In case you were busy waiting for some good news in the world of football, seriously, any good news, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday:
In a chippy Western Conference matchup that saw Matt Barnes and Serge Ibaka get ejected, Blake Griffin's double-double proved the difference as the Los Angeles Clippers beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 111-103. "It's not fair!" Ibaka yelled in the Thunder locker room after the game. "It doesn't make sense! Barnes pushed me. Why do I get ejected?" Thunder head coach Scott Brooks sat down next to his furious center, put his hand on Ibaka's back, and said, "Hey bud, sit down. Why do you think they ejected you?" But Ibaka snapped back, "Don't talk to me like that. I'm not a kid anymore, Scott! We're not kids anymore. We're grown men, and it's time you started treating us that way." Brooks smiled and said, "I know, Serge, come on," but Ibaka continued on, saying, "No! You don't know. They say you're a bad coach. They say you've always been a bad coach. Our offense is a joke. Griffin was laughing at our offense. They all were laughing. They all were laughing!" Ibaka balled up his fists and clenched his eyelids shut. Brooks looked at him and said, "Hey, bud. I get it. No one likes to be laughed at. But you don't fight my fights. We're all grown-ups here, Serge. Hey, Serge, look at me." Tears were visible in the corners of Ibaka's eyes as he shook his head, unable to look his coach in the eyes. "Sorry, Scott," Ibaka managed. "I just got carried away." Brooks touched Ibaka's head, told him, "No need to apologize," and started to walk away before turning back and adding, "You got ejected because they caught you fighting back. If you want to fight, you have to start it. That's part of being a man. Time to grow up, ace. Time to grow up."
And I know it was just one regular-season NBA game, most of the East Coast was asleep, and it probably changes nothing for what we expect from either team. But as single games go, it was so much more fun than it should've been. Let's start from the beginning.
In the lead-up to the 2013-14 NBA season, Grantland will examine key players — X factors — for contending teams.
You know how sometimes you go to a bar and once you get your bearings, you see that there is clearly someone there who has their charm dial tuned to the exact right frequency of the universe, and you’re just like, “Man, who brought Ferris Bueller?” That was DeAndre Jordan before Los Angeles Clippers home games during the regular season last year.
I went to a fair number of those games, and every one of them followed the same arc. There was Jordan, a tower of charm in a red-and-blue tracksuit, doling out knowing handshakes to players on the opposing team, cracking up while going through his stretches, rapping along to Trinidad James (“WOO!”), and taking the breath away of the admittedly sparse pregame Staples crowd (see SNL's “The Californians” sketch) during the Clippers’ dunk line.
It’s been quite the offseason for the Los Angeles Clippers. By re-signing Chris Paul, snatching Doc Rivers away from the Celtics, turning Eric Bledsoe’s potential and Caron Butler’s contract into J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, and retaining Matt Barnes, the Clips have been remolded as a true Western Conference power.
Paul’s presence on the roster essentially guarantees Los Angeles a top-flight offense and should alleviate any cause for concern related to the dreary and unimaginative system Rivers’s Celtics used for the last few years. Over the past six seasons, Paul’s teams have scored 109.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the court — good enough to place in the top four in efficiency in any of those seasons. Paul already has wonderful chemistry with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan in the pick-and-roll, and the dead-eye shooting of Redick (39.0 percent from beyond the arc in his career) and Dudley (40.5 percent) should make that trio even more dangerous by manufacturing more room for Paul and the Clippers’ bigs to operate in the middle of the floor.
The concerns for this Clippers team will come on the defensive end. Griffin, Jordan, and backup center Ryan Hollins are the only players on the current roster taller than 6-foot-7. None of them could be described as a game-changing defender at this point in his career, or even a consistently above-average one. Griffin and Jordan each improved last season, but both still struggled to defend pick-and-rolls and were often a half-step slow or late when called on to rotate behind the play. Any good defensive coach will tell you those half-steps cumulatively make up the difference between a top defense and a middling one, and after a strong start to the season, the Clippers defense could only be described as middling.
For some, it took yesterday’s scene in Playa Vista — Doc Rivers, seated in front of a Clippers background, just behind a branded placard bearing his name — to believe this was real. As the rumors of a Rivers trade began, and through the negotiation’s stops and starts, there seemed to be endless opportunities for the Clippers to be the Clippers, to bungle what could be a franchise-altering decision that might serve as one of the final steps from cursed organization to actual contender. But there he was, the highest-paid coach in the NBA, wedged between team president Andy Roeser and vice-president of basketball operations Gary Sacks. There was Doc Rivers, head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers.
You can count Doc among those nonbelievers. By Sunday, he’d resigned himself to a return to Boston. Conversations with Danny Ainge about the state of the Celtics' roster had already begun, and when Rivers stepped into his son’s AAU game and turned off his phone, he wasn’t prepared for what awaited him when he powered it back on. There were a couple calls from Danny Ainge and more than a dozen from Rivers’s agent. “That's how volatile this whole thing was and had been," Rivers said. "I thought that this just took a long, winding path, but it found its way, so I'm happy."
