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Three things we learned on Thursday: Boston improving, not at Cleveland’s level yet

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It’s the last “three things we learned” of 2016, we tried to make it a good one.

1) Boston is improving, finding its groove, but there is still a gap to Cleveland. Boston players may have tried to deny this was a measuring stick game in the run up to it, but this was a measuring stick game. After stumbling to start the season, the Celtics had won six of seven and looked more like the team we expected before the season — one on par with Toronto in the East’s second tier.

It didn’t look like that early on Thursday night. For three quarters, this was a blowout, with the Cavaliers offense carving up what has been lately a solid Celtics defense. Kyrie Irving was the head of the snake and finished with 32.

Cleveland was up 15 early in the fourth and seemed to be cruising in for the win before Boston started a comeback that eventually cut the lead all the way to one. Boston’s fourth quarter run was sparked by Marcus Smart/Tyler Zeller pick-and-rolls, which the Cleveland bench — specifically Channing Frye — struggled to stop when he had to switch. This was also an efficient night from Isaiah Thomas, who finished with 31 points on 8-of-13 shooting (he got to the free throw line 13 times).

Boston is showing signs of life, but they are not at Toronto’s level yet — and they are certainly not at Cleveland’s. Maybe the Celtics can get to a spot where they are a threat to the Raptors in the second round of the playoffs, the fourth quarter comeback shows that kind of spark, but the first three quarters reminds us of the real pecking order in the East.

2) Russell Westbrook gets ejected, and with it dreams of a Thunder comeback died. Oklahoma City Thunder was already down by 16 points to Memphis when Russell Westbrook lost it midway through the third quarter and got sent to the showers early. Meaning OKC was well on its way to racking up a loss. The ejection just killed the idea of a comeback, and the Thunder ended up getting beat by 34, 114-80.

The Oklahoma City Thunder star was ejected with 6:41 remaining in the third quarter after complaining during a trip to the free-throw line for the Memphis Grizzlies.

The first technical came after Andre Roberson fouled Memphis’ JaMychal Green — officials said after the game Westbrook was arguing about whether the ball had touched the rim before the foul, and he was hit with his first technical by Brian Forte for not relenting when the official said the discussion was over. That continued through the ensuing free throws, and finally, the officials had enough and gave Westbrook a second.

You can be sure a fine is coming for Westbrook, not for the ejection but his postgame comments.

As noted above, that was the end of any comeback, the Thunder have no offense to speak of without Westbrook on the court. He finished with 21 points, 5 rebounds, and no assists, but he is still averaging a triple double.

3) Another ugly second half shows how teams have adjusted to Lakers, and they have not progressed. That fast 10-10 start for the Lakers seems so very long ago. They have gone 2-14 since, a slide that began with some injuries but has morphed into much more than that — and there is a lot of frustration in the locker room. The Lakers have played slightly better of late as they have gotten healthy, but it’s hard to see a path to a lot of victories — they don’t have the defense, and they don’t have easy answers to how the league has adapted to them.

The latest evidence of that was Dallas — with no Dirk Nowitzki all game and no Andrew Bogut most of the second half — blowing out the Lakers after the break and winning 101-89 in Los Angeles.

On defense, the Lakers just do not have answers for teams that can attack with a good pick-and-roll and have athletes who can space the floor. Coach Luke Walton was frustrated with his team’s focus and effort after the game, and it’s hard to argue with him.

That said, the Lakers problems on defense or more than effort and focus — I’m not sure they have enough plus defenders out there to make a difference consistently anyway. They certainly could be better with more effort, but do they have the players to get the job done?

On offense, you don’t see the ball movement — or movement off the ball — needed to handle the pressure and ball denial tactics they are seeing. Try to pressure a good offense like defenses now pressure the Lakers and that offense responds with strong weak-side action, counters that open things up, and the ball moves to get good shots away from the pressure. The Lakers aren’t doing that, and they are not a team loaded with guys whose instinct is to pass like that anyway.

There is real frustration in Los Angeles with this team’s progress — from the players, the coaching staff, and the fans. But welcome to rebuilding — it’s a frustrating process. One that is long, has setbacks, and is just difficult all around. It takes time and patience. I think Charles Barkley may be right that despite all that talent the Lakers do not have a Top 10 player on that roster, something they will eventually need to get to contend for another banner. However, this core of potentially good to very good players — D'Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram in particular — have a ways to go before that kind of elite free agent thinks “I want to play with them.”

Bonus thing we learned Thursday: Dan D’Antoni gets it. Dan D’Antoni is the brother of Mike, a former NBA assistant coach who now coaches college ball at Marshall. But he gets it. And he shot down an old-school, pound-it-inside reporter beautifully.

Watch DeMarcus Cousins’ historic 44/24/10 night

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The last time somebody did this — scored more than 40 points, had more than 20 rebounds, and dished out more than 10 assists in a game — “Poseidon Adventure” was in the theaters and Elton John had just released “Rocket Man.” It was Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar when he was still playing in Milwaukee.

