Clippers look to regain mojo after back-to-back losses to NBA's best | Thunder's Abrines benefits from Westbrook boost | Suns second unit showing encouraging signs | Noel makes himself comfortable in debut with Mavericks
No. 1: Clippers look to regain mojo after back-to-back losses to NBA's best -- Back-to-back losses to the NBA's best two teams (the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs) has a way of sobering a team up. The Los Angeles Clippers are exactly that team and they're in desperate need of a recalculation after getting thumped by the mighty Warriors (for the 10th straight time) and Spurs. Tonight's visit from the Charlotte Hornets (9:30 ET, NBA TV) offers a chance to regain their mojo, as Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times points out:
Somewhere between a four-game winning streak before the weeklong All-Star break, a two-game post-break losing streak and the return of Chris Paul, the Clippers dipped.
A once-efficient offense is not so efficient. A once-stout defense is not so stout.
The Clippers still have 24 regular-season games left to solidify both of those elements that have slipped in and out of order.
“I think we’re all trying to find our way back. Not our way like we’re lost in the wilderness. I’m just saying there are times you go through offensive ruts and you lose your rhythm,” Coach Doc Rivers said late Friday night after the Clippers’ 105-97 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in Paul’s return. “Right before the break, we had an amazing rhythm going.”
Rivers spoke glowingly about the “great rhythm” the Clippers had in piling up 61 first-half points against the Golden State Warriors on Thursday night.
Then the offense got stagnant in the second half because of too much standing around and because the basketball was stuck on one side of the court too often.
The defense was in shambles, giving up a whopping 50 points to the Warriors in the third quarter. There were times when some Clippers didn’t even get back on defense, making it easier for the potent Warriors to score.
Against the Spurs, Rivers said they scored in the first half, “but we didn’t really have a rhythm.”
“We were just scoring baskets,” he said. “So we have to get back to being more organized, working our sets. Those are the things we can do. What we’re not doing, it’s not hard to get back. I will say that.”
The Clippers also have to assimilate Paul back into the fold after he missed 14 games recovering from left thumb surgery.
“This is our first game in a long while with everybody,” Paul said after the game against the Spurs. “I probably threw some guys off, but we’re going to figure it out.”
The Clippers went 6-8 in the games Paul sat out.
But there also was a stretch of 18 games Blake Griffin missed with a right knee injury.
“We’ve dealt with so many different injuries in the past that everything is somewhat irrelevant until you get the whole crew out there,” Paul said. “No matter how we played with Blake out, no matter how we played with me out, we need both of us as well as everybody else in order to see what we really look like.”
No. 2: Thunder's Abrines benefits from Westbrook boost -- There is no official statistic for it, yet, but ask anyone who watches the Oklahoma City Thunder on a consistent basis and they'll tell you that Russell Westbrook's teammates benefit greatly from playing alongside the man who is single-handedly making the triple-double great again. Thunder reserve Alex Abrines is certainly taking advantage of the Westbrook boost, and will no doubt try and do so today when the Thunder host the New Orleans Pelicans today (7 ET, NBA TV). Erik Horne of the Oklahoman explains:
Think Alex Abrines enjoys playing next to Russell Westbrook?
Aside from one of the quotes of the year after the Thunder's win against the Lakers on Friday, Abrines' numbers have been far better when he's in the game with Westbrook.
In 47 games this season, Abrines is shooting 40.2 percent from the field overall. According to NBAwowy.com, entering Friday's game Abrines was shooting 44.7 percent when in the game with Westbrook (44.8 percent from 3), compared to 38.1 percent when not in the game with Westbrook.
When Westbrook and Abrines have played together, the All-Star guard has assisted on 22 of the rookie's 30 made 3-pointers.
With Abrines likely to start his second consecutive game in place of Victor Oladipo (back spasms), it could be to the Thunder's benefit after his 5-of-11 3-point shooting display against the Lakers.
It seems simple, but a big key to the Thunder unlocking more 3-point shooting could be pairing arguably its best 3-point shooter (Abrines) with its best passer and player who draws the most attention (Westbrook) more frequently.
No. 3: Suns second unit showing encouraging signs -- Confidence is a delicate quality in the NBA, particularly for young and inexperienced players on a struggling team like the Phoenix Suns. And now the that they've had their mix tweaked a bit with the departure of veteran P.J. Tucker at the trade deadline, continuing to build that confidence for members of the second unit is even more critical. But as they prepare for today's tilt against the Milwaukee Bucks (3:30 ET, NBA TV), Doug Haller of the Arizona Republic points out that the second unit is showing encouraging signs:
If the Suns’ second unit at times looked unfamiliar in Friday’s loss to Chicago, don’t worry, it’s not just you. Rookie point guard Tyler Ulis said the second unit itself still is figuring things out.
Stuck at the bottom of the Western Conference, the Suns (18-40) are using the season’s final stretch for player evaluation. That means playing their younger players to see what they can offer, both in the short and long term.
