7:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Clippers -1.5, Over/Under: 241.5
Assembling stars has become the defacto method of winning championships in the National Basketball Association over the last decade, and two of that stratagem’s strongest recent advocates meet tonight in the Big Apple as the Los Angeles Clippers battle the Brooklyn Nets from Barcalys Center in Brooklyn, New York. Last season the Clippers (16-5, 1st in Western Conference) came into the campaign as the talk of the NBA following their acquisition of All-NBA Swingmen, Kawhi Leonard (25.9 PTS, 50.8% FG, 41.0% 3FG, 5.2 REB, 5.4 AST, 1.8 STL, 0.6 BLK, 28.1 PER) and Paul George (23.6 PTS, 50.2% FG, 45.4% 3FG, 6.4 REB, 5.4 AST, 1.2 STL, 0.5 BLK, 22.7 PER), immediately vaulting to favorite status for the Larry O’Brien trophy. However, after a solid performance during a Regular Season that was paused for four months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, their postseason run came to a premature end in crushing fashion, as they blew (what was thought to be) a commanding 3-1 lead against the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Semifinals. As a result, (Head Coach) Doc Rivers was fired, eventually replaced by (lead assistant) Tyronn Lue, who will spend this season attempting to guide his charges past that monumental meltdown. Make no mistake, as inexplicable as that collapse was, Los Angeles still remains one of the most talented outfits in the league, and if the early returns are any indication then Lue has them on the right path towards redemption. Of course, the 43-year old has had plenty of experience in leading high-profile superstars with massive egos, and even took over as an in-house choice following an underachieving finish once before; we’re referring to his tenure in Cleveland, where he replaced the incumbent David Blatt en route to leading a unit featuring the likes of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love to three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, including the greatest upset in NBA history, toppling the mighty Warriors in 2016. With just over a month of the schedule in the books, the Clippers have positioned themselves atop the always-competitive West, one of only a small handful of teams that rank within the Top-10 offensively and defensively; thus far they’ve averaged 114.5 points per game (7th Overall) on 48.0% shooting from the field (4th Overall), including a league-best 41.6% from beyond the arc (1st Overall), while yielding just 106.7 points per contest (4th Overall). Both Leonard and George have been excellent in the early stages of the campaign, with each shooting over 50.0% from the field and 40.0% from downtown. George in particular has looked like he’s been on a mission; after slumping during the Playoffs where he managed a miserable 39.8% shooting from the floor and 33.3% from long-range with nearly as many turnovers (3.1) as assists (3.8), the five-time All-NBA selection is currently in the midst of his most efficient season, shooting career-highs from the field (50.2%) and three (45.4%) with 5.4 assists, which is also a career-best. However, apart from their stars the team’s newer faces have made a strong impact as well. Los Angeles added (veteran Forwards) Serge Ibaka (12.4 PTS, 52.7% FG, 39.3% 3FG, 6.7 REB, 1.8 AST, 1.2 BLK, 18.7 PER), Nicolas Batum (9.8 PTS, 48.6% FG, 45.2% 3FG, 4.8 REB, 2.6 AST, 1.2 STL, 15.0 PER), and Luke Kennard (8.5 PTS, 47.2% FG, 44.2% 3FG, 2.9 REB, 2.0 AST, 11.1 PER) in the offseason, with the Ibaka bringing some sorely-needed size and shot-blocking to the Frontcourt, while Batum has resurrected his career after wallowing in basketball obscurity for what feels like ages, with Kennard serving as another shooter to space the floor. Indeed, everything is clicking for the Clippers at this point, as they look to extend their record away from STAPLES Center to 9-3, with a what would be a fourth consecutive road victory.
