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Three things we learned Monday: In game of Westbrook vs. World, the world won

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We know you were busy finishing your holiday shopping Monday night — yes, you can just buy your dad a bottle of bourbon — so here are the big takeaways from the night in the NBA that you missed.

1) Russell Westbrook needs a little help — from teammates, officials, anyone really. Russell Westbrook is pretty much turning into the exasperated kid on the playground yelling, “little help here” as the ball rolls away, only to have to go get it himself anyway.

Monday night Westbrook didn’t get the help he wanted from his teammates for 47 minutes or from the referees in the final one, and the result was a 110-108 Atlanta win in Oklahoma City. It was a night of Westbrook vs. the World, and the smart money was on the world. Not coincidentally, this is the fourth game in a row Victor Oladipo has missed with a sore right wrist — he will not need surgery, but he’s going to miss more time — and the Thunder are 1-3 in that stretch.

Westbrook made plays. He shot 16-of-33, was attacking the rim and getting to the line (11-of-13), but also was knocking it down from the midrange, where he was 8-of-14. The problem was the other Thunder starters combined to shoot 30.8 percent for the game. It forced Westbrook to take on more and more. The result was a lot more Westbrook isolation, and Atlanta’s defense made the shots for Westbrook tougher and tougher as the night went on — he still hit 8-of-16 contested shots (stat via NBA.com).

But in the final minute, the referees swallowed their whistles and Westbrook did not get the calls he wanted. After Paul Millsap had given Atlanta the lead on a short jumper (where Westbrook and Andre Roberson messed up the switch), Westbrook brought the ball up and attacked the basket but didn’t get the call, did get his own rebound, but couldn’t hit the follow-up. The Thunder still had 2.9 seconds, and Kyle Singler got the ball into Westbrook who took a contested three — and tried to sell the foul call but didn’t get it. Steven Adams got the rebound, but rather than flipping it up quickly to the bucket he tried to dunk it, and time expired before he got it off. Ballgame.

Needless to say, after the game Westbrook was more than a little frustrated.

Give the Hawks credit here. On a night Dwight Howard was out, Mike Budenholzer started a small lineup and got the first 30-point game of the season from Paul Millsap, who was his All-Star self, seeming to score at will. But the real star was Dennis Schroder, who had 31 points and eight assists, who took advantage of mismatches off switches on the picks all night and seemed to get into the lane whenever he wanted. This was a good win for a Hawks team that could use a couple of those after their recent slump.

2) Nikola Jokic has a coming out party, and Denver is just half a game out of the playoffs. Denver coach Mike Malone’s new starting lineup and frontcourt rotation — a lot of Nikola Jokic and no Jusuf Nurkic — has won the Nuggets three games in a row and has the team just half a game back of stumbling Portland for the last playoff slot in the West. After an ugly start to the season, Denver’s postseason goal is still well within reach.

And if Jokic keeps playing like this they may get it. The second-year big man had 27 points, 15 rebounds, and 9 assists as Denver beat Dallas 117-107. He did most of his damage near the basket (9-of-13 shooting within eight feet of the rim) but was 4-of-4 outside the paint, including hitting his only three. He was getting his buckets using his varied game — as the roll man, on the offensive glass, cuts off the ball and more.

It’s not just Jokic on this win streak. Gary Harris had a career-high 24 points Monday. The up-and-down Emmanuel Mudiay was on the upswing again with 18 points on 7-of-12 shooting. Wilson Chandler in the starting lineup has been a veteran influence the team needed. A lot of things are going right for Denver the last few games — we’ll see if they can sustain it. But the Nuggets are playing an energized brand of basketball in this homestand.

3) Honest Stan Van Gundy is the best Stan Van Gundy. You sick of coach speak? Tired of hearing “I think it was just an off night” or blaming the schedule after a blowout loss? Then we present to you Stan Van Gundy after his Pistons got blown out by the Bulls Monday night.

The Pistons’ had a couple of blowout losses leading into this game, which sparked “players only” meeting where defense and ball movement were stressed. It worked about as well as SVG suggested. The Pistons didn’t do either of those things, and the result was a blowout 113-82 loss to the Bulls (who had lost three in a row before this game). The Pistons are still in the playoff mix in the East and likely will stay there — just four games separate the three seed Celtics from the 12-seed Magic. That’s 10 teams that have playoff dreams, but six spots. There’s a lot of basketball to go, and the Pistons are too talented to not be in the postseason. But they have stumbled since Reggie Jackson‘s return (it’s not all on him), and it’s going to take more than words — from Van Gundy or the players — to right the ship.

Lamar Odom opens up about cocaine addiction

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Lamar Odom has discussed his cocaine addiction before – how it derailed his NBA career, marriage to Kim Kardashian, his life. Never detailed like this, though.

Odom in The Players’ Tribune:

With cocaine especially, there’s a high, and then an emotional low. So it’s like a roller coaster. You go high, and then you go low. High, low, high, low. After you do it, you feel shame. You think about all the reasons why you shouldn’t have done it. Then the cycle starts again.

