into MVP lead

January, 18, 2014
Jan 18
3:03
AM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- Let's go back and look at one step on the long journey to Kevin Durant's career-high 54 points Friday night, a part of the process that took place in 2007.

He had finished his lone college season at Texas, and as he stuck around campus and worked out in preparation for his move to the NBA, he still had more questions than answers.

Royal Ivey, a former Longhorn who had spent three years in the NBA at that point, tried to tell him what to expect:

Life is about to change. You're going to be either the No. 1 pick or the No. 2 pick. It's going to be a different realm for you.

But Ivey knew that if Durant's circumstances changed, they wouldn't change him. He gleaned that in very little time.

[+] EnlargeKevin Durant
Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty ImagesKevin Durant is averaging 36.8 points per game in January.
"Just the way he carried himself," Ivey said of Durant. "His humbleness, his humility. On the court it's different; he's a freak. But just the way he carried himself. He was intrigued. He asked questions. He was like a fish out of water because he didn't know what to expect. I was like, 'He's going to be special because he wasn't all ... entitlement. He was like, 'I'm going to go out and get it. I'm going to work.

"That's what he does every day."

Ivey, who was recently signed to a 10-day contract by the Oklahoma City Thunder, got an up-close look at the end result nearly seven years later. He saw Durant make seven of his first eight shots for 15 points in the first quarter, drop 14 more in the second quarter, "slump" to 10 points when the Golden State Warriors double-teamed him more in the third quarter, then start demanding the ball to put the finishing touches on his magical night after the Thunder took command in a 127-121 win over the Warriors.

Durant's main objective was securing the victory, Oklahoma City's third in four games and seventh in the 12 games without Russell Westbrook as he recovers from knee surgery. Durant has scored 30 or more points in the past six games, twice going over 40.

"That's greatness," Ivey said. "Another All-Star goes down, one of the key players, and he steps up and puts the team on his back. You've got to do that. He's willing the team. Everybody's following suit. That's what great players do. He leads by example, but now he's more vocal, so everybody's following him."

This wasn't something that just happened. It's like this story about Chiwetel Ejiofor, the Academy Award nominee for Best Actor whom most people hadn't heard of before "12 Years A Slave."

Ejiofor has been acting for more than 20 years, since he was 13 years old. This is the accumulation of decades spent on a craft, not happenstance.

For instance, it's not an accident that eight of Durant's 19 field goals Friday night came from the right side of the lane.

"I've been working on that shot, the right wing," Durant said. "That used to be the shot I missed the most."

So let's see, not only has he become a better passer and defender, he shored up a weakness in his shooting that many weren't even aware existed. It feels as though his game is nearing completion, even though he's still only 25 years old.

"He's got some more in the tank," Ivey insisted. "He's got some more."

Over the past two games, Durant has shown a slightly different edge. Last season, he tried to counteract accusations that he was too nice by picking up 12 technical fouls. All that did was cost him money and rebukes from family members.

Thursday night, Durant was jawing a bit with Terrence Jones and Dwight Howard of the Houston Rockets. Friday night he was barking for the ball while running downcourt, giving pained looks when his teammates didn't comply, advising Reggie Jackson to "just give the ball to me" when a failure to do so resulted in a turnover.

DurantESPN Stats & Info
Durant hasn't turned selfish. He still had six assists on his big scoring night. He was a big reason Serge Ibaka made eight of 11 field goals.

But rather than wait for his turn, Durant took it. The longer he can keep the Thunder near the top of the Western Conference without Westbrook, the louder the "MVP" chants will grow.

For now, Durant called any Most Valuable Player talk "premature."

"It's still early in the season," he said.

If these were the primaries, however, he'd be the leading candidate. Put it this way: It's now up to someone else to prove why Durant is not the MVP.

If LeBron James' envy over the amount of shots Durant gets to take were meant to throw a twist into the MVP race, Durant didn't bite.

"LeBron James, I'm sure he can do whatever he wants for his team," Durant said. "I'm sure he can shoot 30 shots, he can go out there and get you a triple-double. I'm sure he can do whatever he wants. He's not jealous of me. I'm sure he isn't."

Media obligations fulfilled, Durant made his way to the showers, singing a New Edition song.

"Sunny days, everybody loves them."

He didn't sing the next line. That's the part it looks as if it's up to the rest of the NBA to figure out.

"Can you stand the rain?"

Because if you were watching the skies, you could see these clouds have been gathering for a long time.

Huge slams obscure Blake Griffin's growth

January, 9, 2014
Jan 9
2:45
AM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
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LOS ANGELES -- Blake Griffin had Twitter going again Wednesday night over the standard Griffin Twitter-fodder: a dehumanizing throwdown over Kris Humphries.

