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Three things we learned Sunday: As losses, worries pile up in Toronto big trade may follow

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It was a slow day on the court in the NBA, but we had a trade, and with the trade deadline looming everything gets viewed through that prism. Here are our takeaways from the day.

1) Raptors blow 16-point lead to lose again, Kyle Lowry is among the worried. Is it time for a desperate move in Toronto? A couple of months ago, Toronto was the clear-cut No. 2 team in the East. They couldn’t get by Cleveland, but Boston and everyone else was well back in the rear-view mirror. The Raptors were on pace for more than 50 wins, a trip back to the conference finals, and then who knows?

Then the calendar flipped to 2017. The Raptors are 9-13 in 2017, have fallen to fourth in the East behind Boston and Washington, and have lost five-of-seven after blowing a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter to fall to the Pistons 102-101 Sunday. It was Detroit’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope who had the final five points including the game winner.

This game was a microcosm of all that has gone wrong in Toronto. Their once-stout defense (fourth in the NBA in December) was shredded by sh Smith, Tobias Harris, and Caldwell-Pope. The Raptors offense down the stretch was very heavy on DeMar DeRozan isolations, which the Pistons knew how to defend. After the game, Kyle Lowry was frustrated and cryptic and wants to see a move.

That something could well be a trade, ideally one for a power forward. After Atlanta has pulled back on moving Paul Millsap — which may not be the smartest move, as Sean Deveney and I discussed in the latest PBT Podcast — a Serge Ibaka trade with Orlando has moved to the front burner (there are other possible moves, such as Denver’s Danilo Gallinari). On paper, Ibaka is an upgrade and what the Raptors need because he can defend the rim on defense and both score inside or space the floor on offense. He’s not what he was in Oklahoma City, and teams are worried about paying him long-term as his body ages (his knees are a concern), but as a rental he works. The problem is the cost. Remember Orlando gave up Victor Oladipo and the first-round pick that became Domantas Sabonis to Oklahoma City for Ibaka, now they want to recoup their losses since it’s unlikely Ibaka re-signs with them this summer as a free agent. Nobody, including the Raptors, want to overpay for a rental. The price has to come down, and it should because Orlando has no choice.

Will that trade or another solve the Raptors’ problems? Not by itself, but it could be the shakeup the team needs. However, Masai Ujiri is not under pressure from Raptors ownership to make a move — the ownership group sees this as a golden age of Raptors basketball, last season was the best record and deepest playoff run in franchise history, and they are making money. Yes, they’d like a title, but there is not a “win at all costs” pressure to make a move. Ujiri can be patient. He doesn’t need to be desperate.

But the Raptors need something to turn the ship around this season.

2) Portland kind of wins trade of big men with Nuggets.
We did have a trade of big men Sunday: Portland sent center Mason Plumlee and a 2018 second round pick to the Denver Nuggets in exchange for Jusuf Nurkic and a 2017 first round pick, according to reports. The trade will be finalized Monday.

Who won? I don’t love this deal for either side, but I think Portland came out on the better end.

In Plumlee, Denver gets another big to pair with rising star Nikola Jokic — Nurkic was not that guy (coach Mike Malone tried early in the season but it was a disaster at both ends with Denver being outscored by 15.6 points per 100 possessions). Plumlee is a good playmaker who could play a little four with Jokic if they want to go big, although I have serious questions about how that combo would defend. Plumlee’s best role might be as a backup big who plays when Jokic sits — Plumlee could help Denver’s second unit make significant strides. Either way, this was a move designed to win more games now and help Denver hold on to the eighth seed and a playoff slot in the West. The challenge is Plumlee is a free agent this summer, and how much is Denver willing to pay a backup center? More than other teams that covet Plumlee’s passing?

Portland is going to miss Plumlee’s playmaking short term, but they were not going to be able to pay him this summer what the market will bear, so rather than let him go for nothing they got quality back. It may not help them in the short-term chasing Denver in the eight seed this season, but it’s a good long-term play. Nurkic could be a good center, although his post-up heavy style could be an odd fit in the quick, guard-dominated Blazer offense. He’s still on his rookie deal for another year, the Blazers have time to figure it out. They also got a first-round pick — that’s three Portland has this June in a deep draft. Portland could keep them although the more likely move by GM Neil Olshey is to flip them, either at the deadline or on draft night, into something else he wants. Portland isn’t done dealing. The bottom line is the Blazers got a couple of quality assets for a guy they were going to have to let walk this summer anyway.

3) Upset of the day, the Knicks beat the Spurs. Off the court, there was no subtlety to what the Knicks were doing, even Sean Spicer would think this is a little obvious and on the nose. After owner James Dolan got destroyed in the public relations battle with Charles Oakley following the latter’s ejection and arrest last week, surprise but Latrell Sprewell, Larry Johnson, Bernard King, and Bill Bradley were all on hand at Madison Square Garden Sunday and all got video tributes. Dolan looked 2 a.m. at the bar by yourself desperate with all this.

But that wasn’t a surprise — the Knicks beating the Spurs? That was a surprise. On the fourth game of their long, annual rodeo road trip the Spurs played like a team that really enjoyed Friday night out on the town in New York. They were listless. Well, except for the one-man show and MVP candidate that is Kawhi Leonard, who had 36 points. Right now, he’d be third on my MVP ballot for the season, he has been nothing short of brilliant.

