It was a curious choice of words, which is why it was no surprise they immediately caused a stir on social media. Blake Griffin, an hour after the Clippers coughed up a 23-point lead last Thursday, after being blitzed by a 25-8 run over the final six minutes by a team (the Warriors) and a player (Stephen Curry) that we are running out of superlatives for, sat in front of his locker and made an eyebrow-raising disclosure.
“They made a statement,” Griffin said, “of just being more together.”
More together? Huh. Better, sure. I’ll buy that. Who wouldn’t? Through 15 games Golden State has outscored opponents by 14.4 points per night, best in the NBA. Curry, the reigning MVP and one-man Vine machine, has taken his game to stratospheric heights. Luke Walton, who is having a better month than anyone, you know, ever, has surgically deployed the small-ball lineup of Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green, which is impossible to guard and positively terrorizing defensively.
But more together? Golden State has great chemistry; 12 players are back from last season’s title-winning team, including the top nine in minutes played. But the Clippers have cohesion, too. L.A.’s top six scorers are returnees. Yes, the Clips are working in some new faces. Paul Pierce is still trying to find his legs, Josh Smith is still trying to find his shot and Lance Stephenson is still looking for the game he left in Indiana.
(Seriously: Has anyone seen that Lance Stephenson?)
But what happened to the good feelings of last summer? What happened to banana boats and helicopters, to Griffin playfully blocking the door to DeAndre Jordan’s house with a chair and Chris Paul—we think—burying the hatchet with a teammate he developed some friction with?
Where’s the love?
Gone, or at least buried pretty deep. The Golden State loss kicked off a three-game losing streak for the Clips, punctuated (for now, anyway) by a demoralizing 91-80 loss to Toronto in a game L.A. trailed by a whopping 29 points. To top it off, Smith, he of the 4.7 points in 14.8 minutes, reportedly blew up at an assistant coach in the locker room after that debacle.
Open Floor guests: Suns' Jeff Hornacek and ESPN.com's Baxter Holmes
Do the Clippers know what ails them? Doesn’t seem like it. A sample of some recent comments to reporters:
Griffin: “I think it’s one of those things where if you pinpoint it, then you know exactly what it is, then you resolve [it]. I think we need to find that, whether it is playing harder, whether it is having a sense of urgency, whatever the case may be.”
Paul: “It is tough because I know we are a lot better than we are showing. We have to get more consistent. We put together these great 10-minute stretches, 16, 18-minute stretches, and we have not been able to put together a full game, [for] 48 minutes.”
Rivers: “[It’s] on me. Players, we have to put them in a better spot to perform better. And that's my job.”
Some issues are obvious. Pierce, brought in for locker room leadership and a crusty, yet still effective, jump shot, has been battling. His scoring has dipped to mid-single digits and he’s posting his poorest shooting (32.2%) and three-point (26.8%) percentages of his career. Rivers keeps running him out there late in games—and why wouldn’t he, given all he saw Pierce do in Boston—but his shot just isn’t falling. Rivers's recent statement on Stephenson (“He will help us, just not right now”) pretty much buttons that up while Smith’s bricklaying (34.8%) has eroded Rivers's trust in him.
Rivers shares the blame, too. His rotations have been unpredictable. The Clips starting five on Sunday was its fifth different lineup in the last five games, and sixth overall. Injuries to Paul and Redick have caused some of the shuffling, but the the fifth spot alongside Paul/Redick/Griffin/Jordan is a revolving door. Rivers is a firm believer in continuity—he still reminds people that Boston’s starting five from the ’08 championship never lost a series when they were healthy—but he can’t seem to find it this season. At some point Rivers may have to pick from the Stephenson-Pierce-Austin Rivers mix and, for the sake of team chemistry, stick with one.
There is a tendency to ho-hum November, given the interminable length of the NBA season and widespread overreactions (Detroit will win the East!) that spread through social media. It’s a default reaction for the Clippers, who really have no other play. And given that only Golden State and San Antonio have surged early (I haven’t forgotten about you, Dallas, and your incredible, improbable 9-5 start) there is reason to say that L.A. can still grab a three or four seed.
