Five Things We Learned in NBA Tuesday: When Portland needs a win they can get one

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If you watch closely every night in the NBA, you can learn a little something. We know you are busy and can’t keep up with every game, so we’re here to help with those lessons from another night in the Association. Here’s what you missed while thinking you needed to go worship some Norse gods

1) Portland may not be back on track yet, but they’ll take the win. Yes, Damian Lillard dropped 25, and LaMarcus Aldridge added 22 points and 10 boards, but don’t underestimate how much having Robin Lopez back helped the Blazers snap their three-game losing streak. He brought a different, needed energy to the squad. Down the stretch he altered shots in the paint and knocked down some key free throws. They are just better with him on the court — not that he made this win easy. Credit the improving Jazz (Quin Snyder is doing a good job) for making the Blazers work for their 102-101 win. But if Chris Kaman were still starting Portland would have lost this game. Lopez does the dirty work the Blazers need better than his sub. Still, Lillard is the one still putting on the show — and dunking on guys.

Rudy Gobert — who has developed into a quality rim protector and a nice young center — stood up for himself, by the way.

2) If anyone is going to catch Charlotte or Miami for the eight seed in the East it might be Detroit. After Tuesday night’s games the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat are tied for the final two playoff spots in the East. Brooklyn is just 1.5 games back, but they are crumbling and trying to trade their best players, it seems unlikely they make a run (even if they do they finish the season with a brutal stretch of games). Detroit on the other hand… they are just 2.5 games back after beating Miami on Tuesday night, 108-91. The Pistons seemed an unlikely team to make a run  after Brandon Jennings went down with a torn Achilles, but Tuesday his replacement D.J. Augustin dropped 25 points and had 13 assists with no turnovers. That’ll do just fine. The Pistons continue to play well since Josh Smith became Houston’s problem. And if Detroit can hang around the playoff race remember this: It has a very soft schedule the last couple weeks of the season. Charlotte and Miami may want to put some distance between themselves and Detroit before that time.

3) Even James Dolan can’t watch the New York Knicks. Lowly Boston came to Madison Square Garden and had little trouble dispatching the depressingly bad Knicks. Is New York so bad even owner James Dolan can’t stay awake to watch them? Apparently (hat tip Eye on Basketball).

4) Hollis Thompson cannot be stopped (for a night, anyway). The question with the Sixers is always, from where will the offense come? Tuesday the answer was Hollis Thompson, who opened the night shooting 8-of-8 (four of those from three) on his way to a team-and-career high 23 points. You don’t see that every day. By the way, when the Sixers find offense they often win, as they did knocking off the Nuggets 105-98. Which brings us to…

5) In case you haven’t been watching, the Denver Nuggets have fallen and they can’t get up. The Nuggets have dropped 10 of their last 11 games, and in that stretch lost to the Sixers (on Tuesday), Celtics and Timberwolves. For a team that had playoff dreams before the season started — they thought they could get back close to the 57-win team of a couple years ago — this has been an ugly fall. It has gotten so bad coach Brian Shaw is suggesting the players are trying to lose games. Over at Eye on Basketball today our old friend Matt Moore did a fantastic job breaking down what is wrong with the Nuggets (as much as one can in fewer than 5,000 words).

The debate in Denver is whether the roster is a bad fit for Shaw, whether Shaw is unfit to coach, or if the players are inherently bad. Throw out the last one. The list of quality players in terms of talent on this team is significant: Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo, Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Randy Foye, J.J. Hickson, Darrell Arthur, even the rookies Gary Harris and Jusuf Nurkic, who weren’t supposed to play this season, can play. So can Nate Robinson and Timofey Mozgov who were traded.

But the roster doesn’t work with Shaw. The thought early on was that the problem was fit, that Shaw needed a back-to-the-basket post scorer, and that’s true. But this goes well beyond it. Shaw seems to have a fundamental failure to understand or connect with these athletes, players, not to belabor the point but who by and large won 57 games for George Karl two years ago. Shaw was brought in to give the Nuggets a better chance to win in the playoffs. Safe to say that not having your players purposefully trying to lose in your eyes is kind of a prerequisite for making the playoffs….

That’s the problem. It’s everything. The coach has coached badly, the players have coached badly, Shaw has thrown enough players under the bus to raise it high enough to change the tires on it, the players have failed to show basic levels of competitive spirit or competency. There’s no effective leadership, and so this is the mess.

Yikes.

Shaw will be out in Denver at the end of the year, but the issues that need fixing in the Rockies are much bigger than just that.

With 17 straight points fourth quarter, Zion flashes what could be for New Orleans

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Everyone came for the dunks.

Zion Williamson showed he can be so much more than that — he even has a little Stephen Curry in him.

After sitting through his slow start, fans in New Orleans — and ones sitting in front of televisions from San Diego to Kennebunkport — got what they came to see during the fourth quarter of Williamson’s NBA debut:

Zion absolutely dominated a five-minute stretch of the fourth quarter.

Williamson — a rookie who had missed 44 games coming off knee surgery — was the best player on the court for those minutes, scoring 17 straight points and getting the Pelicans back in a game they had trailed by double-digits for much of the night. And he did it going 4-of-4 from three.

Williamson finished the night with 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting, plus seven rebounds, all in just 18:18 of court time.

It wasn’t enough to get the Pelicans a win; San Antonio got 32 points from LaMarcus Aldridge and the victory 121-117.

