Bernucca: Clippers could end season in Sob City

The Clippers finally got a win Saturday, and everything is hunky-dory again in Lob City.

Yeah, right.

The issues in Clipperland run too deep to be fixed by a matinee mauling of Memphis, which has problems of its own. It is hard to believe that a team boasting both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin may not make the playoffs, but that remains a distinct possibility.

Didn’t someone around here say that a while ago?

There are plenty of problems on offense. New faces are added every other week, impacting continuity. Griffin is growing increasingly frustrated with the rough stuff, partially because he can’t make a free throw. Caron Butler and Randy Foye both are shooting below 40 percent.

There are dilemmas on defense. Despite the presence of jumping jacks Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Kenyon Martin, the Clippers don’t protect the rim very well. They are in the middle of the pack in opponents’ shooting percentage, near the bottom in blocked shots and awful at guarding the arc. Their best individual defender might be Eric Bledsoe.

“We’ve got to figure out ways to score easier but most of all we’ve got to defend,” Paul said this week. “We’ve got to be willing to defend better in order to give ourselves a chance.”

And there are issues with coach Vinny Del Negro, who has not had his option picked up and likely will be let go one day after the Clippers are eliminated from the playoffs – if they get there, of course.

On Friday, Del Negro met with general manager Neil Olshey following the team’s winless road trip but did not divulge the topic of conversation.  They probably weren’t talking about the season finale of The Walking Dead.

Del Negro’s team is 8-12 since a 19-9 start and has given the city’s affections back to the Lakers.

“Managing expectations is the hardest thing in this business,” Del Negro said after Saturday’s win. “And just because you get certain players or you get off to a good start, it doesn’t work like that.”

That might be the biggest problem. For as long as they have been in Los Angeles, the Clippers have been expected to lose. They have been expected to take a back seat to the Lakers. They have been expected to get out the golf bags in late April, take their usual seat at the draft lottery in May and make a bad pick in June.

Let’s take a closer look at their roster. Paul is an utterly fierce competitor, but he has won one playoff series in his career. Griffin and Jordan know next to nothing about playing in big games. Mo Williams gagged when he rode shotgun with LeBron James in Cleveland. Nick Young has played 17 postseason minutes, which is 17 more than Foye. Butler won a championship last year but was wearing a suit.

Oh, yeah, Martin played in the NBA Finals – almost a decade ago.

The Western Conference standings resemble my teenage son’s room, rearranged in no particular order on a daily basis. The Clippers are currently fourth, but one loss would make them sixth and two would drop them to ninth.

“A couple losses here and there and we’re out of the playoffs,” Paul said. “So we’ve got to play with a sense of urgency.”

It is a precarious position for a team with a history of failure, questionable coaching and a distinct lack of experience under the pressure of expectations. If the Clippers aren’t careful, they might find themselves back in Sob City.

TRIVIA: An NBA Finals MVP and a Coach of the Year – both active – attended high school in the same foreign city. Who are they? Answer below.

THE END OF CIVILIZATION AS WE KNOW IT: Apparently, the 17-time champion Boston Celtics aren’t the attraction they used to be. When they visit Minnesota on Friday, halftime entertainment will feature a mini-concert by
has-been rapper Vanilla Ice.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, on what he is going to do with the mask he wore to protect his broken nose:

“I might donate it, see if anybody’s dumb enough to buy that sweaty mask.”

LINE OF THE WEEK: Kevin Love, Minnesota at Oklahoma City, March 23: 49 minutes, 16-27 FGs, 7-11 3-pointers, 12-16 FTs, 14 rebounds, one steal, one block, 51 points in a 149-140 double-overtime loss. We normally don’t acknowledge big games in losing efforts, but this one was too good to ignore. Love had Kendrick Perkins flailing on the perimeter as he made his first five 3-pointers, then buried one in fellow UCLA alum Russell Westbrook’s face with one second left to force overtime. His points set a franchise record, and he joined Josh Smith as the only players to make two appearances in this section this season.

LINE OF THE WEAK: Kobe Bryant, LA Lakers vs. Utah, March 18: 37 minutes, 3-20 FGs, 1-6 3-pointers, 8-9 FTs, six rebounds, four assists, two steals, seven turnovers in a 103-99 loss. It wasn’t longtime rival Raja Bell shutting down Bryant, because he didn’t play. And Bryant spent some time defending rookie Alec Burks, who scored 13 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter.

TRILLION WATCH: In any other week, the 8 trillion by Miami’s James Jones on Friday would have been quite a non-effort. But there is a new leader in the clubhouse as the 10-week reign of Lakers forward Devin Ebanks and his 9 trillion has come to an end. In Tuesday’s 119-110 loss at Sacramento, Memphis Grizzlies forward Quincy Pondexter posted a stunning 11 trillion. After nearly 8 1/2 invisible minutes in the first half, Pondexter played hide-and-seek for stretches of 87 and 72 seconds in the fourth quarter. Absolutely remarkable, Quincy. Take a bow.

GAME OF THE WEEK: Miami at Oklahoma City, March 25. A possible preview of the NBA Finals. The Heat have won four in a row, while the Thunder have slipped a bit at home lately. Bucks-Knicks on Monday and Thunder-Lakers on Thursday also have plenty of juice.

