Cleveland Cavaliers v Milwaukee Bucks

Three Stars: Career highs for three guys


The soulless pursuit of stats by players on bad teams (or as I like to call it, the Corey Maggette special) can often be pretty brutal to watch. No one likes watching a guy play isolation basketball the whole game, hogging possessions and looking off teammates. Three Stars doesn’t reward that type of behavior, but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate some great individual play — even in a losing effort.

Tonight, we have two career bests by players with a combined NBA experience of 15 years, but our First Star is just getting started. Yes, Kobe Bryant, we’re very impressed with what you did to the Spurs tonight, but you’ve clearly made the mistake of setting your career-high bar (81 points!) much, much too high. Here are Tuesday’s Three Stars of the Night:

Third Star: Jose Calderon – 13 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists

Jose…Jose, Jose, Jose! Filling in place of the injured Kyle Lowry, Jose Calderon put up his first career triple-double in 487 NBA games, and set a new career-high for rebounds with 10 all at the same time. I know what you’re thinking — how the heck does Jose Calderon get 10 rebounds? Well, with Andrea Bargnani on the floor, anything is possible. Bargnani pulled down just two rebounds in 30 minutes of floor time, but give Calderon some credit for sticking his nose in there and capitalizing off an Indiana Pacers team that loves shooting long jumpers. There’s a pretty good chance we’ll never see this happen again, so let’s give Calderon his due in a big win over the Pacers after a triple-overtime battle last night.

Second Star: Anderson Varejao – 35 points, 18 rebounds, 16-for-21 shooting

The league’s premier garbage man did it bigger than ever before, hanging around the rim for a career-high in points with 35. While we know Varejao is plenty capable of those duties, his evolution as a pick-and-roll big man has been incredible to see. Varejao has always been one of the league’s best screeners, but now he’s timing his rolls better, creating angles for his guards and finding the open space on the floor rather than plowing into traffic. It might sound silly, but the Irving/Varejao pick-and-roll combo may finish as the league’s best this year, even though they’re surrounded by no other consistent contributors. Seriously, Cleveland. Six bench points tonight? It’s time to get Andy, one of the hardest working players in the league, some more help.

First Star: Kyrie Irving – 34 points, 8 assists, 4 rebounds, 9-19 shooting

Kyrie went all “Uncle Drew” tonight, toying with one of the league’s best point guards in Deron Williams. Although Williams would win the war, Kyrie won nearly every battle, maneuvering to the hole with ease and getting to the free-throw line (14-for-14) whenever he wanted to. If you had to start a franchise today, and every player is on their current salary, wouldn’t Kyrie Irving be a smart choice? Although he neglects one side of the floor completely, Irving is one of the most dynamic offensive forces in the league. There’s nothing he can’t do with the ball in his hands, and as a natural point guard, he’ll have the ball plenty. Don’t be surprised if his new career-high of 34 points is broken this year, or even this month. It’s rare for this to happen, but Irving is even better than advertised.

Utah’s Rudy Gobert with the crazy high alley-oop finish (VIDEO)

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I love that the Jazz were going to be themselves against the Warriors — two of our three best players are big men in Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, and we are going to use them whether you go small or not. Those two have the athleticism to make that work in a way few teams can’t. The result was a close game, one ultimately won by the Warriors because Stephen Curry can do Stephen Curry things, but you had to love the way the Jazz played.

And you had to love this finish by Gobert in the fourth quarter.

This alley-oop is pretty well defended, but there’s not much a defender can do when you can lob the ball above the box on the backboard, and Gobert can just go get it and finish.

Kobe Bryant farewell tour starts in his hometown of Philadelphia

Los Angeles Lakers v Denver Nuggets
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Tuesday night’s Lakers/76ers game a “showdown” of the two worst teams in the NBA — and it’s Philadelphia’s best chance to get its first win of the season.

But that storyline is being overshadowed — Kobe Bryant announced this is his last NBA season, and that makes Tuesday night his farewell to his hometown of Philadelphia.

“So much of my game was developed in Philadelphia,” Kobe said Sunday while talking about this game. “At Lower Merion High School and coach (Greg) Downer, playing in the Sunny Hill League and all the great coaches, playing at Tustin playground and Ardmore playground and so many great memories there. It’s going to be a very special night.”

