Three Stars of the Night: Two stars are born, and another just changes systems

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Long live oddly polarizing facial hair! You wear that neckbeard with pride tonight, loyal reader, and come check out the three best individual performances from Wednesday’s great slate of games.

Third Star: Anthony Davis – 21 points, 7 rebounds

It’s rare for a rookie to just look like he belongs. Usually they have flashes, but Davis sustained a high level of play throughout his 29 minutes, displaying some nice scoring instincts and a soft touch at the free throw line. We know Davis is a great fit with defensive guru Monty Williams, but with Eric Gordon out indefinitely, it will be interesting to see how Williams features Davis offensively. As soon as he gets a more explosive guard to run pick-and-rolls with, Davis could be putting up big points on the regular.

Second Star: Damian Lillard – 23 points, 11 assists, 3 rebounds

Damian Lillard joins Isiah Thomas and Oscar Robertson as the only players to hit 20 points and 10 assists in their NBA debut. Not bad. Beating the Lakers after everyone expected them to bounce back from their opening night debacle? Even better. Lillard is an explosive, scoring point guard that’s a little reminiscent of Steve Francis – he can dive into the lane and finish in traffic, and he can step out and stroke it from distance. For a rookie to lead his team to a 116 point showing in his first game while the best defensive player on the planet is patrolling the paint is probably worthy of a first star…but there can only be one.

First Star: James Harden – 37 points, 12 assists, 6 rebounds, 4 steals 14-25 FG

Let’s empathize with Oklahoma City Thunder GM Sam Presti for a minute here. Sam, this is like the ex-girlfriend who turns into a supermodel after you break it off. Sure, you got a few good years out of the relationship – but you’re not getting the prime years. That ship has sailed. But, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t kick yourself over it. All you had to do was get her a prescription for contacts…err…give him more shots!

Harden is and always was one of the game’s most efficient and most effective scorers. Prior to tonight, Harden had never attempted more than 17 field goals in a game. Oh, and in that 17 field goal attempt game? He dropped 40. That said, it’s not all that surprising that Harden was unstoppable in his debut as the number one option, as he navigated the pick-and-roll beautifully to an impressive 37-point, 12-assist performance. In 25 seasons, only Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Dwyane Wade have put up at least 37 points, 12 assists, six rebounds, four steals and one blocked shot in a game. Harden has always been this good – now we just get to see more of it.

Kevin Durant tells fans: ‘Watch the f—ing game and shut the f— up’ (video)

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Kevin Durant once said he appreciated hecklers.

That didn’t appear to be the case during the Warriors’ loss to the Mavericks on Saturday.

Durant – who’s been sour after his highly public argument with Draymond Green – confronted Dallas fans and told them to “watch the f—ing game and shut the f— up.”

TMZ:

One witness who was sitting in spitting distance from the incident tells us … the heckler was just saying the typical NBA fan trash talk — calling KD names like, “Cupcake” and other insults.

Another witness tells TMZ Sports … the hecklers had been bombarding KD with the “cupcake” insults to the point where it became unbearable.

That witness tells us KD complained to the refs at one point but the fans were not removed or disciplined in any way.

We’re told the group laughed off the incident because they knew they got to him and ramped up the trash talk even more for the rest of the game.

Durant obviously has a history of confronting critics. But that’s usually online, not in person.

The NBA generally fines players for getting caught on video talking to fans this way. The league doesn’t seem to have a problem with players responding to fans when it’s not on video. Hecklers’ days are made when players respond, but the league doesn’t seem to account for that.

It’s an unfair system, but it’s the one Durant is in.

He and Golden State are also in a three-game losing streak. Snap that, and Durant will probably become more friendly.

Joel Embiid had a spectacular missed windmill dunk

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Joel Embiid had a brilliant game Monday night, scoring 33 points with 17 boards. He’s a guy whose name deserves to come up when talking about guys playing at an MVP level early this season.

Plus we saw a motivated Embiid Monday going against No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton, who Embiid said would get his a** kicked this year around the NBA. Embiid did his part, basically doubling Ayton in points (33-17) and rebounds (17-9).

But Embiid also had one spectacular fail — this missed windmill dunk.

Ben Simmons is not going to let Embiid forget about that one for a while.

Three Things to Know: Kemba Walker, Hornets latest team to expose problems in Boston

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Each night in the NBA there is a lot of action, a lot to unpack. Which is why every weekday morning during the NBA season we bring you three things you need to know out of the night before, to keep you up on all the big happenings around the NBA.

1) Kemba Walker is destroying everyone, including the Celtics Monday night. But Boston has issues. The Boston Celtics, the team that was the favorite in the East going into the season, the team everyone thought they had to beat, is getting beat. A lot more than we expected at 9-8 to start the season. What started as “don’t freak out they just need to get Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward meshed into what they do” has become legitimate reason for concern because the Celtics can’t get key boards, and that elite defense is not slowing their opponent’s best scorer often enough.

Monday night that opponent was maybe the hottest player in the NBA: Kemba Walker. He certainly is the most entertaining player in the league right now he and dropped 43 on the Celtics and yelling “this is my s***” after a big bucket.

Walker is a fringe MVP candidate right now (the way Damian Lillard jumped into the conversation a year ago) and he should thank new coach James Borego. His new Spursian offense has spaced the floor for the Hornets (not having Dwight Howard in the post and clogging the lane helps, too) and Walker is driving into that space and making plays. And if you play back on him, he will destroy you with off-the-dribble threes.

