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Three things we learned Monday: Portland’s defense against the Clipper offense is combustable

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Here’s what you would have picked up watching a night around the NBA rather than focusing on Tom Brady doing Tom Brady things…

1) Portland drops fourth in a row, this time to Clippers, due to poor defense, blown chances.
Portland had its chances Monday night. This loss is going to eat at them. But once again, poor defense that is at the core of their troubles, and costly mistakes with the game in the balance late, earned the Blazers a fourth consecutive loss, 121-120 to the Clippers. Which stings. The Blazers came into this season high off making the second round of the playoffs last year and spending a lot of money this past summer, but the team clearly has taken a step back (and at 12-14 are only a playoff team in the West because the Kings/Lakers/Nuggets/Pelicans are worse).

Of course, the problems start with Portland having the league’s worst defense, surrendering 109.9 points per 100 possessions. Their guards are undersized and not strong defenders, their healthy bigs aren’t very mobile, and combined that gets a team in trouble in today’s NBA. Monday night in Los Angeles — against an efficient Clippers’ offense — they surrendered 119.4 per 100. Portland has struggled to defend the pick-and-roll all season, which is bad news against the “point god” Chris Paul, and it explains why 46 percent of the Clipper possessions ended up with a shot directly off that play (stat via Synergy Sports). The thing is, this was one of Portland’s better defensive efforts, the hustle was there, they just did it against an elite offense that is going to hit a lot of shots even if if they were contested (L.A. shot 43.3 percent on contested shots, 53 percent on uncontested, according to NBA.com). CP3 ended up with 21 points and 14 assists in the game as he found room to work, and the Portland guards are not going to slow him. Also, Blake Griffin had 26.

At the end of the game, Portland still had its chances but made costly mental errors. That starts with coach Terry Stotts, who was angry at a foul call on C.J. McCollum on a J.J. Redick three, and earned himself a technical for it — Portland was up 2 at the time and there was 4:14 left, but with the technical and then three free throws it was a four-point play. Portland was down two. It was a turning point — and obviously that point mattered in a one-point loss.

Another point that mattered: Portland was down one with 7.9 seconds to go, when McCollum fouled Redick before the ball was inbounded — meaning the Clippers got a free throw and retained possession of the ball. Redick hit the free throw, then when the ball was inbounded McCollum rightly fouled Redick again, and he again hit the free throws, making it a four-point game. Damian Lillard would hit a three at the other end, but that one point was the difference.

Portland went 1-4 on this now-completed road trip. They had this painful late loss, another close loss to Memphis, they blew a 20-point lead to Indiana, and fell apart in the third quarter in Milwaukee. It’s a tough trip, but it speaks to where this team is at right now. It’s a lot of things, such as the defense, or Evan Turner and Mason Plumlee needing to be better. But what this trip shows more than anything is how far the Blazers have to go before April to not only make sure they are a playoff team, but to be any kind of threat once they get there.

2) Raptors get win thanks to secret weapon lineup. Toronto got out early on Milwaukee Monday night and eventually cruised to a 122-100 win. Toronto’s starting lineup — DeMarre Carroll, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Siakam Pascal, and Jonas Valanciunas — played a strong 14 minutes, shot 59.1 percent when on the court together, and were +6 as a unit.

But that’s not the lineup doing the most damage for the Raptors this season, nor in this game. Lowry plus the bench players of Cory Joseph, Lucas Nogueira, Patrick Patterson, and Terrence Ross were +22 in 13 minutes, shooting 65 percent when on the court together. That group dominated the Bucks — and that’s not a fluke. As noted by NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, the Raptors’ Lowry-plus-the-bench lineup is outscoring opponents by 32.2 points per 100 possessions this season — the best five-man lineup rating in the league (of any that has played at least 100 minutes). Yes, better than the Warriors’ death lineup. Or the Clippers’ starters. Or the Cavaliers’ starters. Or any other power lineup you can think of. If you want to know why the Raptors are 17-7 and a clear second best team in the East, that five-man unit has a lot to do with it — and coach Dwane Casey is leaning on it more and more.

