After sleepy start, Carmelo, Knicks defense wake up to beat Hornets

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Like you, the New York Knicks were feeling a little lazy on Sunday morning. Sleeping in, needing a little coffee to get going.

Except they had some work to do — the New Orleans Hornets were at Madison Square Garden for a noon tipoff game. And after three straight losses the Knicks looked at this game as a chance to get back in a groove.

The first quarter the Knicks kept hitting the snooze bar but in the second quarter Carmelo Anthony (who finished with 27 points) and the Knicks defense woke up, the result ultimately being a 100-87 Knicks win.

Maybe it wasn’t just woke up, maybe it was getting something to eat — Carmelo Anthony said he had been on a fast the past 15 days. Mid-season the professional athlete decided not to eat. Think that might explain the slow starts?

The other guy that woke up — Mike Woodson. For the previous three games he had started Marcus Camby or Kurt Thomas, which had basically moved Carmelo back to the small forward rather than the power forward. They lost. Sunday Chris Copeland started and was the three, Carmelo was back at the four and… what do you know? What worked at the start of the season continued to work. Shocking.

One final thing that mattered was the Knicks got back to playing some defense… eventually. The Hornets shot 40.2 percent for the game and had an offensive rating of just 90.2 points per 100 possessions (they had averaged 102.2 the five previous games). That’s the kind of win the Knicks needed.

But the first quarter of the game looked like everything that had gone wrong with the Knicks recently. The Hornets led most of the way early with Eric Gordon looking strong, working off the ball and with it, and scoring 12 first quarter points (he was 1-of-5 from three, that part of his game has not quite come back yet).

It could have been a lot worse for Knicks, the Hornets missed a lot of open looks. New york hung close thanks to Copeland, who had 11 first half points.

Then Anthony, who had started the game shooting 1-of-10, finished the half 6-of-7 to push the Knicks into the lead with 18 second quarter points. That was more than the Hornets scored in the quarter, just 12, as they shot 22.2 percent for the 12 minutes. The Knicks were more aggressive in the second quarter, not coincidentally when Austin Rivers entered the game for the Hornets. He is struggling, had a couple turnovers and the Knicks were on a roll

In the second half the Knicks pulled away to win comfortably. Amare Stoudemire probably had his best game since his return — 12 points and three rebounds in 23 minutes, plus he was attacking and getting to the line.

For the Hornets, they look better than they did early in the season. Anthony Davis shows flashes of the athleticism and length that made him the No. 1 overall pick, he’s starting to figure it out. Gordon had 22 and is finding his grove, and you are starting to see some flow to their game.

They were just not the better team Sunday. Once the Knicks woke up.

Ben Simmons targeting Friday vs. Hawks to return from calf strain

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Ben Simmons has missed the Nets’ last three games with knee pain tied to a left calf strain, and he will be out Wednesday, too, when Brooklyn takes on Charlotte.

However, he plans to return on Friday (Dec. 9) against the Hawks.

Simmons was adjusting to a new role in Brooklyn. In Philadelphia he was a point-forward with the ball in his hands playing off Joel Embiid (at least at first), but in Brooklyn the ball needed to be in the hands of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the halfcourt. Simmons is playing more small-ball five, and is asked to be aggressive and attack when he gets the ball — not shoot jumpers — and to push the rock in transition. It took a while for Simmons to settle into that space, but he seemed to in games against Philadelphia (11 points, 11 assists), Toronto (14 points, six assists) and Indiana (20 points). Then the injuries hit.

Brooklyn sits at 13-12, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense for the season. While there are doubts about the ceiling for this team, it has a talent level that should be better than this record, it’s just been beset by injuries, controversy causing Kyrie Irving to miss time, and a coaching change. The Nets have yet to hit their stride.

But they could have a clean injury report on Friday night, and maybe that can be the start of this team getting on a run.