All of that does not change the fact Boston has issues compared to where we thought they would be right now. We went into the season knowing rebounding would be a concern but it has been worse than expected (like at the end of the Hornets’ game, when Charlotte was getting key offensive boards to keep plays alive). The Celtics have the 27th ranked offense in the NBA this season because the ball stops too much — Terry Rozier has been a problem here — plus the team is just not knocking down jumpers (Boston is third in number of three pointers taken a game but 21st in percentage at 34.5 percent). Brad Stevens can’t find a rotation he likes — Aron Baynes started in place of Gordon Hayward Monday — and Stevens just can’t find the toughness we expected from this team on a nightly basis.

Maybe we will get to March and April and shake our heads thinking “why did we worry about Boston?” They can still put this thing together and get up to be a top two or three seed (they are currently four games back of the Raptors, ground not easy to make up because Toronto is good).

But we are now 17 games in, approaching a quarter of the season, and these issues have not gone away in Boston. It’s time to admit this team is flawed right now and it might not be able to put it all together like we expected.

2) The Wizards are a disaster, they are open to trades… and it’s not going to be that easy. The dumpster fire in our nation’s capital… wait, let me be more specific, there are a lot of dumpster fires in our nation’s capital right now.

The dumpster fire in Washington D.C. that is the Washington Wizards got a little hotter Monday when it was reported that GM Ernie Grunfeld would listen for trade offers for anyone on the team. Including the “not exactly that big three” of John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter. That came just days after a blow up in practice where Beal yelled at Grunfeld and Wall told coach Scott Brooks “f*** you.” That earned Wall an internal fine.

Being open to breaking up its core is something Washington should have been doing last summer (if not earlier) — the chemistry issues around this team are not new. They’re worse right now, but they are not new. Grunfeld and owner Ted Leonsis kept doubling down on the core guys and thought they could fix the chemistry issues by changing coaches or role players (Marcin Gortat was the guy shipped out last summer and was seen as the chemistry problem… the Clippers look really good with him on the roster, by the way, great chemistry there). But the real problem was the core itself.

Grunfeld has come around to that, but now the trade value is down for all of those guys because of the team’s struggles. Talking to sources around the league there is by far the most interest in Beal, who is just 25 and an All-Star player at a position of need around the league. He’s also the one of the three the Wizards least want to trade, so that will take a massive offer (the kind more often seen in July than mid-season).

Second on the list, but well behind, is Otto Porter, a guy playing average basketball this season but on a max contract for two full seasons after this one. There is interest there, with the Pelicans rumored to be kicking the tires on a trade.

Last in interest from teams is Wall. We can talk about how Wall’s contract will make him very difficult to trade — his designated veteran max contract kicks in next season, he has four years at an average of more than $42 million a season left on his deal after this one — but that may not even be the worst part right now. Wall is coasting on the court too much right now, not playing like an elite player at all, and the bigger problem is the best player on the team sets the culture. Stephen Curry set the “fun but work hard” tone in Golden State. LeBron James sets the tone for the Lakers and that tone won titles in Cleveland and Miami. Tim Duncan set the tone for the Spurs for two winning decades and five rings. What culture is Wall setting right now as he jogs through plays and has his hands on his hips? Forget the money, nobody wants to trade for that player, period. (Well, don’t forget the money, but the combo of the money and his attitude make him almost impossible to move right now.)

3) Joel Embiid backs up his trash talk and puts up 33 on Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns. This summer, Joel Embiid said No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton would get his a** kicked this year once the games got real. Embiid lived up to that on Monday night, almost doubling Ayton in points (33-17) and rebounds (17-9). Embiid was making plays on both ends of the floor.

But it was not all perfect for Embiid — this missed dunk is not something Ben Simmons is going to let Embiid forget.

Giannis Antetokounmpo 29 points, 12 rebounds lead Bucks past Nuggets, 104-98

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — The Milwaukee Bucks have been plagued lately by sluggish first-half performances.

They got away with it again Monday night.

The Bucks fell behind by 17 points before rallying to down the Denver Nuggets 104-98. Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 29 points and Eric Bledsoe added 23, including two late 3-pointers.

Antetokounmpo added 12 rebounds for Milwaukee, which came from 22 down in the first half to beat the Chicago Bulls on Friday night. The Bucks also fell behind by double digits in the first quarter in a loss to Memphis on Wednesday.

“We’ve got to do a better job to try to set the tone,” Antetokounmpo said. “I think we did a better job this game, but we can do a lot better. I think our talent saves us. I feel like we are so talented that even when we are down 10, down 15, we can always get back into the game.”

The Bucks swept the two-game season series against the Nuggets for the first time since 2009-10.

Jamal Murray had 17 points, eight rebounds and a season-best nine assists for Denver, which has lost six of its last seven games.

“We still have confidence. We just aren’t winning games,” Murray said.

Nikola Jokic had 20 points, Gary Harris 14 and Malik Beasley chipped in with a season-high 12 points off the bench.

“I was really pleased with the fight and the competitive spirit. We gave ourselves a chance against a very good basketball team on the road,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “But there are no moral victories. We’ve got to start winning these games.”

The Bucks led 78-77 heading to fourth quarter. The teams exchanged leads until Milwaukee went on a late 8-0 run that featured a pair of 3-pointers by Bledsoe.

“I think Eric is in a really good place,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He is understanding what we need in different moments.”

Denver pulled within two points with less than a minute left on Jokic’s 3 but Khris Middleton, who had been 0 for 7 from deep, answered with a 3-pointer to put the Bucks up 103-98 with 27 seconds left.

After trailing by 10 to start the third quarter, the Bucks grabbed the lead late in the period on a slam dunk by Antetokounmpo.

Denver used a 17-4 to start the second quarter to build a 17-point lead and held a 56-46 advantage at the half. Milwaukee closed the half on a 10-3 run.

The Nuggets led 29-25 after the first quarter, sparked by nine points from Gary Harris.