As they are known to do, Sixers fans have had a love/hate relationship with Kobe. He has been booed there before — most notably during the 2002 All-Star Game (after Kobe’s Lakers beat the Sixers in the Finals the season before, when Kobe said he was coming to Philly to “cut the heart out” of a gritty Sixers’ team). But this is one of the higher hoops IQ fan bases around the league too — they know the game, and they know greatness.

With that, expect Kobe to get a warm reception in his final trip to his hometown. And expect Kobe to savor it.

“I would hope that he has more fun, and appears less frustrated, and also gets more appreciation,” Lakers’ GM Mitch Kupchak said of Kobe making his announcement. “He’ll get it at home, but on the road too, because people will have to recognize this is his last year and they are watching one of the all-time greats.”

Sixers fans will recognize that before the game, but once the ball goes in the air for the opening tip those same fans will want to see their team get a win after starting the season 18-0.

The fact is the Sixers play harder more consistently than the Lakers, but they haven’t been able to close out games. Miami needed a big comeback to beat them, Boston only won by four, the Grizzlies had to come from behind as well, and Houston beat them by two. Brett Brown has his charges putting out the effort, and they are desperate for a win.

The problem is late in games, when other teams tighten up their defense, the talent gap shows and the Sixers cannot hang on. Their advantage now is that the talent gap with the Lakers is much smaller — the Lakers have shooters (Kobe, Lou Williams, Nick Young) but not ones who take smart shots. You can defend the Lakers late.

Is that enough to get the Sixers their first win of the season?

If so, that is a rough way for Kobe to start his farewell tour.

Five Takeaways from NBA Monday: Why do Rockets often lack energy?

Dwight Howard, James Harden, Arron Afflalo
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This season the Eastern Conference has been deeper and a little better than the West — and that was on display Monday night when the Bulls beat the Spurs, and the Hawks beat the Thunder. Two wins showing the East is for real. Pistons fans told me on Twitter they should be in the Monday night big win mix also, and while I like Detroit (check out our discussion of them in the latest PBT podcast) beating Houston is no longer impressive. Our man Dan Feldman was at that game in Detroit and wrote this first takeaway from that game — what is wrong with Houston’s energy level?

1) Why have the Rockets so often lacked energy this season? “Talking about it is not going to do nothing,” Dwight Howard said. “There’s no Xs and Os that we can draw up. Talking about it in meetings is not going to do nothing. We’ve just got to go do it. We haven’t so far, and something has to change.”

“That’s a good question,” James Harden said in his entire answer, effectively ending the interview after a 116-105 loss to the Pistons dropped Houston to 7-11.

For what Howard provides in vague frustration and Harden in mystery, Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff believes he has uncovered what ails his team.

Bickerstaff pinned much of Houston’s defensive regression on its offensive finishing. As he explained, when the Rockets get all the way to the rim and miss, it’s too easy for opponents — with a Houston player under the basket and a loose ball getting kicked out — to run for easy shots.

The Rockets are attempting 39.2% of their shots in the restricted area, up from 34.7% last season. But they’re shooting just 58.6% there, down from 60.4% last season. Those extra misses at the rim have added up. But Bickerstaff believes his team will regress up to the mean.

“We play a certain style of basketball that we believe works,” Bickerstaff said. “It’s worked for us in the past. We’ll continue to play that way. We’ll continue to be aggressive getting to the paint, getting to the rim. We’ve just got to be stronger in our finishes, and things will change for us.”
—Dan Feldman

2) Bulls execute better than Spurs down stretch (you read that right), pick up big win. With two of the top six defenses in the Association coming into the game, you had to expect San Antonio/Chicago was going to be ugly, gritty, and come down to execution in the clutch. Let’s be honest, that sounds like a recipe for a Spurs win. But on Monday night all those things went the Bulls way — Chicago didn’t score a field goal the final six minutes of the game and still won 92-89. The pairing of Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic played better defense than we’d expect, and the Bulls as a team kept the Spurs from looking Spursian — San Antonio was 2-of-14 from three and seemed to rely more on beating guys one-on-one (specifically Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker) than most games. The Bulls offense late is too much Derrick Rose and he can’t carry a team like he once did (although Butler couldn’t do much do to Leonard’s defense). But it was enough for one night — this was a huge home win for the Bulls.

I have been hesitant to buy into Chicago this season as the potential second best team in the East, they look like the same old Bulls to me. However, the bottom line now is they are 10-5 and have beaten the Spurs, Thunder, Cavaliers and Pacers. That has to get you into one of the top tiers.