Monday night, DeMarcus Cousins did it.

Cousins scored 44 points, had 24 rebounds, and dished out 10 assists in the Pelicans’ double OT win against Chicago. These were not meaningless points, Cousins picked up seven of them in the second overtime.

Cousins has had a monster first half of the season and earned his first All-Star Game start this year.

Report: Kevin Love called out in emotional Cavaliers team meeting

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Having lost 8-of-11, a Cavaliers team meeting where the players got to vent seemed inevitable. There isn’t one person in that Cavaliers locker room that doesn’t deserve some blame for how things have turned.

However, Kevin Love apparently became the whipping boy.

From Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The Cleveland Cavaliers held a fiery team meeting in the practice facility locker room prior to Monday’s practice, during which several players challenged the legitimacy of Kevin Love’s illness that led him to leave Saturday’s loss to Oklahoma City early and miss Sunday’s practice, league sources told ESPN.

Several players were pushing for the Cavaliers’ management and coaching staff to hold Love accountable for leaving the arena before the end of Saturday’s game, and then missing Sunday’s practice, league sources told ESPN.

The meeting was loud and intense, only calming down once Love spoke to those gathered in the room and explained himself, league sources said.

The more things change, the more things are always Kevin Love’s fault.

According to the report, the majority of the team seemed to accept Love’s explanation. Love left the Cavaliers ugly, nationally televised blowout at the hands of the Thunder in the first half and did not return due to what was described only as an illness. He did not stay around for the end of the game. I’m not about to speculate on how ill he was or was not, what matters is that his teammates were not buying it. When a team is losing finger-pointing is almost inevitable, and Love has gotten more than his fair share of it in Cleveland. At least he stood up for himself.

Team meetings may allow a pressure release in a locker room, but they almost never result in any kind of meaningful change. We’ll see what if anything changes in Cleveland.

Bucks GM on Jason Kidd firing: “This is a performance-based thing”

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Last season the Bucks went 42-40 in the regular season and were up 2-1 in their first-round playoff series against Toronto before ultimately losing in six.

This season, expectations were high. Before the season there was talk from the team of a 50-win team (Las Vegas oddsmakers set the under/over at 47.5) that would finish in the top four in the Eastern Conference, hosting a playoff round. There was hope that the defense would improve, and with that the Bucks would look like a young team figuring it out.

They haven’t looked like that at all — they are 23-22 (with the point differential of a 20-25 team), and their defense is 25th in the NBA. Currently, they have just a one-game cushion for the final playoff slot in the East.

That cost coach Jason Kidd his job, first-year Bucks GM Jon Horst said Monday night at a press conference, as reported by Matt Velazquez at the Journal-Sentinel.

“At the end, this is a performance-based thing,” Horst said. “We believe in this team, we believe in our players and in the talents that they have. We’re looking forward at making playoff appearances in consecutive years for the first time in over a decade and hopefully winning a first-round series for the first time in over a decade. So we felt like at this time, this is the right decision to help this team get there.”

Around the league the move was not a total surprise, but the timing caught people off guard. Horst said it happened “relatively quickly” and explained:

“A general manager in the NHL had a statement once: ‘If something is inevitable, why wait?’ I think we came to the conclusion that this was the best thing for the future of the franchise and this was the time.”

Come this summer this will be the hottest coaching job available because of Giannis Antetokounmpo and the potential of this roster. Names such as Jeff Van Gundy and former Pelicans coach Monty Williams have been mentioned, but the ultimate list will be longer. Honestly, a few coaches with jobs might rather have the Bucks job (although the challenges between the two owners there can make things uncomfortable at times).

“We have another game on Friday and between that time we have a plan that we’ll put in place that we’ll kind of layout for the rest of the season,” Horst said. “We’ll go into the summer and have an extensive coaching search with an opportunity to hopefully find a great coach for this organization of which (interim coach) Joe Prunty has every opportunity to be a part of based on what happens going forward.”

This is going to a rough adjustment for Antetokounmpo and some of the players, who respected and trusted Kidd. There’s a lot of pressure on Horst with this hire.

That doesn’t make it the wrong move — Horst did the right thing here. The Bucks were going to be moving on, they just did it sooner rather than later.

 

Kevin Durant fires back, says Clint Capela’s job is “easy”

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“We’re confident because we know if we’re doing what we’re supposed to do, we’re going to beat them… We are better than them.”

That was young Rockets center Clint Capela after the Rockets beat the Warriors last Saturday night, feeling confident.

Asked about it, Kevin Durant shot Capela down, saying he’s not the guy that should be commenting.

There are no easy jobs in the NBA. It takes a lot of work physically, a good mental feel for the game, and the right opportunity just to get a chance. That said, some NBA jobs are simpler and more straightforward than others. On offense, Capela is not the ball handler and creator making a lot of decisions, things are simple for him — and he executes them. He’s shooting 66.6 percent this season — he does what he does well.

Houston took two of three from Golden State this season, and while that is far from doing it in a playoff series it should be a confidence boost for Houston if/when they go up against Golden State.