All Ball Sports: the end of the Clipper Curse, Nash’s Nets, and RUHS’s strong CIF run
Clippers set sail, Nash trashed (unfairly), listen to LeBron
by Paul Teetor
From now on, the Clippers are officially more about their future than about their forgettable past. For the first time in their long and – dare we say it – cursed history, their fans have something solid and substantial to look forward to.
Today, tomorrow, next week and next year their future is brighter than the ocean’s glare at high noon.
Forget about the 120-114 loss to the Phoenix Suns Sunday afternoon in the first game of the Western Conference Finals. As far as these Clippers are concerned, they’ve got the Suns right where they want them. Indeed, the Clips could lose game 2 Tuesday night and still feel confident. At this point, they’re the king of comebacks, the first team in NBA history ever to overcome 0-2 deficits in consecutive series. There’s no reason they couldn’t do it again.
That’s because something spiritual, something magical, something that really can’t be categorized in an earthly way happened this week as they beat the top-seeded Utah Jazz Friday night for a 4-2 series win that propelled them into the WCF. The game 6 victory happened in front of a rocking and rolling crowd on the first night of full capacity allowed at the Staples Center, and it felt like a turning point in franchise history, a night and a victory that will never be forgotten.
It wasn’t just that they advanced past the second round for the first time in the franchise’s 51-year history.
And it wasn’t just that they came back from an 0-2 series deficit after doing the same thing against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round.
And it wasn’t just that they won the last two games without their best player, Kawhi Leonard, the best two-way player in the league. He is out with a knee injury courtesy of a dirty play by Utah’s Joe Ingles late in game 4.
And it wasn’t even that their second-best player, Paul George, scored 37 points in game 5 and 34 points in game 6 while finally living up to the “Playoff P” nickname that he gave himself three years ago and has been mercilessly mocked for ever since.
No, the really magical aspect of the incredible comeback to win four straight games after falling into an 0-2 hole was that for the first time in forever the Clippers played a style of hoops that encompassed all the old coaching cliches that seem so outdated in the modern NBA game: share the ball, hit the open man, make the extra pass and play for each other. Oh, and they’re playing suffocating defense at the other end of the court.
In other words, they are now playing the antithesis of the hero ball that was their trademark until this year.
Hero ball is simple: one player goes one-on-one trying to beat his man for an isolation score. If he can’t free himself up for a shot or an assist, he then reluctantly gives up the ball to the next guy to try his luck. Rinse and repeat until someone scores or, more likely, misses. That selfish style is all gone now in favor of a free-flowing, equal opportunity, quick passing style that’s working like a charm.
With the glaring exception of the team’s two noted knuckleheads – point guard Rajon Rondo and center DeMarcus Cousins – everyone on the roster has bought into what new Clippers Coach Ty Lue is selling. Indeed, Lue has given only a few minutes per game to a sulking Rondo, and even less to Cousins, the former All-Star who never was as good as he thought he was and now is a shell of his former bruising post-monster self.
If you look closely at the Clippers transformation from chokers to winners, the key change came right after last season when money-bags owner Steve Ballmer made the tough-but-necessary decision to cut Coach Doc Rivers loose, and promote his assistant Ty Lue to the head coach job.
Not only has Lue led the Clippers team to the first WCF in its history, but on the other side of the coin Rivers presided over his latest fiasco Sunday afternoon.
His new team, the Philadelphia 76ers, who finished with the best record in the east in the regular season, collapsed in game 7 of their second-round series Sunday afternoon and were beaten by the extreme underdog, the fifth seeded Atlanta Hawks. That horrible loss only added to Doc’s dubious playoff record. He has coached the most teams ever to blow a 3-1 series lead, just as the Clippers did last year against the Denver Nuggets. That’s what finally got him fired here.
As well as the Clippers are playing right now, and as much as Lue is making all the right in-game adjustments, they’re not going to beat Phoenix and get to the NBA Finals unless Kawhi returns, and returns soon.
As much as the Suns miss point guard Chris Paul – who is out right now after testing positive for Covid-19 last week – he is merely the conductor of the Suns’ offense. Superstar shooting guard Devin Booker, who had 40 points in game 1, is the lead player, just as Kawhi is for the Clippers. Booker is so talented and so skilled that he looks like Kobe Bryant 2.0, minus the edgy personality and selfish gene that alienated so many teammates and opponents alike.
It is clear Chris Paul will return soon, either by Tuesday night or almost definitely by Thursday night’s game 3 in the Staples Center, where he ran wild for five years with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, but never could get the Clips into the Western Conference Finals, much less deliver an NBA championship while he was in his prime.
But if Kawhi isn’t back and playing at least 90 percent, the Clips could be knocked out pretty quickly. Even then the season would be a triumph for having gotten this far, for having found the right coach in Lue, and for having forged the kind of team chemistry it takes to go all the way and win an NBA championship at some point in the near future.
There’s only one dark cloud on the horizon: Kawhi has two more years on his contract, but they are a player option and he has already indicated he is going to decline the option and sign a new contract with someone and make even more money than the $37 million per year he is owed by the Clippers.
But there is every reason to believe that someone will be the Clippers. First, he hand-picked Playoff P as his star partner, he lured backup center Serge Ibaka from the Toronto Raptors, where they won an NBA title together, and he’s from SoCal and loves living here with family and friends close by.