Williamson spent the first half looking like a rookie who had not played much ane was trying to fit in. He didn’t force anything, made smart basketball plays passing out of double teams, and took what the defense gave him. Zion’s first NBA basket came in the second quarter, a putback off a Nickeil Alexander-Walker miss.

Williamson played cautiously through three quarters, with five points on 2-of-3 shooting, four rebounds but also four turnovers.

Then in the fourth you could see his confidence grow as Aldridge (and later other Spurs defenders) dared him to hit a three. Once Zion knocked one down and his confidence started to swell, he got back to being the attacking, aggressive player everyone expected — and Pelicans fans loved every minute of it.

It’s just 18 minutes of basketball, the definition of a small sample size. But those 18 minutes only whetted our appetite. They weren’t even the appetizer, they were an amuse-bouche. 

But this could be the start of an amazing meal.

LeBron James, Anthony Davis combine for 49 points, Lakers beat Knicks

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NEW YORK — LeBron James scored 19 of his 21 points early, cutting into Kobe Bryant’s shrinking lead over him for the No. 3 scoring spot in NBA history, and the Los Angeles Lakers beat the New York Knicks 100-92 on Wednesday night.

Anthony Davis led the Lakers with 28 points in his second game back after a five-game absence, after the Western Conference leaders were handed their worst loss of the season Monday in his return.

James’ quiet second half left him with 33,599 points, 44 back of Bryant.

That keeps James in good shape to catch the former Lakers star Saturday at Philadelphia, where the five-time NBA champion was born. Los Angeles has a game in between Thursday in Brooklyn.

Davis scored eight points in the final 3:45 and finished 13 of 13 from the free throw line. He played 30 minutes after going only 23 in his return from a bruised gluteus maximus on Monday in Boston, where the Lakers were routed 139-107.

Marcus Morris scored 20 points and Damyean Dotson had 17 for the Knicks, who put up a much better effort after losing by 30 two weeks ago in Los Angeles. But they just couldn’t come up with timely shots to really threaten the Lakers in the fourth quarter.

James shot 8 of 10 in 17 minutes of the first half, but the Knicks held the rest of the Lakers relatively in check and the game was tied at 48 at halftime.

The Lakers led by six after three quarters, then opened the fourth with Dwight Howard‘s dunk, a 3-pointer by Rajon Rondo and a basket by Kyle Kuzma to extend it to 83-70.

New York hung around and was within six again late but the Lakers prevailed despite only two baskets, both by Davis, in the final four minutes.

Zion Williamson’s first NBA basket a putback

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
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In his first NBA action, Zion Williamson looked like what he is: A rookie trying to find his way.

At least Willaimson didn’t force the issue and tried to blend in, making smart basketball plays, which led to a first-half bucket and assist in his 8:11 minutes of action.

Zion’s first bucket in the NBA came in the second quarter of his debut game, a putback off a Nickeil Alexander-Walker miss.

In his first quarter run, Zion looked to be unselfish with the ball and made the right basketball play a  few times, passing out of soft doubles and picking up an assist to Brandon Ingram cutting down the lane (but Zion was 0-of-1 shooting).

It was a good start if a bit tentative, something to be expected of a guy who missed 44 games and is now trying to come into the rotation midseason.

As he grows more comfortable, New Orleans needs Zion to attack the rim. The Pelicans have shot creators and shooters — Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, J.J. Redick — and a rim-running, attacking threat that forces defenses to collapse a little will make things easier for the Pelicans’ perimeter players.

San Antonio was sharp in the first half and led by double-digits for much it. That came in part because New Orleans started 0-of-9 from three (despite some clean looks). San Antonio led 60-51 at the half. If the Pelicans are going to make a playoff push, this is the kind of game they need (at home against another team in the mix for one of the final playoff spots in the West).

NBA games still not on China’s state run television

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In the wake of the backlash from China after Rockets GM Daryl Morey Tweeted out support for the protestors in Hong Kong — the kind of political statement the NBA takes in stride domestically but found it stirred a hornets’ nest in this case — Chinese state television stopped showing NBA games.

That is still the case today, according to Nets’ owner Joeseph Tsai.

Tsai — one of the co-founders of the Alibaba Group, which runs the Chinese equivalent of Amazon — is a billionaire with his feet in both the United States and China. He spoke to Bloomberg News recently about where things stand now in the NBA/China relationship (hat tip Nets Daily).

Tsai is eager to see NBA games back on [state run] CCTV. Although [streaming service] Tencent has begun showing them again, the state-owned broadcaster has yet to budge. A person familiar with the matter says the league is optimistic the network will relent, beginning with the All-Star Game on Feb. 16—there’s no ready replacement, after all, for LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

“Once you are on the air,” Tsai says, “everything will come back.”

For now.

The NBA, like any American group doing business in China, is caught up in geopolitical forces well beyond its control, from trade wars to protests in Hong Kong. Morey’s Tweet touched on what Tsai called a “third rail of Chinese politics” but he spoke of the Hong Kong protestors as separatists when they would argue they simply want what was promised them in the agreement that transferred control of the city from Brittish to Chinese rule. (And that last sentence itself is a gross oversimplification of a complicated situation.)

NBA games likely will end up back on Chinese television soon (although it will be longer for Rockets’ games), and the business of the NBA in China will continue. Both sides want to make money (and in China, keep a younger generation happy with a sport they have grown to love). However, the underlying issues that caused the last flare-up are not going away — things may be just simmering on the back burner, but the flames are not turned off.

When things do flare up again, Tsai will end up fight back in the middle of it.