All Ball Sports: Clippers close, Beach Cities Klineman and Sponcil clinch Olympic berths

Last October, at 16th Street in Hermosa, Sarah Sponcil, and Kelly Claes placed first in an informal tournament loaded with the U.S.’s top beach volleyball players. Last week, in Ostrava, Czech Republic, Sponcil and Claes won gold in an FIVB tournament loaded with the world’s top  players. The win secured Sponcil, who lives in Hermosa, and Claes, who lives in Fullerton, a berth in the Tokyo Olympics. Photo by Brad Jacobson

by Paul Teetor

“Playoff P” is alive and well and living in Staples Center.

The question now, as always, is: can he keep on living – and winning?

Return on investment is a business concept that multi-billionaire Clippers owner Steve Ballmer understands better than most people. This week, with his team down 0-2 to the Utah Jazz in the second round of the NBA playoffs, Ballmer finally got a solid return on the huge investment he made two years ago in signing real superstar Kawhi Leonard and faux superstar Paul George to max contracts.

His massive investment blew up in his face last year when the Clippers choked against the Denver Nuggets in the second round of the playoffs after leading 3 games to 1. And it looked like the same thing was going to happen this year when the Jazz outclassed them to take a 2-0 lead last week.

But with the Clippers obits already being written and George being mocked once again for his ill-considered decision to give himself the nickname “Playoff P” a few years ago, the Clippers came roaring back to life this week.

In the process, both Kawhi and PG each scored more than 30 points for two games in a row for only the second time in their two years together. While Saturday’s win at the Staples Center was a welcome reprieve after the first two losses in Utah, Monday night’s 118-104 wire to wire victory felt like an inflection point for a franchise that desperately wants to reach its first Western Conference Finals ever.

It was a second straight win that felt like it just might be the start of something really special, something that could deliver Clippers fans what they had begun to think they might never see: an NBA championship.

The Clippers raced out to a 30-13 lead at the end of the first quarter Monday night and led the rest of the game. Kawhi scored 31 points with 9 rebounds and had the kind of ferocious dunk mid-way through the second quarter that is bound to be immortalized on a poster with Utah players looking up at him with a combination of fear and awe.

But the truth is those kinds of performances have become commonplace for Kawhi, a top-5 player and two-time NBA Finals Most Valuable Player, first with the San Antonio Spurs and two years ago with the Toronto Raptors. His defense, as always, was suffocating on whoever he was guarding.            

But it was a similar performance from Playoff P that really made the difference in these last two victories. The elite talent has always been there, but the focus, the competitiveness and the aggressiveness he has consistently shown in these last two games has too often been missing.

So what has changed?

Well, in the last week or so Playoff P has let it be known that Clippers assistant coach Chauncey Billups, a former All Star point guard, has been watching game tape with him every day and teaching the 6-foot-10 wing player to think like a point guard. To look for openings to attack the basket. And to understand that by driving to the rim and drawing defenders from all over the court he opens up everything else for his talented teammates who are waiting for their chance to score.

The fact that Billups is a candidate for several of the NBA coaching vacancies that have opened up since the end of the regular season is probably part of the reason Playoff P went public with Billups’ private coaching. No matter. Just because he’s trying to help a friend and mentor get a head coaching position doesn’t change the reality: Playoff P is finally living up to his self-given nickname. 

Game 5 in Utah Wednesday night and game 6 at Staples Center Friday night will tell us if he can keep it going. If he can, it says here that the Clippers will shock the world Sunday afternoon in game 7 at Utah and advance to the Western Conference Finals.

Anything less than that – making the WC Finals – will be considered another failure for the team put together two years ago by Ballmer and his deep pockets.

But even just making it to the NBA Finals will be considered a success, and a stepping-stone to an NBA Finals win next season.

Welcome to the NBA playoffs, Coach Nash

From the moment Steve Nash was named the new head coach of Brooklyn Nets last October, he has led a charmed life.

The long-time Manhattan Beach resident and NBA Hall of Fame point guard walked into a team led by a top-five player in Kevin Durant and a top-15 player in Kyrie Irving. Then a few weeks into the season, after top-5 player James Harden sulked his way out of Houston and forced the Rockets to trade him to Brooklyn, Nash found himself coaching a team with more firepower than any team in the history of the NBA.

Even the Lakers powerhouses of the 1980’s with Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy were never quite as explosive because Magic was not a good shooter, Abdul-Jabbar was nearing the end of his illustrious career, and Worthy was always dependent on Magic to get him the ball.

And the Michael Jordan led Chicago Bulls teams of the 90’s were not quite as explosive either. While Jordan was the greatest ever, their second-best player, Scottie Pippen, was more of a defender-facilitator-jack-of-all-trades type of player than a pure scorer. And there was no third best player on those teams, just a rotating cast of role players like under-sized shooters John Paxson and Steve Kerr and lumbering post man Bill Cartwright.

