No. 1: Clippers looking flat since All-Star break -- Injuries are no longer an issue for the LA Clippers, as Blake Griffin and Chris Paul have been back in the mix for a few games now. What is an issue for them, though, has simply been winning. After last night's 122-103 drubbing suffered at the hands of the Houston Rockets, the Clippers are in a post-All-Star break funk, writes Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times:
An avalanche of three-pointers poured down on the Clippers, overwhelming them in an astounding way.
It was with so much force that the Clippers meekly lost, 122-103, to the three-point tossing Houston Rockets on Wednesday night at Staples Center.
But perhaps what’s most telling is how the Clippers are 1-3 since the All-Star break.
The losses have come to Golden State, San Antonio and Houston, the top three teams in the Western Conference, respectively.
And the Clippers have been defeated by an average of 12.3 points per game against those three top-notch opponents.
In the middle of all this, the Clippers remained in fifth in the Western Conference, half a game behind the Utah Jazz, who lost at home Wednesday night. The Clippers are six games behind the third-seeded Rockets in the West.
“Without making excuses, we’re still getting right,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said. “We just got our two guys [Chris Paul and Blake Griffin] back. It’s going to take a little bit of time. ... But that does not excuse how we played tonight. They out-toughed us tonight. They were the more driven team and that bothers me.”
The Clippers looked in disbelief watching the Rockets shoot 38.5% (20 for 52) from three-point range — even as Houston let up when the game was out of reach.
When Lou Williams grabbed an offensive rebound off a missed Patrick Beverley three-pointer and scored for a 108-78 Rockets lead at the end of the third quarter, the fans booed the Clippers’ lack of effort and some departed the arena.
Griffin, after a long review by the officials, was called for a flagrant foul 1 for his elbow to the throat of Clint Capela in the third quarter.
This happened as Griffin leaped in the air and tried to make a pass, but his elbow struck Capela in the head area, drawing the flagrant foul. Griffin finished with 17 points on seven-for-17 shooting.
Later in the third quarter after missing a shot, Paul was hit with a technical foul. He finished with 16 points and 11 assists.
“I thought they played harder,” Rivers said. “They were the tougher team tonight. They were the more physical team tonight, which you don’t say a lot with them. They killed us on the glass. They made extra efforts.”
* * *
No. 2: Wizards' bench finding its legs -- All season long, Bradley Beal and John Wall have done the lion's share of the heavy lifting for the Washington Wizards. That's something to be expected of the team's two best players, and the rest of the starting lineup -- Otto Porter, Marcin Gortat and Markieff Morris -- have had their moments, too. Of late, though, the Wizards' bench has delivered and is helping Washington gear up for a March scheduled packed with games. Candace Buckner of The Washington Post has more:
John Wall (12 points, 13 assists) collected his league-leading 13th straight double-double, but the stat line of the night belonged to Bojan Bogdanovic, the team’s newest scoring machine, who poured in 27 points.
Bogdanovic made 9 of 12 shots from the field, including 6 of 7 from beyond the three-point arc, to anchor a second unit that looked dominant at times, none more so than when it launched a 26-1 run in the second quarter that broke the game open.
“That’s probably the best we played and the best continuity . . . that we had,” Bradley Beal said. He then added, with a grin: “We looked like we liked each other.”
The Wizards’ bench might have looked like old pals, but in reality, the unit has had little time to bond.
Bogdanovic arrived last week to reshape the second unit. Also joining the mix recently is Ian Mahinmi, who sat out for several months after two knee surgeries. But even with five reserves on the court, something clicked. Early in the second quarter, Washington’s all-bench unit scored 22 straight points and before halftime the lead extended to 23.
Each player served his role, even without the services of newly minted backup point guard Brandon Jennings, who signed with the Wizards for the rest of the season and is expected to make his debut Friday night at home against the Raptors (36-25).
