Kurt Helin

Associated Press

Three things we learned Thursday: Andrew Wiggins unleashed is a good thing

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Here is what you missed around the NBA Thursday night while you watched bears scratch their backs to the tune of the Pussycat Dolls “Don’t Cha”

1) Fear Andrew Wiggins, for no one in the land seems able to slow him. The Philadelphia/Minnesota game Thursday was billed as the battle of two rising teams in the NBA, which is nominally true but Sixers coach Brett Brown summed it up best, “They’re two years ahead of us.” The Sixers should get there, but the Timberwolves today are starting to look like a team that can challenge for a playoff spot this season (they are a 4-7 team with the point differential of a 7-4 team). Minnesota got the win 110-86.

While everyone rightfully talks about Karl-Anthony Towns game, people seem to be overlooking the leap Andrew Wiggins has made — he dropped 35 on the Sixers and showed off all the ways he has developed into an elite wing player in the league.

Wiggins hit 3-of-6 from three — he’s shooting 53.5 percent from there on the season. He’s not going to sustain that level, but he can hit the long ball and you can’t ignore him there anymore. His handles have dramatically improved over the past two seasons, which has allowed him to use his insane athleticism to blow by his man and get to the rim — where Wiggins draws fouls. He only took four free throws against Philly, but he’s averaging 8.5 a game. He’s become a quality pick-and-roll ball handler, to the point the Timberwolves now run their late-game offense through him. He’s shooting 51.9 percent when posting guys up, an excellent percentage for a wing. He destroys guys in isolation. And he’s doing all of it efficiently — look at his shot chart against the Sixers:

Wiggins shot chart

The Timberwolves are still figuring out how to defend as a team, but does anyone doubt Tom Thibodeau will get them there? As they find their way, Wiggins is going to give them enough offense to get a win.

2) Road warriors? Chicago grinds out win in Utah. The Bulls are on the last circus trip ever — no longer will they be forced on a two-week road trip each year so clowns can take over the United Center — and this final one was going to be a test: Just how good are these Bulls?

So far they are 2-0 on the trip, and the win they picked up in Utah was telling — they beat the Jazz at their own game. This was a slow (89 possessions), defensive game, which is largely how Utah wants to play, and Chicago had just eight assists total for the night. But it was the Bulls defense that held Utah to 29 percent shooting in the third quarter and started to pull away, and it was the Bulls that got key shots from Dwyane Wade (18 points) and Jimmy Butler (20) hit key shots late that snuffed out attempted Utah runs. Butler was the team leader Chicago needed, not just in points but he had the Gordon Hayward defensive assignment much of the night and Hayward shot 3-of-15 from the field. Late in the game, it was Butler that buried the dagger.

There are 70 games left in the Bulls’ season, it’s far too early to declare anything certain. But at 8-4 the Bulls look to have answered the questions about their lack of shooting and spacing, and the team is just getting wins. They look legit.

3) Bradley Beal returns, Wizards get a win. Coincidence? Actually, somewhat yes. But his return certainly helped.

There were a lot of factors in the 119-112 Wizards win that wasn’t as close as that score makes it seem. There’s the fact the Knicks were flat most of the night — and their defense is terrible when the team plays like it cares. There was the fact John Wall was motivated by embarrassment — the night before the Wizards lost to a Sixers team resting Joel Embiid — and the point guard had 23 points and 11 assists. There’s the fact Markieff Morris did a good job defending and harassing Kristaps Porzingis all night (so Derrick Rose decided to take on more, but it was Brandon Jennings who had 15 in the fourth and tried to lead the comeback).

Make no mistake, however, Beal’s return from three games out with a hamstring injury helped. He had 18 points on 5-of-11 shooting, and he hit 3-of-6 from three. With Beal back in the starting lineup, that group was +21 in 20 minutes, playing fast and playing very good defense (the starters had a defensive rating of 81.1 points allowed per 100 possessions). The Wizards were +17 on the night in the 28 minutes Wall and Beal were paired, and the team’s offense clicked with them together.

The Knicks are a nice warm-up run, but the Wizards are going to need a lot more of this to get their season going in the right direction. And even then, this slow start may be too much to overcome if the goal in Washington is the playoffs.

Bonus thing we learned: James Harden is still very good at basketball. A night after Andre Roberson and the Thunder made him look human, Harden rebounded with a triple-double and a win against a Blazers team that had no defensive answer for him — 26 points, 14 assists, 12 rebounds. Watch the beard go to work for yourself.

Draymond Green on Defensive Player of the Year: “I want that award”

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The Golden State Warriors defense has not been good this season — they are giving up 105.8 points per 100 possessions, 23rd in the NBA. While the Warriors have won five in a row, that’s all about their offense — their defense is surrendering 107.5 per 100 in that stretch.

While Draymond Green is an elite defensive player because of his ability to guard just about every position on the court, when he is on the court the Warriors are still giving up 104.9 per 100 this season.

Still, he’s been a guy in the mix for Defensive Player of the Year before, and he wants that award, as he told Chris Haynes of ESPN.

“That’s something that I want to win,” Green told ESPN in an exclusive interview this week. “And if there’s anything I’ve ever been selfish about, it’s that award. Like, I want that award.”

“That doesn’t bother me to say I’m selfish in that regard. I want that award bad,” Green reiterated to ESPN. “And that’s because I view myself as a defender. It’s like if I view myself as a scorer then I want to win the scoring title. If I am a scorer and I say I’m a scorer and that’s what I do, I want to win the scoring title because it says I was the best in this year at what I do. So that is something that I want to win.”

Kawhi Leonard has won that award two years running. While one could make a case that two seasons ago Green was more deserving than Leonard for DPOY — based on Leonard missing time due to injury, mostly — it’s hard to argue the voters’ choice. Leonard is a lock-down defender.