But they better get going, and soon. We all saw the value of one win last season, when a season-ending loss to New Orleans punted San Antonio out of the No. 2 seed (and a first-round matchup with the reeling Mavs) and into the No. 6 spot and a grueling, seven-game series with the Clippers the Spurs eventually lost. The West isn’t as strong as many expected—looking at you, New Orleans—and the Clippers will want to do whatever it can to claw into the three-hole and avoid an inevitable showdown with the free-wheeling Warriors.
The opportunity is there. Tuesday’s game in Denver begins an eight-game stretch where the Clippers will play six teams with sub-.500 records. It’s a shot at redemption—or a chance to sink deeper into the abyss.
DeMarre Carroll: As advertised
It seemed like a stupid question. Why Toronto? DeMarre Carroll had $60 million reasons to sign with the Raptors last summer. Money talks, right? But was there another reason Carroll took his talents to Toronto?
“Honestly, the biggest thing was my wife,” Carroll told SI.com. “She really felt like us going to Canada, that somewhere different would benefit not only myself but my daughter. Meeting new people, being in a new environment. All the places we have been, they have all been in the U.S... we have not stepped out much. Canada has much to offer. She felt it was a great opportunity for us.”
Toronto will take it. No team entered last off-season with a more obvious need than Toronto. The Raptors, a top-10 defensive team in ’13-14, had inexplicably sunk to No. 22 last season. It was a mystifying regression, yet one Toronto was hell bent on tackling head on. When the Raptors brain trust—GM Masai Ujiri and head coach Dwane Casey—discussed options, one name came up routinely: Carroll, Atlanta’s wing stopper who was coming off a career season. Toronto’s perimeter D had been porous; worse, the physical toll taken on All-Star DeMar DeRozan, often forced to defend bigger players, was bleeding into his offensive game.
“No question, he was right at the top,” Casey told SI.com. “He is a two-way player, but most of all he defended his position. We needed a bigger three, someone who could match up physically with a guy. We needed a tough kid. He’s that. You put him in a position where he has to guard a guy one-on-one, you know you don’t have to send a double team. He’s exactly what we needed.”
The early returns are encouraging. The Raptors are 9-6, and the defense has crept back to a respectable level (No. 11 in NBA). With room for improvement, too. “I think we’re better and we’re still getting better, especially in the fourth quarter,” Carroll said. “We start the game out [well], we are playing good through three. We have to learn how to play and sustain defense in the fourth. That will come when guys understand each other, start reading each other better.”
Toronto’s other, less notable off-season moves are paying off as well. Cory Joseph supplanted Lou Williams on the Raptors's bench and has brought a defensive spark along with a respectable 9.5 points on 52% shooting. Bismack Biyombo, plucked from Charlotte, is a relentless rebounder and shot blocker with the second unit. Luis Scola, buried on the Pacers bench last year, has started every game and is averaging 10.3 points and 6.2 rebounds. Add Carroll, and suddenly Toronto has a defense to match an offense ranked in the top-five for the second year in a row.
Casey’s defense—and make no mistake, regardless of any changes to the coaching staff, this is the same system Casey ran with great success in Dallas and the last two seasons with Toronto, give or take a few tweaks to pick-and-roll coverage—has been an adjustment for Carroll. In Atlanta, Carroll was free to gamble, knowing that if he gets beat, an experienced Hawks team would quickly rotate to help. Not so in Toronto, where Carroll has focused on “being more sound” while the Raptors work out lingering communication issues.
“A lot of times, we’re not talking, calling stuff out,” Carroll said. “Certain guys think other guys are going to be there, when they are not, that’s communication. When guys talk, good things happen. That’s only going to get better. I kind of expected that early in the season.”
Money can change players. It can make them complacent. Not Carroll. By now, his story is familiar: Shot in the ankle in college, diagnosed with a liver disease before the 2009 NBA draft, battling his way from a second-round pick to one of the most respected perimeter defenders in the league. Money is nice, but it won’t stop him from working.
