Miami Heat v Portland Trail Blazers

Baseline to Baseline recaps: LeBron James can play some basketball, by the way

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What you missed while watching the original True Grit

Heat 107, Trail Blazers 100 (OT): Hate him if you want. Pull for his team to lose every game. But recognize this — LeBron James is a force of nature. He is the best player in the game right now. Not the biggest winner, but the best player. He showed that Sunday night.

As Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus noted: From the 3:08 mark of the fourth quarter on, LeBron James outscored the Blazers 19-16. He took over the game. He played center for a while so Chris Bosh could stay at the power forward. He had 44 on the night. He got the Heat their ninth straight win.

Raptors 118, Kings 112: No Tyreke Evans for the Kings in this one, which means guys named Beno and Pooh get a lot of burn. But that’s not what lost the Kings the game, terrible defense did. The Raptors have guys who can shoot if you leave them open (and can make layups if you don’t contest them). The Raptors shot 58.5 percent overall, 46.2 percent from three, and pretty much did what they wanted. Andrea Bargnani had 30 on 12-19 shooting.

Clippers 105, Warriors 91: We keep talking about Blake Griffin the dunker — and he is spectacular at it and has more dunks this season than anyone else in the league by a long shot. But the guy has an all-around game and some days that just really jumps out. Griffin is grabbing 20 percent of the available rebounds when he is on the floor. He is shooting 48 percent on shots inside of 10 feet (not counting those dunks and others at the rim) and 36 percent from 10-15 feet (that number will improve). He sets a good pick. He defends. He just does a lot of things well. Against the Warriors he had 23 points, 12 rebounds and was a +17.

He was worth watching. The rest of this game lacked any flow or consistent play. It wasn’t pretty but the Clippers will take the wins any way they come.

Spurs 94, Timberwolves 91: The referees were apparently nostalgic for the ‘90s because they let this one get physical. If you remember basketball from that decade, it lacked flow, it was not pretty to watch. But the Spurs were able to deal with that and get to the line 25 times to the T-Wolves 12. And that was the difference.

Suns 108, Cavaliers 100: Anderson Varejao was the only guy on the Cavs who seemed to try on defense. Now, he’s done. And the only way the Suns are going to beat anyone right now is if their offense can run free and Steve Nash is unimpeded. It’s just going to get worse for the Cavs.

Hornets 96, Nuggets 87: Carmelo Anthony walked off the floor to a chorus of boos from the Nuggets fans with 8 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists. If that’s his last game as a Nugget it was pretty ugly. But pretty much everything the Nuggets did in this one was ugly.

Lakers 109, Knicks 87: The Lakers understood how to attack the Knicks — beat them up inside. Andrew Bynum was at the heart of that (the guy is looking a lot better of late) with 18 points, seven boards and good defense. Well, he was until he got tossed for arguing a call. The Knicks couldn’t capitalize. Gasol added 20, Odom had 13 points and 18 boards and you get the picture. The Knicks shot just 36 percent.

51 Questions: Is Mike Malone the key to bringing Denver back?

Michael Malone
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PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

Is Mike Malone the key to bringing Denver back?

One incident sums up how bad things had gotten in Denver under the Brian Shaw regime — breaking a fourth-quarter huddle in the final game of February, Nuggets players chanted “1-2-3-six weeks!”

The players didn’t like the coach, some of them didn’t like each other, and with six weeks and 24 games left in the season they had checked out. The young players (and some of the veterans) partied so much Shaw canceled shootarounds because guys couldn’t roll in for them in the morning. Shaw had lost the team long before when he’d tried to fit square pegs into the triangle holes of his offense, and it spiraled out of control from there. The culture in Denver was broken.

Mike Malone was brought in to repair that culture.

The Jeff Van Gundy disciple has shown he can do that before. Malone was starting to build something in Sacramento (they started last season 9-6 before DeMarcus Cousins got sick), where he was asked to repair a franchise culture that by the end of the Maloof era was something akin to the Lord of the Flies. Malone also turned out to be the one coach who had gotten through to Cousins. Even with his defensive mindset and Cousins in the paint, Malone had the Kings playing at the eighth-fastest pace in the league in pace, but the Kings’ owner wanted to play faster (and maybe didn’t want to miss out on the chance to hire George Karl), so Malone got sacked.