Steve Nash gets Big-Footed
Kevin Durant wears a size 18 sneaker. If he wore a size 16 or even a size 17, Manhattan Beach’s own Steve Nash would now be coaching the Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference Finals.
But because the very front tip of Durant’s sneaker was barely touching the outside edge of the three-point line, his incredible bucket with time expiring only tied Saturday night’s game 7 against the Milwaukee Bucks and sent it into overtime instead of going down as one of the greatest buzzer beating winners in all of hoops history.
“My big-assed foot stepped on the line,” Durant said after the heartbreaking loss. “I saw how close I came to ending their season with that shot.”
In overtime, Nash’s Nets scored only four points, devolved into a one-man attack – Durant against the world – and they fell by a final score of 113-111.
While the Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo moved on to the Eastern Conference Finals against the Atlanta Hawks, first-year Coach Nash was receiving his first dose of sustained criticism from hoops fans and commentators.
The accusatory questions flowed like champagne at a post-game victory celebration.
When it became obvious the Bucks were swarming KD every time he got the ball, why didn’t Nash run a 1-4 offense with Durant at the top of the key and his four teammates flared out along the baseline to give KD viable targets to pass to for open shots?
Why didn’t Nash call a timeout and set up a play when the Nets got a rebound trailing by 3 points with 8 seconds left in overtime? His players were exhausted and confused, didn’t seem to know what to do, and ended up with Durant barfing up a 25-foot airball as time expired.
Leading the charge against Nash was ESPN shouter Stephen A. Smith, who came up with a list of five reasons Monday morning for the Nets’ shocking departure from the playoffs. Nash and his zero prior coaching experience — at any level of basketball — was listed as the second reason. I guess working with the kids at American Martyrs doesn’t count.
First and foremost, of course, was the Nets’ loss of superstar guard Kyrie Irving with a bad ankle sprain. The second member of their big 3, compulsive scorer James Harden, missed all but the last two games with a hamstring injury. And even when he did play, he was hobbled in his movements and played like just another guy on the court, not the no-doubt future Hall of Famer.
So Nash was left with one of his Big 3 – Durant, who happens to be the best player alive unless and until LeBron comes back 100 percent healthy next year – and it wasn’t quite enough to get the Nets into the Eastern Conference Finals.
Smith had the temerity to bring up Irving’s preseason comment that with him, Harden and Durant the Nets didn’t even need a coach, that they could coach themselves.
Clearly, that wasn’t true. Nash did a great job with the players he had left. And if he did make a few mistakes, All Ball has no doubt he will learn from those mistakes and come back better than ever next season.
Not even the greatest coaches in pro basketball history – Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson or Pat Riley – could overcome the loss of two superstars in the playoffs.
Nor could they have convinced Durant to wear sneakers one size smaller.
Welcome to the NBA playoffs, Coach Nash.
LeBron’s crystal ball
The four most annoying words in the English language are “I told you so.”
That one simple phrase can set nerves aflame even when the one claiming to have been right all along turns out to have been right all along. You know, like those who warned back in 2015 that Donald Trump would be the worst president in American history if he ever managed to get elected. Why, he could turn out to be so crazy and incompetent that he might even incite an insurrection, bungle a pandemic or try to steal an election at some point.
But when an “I told you so” comes from LeBron James, it’s not annoying – it’s enlightening.
That’s what happened this week when the Lakers’ best player called out the owner’s greed as the real reason for the rash of injuries to big-time players that has diminished this year’s playoffs.
The playoffs are still exciting and plenty dramatic, but such stars as the Lakers Anthony Davis, the Clippers Kawhi Leonard, the Boston Celtics’ Jaylen Brown, Denver’s Jamal Murray, Philly’s Joel Embid, Utah’s Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley, and the Suns’ Chris Paul all missed at least one playoff game. Some of them missed all their team’s games.
James was fed up with the rash of injuries that saw as inevitable and preventable.
“They all didn’t wanna listen to me about the start of the season,” James tweeted. “I knew exactly what would happen. These injuries aren’t just ‘PART OF THE GAME. It’s the lack of PURE RIM REST before starting back up.”
James, whose Lakers lost all-star forward Anthony Davis to injury before losing to the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the playoffs, was referring to the NBA’s decision to start this season in late December. James had lobbied for late January or early February.
But the NBA’s decision to start on Dec. 22 made for the shortest offseason in league history, thanks to the pandemic-delayed 2020 Finals that the Lakers won last October.
The league did make one concession to James, and the less-powerful players he spoke for. The NBA trimmed the regular season to 72 games, as opposed to the usual 82, and the start date allowed for the annual slate of Christmas Day games and a postseason staged mostly during a time of year to which fans have become accustomed to seeing playoff games on a nightly basis.
That helped the NBA’s bottom line financially, but it came at the expense of an offseason that had been shortened almost in half from the norm.
James himself was one of the main casualties, missing almost half the Lakers’ games this year. And even when he came back from a high ankle sprain, he lacked his usual explosiveness and the Lakers bowed out in the first round after Davis also got hurt.
After the Lakers were eliminated, James let loose with a series of provocative tweets. The most explosive: “This is the best time of the year for our league and fans are missing a ton of our fav players. It’s insane. If there’s one person that knows about the body and how it works all round it’s ME. I speak for the health of all our players and I hate to see this many injuries this time of the year. Sorry fans wish you guys were seeing all your fav guys right now.”
Memo to the NBA front office: When the king speaks, listen and learn.
It’s for your own good.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow: @paulteetor. ER
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