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Three things we learned on Monday: Chicago is Jimmy Butler’s kind of team

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It felt like some NBA games were not as high scoring as the Rose Bowl, but there were eight games around the Association on Monday. While you settle into work for the short week, here’s what you missed from the NBA Monday.

1) If anyone still wondered whose team the Bulls were: Jimmy Butler drops 52 on Charlotte. Rajon Rondo has been relegated to towel waving reserve guard (finally). Dwyane Wade’s left knee is swelling up — yes, you’re right to be concerned Bulls fans — so he sat out Monday night.

That unleashed Jimmy Butler — and made us wonder what this team would have looked like if the front office had followed through on its pledge to actually get younger, more athletic players and build around Butler last summer. Butler had the ball in his hands more, and some extra space to operate. The results were he torched a good Charlotte Hornets defense for 52 points on just 24 shots, going 14-of-15 from the free throw lone, and scoring 17 of his points in the fourth quarter as the Bulls came from behind to win. Just in case you wondered who the Bulls’ best player was, or who the cornerstone of the future is in Chicago.

Butler did most of his damage coming off the pick-and-roll, then either getting into the paint or — more efficiently on this night — knocking down midrange jumpers from the elbow area. He also dished out six assists on the night — to be clear, he ran the P&R more effectively than Rondo has for the team. Nearly half of Butler’s possessions in this game came as the ball handler using those high picks. The Hornets — Nicolas Batum in particular — defended him fairly well but Butler was having one of those nights: he was 9-of-14 on contested shots, according to NBA.com.

There was a lot more to like about the Bulls on this night. With Wade out Doug McDermott got the start and the Bulls adjusted to how teams have covered him with guards (because he lived on the perimeter) and fed him some in the post. Denzel Valentine is getting some more run with Rondo on the bench, and he looked good in the first half (he rolled his ankle in the third and did not return). And the Bulls played better defense on Kemba Walker (27 points, he’s still killing it) and the Hornets late to get the win. The kind of win the Bulls need to hang on to a playoff slot (they are currently the eight seed).

The Bulls don’t need Rondo to win. They will need Wade come the playoffs, but this team can win while his knees get rest. The Bulls showed they could do it for a night, but now they have to try to carry it over against the Cavaliers and Raptors the rest of this week.

2) Bucks keep picking up good wins, like Monday over Oklahoma City. There are three teams in the NBA with a top 10 offensive and defensive rating, usually the sign of a contender: Golden State, San Antonio, and Utah.  The two surprises? Cleveland not being there (the Cavs defense is 14th in the league on the season, they have a malaise on that end at times but because they’re in the East it doesn’t hurt them), and that the Bucks were there until Monday — they fell to 11th on defense. The Bucks are legitimately good, while they may be 17-14 they have the point differential of a 19-12 team.

The Thunder are where they are this season because of Russell Westbrook, good rebounding, and a stout defense. The Thunder took that three-legged approach into Milwaukee on Monday. The Bucks had no good answer for the Westbrook question (does anyone?), he had 30 points but on 9-of-28 shooting. But the Bucks held their own on the boards (just one fewer rebound) and they went right at the heart of that defense — Milwaukee scored at will in the paint, to the tune of 54 points there. Led by 26 points on 19 shots from Giannis Antetokounmpo, he was 7-of-10 in the paint. Plus he was doing things like this:

The Bucks are not a threat to Cleveland, or likely even Toronto, at the top of the East. But this is a team on the rise playing well at both ends, and if they continue on this arc they will be a tough out come the playoffs.

3) Losers of five in a row, the Knicks have issues. Short term and long term. The Knicks felt like they hit rock bottom Monday night — an Orlando Magic team they ripped a couple of weeks ago returned the favor, shredding a bad defense for 115 points, led by 23 from Jodie Meeks (Aaron Gordon and Serge Ibaka each had 22).

New York is banged up, no Kristaps Porzingis is the big one (he has had to carry a heavy load this season, maybe too heavy for a physically still growing/changing player, they need to be careful with his Achilles soreness). There was no Joakim Noah, and they really do miss David Lee. But neither of those latter two are shoring up the defense — it was a game where the Knicks broadcast team was pointing out Carmelo Anthony‘s lack of defensive effort. They easily could have done the same thing for Derrick Rose. How bad was the Knicks defense? Coach Jeff Hornacek said this postgame:

“I don’t think our guys aren’t trying — maybe they’re not capable… Maybe play some other guys and mix the lineup somehow. We have to find someone to play some defense.”

When the coach is calling out a team’s effort — and he also questioned their toughness — things are bad. And Hornacek may have waited too long to do it. The good news is for all their flaws and problems, the Knicks are just half a game out of the playoffs in the East. Get healthy, get on a run and they can make it.

But the flaws in this roster showing up midseason lead to bigger questions about the future — what is the long-term plan? Signing Rose and Noah this summer signaled a win-now mentality — except they are not winning, they are 16-18. This team needed to be torn down and rebuilt years ago, but nobody had the cojones to do that in New York for some reason. The Knicks got lucky and Porzingis fell to them in the draft, but beyond that the rest of the guys they are spending on for years to come — Anthony and Noah — are not part of the long-term future. Rose has played okay, but are they going to re-sign a guy well past his prime?