Bogdanovic settled in as the scorer by hitting all five shot attempts, including a trio of three-pointers, in the second-quarter eruption. Mahinmi defended the paint by swatting a pair of shots — the team defense was remarkable while holding Toronto scoreless for nearly five minutes in the second quarter.
“It seems like he’s getting healthier and healthier by the game,” Wall said of Mahinmi.
Kelly Oubre Jr. played with focus and energy. Although he only had one basket off a hustle play, his plus-minus for the second quarter was a staggering plus-23.
Tomas Satoransky helped keep the ball zipping along with three assists, while Smith made the job of Brooks that much more challenging. How can you keep Smith out of the rotation when he steps onto the floor for the first time after two straight DNPs and goes into target practice by drilling his four midrange jumpers?
The schedule’s onslaught is just starting. If the Wizards want to hold on to a top seed, the display they authored Wednesday night could be a blueprint for the month to come.
* * *
No. 3: Celtics prove their might in win vs. Cavs -- Some Boston Celtics fans may always wonder just how good this season's team could be if it had pulled the trigger at the trade deadline for Jimmy Butler or Paul George. How they played last night against the visiting Cleveland Cavaliers, though, is sure to give that same group hope that Boston can forge a deep playoff run in a few months. The Celtics edged the Cavs 103-99 last night and as our Ian Thomsen reports, showed they are a force in the Eastern Conference:
And so the sequel of Roy Hobbs continues. This wasn’t so much a meeting of the East’s top two teams Wednesday as it was a showdown between the planet’s greatest player and Isaiah Thomas, the former No. 60 pick who dreams of replacing LeBron James someday.
“Nobody holds me in check,” said Thomas after scoring his typical 31 points with five assists. “I average 30 points for a reason. I made plays.”
The No. 2 Celtics prevailed 103-99 over the East-leading Cavaliers because 5-9 Thomas was able to diversify. His run of big plays began with 2:57 remaining when he miraculously stuff-blocked 6-8 Tristan Thompson at the rim.
“I can jump a little bit,” said Thomas. “He didn’t see me -- that’s probably the biggest reason why I blocked it.”
When newcomer Deron Williams (2 for 8 in his Cleveland debut) failed to convert a corner 3, the Celtics earned their biggest win of the year. Previously they’d gone 2-7 against Cleveland, Washington and Toronto - their top three rivals in the East.
“I told our guys this afternoon -- and just told them now -- I wasn’t as concerned about the result,” said Boston coach Brad Stevens. “I just wanted to play with a real purpose possession to possession, and maximize as many of those as possible. We did a better job with that tonight than we have in a lot of games this year.”
What separates Boston from its fellow contenders -- Cleveland, Toronto and Washington -- is that the Celtics came away empty at the trade deadline and buyout market. The Wizards added offense to their second unit (Bojan Bogdanovic and Brandon Jennings) and the Raptors acquired toughness (Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker). But the Cavaliers trumped everyone by landing the high-level playmaking (Williams and Andrew Bogut) that James had requested in frustration last month. Another recent arrival, Derrick Williams (13 points vs. Boston), has filled in for injured Kevin Love.
Over these remaining weeks James shouldn’t need to keep playing 37.2 minutes per game (second only to Kyle Lowry) now that Williams, a three-time All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist, will be coming off the bench to run the offense. Tristan Thompson, the only Cavalier to start every game, will be able to rest his sore knee while sharing time with Bogut. But the best thing about their newly arrived pieces is that Williams, Bogut and Korver are all worthy of contributing in the NBA Finals.
Said Stevens: “I don’t think I’m saying anything earth-shattering: We’re all chasing Cleveland.”
Though the Celtics weren’t able to add the star power that team president Danny Ainge was pursuing at the deadline, they have upside for the short term. They inexplicably rank No. 18 in defense -- a drop from No. 5 last season, in spite of Al Horford’s arrival last summer. The recent return of Avery Bradley (who missed 18 straight games dealing with a strained Achilles) and their ambition to win a playoff series for the first time since 2012 figures to help the Celtics tighten their defense.
