Kurt Helin

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Three Things to Know: Isaiah Thomas everything Cavaliers could have hoped in return

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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) Isaiah Thomas scores 17 points in 19 minutes in return, is everything Cavaliers could have hoped in return. The consensus of scouts and executives around the league is that we probably saw peak Isaiah Thomas last season (when he was an All-NBA player who was fifth in MVP voting), that the hip injury that sidelined him for the first couple months of the season would take away some of the explosiveness and shifty lateral mobility that made him such a scoring threat. The question was how far off his peak would he be? Would the Cavaliers get 90 percent of Thomas? 80 percent?

One game is not going to answer that question, but the Thomas that took to the court with 4:32 left in the first quarter (to a standing ovation) Tuesday night looked good — he did not hesitate to pull up from three, he attacked the rim (even getting knocked down once), and in 19 minutes of play had 17 points on 6-of-12 shooting. Thomas’ debut was everything the Cavaliers could have hoped.

Cleveland went on to get the win 127-110, LeBron James led the way with 24 points and six Cavs players got into double figures.

Athletically, Thomas looked good and at least close to his old self. Time will tell, and the Cavaliers will bring him along cautiously (he is not playing in the back-to-back in Boston Wednesday). Tuesday night was promising — and the Cavaliers need that. First, because they need another playmaker who can spell LeBron for a stretch — he is tied with Andrew Wiggins for most minutes played in the league this season. Also, the Cavaliers have maybe the toughest schedule in the NBA in December — 12 opponents who are over .500 — and they need all the scoring they can get.

By the way, Damian Lillard returned in that game, too. He had missed five games with a tweaked hamstring and dropped 25 on 15 shots in the loss, hitting 6-of-9 from three. Lillard did his damage from three, only getting to the rim once and shooting more than usual from the midrange (a credit to the Cavaliers defense more than anything). It felt like a normal Blazers game: Lillard and C.J. McCollum against the world. That was not enough on Tuesday.

2) Kawhi Leonard’s comeback looks nearly complete — 25 points in 30 minutes vs. Knicks. Gregg Popovich and the Spurs have been easing Kawhi Leonard back from the quad injury that sidelined him to start the season, but the training wheels seem to be coming off.

Leonard set the tone from the start at Madison Square Garden Tuesday and finished the night with 25 points on 8-of-20 shooting (his efficiency is not yet up to where it was last season) in 30 minutes of play. His catch-and-shoot rhythm and touch are not back yet, but he was getting his shots and when the double-teams came his recognition and passing were on.

LaMarcus Aldridge continues to play like an All-Star, scoring 29 points and carving up the Knicks front line all night. Aldridge is getting to his spots on the floor (having Leonard back as a threat helps with those matchups and spacing), and when he does he’s almost unstoppable.

3) Manu Ginobili’s alley-oop pass goes in for three, referees miss it and things get weird. Manu Ginobili is so good at alley-oop passes he doesn’t need the finisher.

This is the play everyone is talking about from Tuesday night — Manu Ginobili tries to throw a lob entry pass to the fronted LaMarcus Aldridge, but instead throws it through the rim — but it bounces through the rim at a strange angle, the referees miss it and play just continues on.

When play stopped the Spurs protested (including Gregg Popovich, who admitted he didn’t see it when it happened, he was just going off what his assistant coaches said), the referees conferred, then decided it was a two, then eventually reviewed the tape and got the call right (this is why there should be instant replay). It was just a bizarre play. The pass/shot hit the back of the rim and came out at a strange angle, Michael Beasley grabbed it like it didn’t go in, and none of the three officials blinked.

Also out of this one, Gregg Popovich now fifth on coaching win list — passing George Karl — after Spurs beat Knicks.

Lakers’ Lonzo Ball, Brook Lopez cleared for practice, return soon

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) Los Angeles Lakers guard Lonzo Ball and center Brook Lopez have been cleared to return to practice after recent injury absences.