“Sometimes when you love the game and you play hard, money stops becoming a factor,” Carroll said. “It’s easier than me saying it. Financially it helps me and my family, and my kids. But I’m always motivated, always the underdog. I still have goals that I want to accomplish. I’m like wine, man. I’m just going to get better.”
Five Questions with... Wes Matthews
The Mavericks guard, nearly nine months removed from tearing his Achilles tendon, is averaging 11.2 points for Dallas this season.
Chris Mannix: Where are you physically?
Wesley Matthews: “I mean, I feel good. I’m not where I was before I got hurt. I’m at that last stage and the last thing that comes back is the explosion off the single leg. Putting all your weight on the leg. It’s not necessarily about a movement that I feel like I’m lacking. But if, for example, I’m going on the break, going down the left side as righty, I might have tried to go and dunk before. Now, maybe I can get up there and dunk one, but my mindset now is to finish it and try and draw contact.”
CM: Is there a mental hurdle?
WM: “Yeah, but that part wasn’t tough. [Dallas] had to hold me back more so than try to push me forward. The only way I knew how to do it was to push it. I know my body, how it operates. It took a while for them to trust me and, really, for me to trust them, when they are saying rest is better and I’m saying I can go. Kobe was a big mentor for me. But every injury is different.”
CM: Ever think about what could have been in Portland? You guys were playing well before the injuries hit.
WM: A little bit, but not so much anymore. When it first happened, when the season ended the way it did, yeah, I thought about it. We were good. We were a top four team in the league. That wasn’t a fluke, either. You couldn’t help but think about it. I wasn’t sure [after the season] if I’d be back. It was kind of 50-50, really. I came to find out that my fate was tied to LMA [LaMarcus Aldridge]. That’s the decision [Blazers GM] Neil [Olshey] wanted to make with the organization.”
CM: You had a chance to walk away from a verbal agreement when DeAndre Jordan changed his mind last summer. Honestly, did you consider it?
WM: “Not at all. I wanted to be in Dallas. I felt like we were going to be a good team with or without DeAndre. We are playing good, we are winning, but not playing our best basketball yet. Chandler [Parsons] still has minutes restrictions. I sort of have restrictions. We have guys like JaVale [McGee] playing in his first game [on Sunday]. We are still feeling each other out. I’m not shooting it particularly well. We’re going to get better.”
CM: What’s something about Rick Carlisle that you didn’t know before you played for him?
WM: “He’s real honest, man. He’s very blunt. I think that’s just his personality. You always know where he stands. I respect that. There is nothing personal. He’s as competitive as anyone else. The emotions, that’s good for basketball. But nothing carries over. With me, not playing in back to backs was something I didn’t like. I worked my ass off to get back to where I thought I was ready to go. I’ve told him I want to play. He’s said, ‘I appreciate you, I appreciate that you want to play, that you have good chemistry and relationships with your teammates...but you’re still not going to play.’ That’s the honesty.”
The Fine Fifteen
1. Golden State. At 15-0, the Warriors can break the NBA record for best start to a season against the Lakers on Tuesday. I’ve been adamant the Dubs won’t crack 72 wins. I’m starting to doubt that prediction.
2. San Antonio. A stinker against the Pelicans notwithstanding—what is it with San Antonio struggling against New Orleans recently, anyway?—the Spurs are on cruise control, winners of eight of 10, all with LaMarcus Aldridge still finding his way.
3. Cleveland. The Cavs, predictably, look bored with the regular season. That’s understandable when there is not a single team in the East capable of hanging with them.
4. Dallas. There is no greater testament to Rick Carlisle’s coaching brilliance than Dallas’s play this season. Remember when we were wondering if the Mavs would be able to hold onto their ’16 pick by sinking into the bottom seven? Yeah, me neither.
