NICOLAS BATUM FELT the doubt creeping in.
He hadn’t played a minute of NBA basketball since Jan. 24, 2020, when the Charlotte Hornets decided to embrace a youth movement and send their 31-year-old, $120 million veteran permanently to the bench. That March, he publicly apologized to Hornets fans for not being able to live up to his massive contract. And when Charlotte held voluntary workouts in September after not participating in the Orlando bubble, Batum was told the focus of the minicamp was to develop the team’s young talent.
“Like, OK, I’m that bad?” Batum thought.
On Nov. 29, Batum would find out the answer in a matter of minutes. It was nearly nine o’clock at night when Batum’s wife, Lily, rushed into the living room as he and his son Ayden were putting toys away.
News broke on Twitter in the U.S. that the Hornets were planning to waive Batum and use the stretch provision to make room to sign Gordon Hayward. Not even 10 minutes after that intel had made its way across the Atlantic into the Batum family’s living room in Paris, Nico’s phone began blowing up.
The first call was from a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and longtime friend.
“I was trying to get him to come, to join our team, because I know his value,” Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert told ESPN. “A lot of people kind of criticized him for his last seasons with the Hornets. But we were both in Paris, so I’ve seen the way he worked on his body and got in shape before the season. I knew he was going to be able to impact the game pretty much like before.”
Shortly after that, Tony Parker’s name flashed across Batum’s phone.
After months of wondering if some were right about his NBA mortality, Batum had elite playoff contenders lining up to court his services.
“I’m like, ‘OK, maybe I’m not done yet,'” Batum said. “Because it’s only been 10 minutes [and people are calling]. And I haven’t played [good basketball] for 18 months.
“Ten minutes after I get released, I’m like, ‘OK … maybe … I got something … to do.'”
The Clippers believe that Batum would be one of the key ingredients missing from their championship recipe. It’s why stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, owner Steve Ballmer, head coach Tyronn Lue and front-office executive Lawrence Frank all called Batum as he was making his decision.
Last season, the LA Clippers were a favorite to win it all. The team welcomed the hype only to fall embarrassingly short. Personalities didn’t always mesh, leadership was lacking and the pandemic pause only exacerbated those problems.
Batum watched all that unfold from afar, calling the Clippers’ first game of the bubble restart as an analyst for a French livestreaming site. When he considered their pitch, he saw the right fit.
“What happened last year, when [the Clippers] got criticized a lot, things didn’t go the way people expected,” Batum said. “They’re figuring the same thing for me. I was like, ‘Why not?'”
“We have a common story,” Batum told ESPN. “With the Clippers, their story and my story are similar.”
Four months later, the French forward is settling into an integral role on the title-contending Clippers, who needed him just as much as he needed them.
IT HAD BEEN five weeks since the inconsistent Clippers won consecutive games and they were down by 21 during a late-March game against the Atlanta Hawks. With 6:29 left in the third quarter, a furious Lue sent a message to his team by subbing out his entire starting five.
Over the next 12 minutes, the Clippers subs cut the lead down to four before Leonard and George returned in the fourth to help pull out a stunning 119-110 win.
“The way that he kind of controlled what we were doing,” Kennard said. “Offensively, defensively, getting in the huddles, talking to us during the timeouts.
“Even though it might not show on the stat sheet, Nic Batum was our leader during that stretch.”
Batum didn’t score a point in the win, finishing with four rebounds and three assists in 23 minutes. Last season, when Batum was trying to live up to his enormous contract, such a game would have been disastrous.
“Oh, I’d be crucified,” Batum said.
While Batum doesn’t rack up big numbers in LA, he logs the third-most minutes, behind Leonard and George. He started in his first 37 games, but when Lue recently inserted Marcus Morris Sr. into the starting lineup to jump-start Morris’ game, Batum accepted a backup role.
“I thought that was probably the best signing of the entire offseason in the NBA,” said Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr.
He is averaging 8.4 points while shooting a career-high 42.3% from behind the arc. And he’s complementing Leonard and George by burying 54% of 3-point attempts off passes from the duo, according to Second Spectrum tracking.
“He almost never makes bad decisions,” Gobert said. “He’s a great playmaker. He’s a versatile defender. He’s really long and can fit into any system offensively and defensively. He’s knocking down the 3 very efficiently. He’s had an amazing impact for this Clippers team every night.
“Apparently, I need to be better [at recruiting].”
IT HAPPENS DURING every Clippers game when Batum and Serge Ibaka are on the floor.
Often during a free throw attempt, the two will look at each other and strategize aloud:
“Serge, là prochain, tu change de joueur, je roll et toi tu resort et tu tire.” — Serge, the next pick-and-roll, I’ll roll and you pop and shoot.