“We’re just a pretty good offensive team. We share the ball, we move it, we look for the open man, we emphasize passing up good shots for great ones and I think we do a pretty good job of doing that.”Paul George on the Clippers offensive showing in Sunday’s 129-115 win at the Knicks
When we last saw the Clippers, they won their third straight game on the road as they took (what had been) the NBA’s stingiest defense apart in a convincing 129-115 thumping of the New York Knicks. This one was a tale of two halves, folks; after leading by just one point at Halftime, Los Angeles put their proverbial foot on the gas following intermission outscoring New York 35-26 in the third period and 63-50 over the final twenty-four minutes of play. The visitors ran off seven unanswered points to begin the third frame, while a 10-0 run midway through the fourth was more than enough to put the affair out of reach. In the end, Lue’s troops shot a blistering 54.3% from the field, including 17-of-38 from beyond the arc (44.7%), outscoring their opponent by twenty-one points in that regard, all the while committing a scant seven turnovers on the afternoon. Even without two starters due to injury, including (Point Guard) Patrick Beverly (8.1 PTS, 40.0% FG, 41.4% 3FG, 4.4 REB, 2.1 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.8 BLK, 12.4 PER) and the aforementioned Batum, six players managed to score in double-figures, led by Leonard who totaled twenty-eight points on 8-of-15 shooting (53.3%), including 11-of-11 from the free-throw line (100.0%), with four rebounds and three assists. George logged seventeen points, eight rebounds and five assists, though struggled from the perimeter on 1-of-8 shooting on threes (12.5%). Ibaka chipped in with fifteen points, while (reserves) Reggie Jackson (8.4 PTS, 46.0% FG, 39.7% 3FG, 2.6 REB, 2.7 AST, 15.8 PER) and Patrick Patterson (4.8 PTS, 44.8% FG, 39.1% 3FG, 1.6 REB, 9.4 PER) seamlessly stepped into the Starting Five with eighteen and thirteen points respectively, the latter shooting 5-of-5 overall, including 3-of-3 from long range. It remains to be seen whether or not Beverly (knee) or Batum (groin) will be available for tonight’s contest, with both players listed as Day-to-Day. This will be the first of two meetings between these teams, having met just once last season, a 129-120 Nets victory in the Bubble back on August 9th, 2020. Leonard posted a game-high thirty-nine points on a stellar 14-of-25 shooting (56.0%), though George sat out due to injury, with the Clippers unable to recover from a lopsided Frist Quarter in which they were outscored by twenty-one points. This will also mark the first meeting between Finals MVPs, Leonard and Kevin Durant, with the former ending the Warriors’ reign of dominance as the latter was relegated to participating in just one game of the series due to a torn Achilles.
Meanwhile, the Clippers weren’t the only franchise to assemble a tandem of stars during the Summer of 2019, for the Nets (13-9, 2nd in Eastern Conference) also created massive headlines as they acquired both Kevin Durant (30.9 PTS, 52.0% FG, 44.7% 3FG, 7.4 REB, 5.6 AST, 0.8 STL, 1.4 BLK, 26.7 PER) and Kyrie Irving (27.6 PTS, 52.5% FG, 42.1% 3FG, 4.8 REB, 6.0 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.7 BLK, 24.7 PER) during Free Agency. However, unlike their opponent tonight, they were forced to wait before they could see the fruits of their labor; after tearing his Achilles during that ill-fated trek to the Finals, Durant spent the entirety of the ensuing campaign rehabbing from that injury. Unfortunately, Irving himself would only participate in twenty games due to a knee injury of his own, leaving Brooklyn to fend for themselves without a pair of All-NBA selections that they had just committed a staggering $300.715 million to over the next four years. Even after parting ways with (Head Coach) Kenny Atkinson, the team managed to advance to the Playoffs for a second consecutive season, where they were promptly eliminated by the Toronto Raptors in a four-game sweep. With that said, things got officially interesting during this past (abridged) offseason, as the franchise shocked the basketball world by appointing Steve Nash as Head Coach. Needless to say, this was a bit of a headscratcher, folks, for the 46-year old had retired from the NBA following an injury-riddled 2013-2014 campaign having spent the last six years largely removed from the league altogether save for a season working as a consultant with the Golden State Warriors, which apparently endeared himself greatly to Durant, with that relationship proving to be the driving force towards his hiring despite lacking coaching experience on any professional level, let alone in the NBA. With former mentor, Mike D’Antoni by his side as lead assistant, Nash has overseen Brooklyn’s evolution into a juggernaut on the offensive end, with Durant looking like himself after a year away from the hardwood; the four-time scoring champion and 2013-2014 MVP has averaged 30.9 points on a career-best 52.0% shooting overall and 44.7% from downtown thus far, showing no effects from that aforementioned Achilles tear. The Nets started off 7-6 before stopping the basketball world in it’s tracks by completing a blockbuster four-team trade with the Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Indiana Pacers for the services of (another former MVP) James Harden (24.5 PTS, 46.3% FG, 37.1% 3FG, 6.4 REB, 11.1 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.7 BLK, 23.5 PER). In exchange for the three-time reigning scoring champion, (General Manager) Sean Marks parted ways with four players including Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Taurean Prince, and Rodions Kurucs, along with a wealth of assets including four First Round Picks and four Pick Swaps, depleting their draft capital for the foreseeable future. The long-rumored deal finally put together the NBA’s latest Big Three, teaming Harden with Durant (who were teammates for three years in Oklahoma City) and Irving, creating a triumvirate consisting of a staggering twenty-four All-Star selections, eighteen All-NBA nods, seven scoring titles, a pair of MVP awards, and three Larry O’Brien trophies. So in the nine games since the deal, how have things played out, you ask? Nash’s charges have gone 6-3 over that period, averaging a prolific 127.3 points per game on 51.3% shooting from the field, including 41.1% from beyond the arc, with 28.4 assists in comparison to committing 13.7 turnovers. It will be interesting to see how these three come together, for during this period all three have missed multiple games for a variety of reasons, as Harden has settled into his new digs rather quickly, averaging 24.3 points 7.8 rebounds, and 11.3 assists with his new team, embracing the role of facilitator. With that said, it’s become clear that the biggest concern moving forward will be on the defensive end for a team that spent a good deal of size and depth in the deal to acquire the bearded one. Since adding the 31-year old to the mix, Brooklyn has relinquished 124.6 points per game on 47.3% shooting overall and 33.9% from downtown, while yielding 25.2 assists and forcing just 10.1 turnovers.