3) Atlanta’s team ball beats Westbrook/Durant Thunder for a day. It’s not as simple and clean as that headline makes it sound, but this game had that feel. The Hawks looked like Spurs northeast on Monday night, with ball movement that had them shooting 57 percent in the first quarter and opening up a double-digit lead. Then as happened all game one of the Thunder stars would spark a run — sometimes Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook other times — and the game would be tight again. It went back and forth like that all night. It was Westbrook who had the fourth quarter push (17 of his 34 in the final frame) to make things interesting, but Jeff Teague finishing in traffic late (he ended the night with 25) and Kent Bazemore making the defensive play of the night was enough. Big win for the Hawks.

4) Stephen Curry game winner keeps Warriors perfect. The Utah Jazz play big, their success is based around a front line of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert (two bigs who are quick), and they were not going to go small and try to match up with the Warriors. Good for them. The Jazz were going to be the Jazz and go down swinging, and Favors had 23 and Gordon Hayward had 23. And it was not enough. Draymond Green was Mr. Energy. And when the game was on the line late, Curry could create the sliver of space he needs to knock down the game winner to make Golden State 19-0.

5) DeMarcus Cousins is back, drops 31 on Dallas and Sacramento gets the win. The Sacramento Kings with DeMarcus Cousins in the lineup are 6-5 on the season and a dangerous team. It’s the 1-7 without him that holds them back. Cousins had 16 fourth quarter points (31 points, nine rebounds and six assists on the night), and that combined with some impressive defense down the stretch got the Kings a much-needed win. That defense late has to be the most heartening thing for Kings fans — they have been bad on that end of the floor. A little Cousins and a little defense and suddenly things look much better in Sacramento. Now they just have to do it consistently. And keep Cousins healthy.

Gasol gets double-double as Bulls beat Spurs 92-89

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CHICAGO (AP) — Pau Gasol punctuated his big block on LaMarcus Aldridge with a triumphant yell.

The ugly final four minutes went to Gasol and the Chicago Bulls.

Gasol had 18 points, 13 rebounds and three blocked shots, and the Bulls snapped San Antonio’s five-game winning streak with a 92-89 victory over the Spurs on Monday night.

Jimmy Butler scored 14 points and reserve Doug McDermott had 12 for Chicago, which was coming off a 104-92 loss at Indiana on Friday night. Joakim Noah contributed eight points, seven assists and 11 rebounds despite battling foul trouble in the final minutes of the opener of a four-game homestand.

“Everyone contributed tonight in a positive way,” Gasol said. “Jo was outstanding and almost had a triple double off the bench with his energy, making plays offensively as well as defensively. Everyone really contributed and it was good to see.”

Gasol rejected Aldridge on a drive with 1:06 left, and then hit one of two foul shots on the other end for a 90-89 lead. After Manu Ginobili missed for San Antonio, Butler hit two free throws with 10.6 seconds to go.

The Spurs had one last chance, but Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker each missed 3-point attempts in the final seconds. Parker’s try was partially blocked by Derrick Rose, who finished with 11 points and six assists.

“We had a play for Kawhi, and an option for Manu, it just didn’t work out,” Parker said. “That happens sometimes. It was good defense by Chicago.”

Leonard had 25 points and eight rebounds for San Antonio, which had won nine of 10. Aldridge added 21 points and 12 rebounds, and Parker had 13 points and nine assists.

The Spurs had just one field goal in the final four minutes.

“We are not good offensively, and may not be until March,” coach Gregg Popovich said. “Offense will take a while. We have a lot of guys getting used to each other, and how to play together.”

The Spurs led 73-70 after three quarters, but the Bull opened the fourth with an 11-2 run. Tony Snell sparked the surge with a 3-pointer and a driving layup.

Chicago played without guards Kirk Hinrich and Aaron Brooks. Brooks has a left hamstring injury, and Hinrich is recovering from a hip pointer.

“It was one of those nights where everybody that stepped out on the floor not only contributed but contributed in a big way,” coach Fred Hoiberg said.



Spurs: Tim Duncan had 12 rebounds, but San Antonio was hurt by a 51-47 deficit on the boards. … The Spurs went 2 for 14 from 3-point range, compared to 6 for 16 for the Bulls. … San Antonio went 13-3 in November.

Bulls: Noah played in his 557th game with Chicago, passing Dave Corzine for ninth on the franchise list. … The Bulls had an 8-4 record in November.