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We’ve played 20 games, let’s give out some awards

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There’s a lot of people around the league that say you don’t really know much until you’re about 20 games into an NBA season, then the patterns have established themselves.

Well, we’re about 20 games in now, one quarter of the season gone. Patterns are established. So…

Let’s give out some first-quarter awards to players and teams. Take stock of the league.

Most Valuable Player

1. Chris Paul (PG, New Orleans Hornets). This race is going to be interesting because the preseason frontrunners — Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant — are around but kind of a step back right now. They are behind Chris Paul, who is healthy and back to being one of the league’s dominant players. The rest of the Hornets roster isn’t that good, but they look it when Paul is setting the table. We’re overlooking the Hornets recent slide — for now.

2. Dwight Howard, (C, Orlando Magic). The guy gets overlooked every season, but he is the anchor in the middle on a contending team. A defensive force. And before you say, “he doesn’t have enough offensive moves” I suggest you go watch his play again this season. Best he has played in his career so far.

3. Russell Westbrook (PG, Oklahoma City Thunder). Durant who? Okay, maybe it’s not quite that bad but early on this season the Thunder have been Westbook’s team. He is attacking in transition, making shots, setting up teammates and has the second best PER in the league. He’s in the mix.

Others in the mix: Kobe, LeBron, Manu Ginobili, Dirk Nowitzki, Al Horford and Deron Williams.

Biggest Disappointment (Player)

1. John Salmons (G, Milwaukee Bucks). This is very subjective because it is based more on expectations than anything. And Salmons is getting scapegoated here for a disappointing Milwaukee team. But the last two seasons he was the guy traded at the deadline that sparked his new team into the playoffs. Last season with the Bucks he scored 19.9 points per game on 46.7 percent shooting, this season he is averaging 12.6 points on 36.9 percent. Injuries are a part of that, but still.

2. Yao Ming (C, Houston Rockets). Again hopes and expectations dashed by injury. Not that this is his fault, it’s just disappointing.

3. Tyreke Evans (G, Sacramento Kings). His reworked jump shot is no better than his old one so far, he is attacking less, and he is at the helm of the worst team in the NBA right now. Again, injuries play a pretty big role.

Others in the mix: Joe Johnson, Terrence Williams, Brendan Haywood… really, we could go on forever here.

Rookie Of The Year

1. Blake Griffin (PF, Los Angeles Clippers). This would be a runaway right now. Not that other rookies haven’t been good, but Blake has been just a beast scoring inside, rebounding, running in transition. Oh, the highlight reel dunks are in there too.

2. John Wall (PG, Washington Wizards). We all knew he’s a blur with the ball, but Phil Jackson made a good point about him before the Lakers game Tuesday — Wall is just starting to figure out his spots on the floor in the NBA. Every scorer has his spots he wants to get to, Wall is just discovering his, and as he does his shooting numbers will improve.

3. Landry Fields (SG, New York Knicks). Steal of the draft. Out on the West Coast we saw plenty of this Stanford product and thought “he’ll make a nice rotation player in a few years” but he is starting for the resurgent Knicks, giving them 11 points and 7.5 boards a game, and is just playing smart ball. Some guys just get how to fit in the NBA faster.

Most Disappointing Rookie

1. Evan Turner (G, Philadelphia 76ers). He was supposed to be the guy with the NBA-ready game who could slide right in and play. Maybe not the ceiling of others, but he could play now. Or not. He’s not sure how to fit in the system, Doug Collins doesn’t seem to know how to use him, but if he would just make some shots (41 percent overall and 1 of 11 from three) things would look better.

Others in the mix: Nobody is really close to Turner here. Some slow starters but you see potential elsewhere that Turner has yet to show.

Most Surprising Team/Coach of the year

1. San Antonio Spurs/Gregg Popovich. We lump these two together because the coach of the year is usually the guy whose team surprised us the most by exceeding expectations. And so far that is the Spurs – we knew they would be good and solid, but so far they look like contenders. They are pressing the tempo with Tony Parker, forcing turnovers, and counting less on Tim Duncan and more on their fantastic guard play. We’ll see if they can stay healthy, but 20 games in they are the biggest surprise because they are such a threat.

2. New York Knicks/Mike D’Antoni. Hey, who knew — you can run an up-tempo offense in the East. Well, of course you can, it’s a matter of having the talent to do it, and with Amar’s Stoudemire and the fast-improving in the system Raymond Felton the Knicks now have it. Wilson Chandler and others are playing their roles well. The schedule has been soft, but they have been better than advertised so far.

3. New Orleans Hornets/Monty Williams. If one team is really going to fall from this list, my pick is the Hornets. Not because of Chris Paul or the players so much — although the roster’s limitations will catch up with them — so much as teams going through ownership turmoil just tend to crumble.

