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NBA Insiders Notebook: Can the Clippers still make a Finals run?

NBA Insiders Notebook: Can the Clippers still make a Finals run?

AN ARENA NEAR YOU -- With the playoffs set to start in about five weeks -- I know, this season has really flown by -- teams are starting to separate themselves from the pack, while others are grasping to stay on pace to get a one of the last slots to the playoffs.

And then there are those in the middle who seem well poised to be among the postseason brethren, but are looking quite wobbly entering this home stretch of play.

In this week’s edition of the CSN Insiders notebook, CSN Bay Area Insider Monte Poole examines the Los Angeles Clippers who not so long ago were seen as a team on the rise that could potentially challenge anyone in the NBA – even the vaunted Golden State Warriors.

But as Poole writes, the path towards basketball success has been a bit more jagged than the Clippers bargained for which has made this franchise’s once-bright future, one filled with uncertainty for the moment and the future when you consider a number of their key players could potentially be suiting up for another franchise next season.

Curtain call soon on Clippers act?
There was a time when the Clippers were great theater. The acting. The lobs. The flopping. More lobs. And, all the while, more than their fair share of victories.

They won 10 of their first 11 games to start the season, beating the San Antonio Spurs in the process. They extended their early success to win 22 of their first 30, beating the Spurs once more for good measure.

Those games seem so long ago when you consider the state of the Clippers right now.

They haven’t been anywhere close to being as dominant, to the point where they’re getting an earful from their fans in L.A. after getting destroyed by the Milwaukee Bucks recently.

“I’m trying to be positive,” J.J. Redick told reporters following a 112-101 loss at Milwaukee that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score might indicate. “I think there has been a series of low points this season. This is probably another one. We were down 30 (actually 31) the other night against Houston, getting booed by our home crowd. That was a low point. We’ve had low points.”

The injury bug bit Blake Griffin in December and Chris Paul in January, and nothing has been the same. The Clippers, once considered a threat to the Warriors and Spurs, are 15-17 since Dec. 22.

And those struggles have the Clippers now looking at the possibility of beginning the playoffs on the road.

Including games played through March 5, the Clippers (37-25) are currently fifth in the West and trail fourth-place Utah (39-24) by 1.5 games. More troubling is the fact that the Clippers might slip even further in the West with Memphis and Oklahoma City just 1.5 and 2.5 games behind them, respectively, in the standings.

The “Lob City” crew has six weeks go pull it together for the playoffs. – by Monte Poole

Western conference

Cuban on Seth Curry: 'He's our kind of guy'
We’re all used to hearing the name ‘Curry’ and immediate associate with an impact player. But we’re not talking about Steph; we’re talk Seth Curry who is doing big things in Dallas right now.

In fact, he is making a strong case to be in the conversation for the league’s Most Improved Player award.

Since the Mavs made him a regular starter, they’re 15-9.

And in that span he has averaged 16.8 points while draining a Curry-like 46.9 percent of his 3’s.

He’s having a great impact on winning which could land the Mavs in the playoffs which can only strengthen the argument for him as the league’s most improved player.

“He's our kind of guy,” Mavs owner Mark Cuban told ESPN.com. “Shoots, plays hard defensively, great in the locker room. We call him Swaggy Swag. High swag level, low volume level. Those kind of guys are good. Swaggy Swag's a keeper." – by A. Sherrod Blakely

Harden reflects on getting past the 'worst year of his life'
James Harden makes 50-point triple-doubles look easy. But beyond the athletic prowess, Harden has struggled with aspects of his life off the court.

Harden opened up to Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins in a revealing profile in which he refers to last season the “worst year of his life.”

From an ill-matched pairing with Dwight Howard to an overly publicized relationship, Harden dove into how he got past these distractions and road blocks to find a calm success this season. – by Jessica Camerato

Deng not part of Lakers future
Whatever happened to Luol Deng?

Well, the respected veteran who started at small forward on opening night for the Lakers was last seen on the team’s inactive list.

“He (head coach Luke Walton) wants to play the young guys, so I’m not going to play,” Deng told reporters recently. “So there’s no point of being on the active roster and sit on the bench. He’s got to keep all the guys he’s going to play and evaluate.”