What is the plan in New York? It’s hard to see one that looks to a Porzingis-led future.

Three Things to Know: After another loss to Warriors, what do Cavaliers do now?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Warriors handle Cavaliers again, do Cavaliers have to make an upgrade at the trade deadline? LeBron James was an MVP-level beast — 32 points on 18 shots, grabbing boards, dishing out assists, blocking four shots and seemingly being everywhere. Cleveland was targeting Stephen Curry on switches, hit 8-of-10 to start the game and shot 52.1 percent for three quarters. It wasn’t enough. The Warriors led by two after three because the Cavaliers defense remains terrible, and Golden State pulled away in the fourth for a 118-108 win to sweep the season series. It was clear from this game that while the Cavaliers may be better built to take on the Warriors than nearly every other NBA team, and maybe better than they were last June, there is still a gap between them and the Warriors.

That leaves the Cavaliers facing hard questions as the trade deadline approaches Feb. 8:

Do they make a bold move for the best player available? Do they go after depth to help against matchups with Golden State? Is there an available player that can actually close the gap with Golden State? If they find a player they want, do the throw in the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick?

It starts with a big-picture philosophical discussion for the Cavaliers: Do they throw everything into another run at a ring with LeBron, and hope that motivates him to stay next summer? Or, do they make sure they hold on to the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick they got in the Kyrie Irving trade (consider it LeBron insurance)? While the Nets have outperformed expectations and lowered the value of the pick (right now it would go into the lottery the No. 7/8 pick tied with Phoenix), reports are the Cavaliers are holding onto that pick unless a player becomes available who can put them on the Warriors’ level.

DeAndre Jordan is not that guy. He is the best player available and the Clippers and Cavaliers have talked plenty, but Jordan does not change the equation vs. Golden State. Yes, he would give the Cavaliers rim protection and rebounding, but he can’t space the floor at all and defensively the Warriors would be able to pull him away from the basket and expose him. The Cavaliers are still interested (in part because it would make Cleveland better, in part because proposed swap would get them off of Tristan Thompson’s long-term money), but they would only throw in their own first-round pick (currently 24th) as part of the package. Is that enough?

There are other players available who could help the Cavaliers, such as Nikola Mirotic or Evan Fournier (or anyone on the Magic), but none are game changers with the Warriors. Paul George is the only guy who might be and he is not available, the Thunder are riding this season out with him.

Can the Cavaliers afford to do nothing? That would send a bad message to LeBron as he weighs free agency. Expect the Cavaliers to make trades, it just might be re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

2) Clippers win fifth straight beating Chris Paul’s Rockets — then things really get interesting when Rockets go after Clippers in the locker room. The story the Clippers wanted this game to be about is that they beat the Houston Rockets 113-102, and with that fifth straight win moved into a playoff position in the West despite the rash of injuries that hit the team this season. The Pelicans, Clippers, Nuggets, and Trail Blazers all within half-a-game of each other for slots 6-9 in the West — one of them will miss the playoffs — and that sets up a fun race for the second half of the season.

That’s not what anyone is talking about.

Instead, the fact that Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza, Gerald Green and James Harden used a secret back-tunnel between the locker rooms to try to go into the Clippers locker room and confront Austin Rivers and Blake Griffin. The guys reportedly stood at the back door of the Clippers locker room, Clippers players dared them to enter, and security stepped in fast. The LAPD was called and nothing actually happened — and it wouldn’t have anyways, these are NBA players there wasn’t going to be a fight. We know that.

Meanwhile, Clint Capela went to the front door of the Clippers locker room, knocked, and had the door shut in his face. (Was he the diversion tactic or just not in on the plans.)

NBA Twitter had a blast with this, including Griffin himself.

3) Earlier in the day, Ben Simmons and Kyle Lowry almost got in a fight in the hallway after being ejected. Or they didn’t. After the Rockets/Clippers fun, this almost seems quaint. Ben Simmons and Kyle Lowry had a little run in during the third quarter of MLK Day matchup.

Later, they were ejected late in Philadelphia’s 117-111 win over Toronto:

This led to reports of a dust-up in the hallway after the game.

After the game Simmons and Lowry both basically denied it.

Nothing to see here. Move along. Go watch the Clippers and Rockets, that’s far more entertaining.

Reports: Rockets try to confront Clippers, police dispatched to locker room

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The Los Angeles Clippers got the better of the Houston Rockets on Monday night at Staples Center, 113-102, but the battle between Chris Paul and his former team had apparently just begun.

According to multiple reports, members of the Rockets took to the Clippers locker room after the game to confront Austin Rivers and then Blake Griffin.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski says that according to his sources, James Harden, Trevor Ariza, and Gerald Green entered the Clippers locker room looking for Austin Rivers, who was on the sideline due to an injury. LAPD were then dispatched to the scene — not just ordinary Staples Center security — and while nothing happened that’s somehow not the end of this story.