That’s the thing people don’t understand. Anybody who’s lived a complicated, drug-infused life like I’ve lived knows the cycle — with women, cheating on my wife, shit like that. Nights when I should have been asleep. Nights when I stayed up sniffing coke. Lot of those nights. When your heart is beating fast. When you should know better. When you’re just riding that roller coaster, man.

You think I wasn’t feeling shame? You think I was blind to what I was doing?

Nah, I wasn’t blind to it. Shame … pain. It’s part of the whole cycle. My brain was broken. As the years went on, and I got into my 30s, my career was winding down, and things just got out of control.

When I was like 32, 33 … I just wanted to get high all the time. That’s it, just get high. And things got dark as hell.

One of the darkest places I’ve ever been was when I was in a motel room, getting high with this chick, and my wife (at the time) walked in. That probably was like rock bottom.

I recommend reading all of Odom’s powerful essay, in which he explains the personal struggles that contributed to his drug use.

Report: Kyrie Irving not speaking with Cavaliers

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Former Cavaliers general manager David Griffin smoothed over Kyrie Irving‘s discontentment for years.

As new general manager Koby Altman tries to project stability, it seems there’s plenty of disarray behind the scenes in the wake of Irving’s trade request.

Jason Lloyd of The Athletic, via Chris Fillar of 92.3 The Fan:

Whatever are or aren’t the problems between Irving and LeBron James, this makes it far less likely they’ll reconcile. It already seemed LeBron wouldn’t be proactive in mending the relationship, and this saga has only generated more distrust.

Irving appears increasingly likely to get his wish, with Cleveland moving toward trading him. He’s just upping the odds by furthering the divide.

DeMar DeRozan: Talk of Raptors’ changes overblown

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Raptors president Masai Ujiri called for a “culture reset,” alluding to an offense less reliant on Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan isolations.

DeMarre Carroll, traded from Toronto to the Nets, doubts the Raptors will change much.

Know who agrees with him? DeRozan.

DeRozan, via Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun:

“I think the media kind of blow it out of proportion like it’s going to be something dramatic, like a complete dramatic 180-degree change,” DeRozan said, who was back in Toronto helping out with the Raptors’ Basketball Academy at Humber College on Monday. “It’s not that at all. It’s just moreso locking in and understanding what it takes to win from every single position. Everyone just know from our failures, guys stepping up and being better leaders, not just me and Kyle but everybody. I think once we lock in and everyone holds themselves accountable, everything else will come around perfect. That’s all it is.”

DeRozan didn’t disagree when it was suggested more ball movement might be demanded this season, but he did say the anticipated level of change by many outside the team is completely out of whack with the reality. The offence is still going to run through himself and Kyle Lowry.

This is shaping up to be a problem. Ujiri made this grand proclamation then brought back the same core – Lowry, DeRozan and coach Dwane Casey. This was the danger, that they were too comfortable with the status quo.

We’ll see how it actually plays out. DeRozan has a strong track record of improvement, and the Raptors might be forcing him to see the game differently by playing him at point guard.

But there at least appears to be a disconnect somewhere between the front office and players.

Rumor: Cavaliers trying to dump salary in Kyrie Irving trade

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The Cavaliers are reportedly prioritizing youth in a Kyrie Irving trade.

Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders:

Another stated goal is to dump off some salary and reduce the luxury tax bill.

The Cavs – who reportedly lost more than $40 million last season – are on track to become the first team in NBA history to pay the luxury-tax repeater rate. They’ve led the league in payroll, racking up big luxury-tax bills, the last two seasons. They even pulled the rare feat of carving out max cap space (used on LeBron James) then getting about the luxury-tax line in the same season three years ago, finishing second to the Nets in spending that season.

Cleveland now faces a luxury-tax bill north of $78 million – which would eclipse its 2015-16 mark ($54 million) as the second highest tax payment ever, trailing just 2013-14 Brooklyn (nearly $91 million).

Most teams would never spend as much as the Cavaliers have the previous three seasons. Most teams would never approach Cleveland’s costs this year, which include $142 million in player salaries.

But most teams don’t have LeBron.

Remember, the Heat cutting corners on spending contributed to LeBron leaving Miami. And Cavs owner Dan Gilbert reportedly promised to spend unconditionally when LeBron returned to Cleveland in 2014.

Is cutting costs the message the Cavaliers want to send as LeBron enters a contract year?

If so, they have a few candidates for shedding:

  • Tristan Thompson – three years, $52,408,695 remaining
  • J.R. Smith – three years, $44,160,000 remaining (just $3.87 million of $15.68 million guaranteed final year)
  • Iman Shumpert – two years, $21,348,313 remaining
  • Channing Frye – one year, $7,420,912 remaining

All those players, roughly in order of salary, contribute to winning.

The Cavs should have little trouble unloading those contracts in an Irving trade. He’s so valuable, teams will incur a lopsided financial deal to get him. They’ll just send Cleveland less talent to compensate.

It’s the classic dilemma – money vs. on-court success. Teams evaluate this tradeoff every day.

For the Cavaliers, there’s just the additional pressure of LeBron’s looming free agency.