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Three things we learned Thursday: Tim Hardaway Jr. upstaged Dwight Howard’s homecoming

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All of the eyes of the sports world are starting to focus on Houston because there’s some football game this weekend, and if you turned your attention there rather than listen to Charles Barkley being Charles Barkley Thursday, we can’t blame you. Here are the big takeaways from the day in the NBA.

1) Dwight Howard came back to Houston, but the night (and game) belonged to Tim Hardaway Jr. Let’s get the sideshow out of the way first: Dwight Howard returned to Houston, and he was greeted there like he was greeted when he first returned to Orlando and Los Angeles — he got booed. Although to be fair, it was a mix of cheers and boos this time around (not like Orlando or LA). Howard’s answer to Rockets’ fans was to score 24 points and grab 23 rebounds. He played like the borderline All-Star he has been this season.

But that wasn’t the story of this game.

Houston led by 20 points at home with eight minutes to go — this one should have been in the bag, despite their off night shooting — and then Tim Hardaway Jr. happened. The Hawks guard had 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting in the fourth to spark a comeback that ended with a 113-108 Atlanta win.

Houston giving up that lead to a team on the second night of a back-to-back is not the move of a contender. Which is where the Rockets want to see themselves. It’s a big win for a Hawks team trying to climb back ahead of Washington for the four seed in the East and home court in the first round. It was just one game, but it was an entertaining one if nothing else.

2) Breaking down the trade: Bucks send Miles Plumlee to Hornets for Roy Hibbert/Spencer Hawes. Just like nearly any negotiation, the only way to make a trade in the NBA is to structure it so both sides think it’s a win and out of this process with something they want or need. Thursday’s swap of big men between the Bucks and Hornets did just that, at least on the day of the trade.

For the Hornets, this is about some help and a reliable backup for Cody Zeller. He’s missed Charlotte’s last five games with injury, and the numbers are really simple: Charlotte outscores its opponents by 8.1 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court and gets outscored by 4.4 per 100 when he is off the court. Or, Charlotte is 22-16 when Zeller plays and 1-10 when he doesn’t — including being on a four-game losing streak. Plumlee brings a poor man’s version of what Zeller does — he can set a good screen and roll hard to the rim, and when he does you have to account for him because he can finish. That opens things up for Kemba Walker. Plumlee crashes the boards and works hard on defense. He’s not a perfect answer to their problems of late, but he’s going to help them, and this is a team at 23-27 that is the current eight seed and is fighting to make the playoffs.

The Bucks mostly get rid of what they see as a mistake signing and get some financial flexibility. Plumlee is in the first season of a four-year, $50 million contract and he was struggling. The Bucks saw that contract as an anchor, and they ditch it for Roy Hibbert (on an expiring contract) and Hawes ($6 million player option for next season that he likely opts out of). The Bucks are the 10 seed in the East right now, a game back of Charlotte, but they don’t lose much on the court here, if anything. Greg Monroe’s having his best season as a Buck at center, and they have John Henson as his reserve. Hibbert and Hawes provide some veteran depth for Jason Kidd to play around with, but they aren’t going to get a lot of run (I can see Hawes and his ability to stretch the floor helping in certain matchups).

3) Magic Johnson will advice Jeanie Buss and Lakers ownership. That’s bad for Jim Buss. The Lakers have set a path to return to the top of the NBA — be bad and draft high, find their next franchise player (or at least a good core) that way. They’ve lived up to that two years in a row (drafting second both times, getting D’Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram) while selling the Kobe farewell tour. How well they are doing on that path depends on who you ask, certainly they have a few quality young players, but how good those guys really are and how far they can take this team down the line are up for debate.

The key is the potential of a good Lakers team is years down the line at best, and Jim Buss promised the Lakers would be back to contending (or at least the second round) by this season. Buss is the favored son of the legendary Jerry Buss who the father left in charge of basketball operations, and the younger Buss promised a quick turnaround that was unrealistic in today’s NBA. He lived in the past, back when the Lakers could get elite free agents because they were the Lakers. Now they can’t even get meetings (Kevin Durant).

Now lead owner Jeanie Buss — the one person who can remove Jim from power, if she has the support of her other siblings — has brought in Lakers legend Magic Johnson as an advisor. Jeanie and Magic met last month and, according to ESPN, Jeanie was reaching out to people she trusted about the future direction of the Lakers. Magic has been a huge critic of Jim Buss, and the buzz is the other siblings in the Buss trust (there are six total, including Jim and Jeanie) are none-to-thrilled with Jim’s job performance and work ethic. They want to win, and the Lakers have the third-worst record in the NBA.

Which is to say, Jim Buss is in a world of trouble.