Ball and Lopez are both questionable for the Lakers’ next game against Oklahoma City on Wednesday.

Ball has been out with a sprained left shoulder since Dec. 23, missing five consecutive games. The rookie No. 2 overall draft pick is averaging 10.0 points, 7.1 assists and 6.9 rebounds per game.

Lopez has missed eight games since spraining his right ankle Dec. 18. The veteran big man is averaging 12.8 points and 4.3 rebounds per game in his first season with Los Angeles.

The Lakers (11-25) have lost seven straight games to fall back into last place in the Western Conference standings.

 

Knicks’ Ron Baker suffered fractured face when Anthony Davis dunked on him

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This is just adding injury to insult.

Last Saturday Ron Baker ended up as the prop in a dunk of the season candidate by Anthony Davis. When Davis spun baseline and blew past Kristaps Porzingis to line up a dunk, Baker tried to come in with some rim protection and it went poorly. Very poorly.

Baker was caught in the face by Davis’ off-arm — an elbow to the eye that sent Baker straight to the locker room. Now he’s going to miss at least one game with a fractured orbital bone, and he will be playing with a mask for a while.

Should that have been a foul on Davis? I don’t think so, as he didn’t make a motion to push Baker away, this was just inadvertent. And ugly. That said, league referees have been instructed to protect players in the case of a blow to the head, and this certainly was that.

Baker had a good sense of humor about it.

At Tyronn Lue’s urging, Cavaliers considered keeping Kyrie Irving GM says

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It may have been the worst “welcome to your new job” present ever — 24 hours after Koby Altman landed a dream job and was named the new general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers (replacing the respected David Griffin), news broke that All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving demanded a trade.

In a fantastic feature on Altman at ESPN by Dave McMenamin, Altman said the Cavs considered forcing Irving to stay (remember, he wasn’t a pending free agent with leverage). That’s what coach Tryonn Lue wanted.

His coach, Tyronn Lue, advised they hold onto Irving, just like the Los Angeles Lakers did when Lue’s former teammate Bryant demanded a trade.

“We wanted to figure out, is this real?” Altman says. “Is Kyrie someone we might want to bring back and say, ‘Hey, look, players have figured it out in the past. You’re going to figure it out. We’re going to still be really good, we’re going to be winning games, so it’s not going to be all awful.’ You know what I mean? So thinking about the parameters of that, the implications of that was something we were also always debating.”

As you know, eventually Altman determined they needed to move on from Irving and struck an unexpected deal with the Celtics, landing Cleveland Isaiah Thomas (who makes his debut tonight following a hip injury), Jae Crowder, and the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick unprotected (as of this writing that would be the No. 10 pick in the draft, lower than anticipated). While Irving has been fantastic in Boston, fitting in well with coach Brad Steven’s system, the book is out on how this trade works for the Cavaliers — they will be judged on playoff performance, not what happened in November and December. More importantly, does this trade make it more likely LeBron stays rather than bolts as a free agent next summer? We don’t know the answer to that question, either.

Altman had a fascinating path to one of the 30 most coveted front office jobs in the NBA — selling real estate, coaching in Division III, and more. He’s grounded, with a good perspective on the challenges ahead of him (a better big-picture perspective than team owner Dan Gilbert, I would say). Read the profile, it is worth your time.

Damian Lillard set to return Tuesday vs. Cavaliers, had injured hamstring

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Portland did pretty well — going 3-2 — with Damian Lillard out after tweaking his hamstring, thanks in part to C.J. McCollum picking up the slack, throwing up 32 on the Bulls Monday night. Now Lillard is back, he will play Tuesday night in Cleveland.

Portland has been 4.6 points per 100 possessions better this season with Lillard on the floor this season, and he’s scoring 25.2 points and dishing out 6.4 assists per game.

Lillard’s return in this game has been overshadowed by the return of Isaiah Thomas to the Cavaliers rotation (he will come off the bench and be on a minutes restriction).