Morning Shootaround

Jan 23 Shootaround -- Clippers hoping Jamal Crawford can get on track

NBA.com Staff

Clippers need Crawford now more than ever | No panic in Cleveland | Knicks losing as painfully as possible | Bledsoe steps up in Toronto

No. 1: Clippers need Crawford now more than ever — With Chris Paul on the shelf and Blake Griffin still making his way back from knee surgery, the LA Clippers need their super sixth man Jamal Crawford now more than ever. But he’s going through tough times of his own. With the Clippers in Atlanta for a game against the Hawks tonight (7:30 ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS), Crawford is trying to shake off his shooting struggles and pump some energy into a team desperately in need of it right now. Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times has more:

They were indecisive a couple of times on offense Saturday night against Denver, leaving Jamal Crawford with the difficult task of having to bail out the Clippers during a time when his own offense has veered off course.

Crawford has been one of the NBA’s best shot-makers over his 17-year career, but his shot has betrayed him this entire month and he admittedly said it has been a “frustrating” period for the league’s only three-time sixth man of the year award winner.

In the nine games the Clippers have played in January, Crawford has shot 27.7% from the field, 14.8% from three-point range and averaged just 8.6 points.

“It’s frustrating from the standpoint that you know every shooter who scores goes through it,” Crawford said late Saturday night after another tough three-for-13 outing against the Nuggets. “It was frustrating and it was OK at the same time because we were winning. We had won seven in a row, so it didn’t have an effect on winning or losing, which should be the bottom line. But losing a couple now, you’re like, ‘Come on.’ It’s frustrating and I understand you’ve got to go through it.”

The basketball Gods can be cruel when times are tough.

The 24-second shot clock was winding down on the Clippers in the second quarter at Denver when they turned to Crawford, throwing the ball out to him to save them, watching him hoist a 28-foot jumper just to get a shot off that missed.

The 24-second shot clock was close to expiring again in the third quarter when the ball wound up in Crawford’s hands for a 40-foot heave. The ball was nothing but air, a turnover because of a 24-second violation.

“That’s the way it happens. I swear,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said. “When you struggle — I’ve been through it as a player — it just always felt like the ball ends up in your hands with one second. It just won’t stop.”

Rivers and Crawford are convinced these trying times won’t last much longer.

The return of Blake Griffin from right knee surgery probably at Philadelphia Tuesday night can help take some of the pressure off Crawford.

He’s had an uneven season as it is, averaging 11.4 points per game, the lowest since his 2002-03 season. He’s shooting a career-low on three-pointers (29.9%). His 38.4% overall shooting is tied for his lowest since his rookie season of 2000-01.

“I put in a lot of extra work, like I really shoot and work on my game a lot,” Crawford said. “It’ll turn. I’ve just got to stay with it and hopefully we’ll keep winning in the meantime.”

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No. 2: No panic in Cleveland — The Cleveland Cavaliers have lost four of their last six games. In a previous time, before they captured a Larry O’Brien trophy, this might have been time to fret. But there is no panic in this bunch, not knowing what they know about the rigors of the NBA regular season. Are there questions that need answering? Sure. Do they have issues to clean up? Obviously. That’s why they’re trying to get back on track tonight in New Orleans against the Pelicans (8 ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS), as Joe Vardon of the Plain Dealer explains:

There is no panic in Cleveland — far from it. The Cavs maintain a three-game lead over the Raptors in the East. They’re still incorporating Kyle Korver into the system, don’t have a true backup point guard, and J.R. Smith’s return is a ways off.

Virtually every player, coach, and general manager the Cavs count on to win has earned the benefit of the doubt. When Lue took over the Cavs on Jan. 23 of last season, they were 30-11 and lost their first game to the Bulls.

Cleveland went 27-14 in the second half, good enough for first in the East but far from perfect and far from free of controversy. It wasn’t until the playoffs that this team galvanized under Lue, winning its first 10 and 12 of 14 before gutting out a seven-game-series victory over the Warriors in the Finals.

Actually, the regular seasons have never been easy since James’ return. Don’t forget, the Cavs were 19-20 in Year 1 before turning it around.

So the Cavs get the full benefit of the doubt here in this general malaise they’ve slipped into the last two weeks. Recent history tells us general manager David Griffin will solidify the roster, Lue will coach brilliantly late in games during the playoffs, and either if neither happens, James and Irving and Love are here. Defending champs is a moniker that’s earned.

But the Cavs are undoubtedly in a rut right now, the kind of rut they haven’t been in since Nov. 25-Dec. 5 of 2015, the last time they lost four of six.

That losing skid was under David Blatt.

Now, it’s Lue’s turn.

“Yeah, I lost my first game the last time I took over,” Lue said. “So this is a start.”

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No. 3: Knicks losing as painfully as possible — It looks the same from near and far. And for fans of the New York Knicks, the losing can’t get much worse. They’re finding ways to do it that seem even beyond the realm of possibility for this snake-bitten bunch, who visit the Indiana Pacers tonight (8 ET, TNT). Fred Kerber of the New York Post explains how the Knicks continue to lose as painfully as possible:

The Knicks have won six times this season in games decided by four points or fewer.

Now before you proclaim the Knicks the new Cardiac Kids, realize they’ve also lost seven games by four points or fewer. Two of the defeats have been in their past two outings, five of them in January, six in the last month. See a trend?

“I want to say ‘frustrating’ is the word. You don’t want to lose these games like this, those games like we have been losing,” said Carmelo Anthony, whose potential game-winning 3-pointer Saturday in a 107-105 loss to Phoenix went in, and then out at the buzzer. “It’s difficult to keep watching.”