Here would be my concern if I were a Laker fan: That the Lakers completely abandon their slow build plan and trade quality assets for good-but-not-great veterans who can get them more wins now. Essentially, they become the Knicks. It’s not a path to the top. And based on Magic’s incipit Twitter account he lives in the past like Jim Buss — he’s tweeted the Lakers should get Durant or DeMar DeRozan or other guys they would loved to have chased but will not meet with them right now. If the Lakers go down that path they will be no better off. They need to build up a good young core that stars want to play with, then you can try to land one (see the Celtics, who got to 48 wins before Al Horford came on board).

No one can say what Jerry Buss would do in this situation, but based on his history here is my guess: Hire a talented young GM (who he could get at below market value) and let that man go to work. Let him pick up the pace of winning without sacrificing too much of the young core. That seems a wise plan, but who knows what direction the Lakers will go.

Salah Mejri kicks at Patty Mills as Mavericks and Spurs leave court for halftime (video)

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Mavericks center Salah Mejri has a history of agitating, including against the Spurs.

Two years ago, Mejri dunked while Dallas got blown out by San Antonio and yapped at the Spurs bench – drawing laughter from Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan. Last season, Mejri had Trevor Ariza and other Rockets trying to confront him after reportedly saying something about Ariza’s family.

In the Mavericks’ win over the Spurs on Tuesday, Mejri got into it with Patty Mills.

Earl K. Sneed of Mavs.com:

Mejri and Rudy Gay received double technical fouls, and Mejri went to the bench. Everything could have cooled down at halftime, but Mejri escalated tension

Watch the full sequence above, but the key moment:

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That’ll probably draw a fine.

NBA introducing 2-for-1 All-Star voting days

AP Photo/Chris Carlson
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The NBA changed its All-Star format this season from East vs. West to captain-picked teams (though still naming players equally from each conference).

That apparently wasn’t a big enough overhaul.

After including media and player votes last year, the league is making All-Star starter selection even more complex.

NBA release:

NBA All-Star Voting 2018 presented by Verizon will tip off with an early voting period exclusively on the NBA App and NBA.com beginning Thursday, Dec. 21 at 1 p.m. ET.

Voting via all other channels, including Amazon Alexa for the first time, will launch on Monday, Dec. 25 at 11 a.m.

Additionally, new for this season, five “2-for-1 Days” will allow fans to have their votes count twice on Dec. 31, Jan. 4, Jan. 11, Jan. 12 and Jan. 15 when voting through the NBA App and NBA.com, along with Sina Weibo and Tencent in China.  All “2-for-1 Days” will be designated 12 a.m. – 11:59 p.m. ET.

TNT will reveal the All-Star Game starters, including the two captains, on Thursday, Jan. 18 during TNT NBA Tip-Off

The network will announce the reserves, as selected by NBA head coaches, on Tuesday, Jan. 23 during TNT NBA Tip-Off at 7 p.m. ET. 

The team rosters for NBA All-Star Game 2018 in Los Angeles will be revealed on Thursday, Jan. 25 during a special one-hour edition of TNT NBA Tip-Off at 7 p.m. ET.

I suppose this is to drum up interest on otherwise quiet voting days. After all, this is really just about the NBA selling itself.

But the All-Star voting process has always left something to be desired. I don’t see how this changes that.

Report: Lakers ‘longshot’ to sign LeBron James

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
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Preeminent NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski called it “likelyLeBron James would sign with the Lakers or Clippers next summer. The Clippers have since been somewhat debunked as a LeBron destination. There’s circumstantial evidence linking LeBron to Los Angeles.

Ramona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

So imagining James’ last act coming in purple and gold isn’t without basis. But as of now, it’s also a longshot, according to league sources.

Shelburne and Windhorst are highly credible. I doubt they’d report this without connected sources.

LeBron’s agent, Rich Paul, and manager, Maverick Carter, have recently publicly downplayed the importance of Los Angeles to LeBron. That felt like a coordinated attack on the LeBron-Lakers rumors, and this fits as a continuation.

But why wage that campaign? To keep the Cavaliers focused while LeBron still plays for them, even if he might leave after the season? To lower expectations among the Lakers’ massive fan base, so as not alienate those people (potential customers of the many LeBron-connected brands) when LeBron inevitably signs elsewhere? Both could be true, but there’s obviously a difference between each driving LeBron’s camp.

DeMarcus Cousins barrels in for powerful putback dunk over Bucks (video)

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When DeMarcus Cousins builds up a head of steam like this… poor John Henson (and kind of Khris Middleton).

This helped the Pelicans pull away for a 115-108 win over the Bucks last night.