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Three things we learned on Wednesday: Toronto is good, but not Golden State good

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Things could be worse for you: You could be the person printing the Christmas Day prayer and carol book for a church service in Sri Lanka, the person who substituted the traditional “Hail Mary” prayer with the words to Tupac’s 1997 “Hail Mary” — “I ain’t a killer, but don’t push me.” The Raptors may have had a rough night, but not one that bad. Here’s the Wednesday takeaways from around the NBA.

1) Toronto is very good, but was reminded of its place in loss to Warriors. The Warriors turn the ball over too much — they turned the ball over on 20 percent of their possessions Wednesday night. One in five trips down the court ended in a Warriors turnover. Kevin Durant had six of them himself.

But only Cleveland seems able to make the Warriors pay for it. Toronto certainly couldn’t. Toronto came into Golden State looking for a glimmer of hope that they could climb past that second tier in the NBA they are on — the Raptors had won 8-of-9 and were just a game back of Cleveland in the East. Surely this was a team that could run with one of the NBA’s two big dogs, right?

Golden State was up 42-17 after one quarter, and the Warriors shot 72 percent for that frame. Shot charts don’t look much better than the Warriors first quarter:

Warriors shotchart

The Raptors are scrappy and fought back to make it a five-point game in the second, then Toronto coach Dwyane Casey stuck with big man Jonas Valanciunas too long against the Warriors small lineups at the end of the second and the Warriors went on another run and led by 17 at the half. The Raptors turned all those Warriors turnovers into 26 points, which allowed them to make the game respectable at the end — 122-111 Warriors — and while Toronto made its late push to this game never really felt in doubt. Stephen Curry had 28 in the win.

Too many fans underestimate how good this Raptors team is — they won 56 games last season and went to the Eastern Conference Finals last season, this season they are on pace for 58 wins and the two-seed in the East (only Boston, as it starts to come together, looks like a team that would have the potential to keep the Raptors from a return to the ECF). Toronto has the best offense in the NBA this season (yes, better than the Warriors statistically) and the second best net rating (+9.5 points per 100 possessions). This is a very good team. But they are 0-3 against the Cavaliers this season and the Warriors offered the same assessment — the Raptors are on the second tier.

2) Trail Blazers snap six-game losing streak against Kings in battle of teams eyeing eight seed in West.
There is a lot of basketball to go this season, things can change, but the West seems to be shaping up with seven teams as playoff locks barring major injuries — the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets, Clippers, Thunder, Jazz, and Grizzlies — then there is a five game drop to anyone else. That could leave the Kings, Nuggets, and Trail Blazers fighting for the final playoff slot in the West (New Orleans can enter this discussion if it strings some wins together, but we need to see that first).

Which is why Portland snapping its six-game losing streak — and Sacramento’s four-game winning streak — on Wednesday night mattered. Portland won comfortably 102-89, which leaves Sacramento and Denver tied for the eight seed at 14-18, with the Blazers just one game back. There were no DeMarcus Cousins/Meyers Leonard fireworks this time around, although Leonard did have an impressive game with 16 points off the bench.

The Blazers strategy clearly was to make life difficult for Cousins and dare any other King to beat them. Without Rudy Gay (he’s missed seven of the last eight) they couldn’t — Kings players not named Cousins shot 38.3 percent overall and 6-of-22 from three. It wasn’t good enough, the Kings offense was entirely too stagnant against a Portland defense that has been the worst in the NBA this season.

Portland got 20 points out of C.J. McCollum, but it was more about balance as six Blazers scored in double figures, and as a team they shot 48 percent from three.

The race for the eight seed in the West could be very interesting the rest of the season, and it could well impact the trades the Blazers and Kings look to make — and don’t look to make — as the trade deadline starts to loom.

3) There was Lopez on Lopez crime. It’s easy to say the shot of the night was Jimmy Butler‘s game winner lifting the Bulls past the Nets. We don’t like to do things the easy way.

My favorite video of the night was from that same game: Brook Lopez putting brother Robin Lopez in a poster.

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

Jason Miller/Getty Images
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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.