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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.

Nike “very concerned” after LeBron James’ jersey rips on opening night

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In the team’s first preseason game, the jersey of the Lakers’ Tyler Ennis was torn in the back with a tug from an opponent. Everyone made tearaway jersey jokes and moved on, thinking it was a one-off situation.

Then LeBron James‘ jersey ripped down the back on opening night, on national television.

Now Nike is looking into the issue, reports Darren Rovell of ESPN.

Nearly three days after one of its jerseys tore in the first regular-season game of its new deal with the NBA, Nike released a statement Friday expressing worry about the issue, without offering insight as to what happened or what will be done.

“The quality and performance of all our products are of utmost importance,” the company said in a statement. “We are obviously very concerned to see any game day jersey tear and are working with the NBA and teams to avoid this happening in the future.”

This is the first year Nike has the NBA apparel contract, having just taken it over from Adidas. They made the jerseys similar to what had been done for the 2016 Rio Olympics, where there were no issues, but these jerseys are lighter than the former Adidas ones. It’s unclear what, if any, changes could be coming.

Like many of the jerseys from opening night, LeBron’s ripped one is being auctioned by the NBA to raise money for hurricane relief.

Reports: Rockets think Chris Paul could be sidelined for up to a month

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The Rockets’ opening night win over the Warriors was a boost to their confidence — they believe they can challenge the Warriors next May in the playoffs.

Chris Paul is a big part of that plan, which is why we may not see him for up to a month (even though he is listed as day-to-day, and officially only out Saturday). With that, the Rockets are considering adding another point guard to the roster. Marc Stein of the New York Times and Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the news Friday afternoon.

At the top of the free agent point guard list is Jameer Nelson, the veteran was just waived by Denver to make room for Richard Jefferson.

C.J. Watson and Trey Burke also are available.

Chris Paul and Harden still need to smooth out playing together, something that will take time on the court together. CP3 being out until mid-November is not ideal, but the Rockets are thinking about May, and ideally June, so they will sacrifice a few games now to have him healthy then.

Dwight Howard still feeling ‘super’ expectations with Hornets

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DETROIT – Dwight Howard went from leading Orlando in the NBA Finals to playing in star-studded Los Angeles to joining a Houston team that also fancied itself a contender to being the highest-paid player in his hometown Atlanta to… landing in Charlotte, a small-market franchise with modest ambitions.

The spotlight finally off the former No. 1 pick, Howard doesn’t feel reduced pressure.

“Everybody expects me to be Superman every single night,” Howard said.

Howard is diving into his new situation – his third team in three years – headfirst. He’s leading pregame huddles and the Hornets onto the court.

“I have the most experience,” said Howard, in his 14th season. “So, it’s not to come in and fit in. It’s to come in and be a leader.”

This is the latest referendum on Howard. Despite eight All-NBA selections (most of them first-team) and three Defensive Player of the Year awards, he faces relentless criticism of his legacy.

His exit from the Magic was so ugly, it’s known as the Dwightmare. His feuding with the Lakers great is the stuff of legend in Kobe Bryant mythology. Howard never clicked with James Harden with the Rockets. The Hawks unloaded him for a paltry return in what was more salary rearrangement than salary dump, and his former teammates reportedly cheered.

Howard just seems to rub people the wrong way.

That makes his latest test in Charlotte so interesting. Howard is supplanting maybe Kemba Walker as the face of the team and definitely Cody Zeller as starting center. The Hornets have found success with Zeller, going 63-53 when he starts and 57-73 otherwise the last three seasons.

“The nature of his game, he plays in a way to help other people play better,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said of Zeller. “He is a screener. He is a ball-mover.”

In other words, the type of player teammates love.

Is Howard?

Howard is still solidly productive. In Charlotte’s season-opening loss to the Pistons, he posted 10 points, 15 rebounds and two blocks – and ruffled a few feathers. Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press:

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Dirty-work players who irritate opponents are revered. High-priced players who irritate their teammates are loathed.

Howard walks a fine line.

He returned to Atlanta with emotion and expectations. By the end of his time with the Hawks, everyone seemed unhappy. Still, Howard says he’s grateful for the opportunity to play in front of people, especially his grandparents, who watched him grow up.

“Atlanta is going to be my home,” Howard said. “The Hawks is always going to be my favorite team.”

It’s just never easy for Howard.

Even a career Basketball Reference pegs as 99% likely to end in the Hall of Fame based on his tangible accomplishments stirs controversy.

“He’s a Hall of Famer right now if he never played another game,” Clifford said.

Said Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, who coached Howard in Orlando: “It’s mind-boggling to me that would be any debate there.”

It’s probably easier for Van Gundy and Howard to recall their time together fondly than it was to enjoy it while partnered. Clifford, who was an assistant in Orlando and Los Angeles while Howard was there, is just getting into his time as Howard’s head coach.

It’s those middle moments, in the throes of long seasons, that have proven difficult for Howard and those around him.

Here he is in Charlotte, hosting the Hawks tonight, and facing another challenge. The Hornets would probably be happy just making the playoffs and ecstatic advancing, which would be their first playoff-series victory since reemerging as the Bobcats in 2004. Howard, who has reached three conference finals, is counting on himself to lead them there – even if nobody else is anymore.

Kobe Bryant still has it, bounces shot in from near half court

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This was a Nike gala, an event with a basketball theme. The court was lit up from below, there were tables at half court, and people had drinks in their hands.

Kobe Bryant was there, stylishly dressed in black. So was famous model Winnie Harlow.

Know that regardless of the setting, Kobe still has game.