3) James Harden was amazing. Again. Houston wins. Again. The Rockets are the hottest team in the NBA, having won seven in a row, and there is no secret weapon lineup here — it’s all about James Harden. He is a perfect mesh in the Mike D’Antoni offense. Harden had 36 points, 11 assists, and eight rebounds in the Houston win over Brooklyn Monday, 122-118.

Just watch the man go to work.

LeBron James: ‘I still got Pandora with commercials’

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Dwyane Wade revealed last year that LeBron James refuses to use his phone internationally unless he’s on Wi-Fi.

LeBron’s friend and new Cavaliers teammate again brought up that claim, and LeBron confirmed – then went even further about his own cheapness.

LeBron in a joint interview with Wade on ESPN:

No. I’m not doing that. I’m not turning on data roaming. I’m not buying no apps. I still got Pandora with commercials.

LeBron – he’s just like us!

As funny as that line is, keep watching to see LeBron hilariously explain how his hairline affects his interviews.

PBT Extra: LeBron as MVP and other NBA postseason award predictions

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Last year, Russell Westbrook had a historic season on his way to the MVP award, with James Harden and Kawhi Leonard right on his heels. But heading into this season, the dynamic for MVP — and many of the NBA awards — feels very different and wide open.

In this latest PBT Extra, I lay out my preseason predictions for every award — LeBron James for MVP, Ben Simmons for Rookie of the Year, and on down the list. There are a few leaps and surprises in there (predicting Most Improved or Sixth Man before the season is a crap shoot, so why not gamble).

Now the predictions season is over, let’s get on to the games.

Jazz: Dante Exum undergoing surgery after shoulder injury

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Jazz point guard Dante Exum hurt his shoulder in a preseason game – an injury that immediately looked like it could be season-ending.

Though Utah doesn’t outright say Exum is done for the year, this doesn’t engender much hope.

Jazz release:

The following is a medical update on Utah Jazz guard Danté Exum who suffered a separated left shoulder on October 6 vs. Phoenix.

After further evaluation, Exum (6-6, 190, Australia) has elected to undergo surgery to stabilize the AC joint of his left shoulder. The surgery is scheduled to take place Tuesday, October 24 in Los Angeles. Further updates will be provided when appropriate.

Exum (obviously) didn’t receive a contract extension before today’s deadline, so he’ll become a free agent next summer. After one full missed season already and two years of limited effectiveness, it’s not even clear Utah will extend Exum a qualifying offer to make him a restricted free agent. The former No. 5 pick almost certainly won’t meet the starter criteria, which means his qualifying offer would be worth $4,333,931 (down from $6,619,903 based on his draft slot).

The Jazz will start Ricky Rubio, and Raul Neto will be the primary point guard behind him. Wings Rodney Hood, Alec Burks, Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles can all share facilitating duties.

Utah will probably be just fine without Exum this season, which speaks to his marginal place long-term.

Sprained ankle has LeBron James questionable for opener vs. Celtics

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — LeBron James‘ playing status for Tuesday’s season opener against Boston remains unclear.

James has been slowed by a sprained left ankle for more than two weeks and it’s still not known whether he’ll be on the floor when the Cavaliers take on the Celtics and Kyrie Irving, who asked to be traded by Cleveland this summer.

Following Monday’s practice, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said “I really don’t know” when asked if James will play.

James took part in some post-practice shooting drills with teammates. He did not speak with the media as the Cavaliers prepared for their opener, a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference finals.

James has never missed an opener in his NBA career, and teammate J.R. Smith doesn’t expect him to miss this one.

“Oh, he’s going to go,” Smith said. “He’s going to go, trust me that. I don’t care what he’s got to do, he’s going to play.”