And it’s even more difficult to accept.

“Obviously it’s tough,” said forward Kristaps Porzingis. “It’s just we’re not there yet. We’re not that good. We’re not able to finish those games yet. But I think we’re playing the right way.”

Just not getting much to show for it.

“Something will click and it will change for us,” said guard Courtney Lee.

The Knicks, who play in Indiana on Monday, are saying all the right things — “we have to keep working,” “we must fight through,” “this will make us stronger.” But eventually these gnawing defeats erode the psyche and confidence. Consider recent games.

There was Saturday’s loss to the Suns, when Phoenix’s Devin Booker hit a 3-pointer with 31.7 seconds left preceding the Anthony miss. Booker’s shot was eerily reminiscent of the scene six days ago. Dennis Schroder hit a 3 with 22.4 remaining and the Knicks missed three desperate shots — layup, jumper, tip — in the last sequence of a 108-107 defeat to the Hawks (who beat the Knicks by four in overtime Dec. 28 in Atlanta).

“It looked pretty similar,” coach Jeff Hornacek said of the Booker-Schroder connection that flanked another bitter loss.

On Thursday, Washington won, 113-110, after John Wall scored four points in the last 37.6 seconds and Wizards assistant Sidney Lowe was on the court, likely distracting Lee on the last Knicks’ possession.

In Philadelphia 11 days ago, T.J. McConnell scored at the buzzer after a Porzingis airball and the Sixers overcame a 10-point Knick lead in the last 2:18 for a shocking 98-97 victory.

On Jan. 4 at the Garden, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo stuck a 15-footer at the buzzer and the Knicks lost, 105-104.

Enough.

“It makes you better as a player, makes you better as a team, figuring out ways to win,” said Derrick Rose.

It also makes you sit in a corner and dribble spit down your chin.

“It is a challenge. This league is a grind, 82 games to figure out how you are going to get to the postseason. You got to have a lot of dedication to it,” Rose said.

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No. 4: Bledsoe serving up reminders that he’s ready for prime time — It’s easy to forget the trajectory Eric Bledsoe’s career was on in Phoenix before the injury bug knocked him down. But lately the Phoenix Suns’ point guard has looked a lot like the explosive performer he was before the injury. He displayed his full arsenal with a career-high 40 points in the Suns’ upset win over the Toronto Raptors Sunday. Doug Haller of the Arizona Republic provides some details:

It’s a question Eric Bledsoe didn’t care to answer. At least not in a locker room in front of notepads, cameras and audio recorders. Is he playing his best basketball as a professional?

The Suns point guard has made a strong case these past two games, not flashy, but efficient, chipping away at opponents with his passing, foul-line accuracy and awkward-looking runners that are starting to drop with greater frequency.

“I’m just trying to win, man,” Bledsoe said after scoring a career-high 40 points and dishing 13 assists in the Suns’ 115-103 win over the Toronto Raptors in front of 19,800 fans at the Air Canada Centre. “No matter if I’m playing good or not, everybody else is stepping up as well. I just got to keep playing the way I’m playing and leading my team.”

On Saturday night in New York, Suns guard Devin Booker made the big shot, the eventual game-winner. He deserved the headlines. That’s how it works. But Bledsoe was darned good against the Knicks as well, posting 23 points, five rebounds and seven assists. He committed no turnovers in 39 minutes and made 10 of 10 from the foul line.

Then came Sunday’s encore.

Since five of his assists led to 3-pointers, Bledsoe had a hand in 71 of Phoenix’s 115 points, nearly 62 percent. And it wasn’t like all of this came in spurts, a cold start followed by a strong finish. Bledsoe was consistent throughout, posting quarters of 11, seven, seven and 15 points. He shot 11 of 17 from the field and 14 of 14 from the foul line. He kept coming at the Raptors, penetrating, drawing fouls, finding open shooters.

“Wow,” Suns coach Earl Watson said after repeating his point guard’s numbers. “… This is the best I’ve seen him. He’s not just playing at a high level. The points and the assists and the numbers say a lot, but his vocal leadership has grown. Change is not going to happen immediately, but as a team and family, we just stayed with it. And Eric stayed with it.”

Keep in mind, this is just one snapshot in regard to where the Suns stand and where they might be headed. Even with the win – the first time they have posted back-to-back road victories in more than a year – they still are a 15-29 team, far from serious playoff contention. At the same time, Bledsoe and Booker seem to have something working. Booker scored 20 against Toronto, the ninth consecutive time the second-year guard has reached at least that total.

Then there’s this: A night after holding the Knicks to 15 fourth-quarter points, the Suns held the Raptors to 18. The Suns limited the Knicks to 31.6-percent shooting in the final quarter. They held the Raptors – the second-best team in the Eastern Conference – to 26.3.

“We’re taking steps in the right direction,” forward P.J. Tucker said. “We played bad in the first half, turning the ball over, taking bad shots, given up fast-break points. With all that happening, I knew with us being down three to five points (throughout the third quarter), we had a chance to win if we turned it on. And we turned it on with defense.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich isn’t the only coach in the league with politics on his mind, Steve Kerr had a little fun with the new White House press secretary … The Los Angeles Lakers honored Kobe Bryant’s best scoring day with the worst loss in franchise history … Sacramento Kings rookie Malachi Richardson is waiting his turn in Sacramento … In San Antonio they are still talking abut Kawhi Leonard’s 41-point scoring night in a win over the Cleveland Cavaliers … Steven Adams is still a question mark for the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight against the Utah Jazz … Houston Rockets forward Sam Dekker is ready for his second game back home in Wisconsin … Scott Brooks stuck to his plan and the Washington Wizards are soaring …

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