It’s a tale of poor judgment on the part of the Lakers, who last summer pursued the free agent hoping he could provide leadership. The problem is former GM Mitch Kupchak signed Deng to a contract worth $72 million over four years.

Deng left his best basketball in Chicago, where he spent his first nine seasons. In his final two seasons with the Bulls, he led the NBA in minutes played. It shows. He’s appreciably slower and his putting up career-low offensive numbers.

For his physical decline, Deng can blame former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. For his wealth, Deng can credit former Lakers boss Jim Buss and Kupchak.

As for being inactive, well, it’s a new world. Buss and Kupchak are out, and Magic Johnson is running the show. – by Monte Poole

Curry eclipses (another) milestone
As the Warriors were buried in buzz related to Kevin Durant’s knee injury and losing consecutive games for the first time in 23 months, Stephen Curry quietly reached a milestone.

He zoomed past Kobe Bryant on the all-time list of 3-pointers. The Kobe Bryant.

Bryant made 1,827 treys in 1,346 games. Curry made his 1,828th in game No. 555 to move into 11th place on the all-time list.

Bryant put up 5,546 attempts beyond the arc. Curry has launched 4,178.

Because Curry’s feat came in a loss to the Bulls last Thursday night in Chicago, the postgame conversations centered on the challenges facing the post-Durant Warriors and the snapping of their record streak of 146 games without back-to-back losses.

Chew on this: Curry, 28 years old and in his eighth year has moved up nine spots through the first four months of the season. He is sixth on the list among active players, and the five ahead of him are at least 35 years old.

Step aside, Kobe. Make room for Steph. But keep it hush-hush. – by Monte Poole

Spurs, Popovich reach another historic milestone
Because of their consistency, milestones for the San Antonio Spurs are often missed, overlooked or ignored.

But this latest one may be the most impressive of them all.

San Antonio’s recent win over the Minnesota Timberwolves secured them a playoff spot.

That in itself isn’t that big a deal.

But then you realize, it’s the 20th straight season that they have qualified for the playoffs.

They become just one of three franchises ever to reach the postseason 20 or more consecutive years.

San Antonio tied the Utah Jazz (1984-2003) and are now just one behind the Portland Trail Blazers (1983-2003). In addition, Gregg Popovich has led the Spurs to 20 straight postseason appearances which ties the record set by Phil Jackson (1990-2011). – by A. Sherrod Blakely

Blazers' Ezeli out for '17... and '18 as well?
Portland Trail Blazers center Festus Ezeli will remain out for the rest of this season and could potentially be sidelined for the 2017-2018 season as well.

The 6-foot-11 center is scheduled to undergo a surgical procedure on his left knee next week that will involve the use of a cadaver donor, league sources told ESPN.com.

Ezeli’s surgery officially ends any hopes that he would return this season in what would have been the first year of the two-year, $15.2 million contract he signed last summer.

While the recovery time is unknown currently, a source told ESPN.com that the recovery process could take up to a year.

Knee issues have plagued Ezeli even before he arrived in Portland. During his four seasons with the Golden State Warriors, Ezeli had surgical procedures performed on both knees. – by A. Sherrod Blakely

Eastern conference 

Boston second-best team in the East?
The record says that the Boston Celtics (40-23) are the next best thing in the East to Cleveland.

But is that really true?

An argument can be made that while the Celtics are playing good basketball, it’s more of a free-for-all in determining who the next best team in the East is.

Boston, along with Washington, Toronto and Atlanta comprise the only teams that have a stake in being number two in the East.

When you go through how those teams have fared against one another this season and Cleveland, the Celtics are at the end of the pack with a 4-8 record although the Celtics certainly helped its cause in their 103-99 win over the Cavs recently. Among the aforementioned teams, Toronto has a 6-6 record followed by the Wizards at 5-6 and the Hawks at 4-5.