“I couldn’t guard a stick today. They were going right around me, and I was getting frustrated, but they kept attacking.”Kyrie Irving on his defensive performance in Sunday’s 149-146 loss at the Wizards
When we last saw the Nets, their four-game winning streak came to an end against a familiar opponent, as they lost to the NBA-worst, Washington Wizards, for the second time this season in a thrilling 149-146 affair. For the second game in a row, Brooklyn remarkably topped 145 points in REGULATION, and did so without one of their three superstars, as the aforementioned Harden was held out of action as a precaution due to a thigh contusion suffered in the previous outing. However, unlike their franchise-tying 147-125 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder last Friday night, their play on the defensive end simply wasn’t up to par as Washington outscored them 48-38 in the Fourth Quarter, with a wild flurry inside the final 8.1 seconds ultimately deciding the outcome. Leading 146-141 with just over eight seconds left, the visitors allowed Bradley Beal to race downcourt and drill a clutch three-pointer to pull within two points. On the ensuing inbound, Garrison Matthews deflected the inbound pass which was collected by Russell Westbrook, who knocked down another trey, taking the lead for the first time that night. Nash’s troops would get one more opportunity to retake the lead, but Timothe’ Luwau-Cabarrot’s (7.5 PTS, 38.2% FG, 36.0% 3FG, 2.2 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.5 STL, 9.5 PER) point-blank effort rolled right off the rim, with the home side snaring the rebound. After being fouled, Beal would calmly sink two free-throws, while Durant’s desperate heave as time expired fell to the hardwood. The two-time Finals MVP led his team with thirty-seven points on 11-of-19 shooting from the field (57.9%), including 13-of-13 from the charity stripe (100.0%), along with seven rebounds, six assists, and a pair of steals, while Irving added twenty-six points on 10-of-20 shooting (50.0%) and eight assists. (Sharpshooting Forward) Joe Harris (15.0 PTS, 51.5% FG, 49.0% 3FG, 3.7 REB, 2.1 AST, 0.6 STL, 14.9 PER) totaled thirty points, netting 8-of-13 attempts from beyond the arc (61.5%), while (veteran journeyman) Jeff Green (9.0 PTS, 55.9% FG, 46.5% 3FG, 3.8 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.7 STL, 12.4 PER) poured in season-high twenty-three points on 7-of-10 shooting (70.0%), including 4-of-5 from three (80.0%) off the bench. As a team, the Nets shot 56.8% overall, including a torrid 19-of-36 from downtown (52.8%), with 27-of-33 from the free-throw line (81.8%) and thirty-three assists. Unfortunately, they couldn’t stop the Wizards at really any point, with the hosts shooting 51.9% from the floor, including 12-of-39 from deep (30.8%), and 25-of-32 from the line (78.1%). However, the biggest difference in the two sides was Washington’s exploitation of Brooklyn’s mistakes, turning seventeen turnovers into twenty-five points, which went a long way towards hammering them in the paint, 72-34. Westbrook and Beal accounted for a whopping seventy-eight points, with the former relishing this showdown with his former teammate, dropping a game-high forty-one points 16-of-28 shooting (57.1%), along with ten rebounds and eight assists. After emptying the coffers (and not to mention the rotation) to acquire Harden, it’s going to take a lot of time and effort for this team get better on the defensive end of the court, and with the prolific Clippers on tap it could be quite a while before Nash and his Coaching Staff are able to figure this conundrum out.