The question becomes, is Malone alone going to turn things around in Denver and bring them back to relevance?

Not alone, and not just in one season, but he will get them on the right track.

The first step to show management was behind Malone was the trading of Ty Lawson. No doubt when focused Lawson is a quality point guard (as Houston likely benefits from this season), but he was part of the problem in the end in Denver, to the point of picking up two DUIs in six months (he checked into a rehab facility after the second one). He had mentally checked out and his example was an issue the Nuggets needed to change.

That turns the keys for the offense over to rookie point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, who impressed a lot of people at Summer League after bailing on SMU to play in China last season. But he’s still a rookie with a long way to go — as the 15 turnovers in his first two preseason games attest. Things that worked in China and Summer League don’t fly against an NBA defense.

With Mudiay at the point and a team that plays half its games at high altitude, Monroe wants to take advantage of that and get out and run. Expect the Nuggets to get back to their traditional up-tempo games, but with some things Malone loves to run (such as the Rick Adelman corner action).

But for Malone, all things — including good transition basketball — starts with defense. You have to get stops and steals to run well, and the Nuggets were 26th in the league in defensive rating last season (105.5 points allowed per 100 possessions). In the first two Nuggets preseason games, that was the Nuggets focus (with mixed results).

Malone’s challenge starts with getting Kenneth Faried to buy in and play as hard on defense as he does on offense — something Faried has never done. Faried has been a defensive minus since he entered the NBA and that becomes one of Malone’s first major projects (even if it’s just to boost Faried’s trade value). Faried, who clashed with Shaw over his role, has said he’s felt energized under Malone, now the coach just has to steer that energy to the defensive end of the court.

Malone will be searching for the right center to put next to Faried, and I expect that will mean a lot of Jusuf Nurkic (who is young and shows it at times). But also expect to see some small-ball lineups with Faried at the five. Something like Mudiay, Randy Foye, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, and Faried. A lineup with some athleticism and shooting that could put up points, but would they get any stops? If Gary Harris slots in for Foye, does that help the defense (Harris is guy Nuggets fans may see more and more of as the season goes on).

The roster is a work in progress, and if you were to bet on the Nuggets doing one thing this season, it should be making trades. Things are going to change.

There are nice pieces on the Nuggets, but not enough of them and with some real questions about how it all fits together. This is not a playoff team this season, not in the West.

But it’s a team that Malone could have playing a lot better late in the season than at the beginning, once some of those questions start to be answered, and the young players gain experience. That should be the goal in Denver. Begin to change the culture, get buy-in on the system, get guys playing hard again rather than dreaming of Cancun vacations by February. Change can be incremental, but Malone will start the change.

Then in a couple of years, you’ve got the team you want.

Well, so long as the Nuggets ownership doesn’t get impatient and decide it needs to change directions again.

Another Pelicans center down: Omer Asik out three weeks

Omer Asik, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver
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The Pelicans will have to play Anthony Davis at center now.

With backup center Alexis Ajinca already sidelined, starting center Omer Asik suffered his own injury.

Pelicans release:

The New Orleans Pelicans announced today that center Omer Asik is expected to miss the next three weeks with a right calf strain. The injury occurred during Wednesday’s practice.

If that three-week timeline is firm, Asik would miss two regular season games – at Warriors and at Trail Blazers.

Davis figured to be the most natural fit at center in Alvin Gentry’s up-tempo scheme. What happens if the Pelicans excel with him there and then stumble once Asik and Ajinca return? Because New Orleans had Bird Rights for Asik and Ajinca, re-signing them made some sense. And once they’re re-signed, Gentry must find a role for them. But that could get harder if it becomes obvious the team is best with Davis at center.

As long as Asik and Ajinca are out, Kendrick Perkins probably moves into the rotation. Jeff Adrien could also see minutes at center. Suddenly, Adrien, on an unguaranteed contract, has a much better chance of making the regular-season roster. Ryan Anderson probably plays more at power forward, too, with Davis logging more time at center.