For Boston, their best hope of securing that number two spot is to ensure that it doesn’t come down to a tie-breaker. They’ve already lost the season series to Toronto three games to one, and can’t afford to lose any more ground to teams that are fighting to be where they are right now. – by A. Sherrod Blakely

Chi-town still has love for D-Rose
Derrick Rose is gone but far from forgotten by Chicago Bulls fans. Newly acquired Anthony Morrow found this out the hard way.

Shortly after being traded to Chicago from Oklahoma City, Morrow was given jersey number one – not knowing at the time that it used to belong to Rose, the former league MVP who now plays for the New York Knicks.

Morrow found out just how beloved Rose still is, with the backlash against him being immediate.

He soon issued an apology to fans via Twitter, and changed his number to 11.

Bulls guard Michael Carter-Williams (he now wears jersey number 7) went through something similar to that when he arrived in the Windy City. And like Morrow, he changed his number as well. – by A. Sherrod Blakely

Scola available; so far, no takers
If Luis Scola wanted to compete in the playoffs, it wasn’t going to happen in Brooklyn.

The Nets waived Scola so he could seek out that opportunity. They made the transaction ahead of the March. 1 deadline to sign with another team and be postseason-eligible.

The team believed the veteran “deserved the opportunity to contribute to a playoff contender,” said general manager Sean Marks.

Scola wasn’t seeing much playing time on the Nets, only two games in the month of February. He has appeared in 48 games over four postseasons. – by Jessica Camerato

Bucks add Jones
When the New Orleans Pelicans waived Terrence Jones after trading for DeMarcus Cousins, you figured it was a matter of when – not if – Jones would be picked up.

In came the Milwaukee Bucks, a franchise looking to find some kind of spark to jumpstart their fading hopes of getting to the playoffs this season.

At 6-foot-9, 252 pounds, Jones gives the Bucks some beef up front for a team with a frontcourt that has been long on length but short on bangers around the paint.

Jones is a fifth-year veteran who had solid numbers with the Pelicans, but both he and the franchise knew the addition of Cousins meant his role would be reduced dramatically.

With New Orleans this season, he averaged 11.5 points and 5.9 rebounds per game.

A free agent this summer, the 25-year-old Jones was a player that the Bucks were going to give some thought to pursuing.

So in picking him up off waivers, they essentially get a test run with a player that they have interest in, without having to commit to long term.  – by A. Sherrod Blakely

Rockets extend streak as Butler exits with injury

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USA Today Images

Rockets extend streak as Butler exits with injury

HOUSTON -- James Harden scored 31 points and the Houston Rockets won their 11th straight game with a 120-102 victory Friday night over the Minnesota Timberwolves, who lost All-Star Jimmy Butler to an apparent right knee injury.

Butler left the game late in the third quarter. After grabbing a rebound late in the third quarter, he pivoted and planted hard on his right foot before collapsing and grabbing his right knee. He was on the floor for at least three minutes before he was carried off the court by two teammates. He appeared to avoid putting weight on his right leg when heading to the locker room.

A Timberwolves official said during the fourth quarter that Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau would provide an update on Butler's injury following the game.

Clint Capela had 25 points and 11 rebounds for Houston, getting his 10th double-double over the past 13 games. Chris Paul added 14 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.

The Rockets trailed for much of the first half before going ahead to maintain the NBA's best record.

Andrew Wiggins led Minnesota with 21 points, and Jeff Teague and Karl-Anthony Towns both had 18 points. Towns added 13 rebounds (see full recap).

Davis sensational in Pelicans’ OT victory over Heat
NEW ORLEANS -- Anthony Davis had 45 points, 17 rebounds, five blocked shots and five steals, and the New Orleans Pelicans beat the Miami Heat 124-123 in overtime Friday night for their fourth consecutive victory.

Goran Dragic scored 30 points and Dwyane Wade hit two runners to give the Heat the lead twice in the last 36 seconds of overtime, but Davis responded to the first with a layup as he was fouled, and Jrue Holiday answered the second with a runner in the lane with 7 seconds left.

Wade had one last shot for the win with Holiday defending him closely. It bounced off the rim to Josh Richardson, whose rushed put-back missed the basket as time expired in Miami's third straight loss.