It obscured the real development: It was a night when Griffin was required to be the focal point of the offense, and a night when he delivered.

I wrote earlier in the season that there aren’t enough games where you can say the Clippers won because of Griffin, not just with him. In this case, they did win because of Griffin. The fact that they needed all of his 29 points and eight assists to beat the Boston Celtics by only six points is another matter.

They would not have been as dependent on his scoring (and his assists total would have gone up) if Jamal Crawford shot better than 8-for-26 from the field, for example. Or if they had more effectively managed the lead down the stretch. Or if the second unit played better.

Still, the Clippers’ main task is getting through until the All-Star break without Chris Paul and not losing too much ground in the Western Conference standings while he recovers from a separated shoulder. They’re 2-1 in the three games he missed since the injury.

Feel free to prep for Winter Olympics figure skating by deducting points for the two victories coming at home against the Orlando Magic and Celtics, as well as the blowout loss in San Antonio, the one team of the three they could face in the playoffs (as early as the first round if the bottom drops out without Paul).

Griffin was disappointed in some aspects of the game himself. Such is his evolution that he could make 11 free throws and still consider it an off-night at the line for him. It’s because the Celtics made him take 17 attempts and he missed six of them, a percentage of .647 in a season in which he’s shot 70 percent on free throws, including 78 percent since Dec. 14.

Some people are slow to acknowledge that progression. You see plenty of that talk on Twitter, too, that Griffin still can’t shoot -- even though he made a 21-footer for his second basket and drilled a fallaway jumper near the Celtics bench for his final field goal. In between came that throwdown over a cowering Humphries (whom Griffin dismissed with a shove for good measure).

“I can’t wait to go home and watch it on YouTube,” Crawford said.

We’ve seen those before, though. Better, actually. Ask Timofey Mozgov and Kendrick Perkins. In other words, about as often as he achieves the statistical accomplishment of having at least six assists in back-to-back games, which he did coming on the heels of the six he had against the Magic on Monday night. It’s happened only two other times in his career.

Doc Rivers said he’s wary of asking players to step outside their normal roles in Paul’s absence, saying he wanted his young forward to “just be Blake. He doesn’t need to change at all.”

But things are different. For one, Rivers played Griffin almost 41 1/2 minutes. And the offense takes on another look without Paul as well.

“The quarterback, when he’s not there, we kind of do more of a spread formation, get the ball to Blake down low,” said Jared Dudley, who scored 18 points.

Griffin does more than just form an effective high-low combo with DeAndre Jordan, something he’d already established. He found a fly-route-running Jordan with a 60-foot outlet pass for a dunk in the first half. And he consistently got the ball to the wings in the half-court offense.

“DJ is diving hard, that creates so much attention,” Griffin said. “You can pick and choose guys on the perimeter.

“It’s our execution offensively without the ball.”

It’s Griffin who’s getting them the rock. And it was Griffin who got the ball repeatedly in the half-court offense, going inside, absorbing the fouls, cashing in often enough at the line to get him to 29 points on only 14 field goal attempts.

All the stuff you won’t be seeing on YouTube.

Phil Jackson's lone branch manager

January, 6, 2014
Jan 6
2:08
AM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- The Phil Jackson coaching tree isn’t exactly one of those majestic Norway spruces you see in Rockefeller Center every December. It’s more like the sapling in "A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

It’s a mystery that in sports, where imitation is usually the sincerest form of imitation, that the most accomplished coach in the NBA’s history hasn’t spawned a new flock of mentees around the league. Instead, the number of Phil Jackson descendants currently holding a head coaching job is one. Solamente uno. Brian Shaw of the Denver Nuggets.

From an offense that’s out of favor to a style that’s just ... out there, there are just too many elements to Jackson that did not inspire owners around the league to raid his staffs. Shaw, who played on three of Jackson’s championship teams and was alongside him as an assistant coach for two others in Los Angeles, interviewed with 12 different teams before he landed the Nuggets job.
[+] EnlargeBrian Shaw
Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY SportsNuggets coach Brian Shaw returned to Los Angeles as the lone Phil Jackson disciple leading an NBA team.

“As I was interviewing for jobs, all the way through, I would call [Jackson] up and say that I felt he was always going to be my biggest asset in terms of being able to be affiliated and associated with him and mention his name and what we did to achieve the success that we had,” Shaw said. “And [he] jokingly said it actually was the biggest liability for me.”

It even hurt him in Los Angeles, where the Lakers purged pretty much everyone associated with Jackson after he left in 2011. (Girlfriend Jeanie Buss stayed, however. It helped that she was a team president.)