“On vas changer. On change sur le pick-and-roll.” — We’re going to switch. Let’s switch on the pick-and-roll.
“On va doubler, on va doubler! On va doubler ton gars.” — We’re going to double, we’re going to double! We’re going to double your guy.
“On va jouer deux! Deux! Deux!” — We are going two! Two! Two! (“Two” is the Clippers’ zone defense)
Some opponents have protested — “No, come on, you can’t do that!” — when Batum and Ibaka switch to French.
“We use it to our advantage,” Batum said. “We had to learn English in this country. So learn French.”
At times last season, the Clippers looked like they weren’t even speaking to one another when they melted down and blew a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets in the second round. This year, Batum and Ibaka are doing whatever they can to unlock the team’s elusive chemistry.
“Before even me and Nic got here, they did have a good team,” Ibaka told ESPN. “[But] we bring a little more salt and pepper. The food was cooked already. Just add a little extra salt and pepper.”
The real test for these Clippers is coming when the playoffs start next month. Batum will be asked to check elite shot creators, hit high-pressure 3s and calm his teammates in tough moments. One year after some were questioning his own NBA fate, Batum’s presence will be essential.
“He’s an unbelievable teammate,” George said. “This is a perfect team for him because he doesn’t have to shoulder a lot, he doesn’t have to do everything … He just fits right in.”
Last season, Batum and the Clippers didn’t meet expectations. Now both will try to write a new story together.
“I don’t know if I’m the missing piece to be honest,” Batum said. “But I got a chance to end up with a pretty good team, especially with what happened to me the last two years.”
“I just want to make sure we click as a team, on and off the court.”
ESPN’s Tim MacMahon contributed to this story.
Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley to miss Game 2 vs. LA Clippers
Conley, 33, an All-Star for the first time this season, has missed significant time because of injuries to both hamstrings during his two seasons in Utah. He missed six games in February and nine games in late April and May due to tightness in his right hamstring.
Conley averaged 17.4 points and 8.6 assists for the top-seeded Jazz in the first round.
ESPN’s Tim MacMahon contributed to this report.
USA Basketball sets plan for Olympic camps in Las Vegas
For USA Basketball, the last stop before the Tokyo Olympics will be Las Vegas.
The men’s and women’s national teams will hold training camps in Las Vegas in July, they announced Thursday, and they’ll be playing seven exhibitions there against other Olympics-bound national teams as well.
USA Basketball will open its men’s training camp, led by coach Gregg Popovich, in Las Vegas on July 6. The Olympic men’s teams from Australia, Nigeria, Argentina and reigning Basketball World Cup champion Spain will also be spending some time in Las Vegas; Argentina will start its training camp there this month.
The U.S. women’s training camp under coach Dawn Staley will likely open around July 12; the WNBA break for the Olympics starts after the games of July 11. The Olympic women’s teams joining the U.S. in Las Vegas are Australia and Nigeria.
It’ll all take place at the MGM Resorts, which was announced as USA Basketball’s training camp home and resorts partner with the sides having now agreed to a multi-year sponsorship deal.
“USA Basketball is proud to expand its partnership with MGM Resorts,” USA Basketball CEO Jim Tooley said. “We’re excited to bring our national teams to their properties as we prepare for the challenging competition that lies ahead this summer.”
The U.S. men are seeking a fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal, the U.S. women their seventh in a row. Both will enter the Olympics ranked No. 1 by FIBA, the sport’s international governing body — though it remains unknown who the Americans will have on their rosters for the rescheduled Tokyo Games.
Those rosters could be set by the end of June. Some top NBA players such as Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, Kawhi Leonard of the LA Clippers and Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers have expressed some interest in being part of the Olympic team; others, such as LeBron James and Anthony Davis — Los Angeles Lakers teammates who were dealing with injuries when their season ended last week — are not planning to join the team.
All teams in Las Vegas will be taking part in what USA Basketball described as “comprehensive health and safety protocols … including mandatory and regular COVID-19 PCR testing, administered to athletes, coaches, officials and staff in accordance with FIBA and USA Basketball recommendations and CDC guidelines.”
Those concerns are why the international teams opted to spend time in Las Vegas. Argentina’s men’s team is conducting the entirety of its three-week camp there before flying to Tokyo, simply because it believes a controlled environment and less traveling between different countries will minimize virus-related risks before the Olympics.
“We were lucky and, at the same time, we deserved it to get an organization like USA Basketball to extend this invitation to us,” Argentina coach Sergio Hernandez said. “In such a complicated context it doesn’t get better than this.”
The games are set up as part of five doubleheaders, and fans will be able to attend the matchups at MGM’s Michelob Ultra Arena. Tickets go on sale next week.
