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Three things we learned on Tuesday: Paraphrasing Nuggets’ Mike Malone, “My kingdom for a leader”

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We know you weren’t keeping up on Tuesday night’s NBA games because you were watching a Burmese Python and alligator fight, so we’ve got you covered. Here are the big takeaways of the night.

1) Flat Nuggets fall to Kings, fall out of playoffs, leave Mike Malone searching for leaders. It is just game 35 of 82, it’s just January, and the Denver Nuggets were on the second night of a back-to-back. Which is to say, there are plenty of reasons not to read too much into this one game.

However, for Denver that one game Tuesday was against Sacramento — the team the Nuggets were tied with for the final playoff spot in the West. And Denver came out flat. They struggled to slow DeMarcus Cousins — they put Wilson Chandler on him early, but he was overpowered by Cousins’ inside and struggled to stay in front of guards when the pick-and-roll was switched — who finished the game with 31 points. Darren Collison added 26. The Kings got the 120-113 win relatively easily, which for a day gives them the lock on the eight seed in the West.

What frustrated coach Mike Malone wasn’t just the loss, it was his team coming out flat in a game that had meaning. He looked at his young team and said it lacked veteran leadership.

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He’s not wrong, Denver is inconsistent and at some point that stability and professionalism has to come from the players, not just the coach. Malone seemed to make a call to Chandler, Jameer Nelson, Mike Miller and Danilo Gallinari to step it up.

As for the playoff chase in the West: are seven teams in the West that look like playoff locks if they can stay healthy — Golden State, San Antonio, Houston, Utah, L.A. Clippers, Oklahoma City, and Memphis. After them it’s a 5.5 game drop to teams: Sacramento is the eight seed right now, Portland is one game back, Denver 1.5 games, and the Pelicans are are just two back. All those teams are in the mix for one playoff spot, so when they face each other it matters. Denver didn’t play with that sense of urgency.

There are seven teams that look like playoff locks if they can stay healthy — Golden State, San Antonio, Houston, Utah, L.A. Clippers, Oklahoma City, and Memphis. That group has separated itself, it’s a 5.5 game drop to the teams battling for the last ticket to the dance: Sacramento is the eight seed right now, Portland is one game back, Denver 1.5 games, and the Pelicans are are just 2 back. If I had to place my money on one team in that group it would be Portland, just because they have the talent and have reached that stage before. But in fact, it will come down to health and which team makes the smart moves at the trade deadline.

Malone’s point is valid — when one of those four teams going for one spot face each other it is the kind of game your team needs to be up and focused for. Tuesday night Denver didn’t play with that sense of urgency. They looked young and inconsistent. He can rant all he wants, but some of that has to come from the players, not top-down from the coach.

2) Play of the night goes to Sixers, game-winner to beat Minnesota. It was a wild ending in Philadelphia. Minnesota — which has played better, if not consistent, defense of late — held the Sixers to just 14 fourth-quarter points and made a comeback. Joel Embiid tried to put the dagger in the Timberwolves with six seconds left, but Karl-Anthony Towns rejected him.

That set up a Ricky Rubio three that tied the game at 91-91 with 1.6 seconds left. Brett Brown drew up a clever little play — the SLOB play, which starts to look like the “elevator doors” play the Warriors love to run but ends with Robert Covington rolling to the rim relatively uncontested for the bucket. Sixers fans, give some love to Dario Saric for that pass.

3) Spurs thrash Raptors, which leads to the question “will Toronto be buyers at trade deadline?” Tuesday night the Raptors completed their six-game, West Coast road trip and they went 3-3. Teams often fall flat in the last game of a long trip and the Raptors lived up to that, getting thrashed by the Spurs 110-82, with Kawhi Leonard scoring 25 to lead San Antonio. The result here isn’t a shock regardless of the timing, the Spurs are the better team. But this does lead to another question:

Do the Raptors need to be active buyers at the trade deadline?

On this road trip, the Raptors got thrashed by the Warriors and Spurs. Toronto is 0-3 against Cleveland this season. As we have said in this space more than once, the Raptors have a defined spot in the NBA hierarchy right now — they are the second best team in the East, but a clear step or two behind the elite of the NBA.

