Denver wins, earns West No. 3 seed; Clippers get home court

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While everybody was watching the overtime drama to see how the bottom half of the Western Conference would play out, there were a lot of questions in the middle of the conference as well:

Could Denver hold on to the three seed? Could the Clippers hold off the Grizzlies and have home court in the first round of the playoffs?

The answers are yes and yes, it turns out.

And it was pretty dramatic getting there… well, not the three seed part.

Denver had sewn up home court already going into Wednesday — which matters a lot, they went 38-3 in the Mile High City this year — but they needed a win Wednesday against the Suns to lock up the three seed and a potentially more favorable matchup.

All the Nuggets needed was a win, they didn’t have to flat out crush the Suns. But crush the Suns they did. The Nuggets get off to a quick 18-8 lead behind 9 points from Wilson Chandler and just built it from there. Denver shot 62.5 percent in the first quarter to Phoenix’s 33 percent, and it was 35-20 after one quarter for Denver. And it just went downhill from there for the Suns, who trailed by 26 at the half and it was all over.

With the three seed not available anymore, Memphis and the Clippers were going to face off in the first round, the Clippers as the four seed and the Grizzlies as the five. The question was who would have home court in that series (the Clippers could go no lower than the four seed as the Pacific Division winners, but if Memphis had the better record as the five they still got home court). The teams were tied in the standings and the Clippers had the tiebreaker.

Memphis played early and had to win to keep pressure on the Clippers. But Memphis was playing Utah a team that needed to win to stay in the playoffs. They should have been desperate.

What you got instead was an ugly game with a lot of missed shots in the first half. All and all it was another brick in the wall. Memphis led 40-38 at half and Utah shot just 37 percent. Al Jefferson had 10 points on 5-of-10, the rest of the team struggled — Derrick Favors was 2-of-7, Marvin Williams was 1-of-5, Paul Millsap was 2-of-6. It was an ugly slugfest.

But it got uglier for the Jazz in the third — they scored just 13 points on 4-of-18 shooting with four turnovers. By the time the third quarter was over they were down by 14 and in a hole they could not dig out of.

With the Grizzlies win, the pressure was on the Clippers — win and they got home court.

But it wasn’t going to be easy — this was potentially the last game ever in Sacramento. The Kings fans were there and they were loud, chanting “Beat L.A.”

The Kings players seemed to feed off that — the Clippers would push their lead out to double digits, only to have the Kings fight back. DeMarcus Cousins was a beast with 36 points and 22 rebounds leading the charge. Little Isaiah Thomas was getting into the paint. Marcus Thornton was knocking down shots and at the end of this game you thought the Kings might pull it out.

Then Jamal Crawford happened. First a pull-up rainbow three over Travis Outlaw. Then a corner three in transition. And suddenly the close game wasn’t close anymore and the Kings never got out of the hole. That’s why he’s in the mix for sixth man of the year.

And he’s the reason the Clippers get to start the playoffs at home.

As he chases record, LeBron says he has ‘no relationship’ with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Sacramento Kings v Los Angeles Lakers
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Later this season, health permitting, LeBron James will pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.

Kareem has said LeBron has earned it, but also has called out LeBron on COVID issues (something Abdul-Jabbar apologized for). Have the two legends started to build a relationship as LeBron marches toward the record? Not so much.

“No thoughts, no relationship.”

This question was asked of LeBron days after Abdul-Jabbar slammed former LeBron teammate Kyrie Irving in a Substack newsletter, calling him a “comical buffoon” and saying he is a poor role model. Abdul-Jabbar has been a vocal proponent of getting the vaccine, Irving remains unvaccinated, and LeBron has posted on social media questioning the severity of the virus and the response. Plus, LeBron and Irving are friends, which could have sparked LeBron’s terse response (as could the fact he was ready to get out of the arena after a dull preseason game).

A week earlier at media day, LeBron had been kinder when discussing Abdul-Jabbar and chasing his record.

“And you know, obviously Kareem has had his differences, with some of my views and some of the things that I do. But listen, at the end of the day, to be able to be right in the same breath as a guy to wear the same [Lakers] uniform, a guy that was a staple of this franchise along with Magic and Big Game [James Worthy] over there for so many years, especially in the 80s, and a guy that does a lot off the floor as well,” LeBron said. “I think it’s just super duper dope for myself to be even in that conversation.”

Abdul-Jabbar has been more of a public persona in recent years, both around the game of basketball and discussing social justice issues through his writings. The NBA named its new social justice award after him. With that has come new relationships around the league.

One of those is not with LeBron. Will Abdul-Jabbar be in the building when LeBron does break the record?