Jackson’s only other footholds are with assistant coaches Jim Cleamons on the Milwaukee Bucks and Kurt Rambis on the Los Angeles Lakers. Cleamons and Rambis also had head coaching turns in the league after working with Jackson. Cleamons was with the Dallas Mavericks and Rambis with the Minnesota Timberwolves; neither lasted past their second seasons and both wound up back on the bench next to Jackson.

“His coaches that have gone on to coach, from Jim Cleamons and Kurt Rambis, people say, ‘They didn’t have any success,'" Shaw said. “Well, it’s tough to teach the triangle when Phil had all of the coaches and players that played in the system.

“Even when Kurt went to Minnesota, the assistant coaches that he had didn’t have any experience in the triangle to teach it or answer any questions about it.”

Shaw thinks the offense is too complicated to ask the head coach to teach it by himself, so without players who know it or a staff to help with the instructions he hasn’t bothered to fully install it in Denver. He runs elements of the triangle, just as he worked to incorporate pieces into the offense of the Indiana Pacers when he was an assistant coach there. He wanted to have some structure, not be as dependent on transition baskets as previous Denver teams have been because he doesn’t believe that style will lead to success in the playoffs. (The eight first-round exits in nine playoff appearances under predecessor George Karl back up that assertion).

“I’m running more generic versions of offense that every team in the league runs, because I don’t have personnel with me or staff with me that has experience with running the triangle,” Shaw said.

One NBA scout described Denver’s offense as “Very limited. Basic.”

True triangle mavens are a lost breed from another era, like the Jedi knights in the original “Star Wars.” One problem is that Jackson himself was the apprentice even when he was the head coach. The triangle offense was the creation of Jackson’s elder and coaching mentor, Tex Winter (who dubbed it the triple-post offense). Their presence is felt more in Springfield, Mass., than NBA arenas these days. What does it say when there are more triangle offense disciples in the Hall of Fame than current practitioners in the NBA?

Another issue that Kobe Bryant brought up is that it’s not just the system, it’s the style ... the way of life, even.

“Phil’s philosophies are different, to say the least, in terms of how he teaches the game and how he coaches the game,” Bryant said. “There’s some X’s and O’s to it, obviously. But he teaches players, he teaches guys how to play. He teaches from a place of Zen, he teaches from a place of emotional balance. And it’s hard to duplicate that. It’s hard to replicate that. It has to be something that’s a part of you. His philosophies and beliefs, the meditation and all that, it’s very, very hard to duplicate that.

“The system is predicated on the spirituality of the game. In terms of being in the moment and reacting to situations, balance. How [Jackson] teaches the system comes directly from his beliefs and his philosophies spiritually. That’s why you see the teams that go out there and try to run it in the past, they don’t have the same level of success.”

Shaw admitted he doesn’t even bother to try some of Jackson’s tricks, such as burning sage in the locker room to cleanse it of bad vibes during a losing streak.

“It wouldn’t go over if I tried to do something like that,” Shaw said.

That’s because it wouldn’t be a reflection of who he is. Shaw is from Oakland in the 1970s and '80s, not a kid from the prairies who lived in Greenwich Village in the '60s.

Yes, part of the tree’s paucity is that Jackson was so unique that people realize he’s impossible to duplicate.

Part of it is because of Jackson’s aloof nature. Jackson didn’t make many friends at league headquarters because he rarely acquiesced to the NBA’s demands/requests.

He wasn’t big on schmoozing. (One time he blew off a respectful Mike Krzyzewski, the modern college equivalent of Jackson, and left Coach K fuming.) You didn’t see him chatting down by the other bench before or after games. He purposefully mispronounced other coaches' names.

“Phil stayed purposefully disconnected from people around the league,” Shaw said. “That was his thing: Keep everybody at bay, because he wanted to have an edge. He wasn’t part of any coach’s clique or anything like that. There’s other coaches around the league that anything they touch turns to gold. If they anoint this guy he’s going to be coach or a GM.”

Sure seems that way for Gregg Popovich. The San Antonio Spurs’ web spreads from coast to coast, with coaches Brett Brown (Philadelphia) Mike Brown (Cleveland), Jacque Vaughn (Orlando), Mike Budenholzer (Atlanta), Monty Williams (New Orleans) and Doc Rivers (Los Angeles Clippers), along with front office executives Danny Ferry (Atlanta), Sam Presti (Oklahoma City), Dell Demps (New Orleans), Kevin Pritchard (Indiana) and Rob Hennigan (Orlando).