The Nets coaching job was such a cushy gig that ESPN shouter Stephen A. Smith described Nash getting the job without any prior coaching experience as a blatant example of “white privilege.”

Nash ignored Smith and his other critics and coached his team to the league’s third best record despite his Big Three of Durant, Irving and Harden playing only seven games together. Most of the time one of the three was out with an injury, and often two were out. But Brooklyn, especially after former Clipper star Blake Griffin joined them in mid-season, still had enough talent to crush most teams.

By the time the playoffs started last month, all three superstars were finally healthy and the Nets got off to a flying start. They buried the Boston Celtics 4-1 in the first round and never broke a sweat.

In the first minute of their first second-round game against the Milwaukee Bucks, however, Harden limped off the court with a hamstring injury and suddenly the Nets got nervous. But it turned out Durant and Irving were still enough of a dynamic duo that they were able to destroy the Bucks in the first two games, leading by as much as 49 points in the second game.

The Bucks scraped out a 3-point win in the third game, but Brooklyn still looked like the better team and was on track to win the series and head for the Eastern Conference Finals.

But in game 4 Sunday afternoon Irving went down with a nasty looking ankle sprain and the Nets, with only Durant left of the Big Three, lost by almost 20 points. Irving likely will not be able to play again for several weeks and might not play again at all if the Net do not advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Now we’ll see just what kind of coach Nash actually is. A coach with three superstars only has to manage big egos and hidden agendas. A coach with only one superstar and a bunch of role players has to actually coach. He has to motivate lesser players to play above their talent level, figure out how to help them succeed, and design a defense that will actually stop the Bucks once in a while instead of simply relying on his team’s ability to outscore them with superior firepower.

Welcome to the NBA playoffs, Coach Nash.           

The Kerri Walsh-Jennings era is (probably) over

When the (likely) end came for Kerri Walsh-Jennings’ long volleyball career this week, it came in a most unlikely way: a bad loss in a qualifying match to get into the main draw at a European event.

Following that pool play loss in Ostrava, Czech Republic last week with her partner Brooke Sweat, the winningest female player in beach volleyball history will be unable to add to her records of three Olympic Gold Medals and four Olympic appearances – unless she decides to come back in 2024 and try again when she will be 45 years old.

Which is unlikely.

But after she and Sweat lost the Ostrava match Walsh Jennings wasn’t thinking about the future. She was thinking about the agony of the defeat she had just endured.

“It’s a terrible, terrible feeling,” she said after the match. “It’s been a really rough year, and to lose in a qualifier, it feels really hard right now.”

That loss made official what was becoming more and more clear in the last few weeks: next-gen players 25-year-old Kelly Claes from Fullerton and 24-year-old Sarah Sponcil from Hermosa Beach would be the ones to join the A-Team of Manhattan Beach’s own Alix Klineman and April Ross as the two American Olympic entries in Tokyo.

Under Olympic rules, each country is limited to two teams per gender in beach volleyball. The A-Team nailed down their spot months ago by racing ahead of the pack and piling up so many qualifying points that no one could mathematically challenge them for the top spot.

Although it was still hypothetically possible that Walsh-Jennings/Sweat would overtake Claes/Sponcil for the second Olympic spot during the Ostrava event – the last qualifying event before Olympic entries were decided — it would have required a complete collapse by the younger players and a podium winning effort by Walsh-Jennings and Sweat.

Neither happened, and now it’s official: Claes/Sponcil will become the youngest beach volleyball duo ever to represent America in the Olympics. 

And the American Olympic volleyball teams are set for both genders: Ross/Klineman and Sponcil/Claes for the women, and Taylor Crabb/Jake Gibb and Phil Daulhasser/Nick Lucena for the men. Gibb, 45, will be the oldest beach volleyball player in Olympic history. His longevity demonstrates why Walsh-Jennings should not be counted out until she officially announces her retirement.

Whatever else happens in the Tokyo Olympics, whatever medals are won by various players and teams from various countries around the globe now or in future Olympics, it is unlikely anyone will ever match Walsh-Jennings’ long run of complete dominance over the professional volleyball tour and the Olympics. She won gold medals at Athens, Beijing and London with Misty May Treanor, and a silver medal in Rio de Janeiro with Ross.

For more than a decade, she had been the face of female professional volleyball before the A-Team took over that role several years ago. Now the Kerri Walsh era is apparently over.

The most incredible part: she dominated for more than eight years with May-Treanor as her partner, and then after May-Treanor retired Walsh continued it for another four years with Ross.

But all dynasties must end at some point, whether it’s the Roman empire, the LA Lakers or the 6-foot-2 spike specialist from Manhattan Beach whose nickname is 6-feet of sunshine.       

Contact: teetor.paul@gmail.com. Follow: @paulteetor. ER

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Written by: Paul Teetor

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