The Extra Pass: LeBron and Kobe miss each other once again, plus Wednesday’s recaps

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LOS ANGELES — The reason behind the NBA scheduling a Christmas Day marquee matchup between the Heat and the Lakers had nothing to do with the current fate of the respective franchises, and everything to do with potentially getting to see two of the game’s biggest stars competing in a rare head-to-head matchup.

A Finals rematch between Miami and San Antonio might have been more compelling in terms of how this season’s title might ultimately play out, but it’s hard to resist history by scheduling the game’s best player in LeBron James to face the best player of the previous generation in Kobe Bryant.

(It’s valid to argue that Tim Duncan was every bit as good as Bryant in the same era, but personally, I’ll take Kobe every day and twice on Christmas.)

Since LeBron and Kobe have played in separate conferences, the on-court meetings between two of the game’s all-time greats have perhaps been more rare than they should have been. The pair missed playing against one another yet again on Christmas Day, thanks to the recent knee bone fracture that has Bryant sidelined for up to six weeks.

“We understand how historic the franchise is, the Lakers, and what they mean to the league,” James said before his Heat took care of the Lakers on Wednesday. “You take the best player or the franchise player off their team, it speaks volumes. He’s meant so much to the league since he got here in ’96, and his five championships and the rest of his resume and what he’s been able to do for the league and his city, it means a lot. Especially games like today. In marquee games, you definitely want to have the best players out there, and it’s unfortunate that an injury will keep some guys out.”

Bryant and James going head-to-head will always be must-se TV, no matter the situation going on with the pair’s respective franchises. That’s why this matchup was featured in the prime slot on this holiday, one that marks the unofficial start to the NBA season for the majority of the league’s casual fans. But Bryant’s most recent injury prevented this particular meeting, no matter how benign it seemed when it initially took place.

“I was actually watching the game and I saw when it happened,” James said. “And I didn’t think he was going to return to that game. But he did, so I didn’t think too much more about it until I heard the news the next day. There’s a few guys in our league that can come back from anything, and obviously he’s one of them.”

Bryant met the L.A. media before the Christmas Day game tipped, and seemed as determined as ever to make it back. He seemed especially interested in seeing how his Lakers team would match up against the defending champs.

“This was a really big measuring stick,” Bryant said of the matchup against the Heat. “Because of their speed, their activity and their size. I was really looking forward to this game to be able to measure where I was physically, especially with the time frame I came back. I was really looking at this game to measure what I can do and what I can’t do.”

It wasn’t, however, meant to be. Just like the times when the two were so close to meeting on the game’s ultimate stage in the NBA Finals, circumstances intervened to prevent us from seeing one of the all-time great individual matchups.

“It definitely would have been great,” James said, when asked to consider what it would have been like to face Kobe in the Finals. “I think I wanted it, I think he wanted it. I didn’t do my part one year, lost to Orlando in the Conference Finals. So I didn’t do my part to meet him there, and I’m not quite sure what happened in ’07 with the Lakers, but I ended up facing San Antonio. It definitely would have been great to go against him in the Finals, but it never happened, and I don’t know whether it will happen or if it won’t. We’ll see.”

At this point, it would appear to be a long shot. James and the Heat are among the the league’s elite, while the Lakers (with or without Kobe) are merely treading water, hoping just to have a chance at a playoff berth while having no realistic expectations of coming anywhere close to the championship round in the immediate future.

Bryant’s injuries in this, his 18th professional season, have certainly played a part in that. But James, now at the height of his powers and playing in the midst of his prime, is focused on the present. And he isn’t willing to consider his NBA mortality just yet.

“The man above knows how much time he’s going to give me with this game,” James said. “Once he decides I don’t have any more time to give, then I’ll call it quits.”

—Brett Pollakoff

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I generally am not of huge fan of Reggie Miller the analyst but he summed up the mood on twitter after Blake Griffin got ejected for a second technical, when in both cases a Warriors player instigated a flagrant foul on him. No way Griffin should have been tossed (frankly the Andrew Bogut flagrant was really nothing, let alone Griffin’s Tech). It felt like the refs wanted to get control of a game that was in no way out of control. — Kurt Helin

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Bulls 95, Nets 78: Ugh, the Nets. This game was close for two and a half quarters, but when Deron Williams left in the third quarter after tweaking his ankle the Bulls went on a run and were soon up 23. Chicago had a balanced attack with six guys in double figures, led by Taj Gibson’s 20, but you couldn’t watch this game and think anything other than the Nets just are not playing with any real passion or fight right now. — KH

Thunder 123, Knicks 94: Carmelo Anthony was out and with that this game pretty much followed the form we all expected. Kevin Durant started the game 6-of-6 shooting, hitting step-back threes and finishing alley-oops, on his way to 29 points (and he got to rest the fourth). J.R. Smith had 20 points for the Knicks but needed 22 shots to get there, This loss was the worst home loss any team has suffered on Christmas Day in NBA history. — KH