Davis, who has scored no fewer than 38 points in a game during New Orleans' winning streak -- and 42 or more three times -- raised both arms in triumph as he looked up at the jubilant crowd, and then exchanged high fives with fans along the court.

Holiday finished with 29 points and nine assists, connecting with Davis on a couple of alley-oop dunks. Ian Clark scored a season-high 21 points and Nikola Mirotic capped his 10-point, nine-rebound performance with a crucial 3 in overtime.

Hassan Whiteside had 19 points and 16 rebounds before fouling out in overtime when he hacked Davis on a put-back attempt. Davis hit both free throws to tie it at 117, and then gave New Orleans a brief lead with his fifth alley-oop dunk of the game on a fast-break lob from Holiday with 1:10 to go. Wade had 16 points, while Richardson and Tyler Johnson each scored 15 points (see full recap).

Balanced Celtics rout Pistons
DETROIT -- Kyrie Irving scored 18 points and rookie Daniel Theis added a career-high 19 to lift the Boston Celtics to a 110-98 victory over the Detroit Pistons on Friday night.

Jayson Tatum scored 11 of his 15 points in the first half for the Celtics, who went into the All-Star break on a three-game losing streak but returned with a solid win on the road. Boston took control by outscoring the Pistons 38-21 in the second quarter.

Blake Griffin scored 17 points for Detroit but shot just 5 of 19 from the field.

Theis eclipsed his previous career high of 12 points. He played an important role after Aron Baynes, the starting center for the Celtics, went to the locker room in the first half with left elbow soreness. Baynes ended up playing only 2:39, but Theis shot 8 of 10 from the field and had seven rebounds.

Ish Smith made his first eight shots and finished with 20 points for the Pistons. Detroit led 39-37 in the second quarter before a 21-5 run by Boston. The Celtics were ahead 61-49 at halftime.

The lead was only four late in the third before Boston scored seven straight points -- five by Irving. The Celtics broke the game open at the start of the fourth (see full recap).

NBA stars taking notice of Sixers' rise

NBA stars taking notice of Sixers' rise

The Sixers have been rising steadily in the standings and players around the league are taking notice. 

The young squad improved to 31-25 with a victory over the Bulls Thursday. They have won six straight and have not lost at the Wells Fargo Center in 2018. That totals up to the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, only two games behind the Wizards for the fourth spot and two games ahead of the Heat for the eighth. 

"I like them," Timberwolves guard Jimmy Butler said at the All-Star break. "They've got a lot of great young talent. We do as well. But I think the way that they're going and how they play so hard and play so together, that's how you win basketball games. They're going to be really, really good for a long time."

The Sixers turned heads with a statement win over the Rockets in only their seventh game of the season. From there, they have defeated playoff teams, including a rare sweep of the Spurs, while struggling against sub.-500 opponents. 

They have 26 games remaining to make a postseason push. Of their upcoming opponents, only 10 games are against current top-eight teams in their conferences. Brett Brown has emphasized they can't take any team lightly. This is the time for the Sixers to maximize their schedule and show they learned from previous letdowns.

"They look good," Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard said. "Obviously as a young team, it takes time to learn how to win. ... The mature, really high-level teams, they find a way to get it done. I think for them, that's what their record shows. You play against them and it's hard to play against them. 

"They're really talented, they play hard, they play for a great coach. It's just those nights where you might not have it, having that understanding and that experience that'll lead you to more wins. I think once they get to that point, that's when maybe nine or 10 games that they've let slip, maybe they win those games."

The Sixers wrapped up the majority of their Western Conference schedule prior to the All-Star break. They have only the Timberwolves, Nuggets and Mavericks left to play. Those in the conference still are keeping an eye on the Sixers' progress, even if they may not face off again for months. 

"Everyone definitely sees the talent there," Warriors guard Klay Thompson said. "Any time you've got Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid to build around, they've got a very bright future. I think everyone had very high expectations, but it's hard to have high expectations with a team that's got a lot of first-, second-year guys that have never been in the playoffs. 

"But you can tell that they're going to be in the playoffs for, shoot, the next decade or so, probably be upper echelon pretty soon."