In true Scooby Doo fashion, Woj reports that the Rockets then sent Clint Capela to the front door of the Clippers locker room while Chris Paul went to a secret back door to the Clippers’ area as he looked to go after Blake Griffin.

Once again, I cannot stress that I am not making this story up.

Via Twitter:

Some of this may stem from the general tension between the two teams. Paul was traded to Houston in June for Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, and Sam Dekker among others after spending six seasons with Los Angeles.

There’s also the fact that Mike D’Antoni and Griffin got into it during the game, yapping at each other after Griffin made contact with the Houston coach on the sideline.

Griffin appeared to be pointing at D’Antoni for being out of the box on the sideline, making purposeful contact with him and resulting in double technical fouls.

Yet the overarching tension between the two teams was already palpable. Paul reportedly took umbrage to how Rivers was treated by his father, coach, and (at the time) GM Doc Rivers.

Then, late in the fourth quarter — after Griffin had already gotten into it with D’Antoni — some jawing from Austin Rivers led to an on-court discussion between Ariza and Griffin.

That prompted officials to eject both Griffin and Ariza with just a minute to go:

Austin Rivers said that the tension between Paul and Griffin was the thing that led to CP3 looking for a trade to Texas, just as a bit of backstory, so the bad blood and he-said, she-said is long-running.

No word yet on the details confirming how far anybody got, although it seems reasonable to expect Adam Silver and the league office should come down with some suspensions for folks. Malice in the Palace was perhaps the greatest modern disgrace for the NBA, and the league tries to keep even the whiff of violence away from their games.

It feels like there’s no way anyone here can get off light in an era where guys are getting suspended from both playoff games and preseason games for taking a teensy little step off the bench during disputes.

Meanwhile, the guys on the set of Inside the NBA had an absolute BLAST with the details (as did of Twitter, to be honest).

The Rockets and the Clippers play again next on Wednesday Feb. 28 in LA.

Check out the Chris Paul tribute video from the Clippers

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Chris Paul returned to Staples Center Monday night wearing the red of the Houston Rockets.

There was a mix of cheers and boos when CP3 was introduced against the Clippers, the team he helped make relevant and string together the best run in franchise history (even if it didn’t attain the lofty goals we had expected). He pushed his way out of town last summer, but Paul still goes down as one of the two greatest Clippers ever (he was a better player than Blake Griffin, but Griffin helped turn that franchise culture around before CP3 arrived, and Griffin is still doing work there).

The Clippers put together this tribute video.

Well done Clippers.

LeBron James does it all, still not enough for Cavaliers to beat Warriors

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Last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers got to the Finals thanks to LeBron James leading an elite Cavaliers offense that covered up a defense which was second worst in the NBA after the All-Star break and improved to middle of the pack during the playoffs when they dialed in. That was not near good enough against the Warriors in the Finals.

New season, but we are watching the same movie.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Cleveland LeBron was nothing short of brilliant — 32 points on 18 shots, eight rebounds, six assists and four blocks. Through three quarters the Cavaliers got into the paint, hit their floaters and midrange shots, and knocked down 52.1 percent of their shots total — but they were down two because their defense was a disaster.

Isaiah Thomas tied the game 93-93 early in the fourth, but then Cleveland started a streak of missing eight shots in a row and hitting 1-of-14 (credit the Warriors playing better defense for some of that), and the Warriors just kept on scoring. And scoring.

The result was a 118-108 Warriors win to sweep the season series from the Cavaliers.

Kevin Durant had 32 points, Stephen Curry 23 and hit 4-of-8 from three.

With the trade deadline weeks away, this loss left the Cavaliers with big questions to answer:

Do they make a bold move to try to give themselves a better shot against the Warriors in the Finals? (And give themselves a cushion against Boston and Toronto.)

Is there an available player that can actually close that gap?

If they find the player, do the Cavaliers have the players and picks to get a deal done? Would they throw in the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick?

Cleveland must consider it all because this game made it clear again there is now a gap between the two teams that met in the NBA Finals the past three years.

The Cavaliers again started out hot, hitting eight of their first 10 shots. Cleveland shot 58.3 percent in the first quarter and LeBron was 6-of-8 — but they led just 37-35 because the Cavaliers could not get stops. Cleveland’s transition defense was a mess all night, and in the first quarter one-third of the Warriors points came in transition opportunities, where they were very efficient.

There were positives for Cleveland. Dwyane Wade provided a boost off the bench with eight first-half points on 4-of-7 shooting, making energy plays like the steal and alley-oop to Jeff Green just before the half.

The Cavaliers were up 64-57 at the break as they shot 61.1 percent from the midrange. But it always felt like it was not sustainable.

Cleveland had shooting issues with guys not named LeBron. IT and Wade combined to shoot 12-of-33, and as a team the Cavs shot 6-of-26 from three. You can say those number should improve, and you’d be right, but we’re back to a great offense trying to cover up a weak defense.

That’s not going to cut it in the Finals. It may not be enough to cut it before the Finals, but the Warriors are showing they are in another class right now.