Miami 101, Lakers 95: The banged-up Lakers were actually on top through much of the first half here, going on an 11-0 run and getting 10 first half points from Jodie Meeks. Eventually Miami responded — Chris Bosh had 13 points in the second quarter and the Heat pushed into the lead. LeBron James finished with 19 and Dwyane Wade 23… but the Heat could never fully shake the Lakers. Credit Nick Young and his 20 off the bench, but the Lakers stayed within 10 pretty much the whole way and made the Heat work for it. The Lakers get a nice moral victory, the Heat the actual win. — KH

Rockets 111, Spurs 98: Houston never trailed in this game — they scored the first 6 points, had a 13-0 run later in the first quarter and dropped 40 on the Spurs in the first quarter (Chandler Parsons had 13 of his 21 in the quarter to lead the way). But the spurs chipped away at it as they tend to do, Manu Ginobili being the big spark with 22 points. The Spurs got the Rockets lead down to 5 in the fourth, then James Harden came in and hit four straight shots, scoring 11 in a row and 16 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter to squelch any Spurs comebacks. — KH

Warriors 105, Clippers 103: This game got a little feisty and featured a ridiculous ejection of Blake Griffin, but in the end the Warriors made plays to come from behind in this one. Klay Thompson had 23 points in this one plus a key block on Chris Paul late. David Lee added 23 and 13 rebounds. Chris Paul had 26 for the Clippers but a couple shots at the end to tie and just could not make the plays. Good win for a Warriors team trying to find its groove again. — KH

Knicks reportedly very interested in Anunoby, if Raptors make him available

Toronto Raptors v Golden State Warriors
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The Toronto Raptors are the one team that could move this trade deadline from a dud to shaking up the playoff race. There are 29 other GMs waiting to see what Massai Ujiri will do, and when they called, they’ve been told “the franchise will make a decision about being a buyer or seller – or standing pat – near deadline day,” reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

If Toronto does decide to trade a player beyond the expected Gary Trent Jr., then the Knicks want to be at the front of the line for defensive wing O.G. Anunoby, Charania reports.

The Knicks and Suns are among the interested suitors in Raptors forward O.G. Anunoby, sources say. New York has shown a willingness to offer multiple first-round picks for Anunoby, according to those sources. The Suns, meanwhile, have control of all of their first-round picks — eight in total —through 2030. SNY first reported the Knicks’ interest last week.

There would be a lot of teams in line for Anunoby, but he is a very Thibodeau-style player — an All-Defensive Team level wing stopper who can finish and is averaging 16.9 points per game — so you can see where the interest comes from. Anunoby also is just 25 and is locked in next season at $18.6 million. While the demand for wings in general is lower this trade season — point guards and centers are more in demand — a lot of teams could use a player the quality of Anunoby. Including the Knicks.

Getting him won’t be cheap — two unprotected first-round picks (or lightly protected) with matching salary would be the price range.

All of that is moot if the Raptors don’t make him available, which is what everyone is waiting to see.

Report: Bucks have been given permission to talk to Jae Crowder

NBA 2022 Playoffs - Phoenix Suns v Dallas Mavericks
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Jae Crowder may be the most likely player to be traded at the deadline. The Suns need a shake-up (and to get Devin Booker back), and they are sitting on a $10.2 million player that is not helping them on the court and has yet to bring back any trade value they want.

We may have movement on that front, based on reports from Shams Charania of The Athletic.

In a new development, the Suns have given permission to the Bucks to meet with Crowder and they met over the weekend, league sources tell The Athletic. The Bucks are believed to be the only team that has received permission to visit one-on-one with Crowder, those sources have also indicated…

Both the Suns and Bucks have engaged in serious trade talks for months, with current proposals surrounding Jordan Nwora, George Hill, Serge Ibaka and second-round draft compensation to Phoenix for Crowder, according to sources. The Bucks and Suns have searched for a third team to provide Phoenix with a forward – so what outcome will emerge between now and next Thursday?

Those talks between the Bucks and Crowder likely focused on his role on the team this season (backup four) and possibly re-signing him after this season (he will be a free agent).

Crowder has sat out the season after asking for a trade but is still a Sun because Phoenix head of basketball operations James Jones had a very specific ask in the trade — a forward with a similar skill set to Crowder. It’s tough to trade like-for-like in the league, so nothing has happened. It’s also why that offer from the Bucks doesn’t seem the fit the Suns want. Nwora is a forward but a fringe rotation player, Hill can help with some backup point guard minutes, but nothing really moves the needle for Phoenix. The problem is the Suns have waited so long to get a trade done that Crowder’s value has gone down — by the time he is traded, works his way back into game shape, then steps on the court for his new team he’ll be lucky to play 30 games in the regular season. Teams aren’t going to give up as much for a rental.

The report states the Heat also are interested, which is not a shock they want a P.J. Tucker-like player at the four and Crowder fits the bill, but putting together a trade that works for both sides is difficult (unless the Suns suddenly fell in love with Duncan Robinson, which would be a bigger trade). The Hawks come up, but there is a growing sense around the league that the new Landry Fields-led front office is less inclined to trade John Collins, and they may ride with him at the four.

