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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.

Reports: Phil Jackson attending Shaq statue ceremony, Magic Johnson missing it to scout UCLA-Kentucky

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The Lakers are formally unveiling Shaquille O’Neal’s statue outside their arena tonight. Also tonight: UCLA-Kentucky in the Sweet 16, which features NBA prospects Lonzo Ball, Ike Anigbogu, T.J. Leaf, De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo.

That makes an interesting choice for the NBA’s two highest-profile team presidents – the Lakers’ Magic Johnson and Knicks’ Phil Jackson (who coached Shaq in Los Angeles), both of whose teams are headed toward a high picks in the upcoming draft.

And the front-office heads are going different directions.

Arash Markazi of ESPN:

Marc Stein of ESPN:

Watching a single game in person is unlikely to swing anything. Both Johnson and Jackson could send scouts to watch UCLA-Kentucky live and then the presidents could watch video later.

But attending in person is ideal, and there are already questions about Jackson’s work ethic. This will only fuel them.

If nothing else, this is an opportunity for Johnson, new on the job, to establish an image. He can clearly juxtapose himself with the failing Jackson and establish himself as a diligent alternative. The Lakers hired Johnson at least in part due to his high profile, but that needn’t stop him from grinding now that he has the position. Anyone doubting him would respect that.

Tyreke Evans: Giannis Antetokounmpo is like a taller me

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Giannis Antetokounmpo torched the Kings for 32 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and two steals in the Bucks’ 18-point win Wednesday.

Afterward, Sacramento’s Tyreke Evans paid the Greek Freak the ultimate compliment.

Sean Cunningham of ABC 10:

Do you see many players like Antetokounmpo? Evans:

Nah. He like me, but 6-7 – I mean like almost 6-8, 6-7, whatever height he is. He just long, athletic. He get to where he want to go. He got good handle for his size, and he athletic. Once he get around the rim, he can finish.

If only you were an inch taller? Evans:

That’d be a problem. I mean, it’s still a problem, I think, for me to get where I want. But just the athleticism he have and the way he get up off the ground – he got quick bounce. He pretty good at it.

Antetokounmpo is listed at 6-foot-11, Evans 6-foot-6.

This isn’t totally unreasonable. Make Evans five inches taller and add none of the dexterity awkwardness that tends to accompany growth, and he might look a lot like Antetokounmpo. Both are usually slotted at forward while possessing point-guard skills.

But Evans isn’t 6-foot-11, and most 6-foot-11 players can’t move like Antetokounmpo. That fluidity for his size is a big part of what makes Antetokounmpo special. If Evans grew up to be 6-foot-11, he likely would have developed a different skill set than he has now.

Antetokounmpo is the rare player with both the height of a big man and skills of a guard. Evans didn’t miss out on that just because his genes kept him from growing another five inches.

This discussion is also silly for another reason. Somewhere, there’s someone who’s 6-foot-1 and certain he’d be as good as Evans if only he were five inches taller.

Rumor: Blake Griffin increasingly believed to be open to leaving Clippers in free agency

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The Clippers were rumored to have already verbally agreed to terms with pending unrestricted free agents Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and J.J. Redick.

But with formal contract extensions unviable, L.A. was always going to have to play out the season and hope those players remained committed into July.

There might be a hitch in that plan.

Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report:

That Griffin would also stay and reap the biggest payday he can seems likely, too—in theory. But more and more people around the league believe he would be open to a fresh start—perhaps with the Lakers or the Boston Celtics, who have coveted Griffin for years and would offer a new chance to win.

Does Ding have credible information to suggest Griffin could join the Lakers or Celtics, or is that just speculation on the writer’s part about potential fits? It’s unclear. This is already fairly loosely sourced.

But we should gather more information quickly once free agency begins. Griffin reportedly planned to re-sign quickly. If he shows the faintest hint of exploring the market, that could open the floodgates.

Griffin had been frequently linked to his home-state Thunder, but Oklahoma City would interfere with his burgeoning Hollywood connections.* The same issue would exist with Boston, though obviously not the Lakers. That said, the Celtics are WAY better than the Lakers – and maybe soon the Clippers and Thunder, considering those Nets picks headed to Boston.

*Oklahoma City also since nuked its cap space with contract extensions for Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo, though trades could always clear room if Griffin wants to come home.

The Clippers are in a bad place right now. One one hand, that forebodes another disappointing end to the season. On the other hand, there’s still time to overcome and send Griffin into free agency on a more positive note.

These are dangerous times for the Clippers, who wouldn’t have cap space to adequately replace Griffin, Paul or Redick if one leaves. So, if one bolts, the others seems more likely to follow. Interpersonal relationships matter, but the Clippers’ primary selling points were always going to be money and winning (with Hollywood proximity a bonus). Winning gets harder if talent walks.

They can still offer the most money, and they’re not leaving L.A. But the Clippers better win more to help avoid what could be a tenser-than-expected summer.

Suns use youngest starting lineup in NBA history

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The Suns have shut down their veterans or been shut down by their veterans with two goals in mind – developing young talent and tanking.

Incidentally, Phoenix also made history.

Against the Nets last night, the Suns started:

ESPN:

Elias on ESPN:

The previous youngest was the Clippers’ starting five consisting of guards Eric Bledsoe and Eric Gordon, forwards Al-Farouq Aminu and Blake Griffin, and center DeAndre Jordan, who averaged 21 years and 143 days old in a matchup with the Nets on November 15, 2010.

The young Suns gained quality experience – and helped their team to an important loss, 126-98 to Brooklyn.

Phoenix is still 1.5 games “behind” the Lakers for the No. 2 seed in the lottery, but the Suns are within striking distance in case the Lakers screw up and win too much down the stretch.