The Celtics have been mediocre defensively this year, as if waiting for Thomas to keep stealing wins for them in the fourth quarter. On this night, however, they held the defending champions to 40.7 percent from the field amid a high-energy near-triple-double of 10 points, 10 assists and nine points from Horford.
J.R. Smith and Love should be back in April, and by then Williams and Bogut (health permitting) should be fully capable of helping James to return to the NBA Finals for a seventh straight year. And that’s the real difference between these two franchises: The Cavaliers have peaked, while the young Celtics are continuing to build.
* * *
No. 4: Sixers plot next moves in wake of Embiid's injury -- Whether or not Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid wins this season's Kia Rookie of the Year award is up for debate. What isn't up for debate is whether or not Embiid will play again in 2016-17, as he was shut down by the team yesterday because of a meniscus injury. As Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer reports, the Sixers aren't giving up on Embiid in any sense and now shift to how to manage this latest injury:
A third MRI scan, on Monday, revealed that the bone bruise has improved significantly. However, it showed the meniscus tear is the more pronounced of the two injuries, the Sixers said.
One would assume that the next step is surgery to repair the torn meniscus. This scenario is far different from what the Sixers said when news broke Feb. 11 that Embiid had a torn meniscus. The team said then that it was a slight tear that wouldn't require surgery.
The Sixers believed that because Embiid's MRI after the Portland game showed the tear was minor. A second MRI later revealed the same thing.
However, things looked different after Monday's MRI. So with just 23 games left in the season, they decided it was best to shut him down. There's a belief that Embiid made the injury worse during Thursday's practice. His discomfort was noticeable as he left the practice facility.
Even with the latest news, the Sixers aren't shying away from their franchise player. All indications are that he'll receive a lucrative contract extension before the deadline in October. Embiid is eligible for a four-year extension that starts at 25 percent of the team's salary cap with a 7.5 percent raise. Right now the salary cap for the 2018-19 season is $107 million.
The Sixers view Embiid as a one-of-a-kind player who will get over this injury. They believe his current situation is a breeze compared with the career-threatening foot injuries he overcame.
For now, the focus is on fixing his left knee.
"We will continue to work with leading specialists to gather additional information through clinical examination and sequential testing to determine the best course of action and next steps," the Sixers' co-medical director, Jonathan Glashow, said in a news release. Glashow is the co-chief of sports medicine orthopedics at New York's Mount Sinai Medical Center.
The Sixers want the bone bruise to fully heal before deciding what type of procedure Embiid will have on his meniscus.
There are three types of surgeries for a torn meniscus. A partial meniscectomy is the most common. That involves the removal of the torn piece of the meniscus. A meniscal repair is the second type of surgery. That one fixes the damage and helps to prevent deterioration. It's a more complex surgery and has a longer recovery time. It's not always an option. The tear has to be in an area that has blood supply.
A third option is complete meniscectomy, removal of all of the meniscus, which is avoided if possible.
All this is because of a dunk against the Trail Blazers in January.
Embiid took a power dribble past Mason Plumlee before dunking the ball. His left knee buckled backward as he landed. After going to the locker room, Embiid returned in the fourth quarter. However, he came down gingerly after a basket early in the quarter and exited for good with 8 minutes, 8 seconds left.
* * *
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: A timeline of the injury-plagued NBA road Joel Embiid has traveled ... Why getting the top seed in the Western Conference should be job No. 1 for the Golden State Warriors ... Denver Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried (back spasms) is expected to miss at least a week of action ... Ty Lawson asked fans for a good taco place in Sacramento. Ty Lawson now will miss a game due to gastroenteritis. ... Hall of Famer and former Milwaukee Bucks legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar calls Giannis Antetokounmpo's talent 'unreal' ... The Sacramento Kings didn't put up much fight last night against the Brooklyn Nets ... Given his druthers, Deron Williams would reportedly like to end his career playing for the Utah Jazz ...