It’s likely Crowder gets traded somewhere at the deadline and the Bucks maybe make the most sense, but this deal could have been done long ago if the sides wanted to.

Free agent Candace Parker announces she will sign with champion Aces

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The WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces are about to get better.

Two-time MVP and two-time WNBA champion Candace Parker announced she plans to sign with the Aces when free agency opens on Feb. 1

The WNBA champions just got better — a starting frontcourt of Parker and reigning MVP A’ja Wilson (with Kelsey Plum in the backcourt) could make Las Vegas the best defensive team in the league. While Parker may not be the scorer she once was, she can serve as a fulcrum for the offense, get the ball to the other players on the deeply talented Aces, and make them a serious threat to repeat.

Still, a cloud hangs over the Aces organization after what Dearica Hamby alleged after she was traded to the Sparks. Hamby said she was “lied to, bullied, manipulated, and discriminated against” by the Aces front office surrounding her pregnancy and contract. Those are serious allegations, and the WNBPA is looking into the matter.

On the court (if the investigation results don’t weigh them down), the Aces have to be title favorites now. However, when WNBA free agency comes on Wednesday that could shift, depending on what Breanna Stewart chooses to do (along with other key free agents). There has been speculation Stewart could head to New York to team up with Jonquel Jones, Betnijah Laney and Sabrina Ionescu on a Liberty team that would instantly be the biggest threat to the Aces (if not the outright favorite).

Stay tuned, it’s going to be an interesting WNBA free agency.

Three things to Know: Giannis Antetokounmpo puts up 50 spot in 30 minutes

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Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Giannis Antetokounmpo puts up 50 spot in 30 minutes

Before the ball was even tossed up at center circle Sunday, this looked to be a long night for the Pelicans: No Zion Williamson (strained right hamstring), no Brandon Ingram (toe injury) and no CJ McCollum (sprained right thumb).

Then Giannis Antetokounmpo went to work early, scored 18 points in the first quarter, 29 in the first half, and went on to have an efficient 50 on 20-of-26 shooting on the night, including hitting 3-of-4 from 3.

The All-Star Game captain is having a “down” season by his insane standards, but he is still averaging 31.3 points and 12 rebounds a game, shooting 64.5% in a season where he has had to take on more offense load because of Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday missing time. He’s still one of the best in the game, and if healthy the Bucks are still a postseason threat (even if they could use some depth at the four).

This was eight straight losses for the Pelicans, who are 3-11 in January and have fallen all the way to the No. 8 seed in the West. New Orleans has looked like a dangerous team on the rise when healthy this season, but the injuries have caught up with them and now they are scrapping to stay in the play-in in a crowded middle of the West.

2) Hornets get 31 from Rozier, upset sleepy Heat team

It will be hard for Miami to hold onto the No. 6 seed in the East (and avoid the play-in) if they don’t win the games they are supposed to win.

Miami looked sleepy for the 1 p.m. start in Charlotte, didn’t play good defense down the stretch, and fell to the Hornets. Charlotte got 31 from Terry Rozier, 27 from P.J. Washington, LaMelo Ball scored 13 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter, and Gordon Hayward was 7-of-7 shooting for 20 points. Charlotte snapped Miami’s three-game win streak with the 122-117 victory.

To be fair to the Heat, sometimes it’s about when you catch teams and the Hornets are playing their best basketball of the season having won 4-of-6. Jimmy Butler scored 28 points for Heat, Tyler Herro added 24.

This was the start of a four-game road trip for the Heat and things are about to get tougher with games at the Cavaliers, at the Knicks (a key game in the chase for the No. 6 seed) and at the Bucks.

3) LeBron James, Anthony Davis out in Brooklyn Monday night

The epidemic — and league-wide PR problem — of stars sitting out will continue Monday night as LeBron James and Anthony Davis will rest as the Lakers face the Nets (officially, LeBron has a sore left ankle and they are watching the foot injury that sidelined Davis for 20 games). This is the team’s one trip to Brooklyn this season. It comes a day after Kawhi Leonard and Paul George sat out in Cleveland (the Cavs blew the Clippers out as a result), and the list goes on and on all season long with Stephen Curry, Jimmy Butler and other stars seemingly resting more than ever before.

There is no easy answer here. Coaches and team medical staffs tasked with ensuring their players peak for the playoffs are resting guys during the season (and on back-to-backs) to avoid injuries and fatigue. Top players have their personal trainers monitoring them and weighing in on these decisions. The NBA schedule is still too long — but reducing that number is a financial mess — and there is nothing in the upcoming CBA that will change this trend.

But fans are noticing. Keep showing them the regular season doesn’t matter and they will respond in kind.

In LeBron’s case — and he hasn’t missed much time this season — this pushes back the timeline for him to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time NBA scoring record to Feb. 7 against the Thunder or Feb. 9 against the Bucks, both games in Los Angeles at the crypto.com Arena. If you want to think that’s a coincidence, go ahead, but I’m a little more cynical than that.