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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.

What’s Kyrie Irving’s problem with LeBron James?

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Kyrie Irving reportedly requested a trade from the Cavaliers because he no longer wants to play with LeBron James.

But what does that actually mean?

Ramona Shelburne, Dave McMenamin and Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

Much of Irving’s disenchantment with James was rooted in game play, sources said. James, as a once-in-a-lifetime talent, controlled the ball more than any other forward perhaps in league history.

But there were ancillary issues that bothered Irving, too, such as how James’ good friend Randy Mims had a position on the Cavs’ staff and traveled on the team plane while none of Irving’s close friends were afforded the same opportunity.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

In registering his preference for a trade, league sources said, Irving divulged to Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert that he’s become increasingly uneasy about a future that includes a roster constructed to complement LeBron James — a roster that could be devoid of James come free agency in 2018.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

Irving wants to take his show away from James so he can grow his career (his on-court acclaim and notoriety, his brand, his voice) outside of James’ shadow.

Numerous people who’ve talked to Irving over the past month have said to cleveland.com that he told them he wanted to leave to grow his career, and it was the message Irving sent to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert when he asked to be traded last week.

These can all simultaneously be true. There needn’t be one singular reason Irving wants a trade.

It can also be true that former general manager David Griffin might have soothed Irving’s discontent. It can also be true that the Warriors’ dominance influenced Irving, as he might have been more willing to remain in a secondary role if it were more likely to result in a championship.

But so much of this comes back to LeBron, a massive presence around whom everything in Cleveland revolves.

Being the top player on a team means so many things – dictating on-court action, having the supporting cast built around you, influencing team staff, building a larger sponsorship presence. Irving can’t get any of that while playing with LeBron.

Irving led the Cavs in shots and usage percentage last season, but that happened only because LeBron allowed it. LeBron obviously retook control in the playoffs. There’s no question whose team this is.

There is also no indication Irving is fighting that. He’s not trying to usurp LeBron’s power, and Irving has molded his game the last few years to fit with LeBron.

But now Irving his exercising his own power so he can get even more the only place possible – somewhere away from LeBron.

Did Cavaliers dropping David Griffin lead to Kyrie Irving’s trade request?

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Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said he had the NBA’s hardest coaching job. Following that thinking, former Cavaliers general manager David Griffin might have had the most difficult front-office job.

Not only did he face the same championship-or-bust pressure and oversee the same players (and their egos) as Lue, Griffin also reported directly to Dan Gilbert, the Cavs’ sometimes-difficult owner. The Gilbert aspect is often discussed, as is working with great/brilliant/passive-aggressive LeBron James. But it has probably been undersold how high-maintenance Kyrie Irving – who requested a trade – also was for Griffin before the general manager was ousted last month.

Ramona Shelburne, Dave McMenamin and Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

Over the previous few months, the Cavs had been worried about Irving’s mindset. They knew at times he’d grown unhappy with playing a secondary role on the team. Griffin had several conversations with Irving throughout the year, sources said, trying to find ways to work on the situation.

After the season, there was a desire to arrange a meeting to clear the air from all sides, sources said, but it didn’t take place. Unlike most teams, the Cavs did not have postseason exit meetings with their players.

What followed was a whirlwind, with the Cavs putting forth a series of trade packages looking to acquire either Butler or George. Some of these talks included Irving, which upset him even more when he found out about it, sources said. Previously, Griffin had worked to keep lines of communication with Irving open, but now Irving was in the dark.

Irving’s trade request had been building for years. The reported timing is vague, but Irving might have even requested a trade while Griffin was still in charge.

Either way, there’s no guarantee the Cavs keeping Griffin would have placated Irving. But it seems an experienced voice running the front office could have only helped.

Now, the task of trading Irving or mending fences falls to new general manager Koby Altman – who must solve this issue in a spotlight he never wanted.

If only Cleveland had Phil Jackson to insist on exit meetings. Maybe this would have been smoothed over a month ago.

LaVar Ball gets technical foul, pulls his AAU team off the court, forfeits game it was winning (video)

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Magic Johnson said he’s convinced LaVar Ball’s outlandishness is just marketing and that the father of Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball is truly committed to developing younger players.

This didn’t look like someone who put youth player development over his own image.

With LaVar Ball’s AAU team leading by nine, he got a technical foul then pulled his team off the court:

He (kind of) explained why after the game (warning: profanity):

He also touched on his reasons in a video that, of course, quickly turns to promoting his brand:

This doesn’t mean Johnson is completely wrong, but the Lakers president seemingly misdiagnosed Ball’s priorities. What if Johnson is also wrong about Ball staying clear of the Lakers? That could create problems – if it hasn’t already.

I was never convinced, as NBA commissioner Adam Silver predicted, LaVar would settle down after Lonzo was drafted. I still believe Lonzo’s talent justifies managing LaVar, but that appears increasingly likely to be a burden the Lakers must actually handle rather than just brush off.

James Dolan’s MSG threatens to sue Steve Ballmer’s Los Angeles Clippers

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This story requires a little background.

The Forum in Inglewood was best known for decades as being both fabulous and the home of the Los Angeles Lakers, back from the Jerry West era and through Magic’s “Showtime” teams. Then in 2001 the Lakers moved downtown to Staples Center, and after that the Forum went through some rough times. It was a number of things, including a mega church for a while, but mostly it was empty. Then several years ago the Madison Square Garden company (owned by Knicks owner James Dolan) bought the Forum, fixed it up, and started booking it again. Now the Forum is one of the hot major concert/event spaces in Los Angeles again, and it’s about to get a boost because it’s adjacent to where Stan Kroenke is building the new Los Angeles Rams stadium. Hello gentrification!

Now enter Steve Ballmer. The Clippers’ owner wants out of Staples Center and the Lakers’ shadow, so he has proposed to build his new arena in Inglewood in another space adjacent to the Rams stadium — land that MSG used to lease. As you might imagine, Dolan’s MSG is not thrilled — they are already battling with Staples to fill their space, now a state-of-the-art arena is moving in down the street.

In a proxy Knicks/Clippers battle, MSG may sue to Clippers and Inglewood in an attempt to block the new building. Here is what Dolan’s attorney in the case, Marvin Putnam, told the Daily Breeze in Los Angeles.

“The mayor made it extremely clear that he needed that piece of land back for a kind of ‘Silicon Beach,’ ” said Marvin Putnam, a partner with the law firm Latham & Watkins, which filed the damage claim that serves as a precursor to a lawsuit. “They’re attempting to flat-out trick people.”

(Inglewood Mayor James) Butts declined to comment, and there is no proof that he made those statements. But when Madison Square Garden Co. relinquished the parking lease to the city, its approved contract states that the land would not be used for anything that would hurt the Forum’s business, according to documents.

Right now the Clippers and Inglewood are in an exclusive negotiating agreement to come to terms on the sale and plans for the property. Putnam told the paper — and the Inglewood City Council — that if the deal goes forward they will sue to block it.

It’s impossible to say how this will turn out, although as a former government reporter I will say these cases tend to be decided in favor of the side about to spend a ton of money on a new building.