On Friday, the Suns’ second unit consisted of Ulis, forward Derrick Jones, Jr., and big man Alan Williams, along with veterans Leandro Barbosa and Jared Dudley. Despite the group’s collective inexperience, it had strong moments.
- Ulis had an impressive fourth-quarter stretch. With 9:41 left, he hit a jumper to give Phoenix an 85-84 lead. Next time down he fed Williams for a dunk. Two possessions later, the point guard dropped a floater in the lane. “Tyler did a great job of controlling the second unit,” coach Earl Watson said.
- The first big man off the bench, Williams hit his first eight shots, finishing with a career-high 16 points. “It’s a good thing for us, to try and go out there and play together as a younger group and try to build for the future,” said Williams, a restricted free agent at season’s end. “And I think it’s a tremendous opportunity for myself, as well as my teammates to show what we can do.”
- Jones showed off his athletic ability with a first-half dunk that got veteran center Tyson Chandler and others off the bench cheering. In his longest outing of his rookie season, Jones had six points, two rebounds and two assists. His role moving forward: “He has to be a great defender,’’ Watson said. “That’s his only role in the NBA. His defense is going to earn him more time to produce offensively.”
Overall, the second unit produced 39 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists.
“Hunger,” said Watson, describing what he saw from the group. “They’re playing with confidence. I love everything they’re doing. (Barbosa) stabilized that group with Jared Dudley. It was a great mix. Tyler did a great job hitting big shots, getting us back in the game in the fourth quarter.”
No. 4: Noel makes himself comfortable in debut with Mavericks -- His spot in the locker room was strategically placed next to Dirk Nowitzki's, one of several moves the Dallas Mavericks have made to ease the transition for trade deadline arrival Nerlens Noel. The oft-maligned young big man is already paying the gesture back. He made himself comfortable immediately in his debut with the Mavericks, writes Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News, a win over the new-look New Orleans Pelicans:
As Nerlens Noel made his first move to get off the bench, the applause began to build and finally hit a crescendo as he was announced to the home crowd.
You could almost feel the thirst for hope being quenched.
And it went both ways. Noel did his share of smiling on the court after three seasons of mostly rugged times in Philadelphia.
“I think it’s a very fresh start that probably was needed,” Noel said. “It was a tough few years in Philly. Going through that wasn’t easy, but I’m ready to look back and say, ‘Wow, I really feel proud for the way you handled yourself.’ I’m really looking forward to what we have here. The opportunity is coming in the near future.”
The present wasn’t bad, either. The Mavericks scored a 96-83 victory over the new-look New Orleans Pelicans, who got big nights from Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, but little else. Noel did plenty of good things and so did a lot of his teammates, including Dirk Nowitzki with 18 points and nine rebounds.
After six seasons of watching older veterans come and go on short-term contracts, the fandom saw in Noel an actual, high-flying, quick-afoot big man who could be timed running down the court with a stopwatch, not an hourglass.
Noel did not start. Coming in “off the bus” as coach Rick Carlisle said, he didn’t have enough knowledge of the Mavericks’ system to jump center. But that will come soon enough, Carlisle assured.
He finished with nine points and 10 rebounds in 30 minutes and had a signature moment that most people might not have noticed early in the fourth quarter.
Noel set a screen for Devin Harris at the top of the key, then rolled to the basket. The defense went with him, determined not to give up any easy lob dunks.
That left Dirk Nowitzki all by his lonesome on the perimeter and he swished an 18-footer for a 71-65 lead. Just the threat of attacking the rim helped the offense. The Mavericks would stretch the lead to double-digits two minutes later and never were seriously threatened down the stretch.
“It’s like the hockey assist,” Noel said. “The guy has to come in (on him). It opens up a lot for a shooter like Dirk. That’s going to be so crucial in late-game situations. You (the defense) have to commit to something. I think it can only get better from here. I just want to keep learning, keep progressing.”
Harris said it brought back memories to him of a former Maverick who was pretty accomplished in the lob-dunk game, Brandan Wright.
“It’s an easy play,” Harris said. “I don’t look too much to score off that play because the lob is either going to be there or there’s somebody open on the weak side. We used to run a lot of it back when B-Wright was here, a legitimate lob threat. I think you’ll see more of that moving forward.”
When the night was done, the Mavericks had a crowd-pleasing win and a clear vision of what the youth brigade is going to look like going forward.
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The red-hot Miami Heat have won 16 of their last 18 games but somehow keep getting knocked out of their national TV spots ... The struggle is real for the Cleveland Cavaliers sans LeBron James, and against the Chicago Bulls (0-3 this season) ... Frank Kaminsky had to take control of the action for the Hornets to end their losing streak ... The Hawks have bigger problems than just Dennis Schroder's routine tardiness these days ... It's a good thing the Knicks didn't trade Carmelo Anthony, who saved them from another late-game disaster against the Sixers ... The Warriors have already clinched their playoff berth and could soon add another critical piece in backup point guard Jose Calderon ...