One reason for the proliferation of Pop people was told to me when I examined the phenomenon last year: there’s a belief that the Popovich way can work in small markets with smaller budgets, and not just in L.A. or Chicago with Kobe, Shaq or Michael Jordan. Of course, we have yet to see any of the Spurs’ spawns achieve San Antonio’s success. It might be too much to ask of the Spurs themselves once Tim Duncan is gone.

That hasn’t stopped franchise after franchise from trying to get themselves a piece of what Pop’s done in San Antonio. Meanwhile, Shaw goes at it alone, the only head coach who’s an associate of the best that ever did it.

“I feel blessed and fortunate to have coached and been around Phil and learned everything that I learned under him,” Shaw said. “I would never deny what it’s done for me. I’m proud to be from his coaching tree, even if I’m the trunk, the branches the leaves and everything all by myself.”

'Cowardly' means no more rivalry lyin'

December, 26, 2013
12/26/13
3:26
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Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
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OAKLAND, Calif. -- Until Wednesday, Clippers vs. Warriors was more a battle of wills than words. Despite attempts on both sides to downplay the mutual contempt, to cycle through the synonyms in an attempt to use any phrase but “rivalry,” the action always said otherwise. Two games this season have resulted in seven technical fouls and two flagrant fouls. But all it took was one adjective from Blake Griffin to take things to a new level. It was a word that insults the Warriors’ manhood: “cowardly.”

As in, “That’s cowardly basketball.”

That was Griffin’s description of what transpired on the Christmas nightcap, when the two teams tangled in the Golden State Warriors' 105-103 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers that was still being fought after the final buzzer. When Chris Paul tried to grab the ball from Andrew Bogut, Bogut refused to surrender it and suddenly there were players and coaches from both teams -- most notably recently signed Clipper Stephen Jackson -- swarming to the area. Anytime Stephen Jackson is on the scene the tension just feels higher, no matter if a punch is thrown or not.

Griffin was already in the locker room when that transpired, having received technical fouls after tussling with Draymond Green after a flagrant-2 foul was called for a Green elbow at the end of the third quarter, and for locking into a jersey-grabbing standoff with Bogut on a play that Bogut was called for a flagrant-1 just more than a minute into the fourth quarter.

Griffin felt Bogut tried to lure the officials into calling a second technical foul on Griffin -- and the automatic ejection that comes with it.

Said Bogut: “I was trying to box him out. He's a tough offensive rebounder. Just a little physicality. I think it should have been a foul for each of us and just move on.”

The Warriors like to toy with the media, refusing to buy into the premise that there’s a rivalry or any other added animosity to this series.

Mark Jackson called the meetings “Tough, hard-fought games. I still think it’s not a rivalry.”

To him, Knicks vs. Bulls or Knicks vs. Pacers in his playing days were rivalries. It means meeting in May with survival at stake, not two teams who haven’t faced each other in the playoffs.

Stephen Curry used the words “competitive” and “energetic.” Those no longer suffice. These meetings aren’t the same as the rest of the schedule. One Warrior even admitted he told a family to expect a minimum of three skirmishes in this game, because that’s how these two teams are against each other. (He hit the number, if you include the postgame scuffle).

Now that Griffin called them cowardly they have no choice but to treat him and the Clippers differently, lest they prove Griffin correct.


Kobe, Lakers figuring how it all will work

December, 11, 2013
12/11/13
2:51
AM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
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LOS ANGELES -- OK, so Kobe looked a little more like Kobe. The thing is, the Lakers look nothing like the Lakers -- whatever that is supposed to be these days.

Kobe Bryant scored 20 points Tuesday night, more than double the output in his season debut Sunday. He backed defenders down, worked them from side to side, even drove by one for a dunk. It couldn’t prevent the Lakers from losing to the Phoenix Suns, couldn’t keep them from dropping two games in as many tries since Kobe returned from that torn Achilles tendon, couldn’t stop from losing their way like a horse that wandered off the ranch.

The Lakers had found something that worked well enough to win six of their previous eight games. They spread the floor and fired in 3-pointers. They had roles and rotations.

As of Sunday, they had to change.

Kobe Bryant’s presence is too large for him to quietly slip in the room and take a seat in the back row. Coach Mike D’Antoni is trying to figure out which lineups work best around Kobe. In an extreme example of the shuffling, Robert Sacre went from starting in Sacramento on Friday to sitting with a DNP-Coach’s Decision by his name in the box score Tuesday. D’Antoni is throwing combinations that have never played together in NBA games before, and that newness is most evident on defense. The Lakers were particularly susceptible to breakdowns on the back end of the defense Tuesday night. That’s how the Suns could manage 56 points in the paint, and why the Suns won the game 114-108.