5. Atlanta. How good are the Hawks at holding leads at home? Dating back to last season, Atlanta has won 33 straight games at Phillips Arena when leading entering the fourth quarter.
6. Toronto. Jonas Valanciunas cooled off last week after a terrific start to the season. Still, Toronto could have a real two-way weapon in the burly center when the postseason rolls around. And good big men can be great equalizers.
7. Oklahoma City. Two straight wins over Dallas and Utah righted the ship for Oklahoma City, and the Thunder welcomed Kevin Durant back to the lineup on Monday. Still, there is something off with OKC’s offense early this season.
8. Miami. Hassan Whiteside is averaging five blocks per game in November and has swatted 27 in his last four. How many teams cut this guy?
10. Indiana. The Pacers are ridiculously deep. Indy’s bench is averaging 40.8 points and is getting contributions from Glenn Robinson III (17 points in a win over Milwaukee), giving Frank Vogel a nice problem to have.
11. LA Clippers. Here’s a question: If the Clippers offered Josh Smith back to Houston for, say, a protected first-round pick... who says no?
12. Boston. Opinion: Gregg Popovich and Rick Carlisle are 1-2 in the smartest coaches in the game category. Brad Stevens is No. 3. Even after an ugly loss to Brooklyn.
15. Utah. Images of Dante Exum running stirred social media last week, but Exum, who tore his ACL in August, isn’t expected back this season. A more pressing issue is a defense that surrendered 100-plus points in back-to-back losses to Dallas and Oklahoma City.
Tweet of the Week
Lynn McHale, wife of ex-Rockets coach Kevin McHale, unleashed an epic Twitter rant at the Rockets following McHale’s firing in Houston. It’s clear there is no love lost between the McHales and Rockets GM Daryl Morey—big surprise there—but Lynn actually evoked the famed Kardashian Kurse in a slam of the embattled James Harden. Not surprisingly, Lynn’s account has since been deleted.
Quote of the Week
“First of all, he has had 20 years of experience in the league. We might not have six players that have 20 years in this league combined. He has that privilege, basically. From a coaching standpoint, I want Kobe to be Kobe. Other guys haven't earned that right yet. So when it gets to their hands and it's sticking and you're a first-, second-, third-year player, you haven't earned that right yet.” — Lakers coach Byron Scott, when asked about Kobe Bryant’s poor shooting and how it negatively effects the Lakers' ball movement.
This quote is incredible on so many levels. First, if we take Scott at his word, he actually believes 20 years of experience is a license to just hurl the ball at the rim unchecked. That’s what Kobe is doing, really: He’s shooting 33.1% from the floor and 20% from three. Second, the intimation that better shooters should just, you know, get out of Kobe’s way because they don’t have comparable experience is baffling. Statistically, Jordan Clarkson is the Lakers' best three-point shooter. He’s fifth on the team in three-point attempts. You would think Scott would try to find ways to get Clarkson more shots. Instead, he seems fine with Bryant and Lou Williams bombing away.
I don’t see Scott losing his job. He’s finally starting to give D’Angelo Russell the necessary burn, and as long as he is force feeding the young players minutes, he’s fine. The Lakers, remember, have no incentive to win this season, with their pick transferring to Philadelphia if it lands outside the top-three. But he can’t keep treating Bryant with kid gloves. Kobe is one of the all-time greats, but if he is intent on jacking up 18-plus shots when he plays, Scott has to reign him in.
14 and out
14. Sacramento is a mess, but I’m not buying the rumor that the Kings would tab Nancy Lieberman to replace George Karl if they decide to let Karl go. This has nothing to do with gender. It’s about replacing a future Hall of Fame coach with a first-year assistant with no NBA experience. As one player agent with ties to the Kings told me last week, “They do that and it’s f---ing chaos.”
13. God bless Brett Brown. The Sixers coach remains unrelentingly positive despite being handed a team that, incredibly, seems to get worse by the year. If the Sixers continue to lose—and they will—there is a chance Brown could be let go before the end of the season. What a mistake that would be. Brown has done his very best to tutor a roster with few blue-chip prospects and a large number of players who belong in the D-League. Keeping a team positive is an almost impossible task, yet Brown has done it. Here’s hoping he’s around when (if) Philadelphia turns the corner.