GAME OF THE WEAK: Charlotte at Detroit, March 31. This one should have been scheduled one day later, because only an April fool would watch it.

TWO MINUTES: As someone who coaches high school and AAU basketball, watching Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire play defense before and after the Knicks changed coaches has been utterly revolting. They simply did not give any effort whatsoever under Mike D’Antoni but entirely changed their disposition once Mike Woodson took over. The new approach was not lost on Raptors coach Dwane Casey, either. “They’re a tenacious, different team,” Casey said after a loss at Madison Square Garden. “It’s amazing, their tenacity, the way they attack. If you don’t meet it, they take you out.” Before Friday’s loss in the rematch in Toronto, the Knicks allowed an average of 86.6 points – nearly 10 ppg better than under D’Antoni – in winning their first five games under Woodson, who could not pin down the reason for the sea change. “I can’t explain that, I can’t,” he said. “I wish I could. We probably wouldn’t be sitting in this position that we’re sitting in today, fighting for a playoff spot.” …Beginning today, there are 33 days left in the season. The teams in playoff contention with the most games between now and April 26 are Miami, San Antonio and Memphis with 20 apiece. The teams with the fewest games are Chicago and Dallas with 16 each. Keep a close eye on Philadelphia and Denver, who have just six remaining home games. … Minnesota’s Kevin Love has eight 30-15 games this season. The rest of the league has seven. … The Rockets are 5-4 since Kyle Lowry was sidelined with a bacterial infection, and a big reason they have remained in the West playoff race has been the play of backup Goran Dragic, who has piloted Houston to wins over Oklahoma City and the LA Lakers as a starter. “A lot of times when we played (him) in the playoffs, in the Western Conference finals, when he came off the bench, that’s the unit that really gave us the biggest headache,” Kobe Bryant said. “He’s really developed into a hell of a basketball player.” Since taking over for Lowry, Dragic is averaging 37.3 minutes, 17.0 points, 9.4 assists and 1.89 steals while shooting 51 percent overall and 46 percent from the arc. “No doubt we want Kyle back, but we haven’t missed a beat with Goran,” teammate Chandler Parsons said. “He’s passing the ball, making big shots and really running our team well.” Dragic is an unrestricted free agent this summer and is Tim Duncangoing to get a nice multi-year deal somewhere. …When Spurs forward Tim Duncan started slowly this season, the whispers that he was finished as an impact player became more audible. The erstwhile 20-10 machine scored more than 20 points just once and was held to single digits five times in the team’s 22 games in December and January. But in 23 games since Feb. 1, Duncan – while playing less than 30 minutes per game – has rung up 11 double-doubles against just one single-digit scoring game and is averaging 17.2 points and 11.7 rebounds in San Antonio’s last six contests. “I’m really enthused about his health, his body, the way he’s been taking care of himself,” coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s got quickness and he’s got more agility than he’s had in a while. He’s had it for the whole season. It’s been fun to watch.” Duncan will be 36 when the postseason starts and the schedule becomes more forgiving. “He is moving great,” recent acquisition Stephen Jackson said. “From watching him last year to now, he definitely looks like the old Tim Duncan. To get where we want to be, we are going to need him to play like that.” …Nuggets rookie Kenneth Faried, recently moved into the starting lineup, got his first extended look at Dirk Nowitzki on Monday and came away pretty much in awe. “That one-foot fadeaway, nobody in the league can hit that, and he makes it look so easy,” said Faried, who was lit up for 33 points by Nowitzki. “You think you play great D, you contest the shot, and he looks at you like, ‘That’s going to go in every time.’ As a rookie, wow.” …With bruiser Nikola Pekovic injured and veteran Brad Miller limited, Wolves coach Rick Adelman had a choice: Start Darko Milicic or play without a true center. He opted for the latter. “(Darko) hasn’t done anything to give you faith that he’s going to go out and do the job,” Adelman said. “He’s gotten himself out of shape, and I don’t think he’s been as driven as you’d like.” Milicic has played six total minutes over the last seven  games. …The Bobcats have lost 15 games this season by at least 20 points. By contrast, the Sixers have won 12 games by at least 20 points. A nightmare season for Wizards forward Andray Blatche continued this week when he was held out of two games to improve his conditioning. Blatche has been steadily booed during home games, feuded with former coach Flip Saunders, used his Twitter account to bad-mouth fans and missed five weeks with a calf injury. With a month remaining, he sounds like he has packed it in. “This was a bad year for me, one of my worst ever,” he said. “I let my mom down, my family down, my teammates, the whole organization down this season.” … On Thursday, Mavs forward Sean Williams was waived to make room for the signing of Kelenna Azubuike. Later that night, he attended the D-League’s Texas Legends game in Frisco as a fan and was ejected for voicing his displeasure with the officiating.

Trivia Answer: Dirk Nowitzki and Mike Brown both went to high school in Wurzburg, Germany. … Happy 39th Birthday, Bob Sura. … If Paul Silas wants his son to be an NBA coach, he should let him coach an NBA team.

Chris Bernucca is a regular contributor to His columns appear Wednesday and Sunday. You can follow him on Twitter.




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