Just missing out: Indiana Pacers/Jim O’Brien.

Most Disappointing Team

1. Milwaukee Bucks. How does a team with Brandon Jennings, John Salmons, Andrew Bogut and Corey Maggette have the worst offense in the NBA? Yes there have been injuries but this team has been flat out ugly to watch.

2. Portland Trail Blazers. Injuries are the reason here — another season lost for Greg Oden and Brandon Roy’s knees will never be right — but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing. Hopes were high.

3. Houston Rockets. Again injuries, to Yao Ming and Aaron Brooks have hurt. But even when they have played this team just has not molded together well.

Some quick hits on my other votes (well, if I had a vote):

Defensive Player of the Year: Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic. (Kevin Garnett is close behind.)

Sixth Man of the Year: Wilson Chandler, New York Knicks. (Jason Terry will probably win it, and he has earned it, but I wanted to vote for someone different).

Most Improved Player: Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers.

Three Things We Learned, Cavaliers/Warriors edition: What can we take away from Monday to NBA Finals?

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 16:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers holds his face after being fouled by Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on January 16, 2017 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The NBA goes big on Martin Luther King Jr. day — as they should — but if you missed the action because you were busy counting to 100,000 for no reason, we’ve got you covered with the key takeaways from the biggest game on the schedule.

And we’re doubling our usual three things we learned to six for a day.

Six things from Warriors’ thrashing of Cavaliers that could play out in NBA Finals.
 Nothing that happens in the regular season guarantees anything come the NBA playoffs, let alone the Finals. Last season’s 73-win Warriors were just the latest in a long line of teams to prove that. Which means we need to be careful reading much into Golden State’s thrashing of Cleveland on Martin Luther King Jr. day. The Finals are a little less than six months away — both of these teams will be different by then (the Cavaliers hope to have a healthy J.R. Smith and Kevin Love by then, for example).  Remember, in January one year ago the Warriors thrashed the Cavaliers on national television, and how did the following Finals turn out?

However, when these teams meet some strategies are tested, little things in the game that we could see — or teams will need to at least account for — come the Finals meeting we all expect. Here are six things from Monday’s game that could well play out in June in the NBA Finals.

1) In the four straight wins the Cavaliers had in this series prior to Monday, they were very aggressive in defending Stephen Curry — they trapped him off picks, were physical, tried to pressure him into decisions to give up the ball, then when Curry tried to make the playground passes that worked against other teams the Cavaliers help defenders made steals and were off in transition the other way. All of that made Curry passive — remember the guy floating on the perimeter taking just 11 shots on Christmas Day?

On Monday night Curry took that pressure in stride, attacked Kyrie Irving from the opening tip (remember Curry’s first possession he blew right by him), used his handles to create space, used his gravity to draw defenders to him, then he whipped smart passes around the floor. In the first half, Curry had 10 assists and zero turnovers. For the game Curry had 20 shots. If he can match that, or even come close, in the Finals, the Cavs are going to struggle to slow this offense down. Like every mortal team has.

2) In January 2016 the Warriors thrashed the Cavaliers on national television, and that was a critical step in the Cavaliers deciding they needed to let David Blatt go, hire Tyronn Lue, and make changes that put them on Golden State’s level. With Monday’s loss, one thing that was evident was the depth of playmaking options the Warriors have and how that can be difficult to guard. Cleveland has two playmakers right now, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James. Cavs’ GM David Griffin has talked about wanting to add playmakers, LeBron has called for a backup point guard, but it’s clear whatever position they could use to add another playmaker or two heading into the trade deadline.

3) Can Kevin Durant guard LeBron? Chris Haynes of ESPN with an interesting stat:

The Cavaliers were on the last night of a six-game, 12-day road trip — they were not at their best. LeBron clearly wasn’t. However, if KD can even do a reasonable job on LeBron — or can switch on to him without getting torched — the Warriors will be a lot more comfortable and have more options on defense.

4) How did Warriors handle Kyle Korver? They went right at him and made him play defense, which has never been a strong suit (to put it kindly). The Warriors have enough playmakers that whoever Korver was guarding just went at him, and it worked — particularly during the stretch that saw the Warriors first push their lead north of 20. Korver didn’t have a great shooting night, by June he likely is far more comfortable, but if the Warriors can expose him on the other end it will be hard to keep Korver on the court for extended periods.

5) When JaVale McGee checked in for the Warriors, Tyronn Lue countered with Channing Frye. JaVale is not a strong defender, doesn’t step out away from the basket if he can help it, and the Cavs saw an advantage. JaVale’s offense covered that in this game scoring inside, but it’s something to watch.

