NBA Saturday: Clippers Ready to Contend
The Los Angeles Clippers entered this season with a chip on their shoulder. Although the Clippers advanced to the Conference Semifinals last postseason and added veterans such as Jamal Crawford, Grant Hill, Lamar Odom and Willie Green over the summer, nobody was considering them a contender.
The Los Angeles Lakers dominated the headlines after acquiring Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. Once again, the Clippers were overlooked and relegated to the back burner by their Staples Center co-tenant. This only made the Clippers – “the other team in L.A.” – hungrier. They couldn’t care less who’s donning purple and gold this season because they have championship aspirations of their own.
While the basketball world gushed over the Lakers and anointed them the team to beat in mid-August, the Clippers got to work. Chris Paul organized offseason workouts and nearly every player showed up in Los Angeles for the training sessions. The group, which featured seven new faces, was able to develop chemistry on the court and bond together off the court.
When the team wasn’t working out or playing pick-up games, they were sitting around and talking about the upcoming season. The players couldn’t wait to take the court for the first time and they excitedly talked about how good the team could be, how many different lineups they could put together with their depth and how they were going to exceed everyone’s expectations.
Entering the season, the general consensus around the league was that the Clippers weren’t a top team in the Western Conference. Most previews and projections had them finishing behind the Lakers as well as the Oklahoma City Thunder, among others.
Now, one week into the season, both of those teams already have a loss while the undefeated Clippers sit atop the West standings. There is still plenty of basketball to be played, but it’s time to stop overlooking the Clippers. With their talent and depth, they’re undoubtedly one of the West’s elite.
“It’s still early, but everyone around here believes the sky is the limit for us,” Crawford told HOOPSWORLD. “We know we’re overlooked, but that’s okay with us. The group that we have here is motivated. We know we can do something special.”
“We’re the perfect group of young guys and veterans who know how to win,” Crawford said. “We just have to keep everyone healthy. We all believe in what Coach Vinny Del Negro is doing and what the organization is doing.”
The Clippers’ biggest strength is their depth. Last season, the Clippers relied heavily on the one-two punch of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Now, they have multiple starting-caliber players at just about every position and they receive huge contributions from someone new each night. Los Angeles’ reserves have been outstanding, and the second unit will only improve in the coming weeks when Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill return from injuries.
“I’m biased, but I think we’re the deepest team in the league,” Crawford said. “This would have to be the most talented team I’ve played on. That’s no disrespect to any team I’ve played on in the past, but we’re ten deep and maybe even deeper than that. This is the deepest team I’ve been on, by far. And these are guys who aren’t worried about anything but winning. That’s all it’s about.”
In the past, making the playoffs has been considered quite an accomplishment for L.A. Last year, when the Clippers defeated the Memphis Grizzlies to advance to the second round of the postseason, it was just the third series win in franchise history. Now, with multiple All-Stars and hungry veterans on the roster, the bar has been raised. When asked if the Clippers’ goal is to win a championship this season, Crawford says “of course” without hesitation.
While some teams enjoy being underrated, the Clippers almost seem offended that they’re flying under the radar, which isn’t too surprising when you consider the intense competitors (Paul, Griffin and Hill) and proven winners (Billups, Odom and Turiaf) they have in their locker room. The Clippers are a legitimate contender and they’re determined to prove it to every last doubter.
What’s Wrong With the Nuggets?
This was supposed to be the year that the Denver Nuggets made the transition from promising up-and-comer to legitimate contender. Last season was considered a success for the Nuggets, finishing 10 games above .500 and giving the Los Angeles Lakers a tough seven-game series in the playoffs. Now, Denver was supposed to take the next step and emerge as a dark horse in the Western Conference.
However, the Nuggets have gotten off to a slow start, losing their first two games against the Philadelphia 76ers and Orlando Magic. These are games that Denver is expected to win, but they have struggled mainly due to a lack of chemistry. Andre Iguodala, who was acquired over the offseason, is still trying to get acclimated and mesh with his new teammates. JaVale McGee and Wilson Chandler, last year’s midseason acquisitions, are still trying to get comfortable and find their roles as well.
The Nuggets are one of the deepest teams in the NBA, but they aren’t playing up to their full potential.
“We have to get our timing together,” Iguodala said. “We are still trying to get on the same page, it’s just off a little bit and a second can throw off your rhythm. We just have to keep playing through it. We got to get a little more feisty, coming out and setting the tone instead of letting the tone set the way we play.”
“It’s tough for us right now because we are still trying to find a rhythm with each other,” Kenneth Faried said. “It’s a completely new team, with new players and guys getting back healthy from injuries. It’s a whole new nucleus coming out now. Dre is a leader on the team, one of the guys who is a role model and captain, and he’s right: We do need to get that feistiness, grit and toughness in us. You need that to compete in the NBA, period. You have to be tough and tough-minded, especially if you want to make it to the playoffs.”