July 10 — U.S. men vs. Nigeria, Argentina vs. Australia
July 12 — Argentina vs. Nigeria, U.S. men vs. Australia
July 13 — U.S. men vs. Argentina, Australia vs. Nigeria
July 16 — U.S. women vs. Australia, U.S. men vs. Australia
July 18 — U.S. women vs. Nigeria, U.S. men vs. Spain
The Nigeria-U.S. women’s game will be a prequel to the teams’ Olympic meeting on July 27 in Tokyo, the first game there for both of those teams. Nigeria and the U.S. are both in Group B at the Olympics, along with Japan and France.
The Australia-Nigeria men’s game is also the warmup for an Olympics-opening matchup. They’ll play in a Group B game on July 25.
The men’s teams from Spain and Argentina — the teams that played in the World Cup final at Beijing in 2019 — are both in Group C for the Olympics. They’ll both spend some time in Las Vegas but are not scheduled to face off there before flying to Japan.
Las Vegas will see the top four men’s teams in the FIBA rankings there for the exhibitions: The U.S. is No. 1, Spain No. 2, Australia No. 3 and Argentina No. 4. Nigeria is ranked No. 22.
The U.S. women also hold the No. 1 FIBA ranking, and their July 16 opponent Australia is ranked No. 2 in the world. Nigeria’s women are ranked No. 17.
Phoenix Suns’ Chris Paul ‘makes it look normal’ after notching 15 assists, zero turnovers in win vs. Denver Nuggets
It had been seven years since a player had a game in the postseason with 15 assists and no turnovers, but Chris Paul accomplished the feat on Wednesday as the Phoenix Suns routed the Denver Nuggets 123-98 to take a 2-0 series lead.
The last player to post a 15-to-0 assist-to-turnover ratio in a playoff game? Paul, in 2014, with the LA Clippers.
“Guys are open. I got the easy part. All I got to do is find them,” said Paul, who had 17 points. “They got to make the shots. It’s a credit to our coaching staff to tell you the truth. Things we’ve drilled all season long, it’s nice to see it come into play in game form, especially in the playoffs.”
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Paul had the 10th playoff game with 15 assists and zero turnovers since assists were tracked in 1977-78. And Paul has accounted for three of those games himself.
“Obviously 15 assists, zero turnovers is unheard of,” Devin Booker said, “but for Chris Paul, it’s a thing that he does, and makes it look normal.”
In the two games in the series, Paul has 26 assists to just one turnover. Going back to his last three playoff games, that ratio gets even more ridiculous, sitting at 38-2. He’s the first player with 10 or more assists and one or fewer assists in three straight playoff games since Maurice Cheeks in 1989.
The Suns showcased their impressive balance with six players in double-figures, including all five starters. But even with 123 points, no player scored more than 18 (Booker). It was a clinic in distribution, particularly in a raucous second half, as Paul carved the Nuggets, finding efficient possessions nearly every trip down the floor. In Game 2, the Suns shot 15-of-24 off Paul passes. Of the 15 makes, 11 were uncontested looks.
“I’m telling you man, I’ve never been on a team quite like this where everybody can shoot it the way that they do,” Paul said. “You don’t have to try to find a certain guy.”
Like in Game 1, Paul found his spots to assert himself offensively, too, hitting a flurry of shots early in the fourth quarter as the Suns put the game away. It’s one of Paul’s many rare talents, an ability to sense moments and pick his spots to attack the game himself, or get teammates involved.
When Paul joined the surging young Suns in the offseason, there was a lot of talk about his role as a mentor, as a leader, as a culture cultivator. At age 36 and plenty of tread on his tires, Paul’s cerebral presence was thought to be something that could boost the Suns just as much as his play. But as he’s shown this postseason, there’s still plenty left in the tank.
“I would never doubt Chris,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “His ability to manage the team, his track record, has success all over it and everywhere he’s been he’s been successful. He works his tail off and yeah, he’s 36 years old but he’s doing a lot of stuff off the floor so he can be effective on the floor.”
The series now turns to Denver, where the Nuggets are desperate for a response. Paul has been using his experience as a motivator, recounting the 2007-08 second-round series against the San Antonio Spurs where the New Orleans Pelicans took a 2-0 series lead, winning the opening two games by a combined 37 points.
“We’re cool. We’re cool. We’ve got a great locker room, guys that understand the moment. A guy like Jae Crowder, who’s been to the Finals,” Paul said. “I’ve played a lot too. I’m always talking about 2007-08, we played against the Spurs when I was in New Orleans and we won the first two games, beat the brakes off of ’em. I remember looking over there at Tim [Duncan] and all them and they weren’t fazed. It was just one game. That’s what we talk about as a team too. It’s just one game.”
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