“It’s trying to figure out the best combination and trying to get through the period where guys are adjusting to each other,” D’Antoni said.

The players are adjusting to Bryant while Bryant adjusts to them -- and himself -- as he figures out how to manage his slower, ground-based attack. Two games in, he’s decided he wants to leave his ballhandling, initiating days in the past and operate closer to the basket. Oh, and set screens. Lots of them. If the detailed statistical data were available for all 1,241 of his NBA games, I’m sure this would be the highest number of screens he’d ever set.

“It’s part of the evolution,” Bryant said. “It’s figuring out what we have. How to adjust around that.”

But as the Laker offense becomes more concentrated in one region, it makes it easier for the opposing defense to cover them with less ground. It also brings another Laker below the free throw line, which makes it tougher for them to get back in transition defense.

Another issue for D’Antoni is that if he pairs the two Lakers who are most familiar with each other, Bryant and Pau Gasol, it makes the unit on the floor slower.

But the Lakers were never going to be about defense, regardless of who played. They’re not built that way, and D’Antoni doesn’t emphasize it. This week, though, there was a shift in the offense.

The Lakers had shot better than 40 percent from 3-point range this season, the No. 3 long-range accuracy in the league. They made 32 percent on Sunday and 26 percent Tuesday.

Jodie Meeks had made the most 3s on the team, but “tonight they ran me off,” he said.

He still made one of the most successful adjustments to playing with Bryant, actually taking over Bryant’s old role of attacking the basket. Before Tuesday, half of Meeks’ baskets had been 3-pointers, but against the Suns four of his five field goals came from inside the arc.

“I didn’t want to force up a lot of [3s],” Meeks said. “I saw the lane open and took it.”

The Suns, meanwhile, didn’t adjust. They’ve found something that works for them. It’s remarkable that it’s shaped up so early given that there’s a new coach with a team that traded its second through fifth top scorers from a year ago.

But the Suns let the 3-pointers fly, they convert fast-break opportunities and, most impressively, they get after the ball. That last attribute showed up with a 43-33 rebounding advantage Tuesday night.

It would have been interesting to see what would have happened had the Lakers kept it a little closer. The Suns were 1-4 in games decided by three points or fewer, and maybe Kobe could have prevailed in a possession-by-possession showdown. But the Suns didn’t let it happen.

The Morris twins combined for 18 points, five rebounds and three assists in the fourth quarter, and the Suns kept the Lakers at bay.

“That’s how we do!” Marcus Morris yelled as he ran back into the Suns’ locker room at Staples Center.

The Suns actually have a “how we do.” The Lakers don’t. At least not yet.

Knicks' needs: how 'bout hair products?

November, 28, 2013
11/28/13
2:12
AM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
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On this day, no matter what your circumstances, you can be grateful you’re not the New York Knicks.

For a Los Angeles Clippers team that still has kinds to work out, at least they don’t need the major repairs necessary to fix 3-11 New York. Doc Rivers keeps saying he believes things are getting better for his team. No such optimism from his Knicks counterpart.

“We’ve got too many gaps right now,” Mike Woodson said.

They include a porous defense that sorely misses Tyson Chandler, their injured basket protector. There’s an offense that lacks a reliable Plan B if Carmelo Anthony isn’t scoring. And there’s the malaise that’s settling into this dispirited group, a bunch of players who look broken every time they head to the bench for a timeout, players who are getting tired of coming up with explanations for a losing streak that’s stretched to seven games after they fell to the Clippers, 93-80, Wednesday night.

“It’s mind-boggling,” Knicks guard Raymond Felton said.

The Knicks have stooped so low that they’ve even knocked the delusion out of their fan base. For decades Knicks fans were convinced they were just one trade or free agent signing away from a championship, no matter how far the gap was in reality. These days there’s none of that false hope. They don’t even get to wish for one of the talented crop of collegiate players, because the Knicks sent their 2014 draft pick to Denver in the Carmelo Anthony trade.

If Carmelo Anthony’s shots are falling they can hang in games; they only faced a four-point deficit at halftime after Anthony scored 19 points. But he shot 2 for 8 in the second half and no one picked up for him the way the Clippers managed to hold the fort after Chris Paul left with a strained left hamstring.

Seven points for J.R. Smith, two points for Iman Shumpert, four points for Amar’e Stoudemire (who had a plus/minus of minus-29 in 20 minutes).

Metta World Peace, who missed all six of his field goal attempts, attempted to frame the Knicks’ predicament in ways an interviewer would understand.

“You know life is,” World Peace said. “You had a bad hair today, you know…It is what it is. You work at it. Next time, use activator.”

If only the solution to the Knicks’ problems could be found in a bottle.

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