We’ve got months for this relationship to evolve — if it does — before that big day.

 

Watch Zion Williamson score 13 in return to court for Pelicans

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Zion Williamson is back.

He certainly looked in better shape and flashed his insane explosiveness on his way to 13 points and four rebounds in 15 minutes Tuesday night against the Bulls, his first game after missing all of last season following foot surgery.

There was some rust, and the Pelicans are wisely bringing him along slowly and not breaking out the entire playbook for a preseason game, but in the moments we saw Zion looked like he was all the way back.

The questions now are can he sustain it, and how to the Pelicans mesh him with other scoring options in CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram.

And maybe we shouldn’t leave rookie Dyson Daniels off that list, he looked good in his first NBA preseason game.

The Pelicans are one of the most intriguing teams this season, a team that made the playoffs last season with a push after McCollum arrived, and now they add the elite interior scoring and athleticism of Zion to Ingram’s outside shot and slashing, not to mention and a solid core of role players. This team has top six potential if it can get stops. But in a deep West, nothing will be easy.

Wembanyama scores 37, Scoot Henderson 28, as both make case to go No.1

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The NBA league office hates tanking — the action, the word, the mere suggestion of it.

But there is going to be some serious tanking in the NBA this season, and anybody who watched the Victor Wembanyama vs. Scoot Henderson game Tuesday (also known as the G-league Ignite vs.  Metropolitans 92 from France) knows exactly why.

What. A. Show.

Victor Wembanyama, the projected No. 1 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, showed why he is a true 7’4″ unicorn who can do seemingly anything. He finished the game with 37 points, hitting 7-of-11 from 3, with five blocks, showed off some handles and even brought the ball up court a couple of times.

This play sums him up well: at 7’4″ Wembanyama is the ball handler in a pick-and-roll, looks smooth, and when the defender goes under the pick casually drains a 3.

Scoot Henderson, expected to go No.2 in the next draft, flashed his explosive athleticism to the tune of 28 points, nine assists, and five rebounds.

Ja Morant was impressed.

There was a lot for fans, scouts, and GMs to be impressed with.

For all his shooting an offensive game, Wembanyama was just as impressive on defense. His length and mobility forces players to change their driving angles to the rim. He also showed a fearlessness in going after the big block.

Henderson showed high-level athleticism and an ability to get to the rim at will, but he also set up teammates and an improving shot. Henderson is a dynamic athlete and a season playing against the men of the G League is only going to sharpen his skills.

Henderson made his case Tuesday to be the No.1 pick — scouts say he has the potential to be a franchise cornerstone point guard, a top-10 player in the league, and he looked it in this game. He showed no fear, even going at Wembanyama a few times.

However, Wembanyama will go No.1 because he just breaks the mold, there is nobody like him. Anywhere. He looks like a generational talent, even if there is some work to do to realize it. Wembanyama started to show that Tuesday night.

These two teams face off again on Thursday night in Henderson, Nevada.

Royce O’Neal on Durant, Irving trade rumors: ‘That was the summer’

Philadelphia 76ers v Brooklyn Nets
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The Brooklyn Nets are trying to move on from a turbulent, awkward summer where their two best players tried to get tradedone throwing down a “me or the coach and GM” ultimatum — and they are tired of talking about it.

It sounds like they have moved on from the Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving drama in the locker room, at least based on what Royce O’Neal told Michael Scotto of Hoopshype.

“That was the summer. Nobody cares about it now. We’re all here, and we’re going to make it work. We have a lot of work to do to get to where we want to go. That’s what we’re focusing on.”

No doubt that is the mantra in the locker room, and it’s easy to do during the carefree, optimistic days of training camp or even the first preseason games. The players believe they have moved on.

The real question about these Nets is what happens when adversity hits? And it will hit, it does every team. How will Ben Simmons handle the stress? Irving? Can coach Steve Nash keep the Nets all on task, or will the finger-pointing start, and will the locker room get split?

Those questions are why everyone is finding it hard to predict these Nets — they could win a ring, they could have Durant demanding a trade again by Christmas. Most likely they land in the middle somewhere, but every possibility is on the table.

Speaking of teams being broken up, Scotto also asked about O’Neal’s former team, the Utah Jazz, and Danny Ainge’s decision to trade Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell this summer. Ainge said “this team didn’t believe in each other,” but that’s not how O’Neal saw it. He was surprised the team was blown up.

“I was definitely shocked. I had been there for five years. The team we had for a couple of years fell short. I thought we were going to build on it. Things happened, so keep it moving.”

The question is will the Nets keep moving when things get hard?