However, the Knicks had balance. Derrick Rose and Kristaps Porzingis played well (KP seemed to have some of his missing confidence back), as did new starter Willy Hernangomez with 12 points and a few key defensive plays. But this was a game Carmelo Anthony clearly wanted on his way to 25 points and seven rebounds. He keyed the Knicks win.

DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t expect Pelicans to trade him at the deadline

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The New Orleans Pelicans have a decision to make as they approach the trade deadline: Do they think they can re-sign DeMarcus Cousins next summer to stay in the Big Easy with Anthony Davis?

If the answer is no, then they have to consider trading Cousins at the deadline to at least get something back. There is a lot of context, however, that makes this seeming binary trade/keep decision far more complicated.

Cousins himself doesn’t think he is going anywhere, as he told Marc Spears of ESPN’s The Undefeated.

While the Pelicans have a lot to consider with the unrestricted free agent, Cousins says he is confident that he will still be playing for New Orleans after the Feb. 8 trade deadline.

“I am confident in my team,” Cousins said. “I am starting to understand this business a lot more than I did before. You can kind of tell when things are about to come about. We’re a very competitive team. A talented team. I don’t think that will be the case at all….

“A.D. hits me with little jabs about free agency all the time, but he also understands,” Cousins said. “It was Jrue in that situation last [offseason], and we understood his situation. Of course, they throw their little jabs. They throw their little jokes. But they are serious at the same time. They are respectful about it at the same time.

The Pelicans are 15-14 and the seven seed in the West entering Friday night’s games, and if New Orleans has a shot at the playoffs come the deadline there is no way he gets moved. Ownership and management want a playoff appearance. They have greenlit adding one of the game’s top centers (Cousins) to go next to Davis, and last summer they paid big to keep Jrue Holiday at the point in New Orleans. If the Pelicans don’t make the playoffs (and possibly even if they do squeak in and get swept out in an ugly fashion), everyone in the organization expects a housecleaning. They have been on edge all season. With jobs on the line, they are not trading Cousins and getting worse short term even if you could argue it was the right basketball move long term.

Will Cousins re-sign with the Pelicans next summer? That will be about the money — what the Pelicans offer, and what other teams will offer in what is expected to be a tight free agent market, especially for centers.  DeAndre Jordan will be on the market as well, not to mention second-tier guys who will be more affordable for teams such as Brook Lopez. In that market, Cousins may want to stay where he likes his teammates and seems happy.

But first he has to get past the trade deadline.

Joel Embiid scores over Carmelo Anthony, then they exchange words (VIDEO)

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Joel Embiid gives zero… well, you know where I’m going with that.

Embiid trolls the world and backs down from no man, and that includes Carmelo Anthony. Late in the fourth quarter of the barn burner between the Thunder and 76ers Friday night, Embiid backed ‘Melo down and scored over him, then did a little jawing — which Anthony didn’t appreciate.

I love that Embiid egged on the Sixers crowd after this. He knows his audience. After the game he said this.

Embiid talks a lot — A LOT — but he is backing it up.

For example, in the first overtime Russell Westbrook thought he made a drive that was going to win the game, and Embiid rejected him.

If you did not watch this game, go find a replay. This is the new best game of the season.

Rudy Gobert leaves game vs. Celtics with likely knee sprain. Again.

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Rudy Gobert missed 11 games this season due to a bone bruise in his knee. While the Jazz defense suffered as should have been expected with their anchor gone, their offense found a groove without him — and with more Donovan Mitchell and Derrick Favors — resulting in Utah going 7-4 with their star center out.

Now the Jazz will be without him again for a while — he seems to have sprained his left knee just minutes into Friday night’s game against the Celtics when Favors fell back into him. That is the same knee he injured before. Gobert was forced to leave and will not return to the game.

If that diagnosis holds, it will be weeks again the Jazz will be without Gobert.

The Jazz know how to play without Gobert. Favors moves to center and while he’s not near the same defender his offensive skills got them buckets and opened up the floor. The rookie Mitchell, as well as Ricky Rubio at points, took advantage of it to give the Jazz a top-10 offense with Gobert out. They need to find that groove again.

Still, Utah needs Gobert back and himself to really reach the heights they are capable of.

Veteran NBA official Monty McCutchen to be head of referee development, training

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After 25 seasons running up and down the NBA hardwood and refereeing more than 1,400 games, NBA official Monty McCutchen got a promotion.

He officiated his last game Thursday night in Minnesota and will move to a desk at the league office where his new title is Vice President, Head of Referee Development and Training.

“Monty has earned the respect of players, coaches and his peers during an exemplary career as an NBA official,” said Senior Vice President, Head of Referee Operations Michelle D. Johnson (who started on the job in October).  “He understands as well as anyone what it takes to be an outstanding referee and how the league can best support its officials.  With his wealth of insight and experience, Monty is uniquely suited for a leadership role in our officiating program.”

“I’m excited for the opportunity to channel my passion for the officiating profession in a new way,” McCutchen said.  “While I’ll miss officiating games, I’m grateful to continue working with our incredibly talented referee staff as part of an organization so dedicated to excellence and innovation.”

Despite what some fans like to blast on Twitter (especially during the playoffs), NBA officials are the best trained and flat-out best basketball referees in the world (if you don’t think so, watch the college/scab referees from the last lockout of the refs, it was painful). Could they improve? Sure. Hopefully, McCutchen can help do that in his new position.