NBA takeaways: Don who? Blake takes charge as Clips shake off scandal
The athletic superstar transformed his game and this series, leading the Clippers over the Warriors
Clippers' Blake Griffin embraces Chris Paul after the team's Game 7 win over the Warriors on Saturday.
Kirby Lee / USA TODAY Sports
By Jimmy Spencer
For all the drama that sits courtside at a Game 7, the results ultimately mirrored the initial expectations heading into the playoffs. Each of the series favorites won its respective Game 7 on its home court, as the Thunder, Clippers and Pacers all advance to the second round.
The most competitive game on Saturday came in Los Angeles, as the Warriors nearly pulled off what would have been a remarkable series upset without their starting center. The Clippers’ next battle will come against the Thunder, after the Grizzlies were put away without Zach Randolph. The Pacers survived the Hawks and now move on against the Wizards, a team that hasn’t played since April 29.
Takeaway: Doc Rivers pumped his fist with emotion, yelling in celebration in the final seconds of the Clippers’ Game 7 win. He deserves every bit of that joy. Rivers was brought to Los Angeles to win in the postseason and he’s getting it done already. Rivers not only dealt with the basketball strategy, but he handled the Donald Sterling saga with a leadership that few coaches could manage. Credit Rivers too for transforming Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan into the league’s best frontcourt, one that was far too much for the Warriors to handle without injured center Andrew Bogut.
The Warriors fought harder than most expected without their starting center. Mark Jackson led an undermanned team to a Game 7, and they were in a position to win it in the final minutes. The Warriors blew their opportunity by turning the ball over 18 times and allowing Los Angeles to shoot 55.4 percent. Stephen Curry sensed the urgency and got aggressive attacking the basket. He made all 16 of his free throws to reach 33 points and also added 9 assists. Curry had a great series, but respect goes to Chris Paul, who battled injuries and bulldogged Curry throughout the series while still driving the offense.
Star review: So much for Griffin being “just a dunker,” eh? The athletic superstar transformed his game and this series served as a national showcase for his overall growth. Griffin became the team’s leader when Paul went down with injury earlier this season. In this series, he was nearly unstoppable when he put his back to the basket but he also displayed his range. Griffin showed off his passing abilities with multiple lobs to Jordan, finishing with six assists. Jamal Crawford also earns mention here for carrying the Clippers with so many big shots throughout the game (7-of-12 for 22 points off the bench).
Looking ahead: Clippers will face the Thunder, Game 1 at Oklahoma City
The Sterling stuff won’t go away, but it won’t be nearly as intense as it was in this opening round. The Clippers are talented enough to win an NBA championship, but going into Oklahoma City is an entirely different test than Golden State. Curry is a threat, but Kevin Durant is the almost-certain MVP. Griffin and Jordan dominated the paint, but now Serge Ibaka looms. The biggest determiner may be how long Paul can maintain his health moving forward.
For the Warriors, the fallout of the loss may result in Mark Jackson losing his job. Despite winning in the first round last year and 51 games this season, Jackson may be let go before the final year of his contract even though he has the complete devotion of his players, including the full support of Stephen Curry. It seems like a strange move for a Warriors team that was garbage for so many years, but it sounds like more a clash of egos than it does on-court performance. It’s important to note Jackson just now finished his third season, and Rivers didn’t win a first-round series until his ninth season.
Takeaway: It would be insanely stupid to trade Russell Westbrook. And anyone who needed evidence of that got a heavy serving in Game 7 when the Thunder’s superstar duo flaunted why they’re so dangerous. Westbrook and Kevin Durant combined for 60 points on 22-of-34 shooting. That’s just not fair. Of course, the lane was far more roomy without Zach Randolph, who sat due to suspension. Without him, there was no way the Grizzlies had enough to deal with the talent of Oklahoma City. The Thunder shot 60.9 percent and 57.9 percent from three-point range. They hit their pace, getting 31 points off turnovers and 22 on the break. When playing that style, the Thunder are just too tough.
Star review: Westbrook was all-over-the-court special on Saturday. In addition to his scoring, Westbrook also had 16 assists and 10 rebounds. While he did have 7 turnovers, Westbrook controlled the offense and never settled for 3-pointers like he did earlier in the series. In both Games 6 and 7, he forced himself to get inside the arc and make plays. When he's playing toward the rim, Westbrook can be unguardable.
Looking ahead: Thunder will face the Clippers, Game 1 at Oklahoma City
After facing "Mr. Unreliable" criticism, Durant deserves a headline apology from his hometown paper. The league’s likely MVP responded with huge performances in Games 6 and 7, and he’s certainly in the right flow heading into what will be a difficult matchup against the Clippers. Los Angeles is a different type of tough inside than Memphis with DeAndre Jordan’s athleticism guarding the lane. The pace will be different, and that could favor the Thunder.
Takeaway: Stubbornness can be one heck of a quality for a coach — when it works out. Frank Vogel squeezed wins out of a smaller lineup, finally adjusting to keep up with an unfavorable matchup against the Hawks. But when it all hung on the line in Game 7, Vogel went with what had worked to earn that No. 1 seed. Turns out, it was the right play. The Pacers went with their standard, bigger lineup and instead made alternative adjustments in how they defended the high pick-and-roll offense that spread Indy earlier in the series.
One of the changes Vogel did stick to was putting Paul George on Jeff Teague. George, the leader of the Pacers and one of the league's best two-way players, had the best playoff game of his career with 30 points. That collective effort that rallied the Pacers to the top spot in the East was at work, as Lance Stephenson (19 points and 14 rebounds) also pitched in.
Star review: It’s tough to misplace a 7-footer, but Roy Hibbert finally reappeared just in time. If we’re going to rip the guy an entire series, it’s only fair to give him credit now. Vogel showed faith in his center in Game 7, and Hibbert responded with offense (6-of-10 for 13 points) and help on the boards (7). But the real difference was Hibbert’s clog of the lane defensively that included five blocked shots and many more altered.
Looking ahead: Pacers will face the Wizards, Game 1 at Indiana
There’s nothing impressive about escaping a first-round series win against a No. 8 seed with a losing record. Of course Indy is happy to survive, but they walk into Game 1 shaking their heads rather than holding their heads high. The Hawks may have provided a bit of a blueprint for the Wizards, but the personnel is different. The real question is which Pacers team will show up and if it will be enough to fend off a hot Wizards squad.