6) DeAndre Liggins is a good defender, but he’s more focused on-ball than off, and in the fourth quarter Klay Thompson torched him a few times making Liggins chase him off screens away from the ball. You can be sure Steve Kerr noticed and filed that away.

Isaiah Thomas’ big fourth quarter carries Celtics past Hornets 108-98

Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) raises his arms as he celebrates after hitting a 3-pointer against the Charlotte Hornets during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Boston, Monday, Jan. 16, 2017. Thomas had 35 points as the Celtics defeated the Hornets 108-98. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
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BOSTON (AP) — Isaiah Thomas scored 17 of his 35 points in the fourth quarter, and the surging Boston Celtics beat the Charlotte Hornets 108-98 on Monday night for their ninth victory in 11games.

It was Thomas’ 25th straight game with 20 or more points. He’s been putting up big final quarters of late – scoring 20 or more three times this season. No other NBA player had done it more than once entering Monday.

Al Horford had 22 points, while Kelly Olynyk and Jae Crowder added 15 apiece for Boston, which has won all three meetings with Charlotte this season.

Kemba Walker scored 24 points and Marvin Williams had 21 for the Hornets, who lost their fifth straight – all on the road.

Thomas scored 13 straight points, pushing Boston ahead 93-83 with his 3-pointer from the left wing with 7 1/2 minutes left.

Boston led 80-71 entering the final period.

TIP-INS

Hornets: Entered averaging the second-fewest turnovers in the league at 12.1 per game. They had 11.

Celtics: G Avery Bradley returned after missing four straight games because of a strained right Achilles. He scored five points on 2-of -9 shooting. … Thomas scored a team-record 29 points in the final quarter of a victory against Miami on Dec. 30 to finish with 52.

INSPIRING WORDS

Celtics rookie Jaylen Brown addressed the crowd before the game on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Without notes, he quoted King in saying: “The day our lives begin to end, the day we become silent about things that matter.”

NICE CATCH

New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount sat courtside behind a basket and made a two-handed grab of a ball flying out of bounds.

SPORTS TRANSITION

It was the nightcap of a hockey/basketball doubleheader, and 6-foot-4 Celtics guard Marcus Smart entered TD Garden wearing a winter jacket and hat. He paused and stood seemingly unnoticed as a group of youngsters and parents – most wearing Boston Bruins colors – walked down a hall to meet some of the hockey players.

Smart smiled when a media member said, “I don’t think anyone noticed you.”

Later, 6-foot-9 Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara headed past folks walking in for the basketball game.

 

Clippers guard Chris Paul leaves game with sprained thumb, more tests coming

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The Clippers have now won seven games in a row, but if they don’t have Chris Paul in the lineup that streak is going to turn around very quickly (remember just a couple of weeks ago when he missed seven games with a hamstring strain?).

Which is why Paul leaving the game with what the team has called a sprained thumb is potentially troubling news. Paul was trying to get over the top of a Joffrey Lauvergne screen when he ran into Russell Westbrook who had pulled up to take a three, Paul’s hand hitting Westbrook’s hip and seemingly getting caught up in his shorts. Paul walked off the court and went straight to the locker room, making it seem worse than the team said it is so far.

From the press release from the Clippers:

X-rays during the game were negative, but further tests still need to be done to determine the extent of the injury, which occurred in the second quarter after Paul jammed his left hand on Russell Westbrook’s right leg.

The Clippers held on without Paul for the comfortable win over the Thunder, 120-98.

The Clippers are the four seed in the West but could fall down that ladder if Paul is out for any stretch of time. Starting Saturday The Clippers have 10-of-11 games on the road — and the one home game is the Warriors. That’s going to be a tough run of games even with Paul.

Kevin Durant scores 21, Stephen Curry 20 to help Warriors cruise past Cavs (VIDEOS)

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Pretty much everything the Warriors did Monday against the Cavaliers worked — transition buckets, pull-up threes, drive-and-dish plays, curls off screens, you name it and the Warriors got enough space to get a shot they wanted. Then they knocked them down. Which is why the Warriors won going away.

Stephen Curry had a big night with 20 points and 11 assists, which you can see highlights of above. It was a big night for Curry’s confidence: In the Cavaliers four-straight wins against the Warriors, Cleveland trapped Curry off picks, were physical, and when Curry tried to make the playground passes that worked against other teams Cavaliers’ help defenders made steals and were off in transition the other way. Monday night Curry took the pressure in stride, used his handles to create space, used his gravity to draw defenders to him, then he whipped smart passes around the floor. Curry had 10 assists and zero turnovers in the first half.

Kevin Durant benefitted from some of those passes and had 21 points on the night, and he chipped in three blocks.