Suns, Hawks reportedly show interest in Kuzma trade, Wizards see him as cornerstone

Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyle Kuzma was the kind of quality, two-way role player the Lakers needed around LeBron James and Anthony Davis to win the 2020 NBA title (the type of player the Lakers wish they had now).

In Washington, his role has been elevated — he’s a 20-point-a-game scorer (20.6 points per game this season, to be precise) who is a key part of generating offense, not just playing off the stars of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis. As he told Shams Charania of The Athletic:

“As soon as I got traded, I was ready to be more,” Kuzma told The Athletic.

It’s been enough to draw the interest of a couple of teams looking for a trade, Charania adds. The Wizards are not necessarily interested in moving on, however.

Several teams, such as the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have expressed trade interest in Kuzma, according to league sources. By the same token, the Wizards have shown interest in Hawks forward John Collins, and the sides seriously discussed a potential deal last offseason, league sources added…

However, the Wizards’ front office, led by general manager Tommy Sheppard, has made clear that it views Kuzma as a cornerstone moving forward as the franchise has seen him thrive since the mega-trade in the 2021 offseason. The Westbrook trade provided future flexibility and assets for the Wizards, who have been known to be aggressive and active in research across the league.

Kuzma has a $13 million player option for next season that he will unquestionably opt out of, making him a free agent in search of a healthy raise (north of $20 million a year, although expect something more in the ballpark of the four-year, $104 million Jalen Brunson contract). If the Wizards are willing to pay they likely can keep him (they have his Bird rights). But if Washington isn’t sure it wants to pay market value, or if management sees a shifting path for future seasons, it should consider trading Kuzma at the deadline.

If he becomes available, far more teams than the Hawks and Suns would be interested, quality two-way forwards are in demand around the league. Kuzma would have some leverage over where he gets sent because he can leave as a free agent (teams would offer up less if they believed Kuzma would only be a rental for this season).

Magic send Jonathan Isaac to G-League for practice, rehabilitation

2022-2023 Orlando Magic Media Day
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There was a time when it was thought Jonathan Isaac might be the Magic’s next big star.

However, he has not stepped on an NBA court since he was in the bubble (Feb. 8, 2020), then he tore his ACL in August of that year (which came on the heels of missing much of that season with an injury to the same knee). Last March he had a setback and another procedure, and at this point he has missed two full seasons plus the start of this one.

Isaac is still working toward recovery and the Magic have assigned him to the Lakeland Magic of the G-League to get in some practice.

Because NBA teams barely practice during the season — the schedule of games nearly every other day plus travel and recovery doesn’t permit more than film sessions and walk-throughs — these kinds of baseball-style minor league rehab assignments are more and more common.

The story from the Magic’s official website notes this will be the first time Isaac will play 5-on-5 with other players during his rehab, which is a significant step forward.

There is no timeline for his return, but the Magic have him under contract this season for $17.4 million and two more fully guaranteed years at the same price. There is no reason for the franchise to walk away, even if some around the league question if his knees will ever let him back on an NBA court again.

The Magic have found their next star in Paolo Banchero and have built a promising young core, something Isaac — an elite defender before his injuries — should fit in well with. If he can get healthy and back on the court.

Antetokounmpo talks about plans for his 28th birthday while holding Simpsons plush

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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Happy birthday, Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak turns 28 today.

After he dropped a casual (for him) 34-13-5 line in the Bucks’ win over the Magic last night, Antetokounmpo discussed his birthday plans. He’s not going out, maybe just dinner, playing with his kids, and once they are asleep… ya know.

I feel safe saying Antetokounmpo is the first NBA player to talk about birthday sex while holding a Homer J. Simpson plush doll.

If you’re asking, why the Simpson doll… why not? Bucks reserve forward Sandro Mamukelashvili won it at Universal Studios, brought it to the game, left it behind in the locker room and Antetokounmpo appropriated it.

In a world where most postgame press conferences are formulaic and filled with cliches it’s good to see a player willing just to be himself and have some fun behind the mic.