“It’s just the beginning,” Danilo Gallinari said. “We have new guys on the team. We have guys that were injured last year and are now trying to get back in shape on the team. It’s going to be a process.”
While chemistry issues certainly factored into the Nuggets’ first two losses, both the Sixers and Magic are also in transition periods and feature more new players than Denver. These were winnable games that the Nuggets dropped, and Iguodala thinks the team needs to work harder going forward.
“A lot of it is timing and rhythm, but we can’t get outworked,” Iguodala added. “We go through spurts where we get outworked a little bit. I think we’re coming out a little bit too cool. I don’t think that’s on purpose, I think we’re just thinking it’s going to come together, but it’s going to take some hard knocks and hard falls before it comes around for us. We just got to fight through it and understand the process. We still have work to do. It’s hard to win when it’s expected for you to win, especially the first one. Expectations are high, but we are not there yet. We are nowhere near there but we can get there.”
While the Nuggets are disappointed in their slow start, they’re not overly concerned. They believe they’ll eventually right the ship and climb the standings, even if it takes some time.
“It’s my ninth season so I’ve seen it all,” Iguodala said. “I’ve had really good starts and I’ve had 0-6, 0-7 starts. I have been through it all. We just have to stay confident.”
“I think that there a lot of positive things that we did,” Gallinari said. “I mean it’s easy to [focus on] all of the negatives, but it’s a long season. We just played two games so we have a lot of time to improve and a lot of things we can improve. I think we did some pretty good things tonight that we didn’t do in Philly, so we have to take the positive things out of this game.”
The Nuggets’ may drop to 0-3 before they start to rack up the wins: They’ll take on the Miami HEAT this evening in their first back-to-back of the season.
Harden Continues to Dominate
Just in case anyone thought that James Harden’s 37-point, 12-assist performance in the Houston Rockets’ season opener was a fluke, the 23-year-old shooting guard delivered an even more impressive performance on Friday night. Harden dropped a career-high 45 points on the Atlanta Hawks, including 18 points in the fourth quarter to help the Rockets pull away and remain undefeated.
Through two games, Harden is averaging 41 points, 7 assists and 6.5 rebounds. His Player Efficiency Rating is 38.42, which is off the charts. Only two other players in NBA history have scored more than 82 points in the first two games of a season: Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain.
“I’m just trying to make plays,” Harden told HOOPSWORLD. “My teammates are looking for me and I’m just trying to score the basketball. It’s not just me, all of our guys are stepping up at key times and that’s good for our team. My teammates did a great job of finding me and putting me in position to score the ball. Credit to them and credit to the coaching staff as well.”
Making Harden’s play even more impressive is the fact that he’s still getting acclimated to new teammates, coaches and plays in Houston. He has only had three practices with the Rockets, yet he’s been able to dominate. This is also his first time as a full-time starter, which is a pretty big adjustment to make as well. Prior to this season, Harden had only started seven games in his three-year NBA career.
“It’s a lot different,” Harden said. “Coming off the bench is different than starting and having basically the entire offense run through you. I have to get used to it. That’s my job now so I have to get it going.”
That’s right, Harden thinks he needs “get it going,” as if he hasn’t been producing enough. When asked how he has managed to be so successful, he downplayed his outstanding performances.
“We have a long way to go,” Harden said. “Honestly, I don’t even think about [individual success]. I’m just playing hard, trying to compete and doing whatever it takes to help my team win.”
Harden has enjoyed sharing the backcourt with Jeremy Lin, who is also new to Houston after signing in July. Both players can score and facilitate, which has made Houston’s offense much scarier than anyone anticipated entering the year.
“It’s good, it’s easy,” Harden said of playing alongside Lin. “He does a great job of creating for me and for other teammates as well. He can score the ball, but he also does a great job of passing it. That’s what makes us so good together, because I can do the same thing.”
Harden has been unstoppable through two games. Next up, the Rockets have their home opener against the Portland Trail Blazers this evening. Will Harden top himself once again and drop 50 points?
Henderson, Bobcats Showing Improvement
The Charlotte Bobcats won their season opener on Friday night, beating the Indiana Pacers to snap their 23-game losing streak that dated back to last season. That’s an excellent start for the Bobcats, considering the group won just seven games all of last season. Gerald Henderson contributed 18 points, three assists and five steals in the victory. He and his teammates have shown improvement in recent weeks, which could suggest that the Bobcats are finally heading in the right direction and that new head coach Mike Dunlap is the right man for the job in Charlotte.
HOOPSWORLD caught up with Henderson recently to discuss the fresh start that this season presents, the opportunity to learn from Ben Gordon, the recently snapped losing streak and the impact that Dunlap has had on the team:
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