As Rivers entered the gym at the Clippers’ practice facility yesterday, he did so in a polo shirt, slacks, and what looked like a pair of casual sneakers. This had all happened so fast that Rivers left straight from his offseason home in Orlando, where his wardrobe is mostly shorts and T-shirts. There wasn’t a suit to be had.
The trio was introduced by Clippers play-by-play announcer Ralph Lawler, and Sacks wasted no time in outlining the magnitude of the day. “This is truly one of the biggest moments in Clippers history,” Sacks said. “We feel [Doc] is the best coach in the NBA and a perfect fit for our organization.” In the 30 or so minutes Rivers spent in front of a microphone yesterday, he was every bit the media-savvy presence he’d been in Boston. At one point, he asked that everyone refrain from using the “best coach” bit; he’d just watched the Finals like everyone else here. “I hope this is the last time I’m the center of attention,” Rivers said.
There are two fairly recent precedents for what happened with the Clippers and Celtics and Doc Rivers over the past 10 days. The first began on June 5, 1995, when Pat Riley, while still under contract with the Knicks, sent a secret 14-point memo to the Miami Heat outlining his contract demands, which included a 20 percent ownership stake, plus "$300 per diem expenses, credit cards, limousine service to and from games and a $15 million salary over five years."
Apparently that worked for Micky Arison and the Heat, because 10 days later Riley faxed a letter of resignation to the Knicks. Three months later, after the Knicks accused Miami of tampering and all this evidence — of, uh, blatant tampering — became public, the Heat agreed to send $4 million and a first-round pick to the Knicks as compensation. That's trade no. 1, and there are two lessons to be learned.
1. Never, ever trust Pat Riley.
2. In 1995, it was good to be negotiating contracts as Pat Riley.
The long game in the NBA is fickle. Luck intertwines with talent to determine long-term success in a 30-team league in which having at least one of the top 20 players (and preferably one of the top 10) is required for championship contention. The luck + talent + decision-making equation tilted against two local lightning rods on Tuesday, one coach and one GM. Some words on each:
The Clippers Decline to Offer Vinny Del Negro, and Del Negro’s Hair, a New Contract
Del Negro is by some measures the most successful coach in the sad history of the Clippers, but 56 wins and back-to-back playoff appearances were not enough to earn a new contract — not after the Clips dropped four straight games, each more dispiriting than the last, to a very good Memphis team in the first round. It’s hard to evaluate this decision without first acknowledging four realities so basic they are almost boring:
• Del Negro would still have this job if Chris Paul wanted him to have it.
• Del Negro may well still have this job had Blake Griffin not suffered a serious ankle injury between Games 4 and 5 of the Clippers’ first-round series against the Grizzlies.
• With Del Negro out, and probably unlikely to get one of the head-coaching jobs currently open (or soon to come open), there is a vacancy atop the “Best Coach at Screaming at Opposing Shooters and Stamping His Feet” rankings. Del Negro really redefined this skill. He was like a sixth defender on some possessions, and if you edited out the basketball game happening around him, he’d have looked at times like an adult going through a child’s tantrum. Lawrence Frank was a solid no. 2, but he’s also out of a job for now. The door is wide-open, Erik Spoelstra.
• Del Negro might still have this job if the Clippers played defense in the second half of the season, and in the playoffs, as they did over the first 30 games. The Clippers finished ninth in points allowed per possession, but they ranked just 21st from February 1 through the end of the season, and the slowpoke Grizzlies absolutely sliced them up in the playoffs. The Clippers were bad defensively almost the whole season when the Blake Griffin–DeAndre Jordan duo shared the back line, and they just never showed enough growth or systemic coherence on that end. The Clippers’ bench was mostly very good defensively, and both Griffin and Jordan showed fits of progress — Jordan protecting the rim and defending the post, Griffin using his speed to disrupt pick-and-rolls far from the hoop.
Together, they’re the best frontcourt in basketball, but in last night’s 103-93 Game 5 win, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph did it one at a time. It started with Gasol, just after the second half began. Memphis had a six-point lead by the end of two quarters, but it was in the third that the Grizzlies took control, on the shoulders of their Spanish big man. Starting at about the 10-minute mark, Gasol touched the ball on the low block on seemingly every possession. He either scored or assisted the next four Grizzlies baskets, and in three minutes, Memphis built a 10-point lead it would never relinquish.
From the start, it was clear each team knew this game was probably it. For the Clippers, a loss meant having to travel back to the Grindhouse and a frothing Friday-night crowd looking to seal the series. And for Memphis, it would mean that, at best, it would be heading back to Los Angeles for a Game 7, in a building where it couldn’t seem to win. The result was an edge from the opening tip. Chris Paul, normally content to wade his way into a game by creating offense for others, took the ball to the rim from the start, and the amount of contact in the paint never seemed to subside. By game’s end, Gasol’s shoulders were a collection of scratch marks, and it was in part because of that style of play (and in part because of a terrible call) that he left the game after picking up his fifth foul with more than 10 minutes remaining in the fourth.