Green has not seen a huge drop off this season defensively — he is still the reason the Warriors can switch everything, he’s blocking 1.7 shots per game, and he’s made plays. Leonard, Utah’s Rudy Gobert, and the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan are in the mix as well as Green.

But much like players on teams under .500 do not win MVP, it’s hard to imagine someone from an average or below NBA defense winning DPOY. If Green is going to be in the mix for this award, the entire roster is going to have to pick it up.

And you can bet Green is in their face telling them to do just that.

PBT Podcast: Lakers, Andrew Wiggins, and the rest of your Twitter questions

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Is the reason the Lakers are exceeding expectations is no Kobe Bryant dragging them down?

Can Andrew Wiggins keep shooting better than 50 percent from three?

There are a lot of questions to start the NBA season, and Kurt Helin and Dane Carbaugh of NBC Sports answered yours on twitter n our latest Pro Basketball Talk Podcast. They also talk Justise Winslow‘s jumper, Seattle expansion rumors, and more.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunes (check there to see all the NBC Sports podcasts), subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out our new PBT podcast homepage and archive at Audioboom.com.

Jrue Holiday says he’s eager to help Pelicans in crunch time

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METAIRIE, La. (AP) — As long as Jrue Holiday is on the court in the critical final minutes, he’s not terribly concerned with whether he starts, or how much playing time he gets, in his first games back with the New Orleans Pelicans.

“I don’t think our record shows how good we are,” said Holiday, who was back at practice Thursday with a team that has started 2-10 without him. “Obviously, there are some games where we were there at the end of the game and we had it won, but (there are) some things that we have to clean up at the end of the game to seal the deal.

“Down the stretch, I do think I could help with some directing and just tightening it up,” Holiday added.

The guard has spent the past three months on leave because his wife, retired international soccer star Lauren Holiday, needed brain surgery to remove a benign tumor last month, just weeks after giving birth to their first child, a daughter.

Holiday, who is slated to make his season debut against the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday night, said he came back now because “my wife said I could.”

Lauren Holiday is doing well enough now to “take care of herself and my daughter,” Jrue Holiday said. “She can take care of me, too. Obviously that’s big, especially from somebody who’s a mother now and somebody that went through what she went through.”

Jrue Holiday said learning that his wife had a brain tumor when she was about five months pregnant with their first child was “nerve-wracking,” and affected his perspective on life considerably, making him “grateful for each day.”

He said he also feels blessed for how his family has come through it, and for how much support both he and his wife received from basketball and soccer fans worldwide.

“Every day people are always saying they’re praying for her,” Holiday said. “So many people since I’ve been back, they don’t even ask how I’m doing; they ask how my wife’s doing. And to me, that’s awesome. That just shows how great people are around us.”

Now, he can get back to “the thrill of playing basketball,” at a time when the Pelicans could really use some help.

“Obviously he was an integral part of what we try to do offensively and defensively,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “For him, it’s just really good to be back. This is one of those times where it wasn’t a physical injury, so he’s been dying to get out there to play. It’s going to be fine. Obviously it’s going to take a little while for him to get his timing back from a basketball standpoint. I think he’s in really good shape conditioning-wise.”

A former Eastern Conference All-Star with Philadelphia, Holiday was traded to New Orleans in 2013, but missed most of his first two seasons because of a lower leg injury. Holiday began last season on minute restrictions, got progressively healthier, and wound up playing in 65 games with 23 starts before missing the last nine games because of a broken eye wall from an inadvertent elbow to the head.

Holiday averaged 16.8 points, 6.0 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.4 steals in 28.2 minutes per game last season, scoring 20 or more points 25 times.

Tim Frazier has started New Orleans’ first 12 games this season at point guard, averaging 10.8 points and 7.5 assists. Gentry said he can envision Holiday and Frazier playing together in stints.

“Jrue can play off the ball or on the ball,” Gentry said. “That’s what makes him so good. I think he’s a versatile player. We need his shooting also.”

Pelicans forward Anthony Davis said that while he didn’t get to work with Holiday much at Thursday’s practice, he assumed the team’s top guard will be effective right away.

“When you’re that good, it kind of stays with you,” Davis said.

Notes: Davis, who sat out Wednesday night’s loss at Orlando with a bruised right quadriceps, practiced on a limited basis Thursday and sounded optimistic about playing Friday. “It felt better, so hopefully it stays this way,” Davis said.

Rumor: Thunder looking to add size on wing, interested in Rudy Gay

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The Thunder are in the middle of a roster shift — the kind of players you can to put around two elite perimeter players and who you want to put around just one are different animals. There’s a shift coming, with the most obvious step being the need to add shooting.

Part of that is getting size on the wing — and that could mean the available Rudy Gay, reports Zach Lowe of ESPN.

They remain interested in bigger wings, including Rudy Gay, sources say, in part because such a player would slide everyone down to their intended spots: Oladipo to the bench, and Andre Roberson back to defending shooting guards.

You have to like the plan on paper — Roberson forced James Harden into 13 points on 16 shots with six turnovers, he has turns as an excellent defender, but he’s an offensive black hole (2-of-11 vs Rockets) and you need to have players that cover him. Gay, who has an old-school isolation and midrange game but makes it work, can be part of that.

The more interesting question is what they would offer, and what the Kings would accept? It’s too early for Sacramento (4-8) to give up on its playoff dreams, but if they reach that point closer to the deadline, they will be willing to take pieces that are forward-looking not help now. If the Kings don’t look like a playoff team, they have a number of big decisions to make.

Gay is going to get dealt, and with the Thunder in the playoff mix stranger things have happened.