The Raptors have a window to challenge the Cavaliers at the top of the East, but they need one more star player — ideally at the four. Which is why if the Hawks actually are making Paul Millsap available — and that is not certain, it’s being debated internally in Atlanta — Toronto needs to be buyers. That comes with the questions of what are the Raptors willing to surrender (All-Stars don’t come cheap) and are they willing to give him a max contract this summer to keep him? Or, to cut more to the chase, are the Raptors ready to go all in? Or does GM Masai Ujiri want to save his chips and see if there are better options available this summer? Toronto went hard after Pau Gasol last summer and thought they were in the mix, but he chose the Spurs. Do they want to take that risk again this summer?

This is the golden age of Raptors basketball — this is the best teams they have ever had, and last season was the franchise’s first trip to the Conference Finals. Toronto is very good. But they are in the conference with LeBron James. If they want to compete for it all, they need to take one more step. Will they be able to do that at the trade deadline is the question.

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.

Jason Kidd says Giannis Antetokounmpo offered to save his job minutes before firing

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The stagnant Milwaukee Bucks shook things up by firing head coach Jason Kidd  Monday.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was not happy with the news. So much he called up Kidd and offered to help save his job, reports Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.

Antetokounmpo is understandably close to Kidd — he’s been the coach who helped transform the Greek Freak into an NBA superstar. Kidd is on his way to the Hall of Fame as a player, and as a coach had the vision to put the ball in Antetokounmpo’s hands as a point guard. Antetokounmpo trusted Kidd.

However, the Bucks’ growth has been stagnant — this is a team where the players talked about being a 50-win, top-four team in the East with a strong defense, instead they are a team on the way to around .500, barely hanging onto a playoff spot, with the point differential of a team that wins 36 games. They are not taking a step forward, and the Bucks — with the approval of ownership, which was very close to Kidd at one time — approving the move.

There was nothing Antetokounmpo could have done. It’s life in the NBA. That doesn’t mean he has to like it.

Gordon Hayward is shooting standing threes in an empty gym. That’s something, I guess.

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Having lost three games in a row at home, doubt seems to have crept into the minds of some Celtics fans. They’re the top seed in the East (and likely finish the season in that slot, again), but just how good are they really? Do they have enough to knock off the Cavaliers and LeBron James when he goes into playoff mode?

In the midst of that self-doubt, the wife of Gordon Hayward, Robyn, posted this.

Still can’t beat me… 🤷🏻‍♀️

A post shared by Robyn Hayward (@robynmhayward) on

For Boston fans still holding out hope Hayward returns this season, this is another sign. No brace, no chair, he’s draining threes. It’s a step forward.

This video also borders on meaningless — he’s not jumping, not moving, not showing us anything about his recovery we didn’t already know. Good to see him up and making progress, but that he can hit stand-still threes in an empty gym is about as shocking as finding out the next Transformers movie is going to suck.

Officially, Hayward is still out for the season. He’s putting in the work, and maybe he returns before the playoffs, but the Celtics are not going to rush him back for this season. Nor should they. The Celtics are on a multi-year plan to be the next dominant team in the East, no reason to push him and risk anything now.

Report: Giannis Antetokounmpo “devastated” by Jason Kidd firing

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The Bucks have been a team of unfulfilled potential for a few seasons now, two steps up and one step back. Last season they were 42-40 and bounced in the first round of the playoffs, this season they are 23-22 and the eighth seed in the East, with the point differential of a team that should be 20-25 and on its way to a 36-win season.

That cost Jason Kidd his job.

That has not sat well with the team’s superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, reports Chris Haynes of ESPN.

You can’t blame Antetokounmpo, Kidd has been his coach the past three-and-a-half seasons and guided the Greek Freak’s rise to superstardom. Kidd also was the one who put the ball in Antetokounmpo’s hands and made him both the defacto point guard on the team and one of the league’s most dangerous players. Kidd did some very good things with these Bucks, and Antetokounmpo is understandably loyal to the man.

However, Antetokounmpo is under contract at a near-max salary until the summer of 2021, so he has no real leverage here.

Elite coaches will be lined up for a chance to coach Antetokounmpo and a very talented Bucks roster, but whoever gets the job next summer has to connect with the superstar first. Kidd had done that.