I guess when you have someone who plays crunch time in bullet time, it's not really crunch time, is it? When you have someone capable of scoring eight of your final 10 points, you don't really have to worry that your half-court offense is entirely reliant on moments of individual brilliance from your stars, rather than finding open looks for players through passing and off-the-ball movement. There's something magical about the Clippers (and I don't mean that in the sun-dappled, wheat-field-blowing way ... I mean that in the down-market Vegas lounge act way). You watch them, and it just doesn't make any sense. You could tell me they had the best or worst offensive efficiency in the league (it's closer to the former), and I'd believe you. But when you have Chris Paul in the fourth quarter, magic goes out the window. It stops making sense. Maybe you don't want to need him — if the Clippers had done better than 2-of-15 from behind the arc, or hadn't fouled the Grizzlies back into the game, they might not have required his legendary crunch-time services — but it's nice to know he's there, just in case.
So much amazing is happening, and the Shootaround crew is here to help you keep track of it all. You'll find takes on moments you might've missed from the previous night, along with ones you will remember forever.
He Ate the Bones
Bucks coach Jim Boylan on LeBron James: "I mean, what can you do?"
A survey of the players and teams making moves in last night's NBA action.
1. Blake Griffin
There are nights when he sulks, glares at the officials after every whistle, mopes past his coach (you'll see why in a second), and throws his hands in the air when he doesn't get the ball on an offensive possession. There are nights when you watch him and think, what are you? Are you a human highlight reel wrapped around an otherwise average power forward who is a below-average defender with limited shooting range? There are nights when you ask, why, in the name of all that is holy, if you can do what you can do in that video above, would you ever burn six seconds on the shot clock so that you can crossover dribble a couple of times and launch a midrange jumper? And then there are nights (days, in this case) when Blake Griffin is basically unguardable.
(All GIFs by @HeyBelinda)
Dwight Howard is about as interested in getting involved with that dunk as he is in listening to yet another Kobe soliloquy about the benefits of ice baths and oxygen tanks.
In case you were out all night looking for the afikomen, here's what you missed in sports on Tuesday:
Dallas got a crucial win in the Western Conference playoff race, beating the Los Angeles Clippers, 109-102, at home. Clippers forward Blake Griffin, who had a potential game-winning shot waved off at the end of regulation after he fouled Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki, said after the game, "Dirk, man, respect his game, but the guy's a real Batusi dancer." When told of Griffin's comments, a puzzled Nowitzki asked, "Wait, is he calling me old? Like Adam West? Or lame? Is he saying I cheated? I don't get it. We won the game. What the hell is this? Ask him what he meant by that." When asked, however, Griffin responded, "Nah, guy just dances the Batusi, you know" before winking at the gathered media and jutting out his mouthpiece with a half smile.
The United States Men's National Team earned a rare road point at the Estadio Azteca, holding Mexico to a scoreless draw in a World Cup–qualifying match. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann credited his team's resolve to their prematch preparation, in which Klinsmann himself berated his team in Spanish and threw bags of unidentifiable liquids at them as they attempted corner kicks. When asked if his own experience winning matches in Mexico with West Germany led him to that training technique, Klinsmann responded, "Um sure. Yes. Let's go with that."
Two nights ago, as the Spurs and Thunder tangled in a rematch of last season’s most exciting playoff series, it was easy to drool over another San Antonio–Oklahoma City conference finals. The old lion, its pinpoint system bolstered by some new tweaks in talent and Gregg Popovich’s playing rotation, scrambling for one more Finals appearance at the expense of the young bucks who appeared to solve that system last June.
And then, a jolt: Remember the Clippers? Remember in January, when the Western Conference was a three-team discussion? The Clippers ceded the spotlight after Denver ended their 17-game winning streak, and that light has never really returned. The Clips have gone a pedestrian 20-14 since the streak; did the league lose a contender when everyone stopped looking and the presumptive title favorite began its own monster streak?
Chris Ryan: Because you're supposed to jump, dummy! You're supposed to stop the opposing player from scoring. Look, nobody finds all this Brandon Knight R.I.P. stuff more hilarious than me. I'm a big proponent of dunk-as-finishing-move. But let's give him a little bit of credit here. Knight's Pistons were down 19 points at the time of this … incident. Nobody made him challenge one of the Game of Thrones dragons to what was essentially a suicide mission of a jump ball. I don't know; maybe it's just Sunday night/Monday morning blues, and I'm reacting to Blake and Co. hulking out on the bench, even though everyone can see how hard Knight hits the deck. Lots of players get Mozgov'd or Weis'd because they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. There's something pretty admirable about Brandon Knight throwing caution to the wind and trying to make a play here. He also had the stones/wherewithal to get up, dust himself off (once Greg Monroe and Charlie Villanueva were done staring at him like the man who fell to earth), bring the ball back down the court, get fouled, and make some free throws. Brandon Knight challenges people. He went after Kyrie and got his eyebrows singed, and he tried to dogfight with DeAndre Jordan and wound up on an express elevator to the earth's core for his troubles. We spend so much time celebrating the kind of play DeAndre made here, maybe we should spend more time celebrating the kind Knight makes.