San Antonio did pretty much whatever they wanted with Toronto Tuesday night — the Raptors were flat on the last night of a long road trip, the Spurs were executing, and the result was a 110-82 victory.
That includes reserve Dewayne Dedmon shutting down a Raptors attempted alley-oop with a block.
It was just one of a number of Spurs highlights on the night.
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.
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 makingPaul 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.
Report: Knicks interested in trading for Suns’ P.J. Tucker
The Knicks are a mess defensively. They have the fifth-worst defense in the NBA for the season, allowing 107.9 points per 100 possessions, and that has taken a step back to 110.3 per 100 during the current five-game losing streak. Assistant coach Kurt Rambis was given the task mid-season of taking over the defense, but with this roster — Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose are not exactly lock down defenders, and Joakim Noah is well past his Defensive Player of the Year prime if he could even stay healthy — it is like handing him a flank steak and asking him to turn it into a rib eye.
The Knicks are also just half a game out of the eight seed, and they know defense is the key to turning things around.
There could, however, be some roster changes ahead. The trade deadline is less than two months away, and the Knicks, like every other team in the NBA, are looking at their options. It doesn’t seem as if any move is imminent, but some members of the Knicks’ front office have labeled Phoenix Suns forward P.J. Tucker as a potential trade target, league sources told ESPN.com.
The club is in need of tough defenders, and Tucker has earned a reputation as a strong defender over his five-year career. This season, he ranks 22nd among 80 qualified small forwards in ESPN’s defensive RPM. That might not seem like an elite measurement, but Tucker would certainly seem to be an upgrade for a Knicks club in need of one.
The Suns should be active sellers at the deadline — Brandon Knight could be had — and moving Tucker could mean more run for Dragan Bender. Which is a good thing.
The challenge for the Knicks is they have to give to get — the rebuilding (even if they won’t admit it) Suns will want young talent in return. If I were the Suns I would ask for Willy Hernangomez, and if I were the Knicks I would counter with Mindaugas Kuzminskas. Would Phil Jackson trade picks for a rental defender like Tucker and a playoff push?
Tucker is the final year of a contract paying him $5.3 million, so the Knicks would have to spend this summer to keep him.
The Knicks may not get Tucker, but keep an eye out for them to go after someone who can defend on the perimeter as the trade deadline approaches.
LeBron James gave Jrue Holiday some support before tip-off Monday
Jrue Holiday missed the start of the NBA season as his wife — Lauren, a former Team USA soccer player with a gold medal and a World Cup title to her name — first gave birth to their child, then underwent brain surgery for a tumor. With the team’s blessing, he stayed home through camp and the start of the season to do the more important job of supporting his family. Fortunately, both mother and child are doing well.
Holiday is back the team now and, not coincidentally, the Pelicans are suddenly moving into the hunt for the final playoff spot in the West.
“When we heard about it, me and my family and my wife heard about it, we were in L.A. at the time in the offseason and we automatically had a prayer for her,” James told ESPN of Holiday’s situation. “This is a brotherhood, no matter if you’re on the same team or not, this is a fraternity. Our league is a fraternity. Any time someone’s family is going through a situation like that, you just hope the greater God above is looking out for him. So, I couldn’t wait to actually see him today.”
“Obviously to him, family means more than anything,” Holiday told ESPN. “And the same thing for me. So, the fact that they’ve been praying and supporting my wife is a blessing to me.”
That’s a classy move by LeBron.
There are a lot of us out here happy to see Holiday back on the court, and not just because of his play.