12. The piling on Brooklyn’s Billy King last week was ridiculous. With the Nets in Boston, ESPN decided to revisit the Nets-Celtics trade from 2013 that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn and a truckload of draft picks back to Boston. The Nets have little left to show from that deal while Celtics fans are dreaming of LSU’s Ben Simmons in green, courtesy of Brooklyn’s unprotected lottery pick coming Boston’s way next June. Social media piggybacked ESPN, and it became a King bash-fest. Understand this: That trade was owner driven. Mikhail Prokhorov, eager to bring stars to New York, desperate to steal fans from the Knicks, pushed for the deal. Could King have done better? Sure. In hindsight, he should have protected the 2016 pick, which the Nets had to know could be a coveted asset, even if the KG/Pierce combo worked out. But let’s see the whole board here. This isn’t all on the GM.
11. Speaking of Simmons, he further cemented his place as the NBA’s top prospect with a superior performance in Brooklyn on Monday. Simmons isn’t LeBron James, but he’s what James was to the 2003 draft. No. 1, and it’s not close.
10. Kristaps Porzingis fever continues to grip New York. Porzingis posted 44 points and 28 rebounds in back-to-back games against the Rockets and Heat. The hyperbole is getting out of control—he’s 20, new to the NBA, and will hit a few ugly shooting patches this season—but it’s undeniable that the Knicks have found a franchise player to build around.
9. The NBA's rebounding leaders:
Andre Drummond: 17.6 per game
DeAndre Jordan: 13.0 per game
The Pistons have cooled off in recent weeks. Drummond has not.
8. Could Stephen Curry be the MVP and the Most Improved Player? He’s making a strong case. Today, he’s the MVP by a landslide. The MIP? Drummond, C.J. McCollum and others will make strong cases. Still... it’s a pretty cool possibility.
7. The NBA referees association was pretty ticked that the NBA didn’t sit Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer for a game after making contact with referee Ben Taylor on Saturday. The league fined Budenholzer $25,000, and Budenholzer issued a public apology on Monday. I think the fine was sufficient. The contact was inadvertent—an irate Budenholzer stormed too far onto the court and brushed up against Taylor—and Budenholzer has no history of stuff like this. I get the NBRA’s position, but I think the NBA got this one right.
6. If Isaiah Thomas doesn’t make the All-Star team this season, he’ll be getting jobbed. Thomas picked up right where he left off last season, and has found a home in the Celtics starting lineup alongside Marcus Smart. The scary part: Thomas is still struggling with his three-point shot. He's been steady in the mid-30’s for most of his career, but is connecting on just 31.5% of his three’s this season. That number figures to improve.
5. The Bucks are 6-8 and dead last in the NBA in defensive efficiency. If not for New Orleans, Milwaukee would be the most disappointing team this season.
4. Rajon Rondo has racked up 57 assists the last four games. He’s not Boston Rondo, but he’s getting closer.
3. Kyrie Irving reportedly “destroyed” LeBron James in a game of one-on-one recently. That’s either great news for Cleveland or a nice PR trick to remind the public how good the Cavs will be when their All-Star point guard returns to the lineup.
2. I still expect Billy Donovan to do well in Oklahoma City, but the Thunder’s early stumbles should remind everyone of the terrific job Scott Brooks did with that team. Coaching superstars isn’t easy, much less when they are in and out of the lineup with injuries. With Durant down most of last season, Brooks and his “simple” offense guided the Thunder to 45-wins in the powerful Western Conference. He’ll be a sought after commodity on the coaching market next summer.
1. Please, give a listen to SI.com’s latest NBA podcast. Guests this week are Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek on everything from Tom Chambers's hops to players with the worst travel habits, and ESPN’s Baxter Holmes, who weighs in on the dysfunction in L.A. Check it out on iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher.