Five Takeaways from NBA Wednesday: Welcome back, fear the Thunder

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It’s the first full slate of the season for the NBA — 14 games — but in case you couldn’t hang out in front of the TV because you had to coach one daughter’s soccer practice then go to a fundraiser for another (parents out there are nodding their heads), here are five takeaways from a night around the NBA.

1) Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant are back — fear the Thunder. You could see it through the preseason, but Wednesday might they made it official — the Thunder are back. There was Russell Westbrook putting up 19 first-half points plus dishing out four assists to keep the Thunder in it. Then with the game on the line in the fourth Kevin Durant and Westbrook combined for 16 points on nine shots. With that the Thunder beat the Spurs, 112-106 in a tough season opener.

Durant didn’t have a monster night — 22 points on 6-of-19 shooting — although a big part of that had to do with him being guarded by Kawhi Leonard much of the night (Leonard had a monster night of his own, 33 points on 23 shots). Westbrook finished with 33 points on 23 shots, plus 10 assists.

Here’s what should make fans of other contenders nervous: Billy Donovan was brought in to make sure the Thunder were more than Westbrook and Durant. That’s the only way they can win the ultimate prize next June. Wednesday, with the game on the line late, Dion Waiters hit two huge jumpers. Steven Adams made a great switch and contest on the Spurs’ shot attempt to win the game the buzzer. For all his defensive flaws, Enes Kanter put up 17 points and 16 boards. The point is those other guys did step up and make plays, and that makes the Thunder far more dangerous.

2) Kobe Bryant started his 20th season and looked exactly like what we should expect. Like expecting your grandmother to understand Halo, expecting Kobe Bryant to change at this point in his career would be foolish. Kobe is who he is — he doesn’t get to the rim much anymore, his shot selection isn’t ideal, however his footwork and fundamentals are impressive, and when those shots fall he’s dangerous. And those shots were falling in the first half Wednesday night as Kobe put up 15 points early.

Kobe started the game 8-of-16 shooting, but he missed his final eight shots. Bryant — and the entire Lakers team — ran too much isolation down the stretch as they blew a 16-point lead and lost to the Timberwolves 112-111. To be fair, it wasn’t just down the stretch, the Lakers’ offense was stagnant and isolation heavy all game, they just hit shots for stretches. Kobe finished with 24 points on 8-of-24 shooting, going 3-of-13 from three. Maybe a little of that is rust coming off all his injuries, but the reality is he’s not an efficient scorer anymore and his challenge will be sustaining the success he does have. The Kobe of Wednesday night is a Kobe we could see a lot this season.

By the way, both Karl-Anthony Towns (14 points, 12 rebounds) and Julius Randle (15 points, 11 boards, and fearlessly went right at Kevin Garnett) showed promise. They are two young players to watch.

3) Detroit beat Utah and is off to a surprising 2-0 start. The last time the Pistons were 2-0, they were so underwhelmed, they promptly traded Chauncey Billups for a washed-up Allen Iverson. After that deal led to seven dismal years, Detroit is surely more pleased with its fast start this season. The Pistons have beaten the Hawks and Jazz, relying on energy and defense. Detroit’s offense has sputtered, but Stan Van Gundy’s revamped lineup has at least shot well on 3-pointers. It’s too early to overreact, but for a Pistons team that began the season on the playoff bubble, this fast start might nudge to inside-looking-out status. —Dan Feldman

4) Did NBA’s new replay center miss a goaltending call that cost Orlando the game? Welcome back to the NBA Scott Skiles, good luck sleeping after this game. His Magic were up by one point when John Wall made what would ultimately be the game-winning shot.

That gave the Magic 10.7 seconds to try to hit a game winner of their own. Tobias Harris drove past Otto Porter and put up a floater that bounced and hung on the rim while guys jumped up thinking tip — and on the floor the referees called goaltending on the Wizards for one of those tips.

However, once the NBA’s new replay center got a good look at it, they reversed the call and said Bradley Beal‘s touch of the ball — after the game he admitted he touched the ball — was incidental and not when the ball was over the cylinder (and after Nikola Vucevic had hit it). Man that is close. I think this is the angle that might have sealed Orlando’s fate — the ball was certainly coming out but was it still over the cylinder when Beal hits it?

Magic fans, this is not why you lost — you had a five-point lead with two minutes to go and couldn’t hold it. That is what is going to keep Skiles up more than the call.

5) Knicks, Nuggets pick up impressive upsets wins. There are always some upsets opening night, but Denver and New York gave us head-turners. The Nuggets beat the Rockets on the road 105-95 behind 23 points from Danilo Gallinari, plus a defense that held Houston to 84.6 points per 100 possessions on the night. James Harden was 6-of-21 shooting. Not sure Denver can sustain all that defense, but the Mike Malone era got off to an impressive start.

As for the Knicks, their offense looked uptempo and like a triangle in a 122-97 win over a Bucks team that is supposed to have a strong defense. Carmelo Anthony was off (11 points on 4-of-16 shooting) but Derrick Williams had 24 points on 17 shots, while Langston Galloway added 16 points on 10 shots (4-of-5 from three). Again the question is sustaining it, but that’s a strong start for the Knicks.

Stephen Curry leaves game with knee injury, MRI Sunday

Golden State Warriors v Denver Nuggets
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
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Warriors fans everywhere — not to mention coaching staff and players — are holding their breath.

Stephen Curry left the game against the Mavericks in the third quarter when he was defending Danny Green and the two collided, knocking knees. On the replay, Curry’s knee seems to bend slightly at an awkward angle.

Curry went to the Warriors’ bench, was looked at by the team medical staff, and soon went back to the locker room and did not return. X-rays taken of his knee were negative, but the MRI expected Sunday will be more telling.

Of extra concern is that this is the second injury to that leg in as many games, Curry was able to play through the first one.

Curry is averaging 27.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 6.4 assists a game. Of larger concern, the Warriors outscore opponents by 5 points per 100 possessions when Curry is on the court and 5.4 when he is off. At 27-26 the Warriors sit seventh in the West.

The defending champs have not lived up to that billing this season, never putting together a consistent run of high-level basketball to show us what we believe they are capable of. If Curry misses significant time (and potentially the All-Star Game) it will be longer before we get to see if these Warriors can pull it together.

Bamba suspended four games, Rivers three for fight Friday night

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The NBA came down hard on Mo Bamba and Austin Rivers (in a way they didn’t with Dillon Brooks).

The Magic’s Bamba was suspended four-game and the Timberwolves’ Rivers got a three-game suspension — both without pay — for their part in a fight between the teams Friday night.

In addition, Magic guard Jalen Suggs was suspended one game for “escalating the altercation by aggressively grabbing Rivers around the neck and pulling him to the floor.” The Timberwolves’ Jaden McDaniels was fined $20,000 for running into the scrum and pushing Bamba in the back.

As for why the relatively stiff penalties in this case, the NBA said: “Following the incident, Bamba attempted to continue to engage with Rivers in a hostile manner in the corridor outside the locker rooms where he also aggressively shoved a security representative. Both Bamba and Rivers continued the escalation on social media following the game.”

Friction between Bomba and Rivers started a few plays earlier when Rivers — who was in the game — missed a corner 3 in front of the Magic bench, and there was jawing from Bamba and others. Rivers came over and confronted and the fight started soon after, with Bamba coming off the bench. After an official review, five players were ejected: Rivers, McDaniels and Taurean Prince from the Timberwolves; Bamba and Suggs from the Magic.

Banba and Rivers did continue the fight on social media, which added to their time off.

The suspensions will all start on Sunday, Feb. 5.

Kyrie Irving trade request update: Clippers make offer, LeBron says “duh” Irving helps Lakers

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Nets fans booed Kyrie Irving when he was put up on the jumbotron at Barclays Center before the game Friday night (Irving was out vs. the Wizards).

Irving requested a trade out of Brooklyn before the Feb. 9 trade deadline, and the Nets are talking to several teams about a potential deal, with the Lakers, Suns and Mavericks at the front of the line. This trade could come together in the next few days, allowing the teams involved to make other moves before next Thursday’s deadline.

Here are the latest Kyrie Irving trade rumors:

• The Los Angeles Clippers have thrown their hat in the ring and made an offer for Irving, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and confirmed by Law Murray of The Athletic.

There is pressure from ownership on down for the Clippers to win big this season — the team’s fourth with Kwahi Leonard and Paul George — and they need help at the point guard spot (they are interested in the Raptors’ Fred VanVleet if he becomes available as well). The Clippers have a lot of salaries between $10 million and $20 million — Norman Powell, Marcus Morris, Luke Kennard, Robert Covington, Reggie Jackson, Nicholas Batum — who can be packaged in different configurations, plus they have young talent that can be added in Terance Mann and Brandon Boston Jr.

Bringing in Irving would be a massive gamble by the Clippers — do they need another mercurial star prone to missing games? — but the Clippers want to win and will push all their chips into the middle.

LeBron James was asked after the Lakers’ loss Saturday night if Irving is the kind of player that can get the Lakers to the finish line and have them thinking championship.

“Obviously that’s, the word you use, ‘duh’ question when talking about a player like that.”

• Whatever you think of Irving the person, his trade demand is a smart business move — the Nets were not going to give him the max contract extension he wants, so he is trying to force his way to his next team, one that will pay up. And by pay up, that’s a four-year, $198.5 million contract. Wojnarowski of ESPN said this on NBA Countdown Saturday.

“Irving, who is in the final year of a deal that pays him $36.9 million, has been seeking in the neighborhood of a four-year, $198.5 million maximum extension available to him until June 30, sources said. If Irving is traded, he is eligible to sign a two-year, $78.6 million extension with his new team until June 30.”

Any team that trades for Irving will have to pay up this summer when he is a free agent — he’s too expensive to be a rental. There are reports the Lakers and Mavericks are hesitant to give Irving that kind of long-term deal.

• If Irving doesn’t get traded before the deadline, he could hold out for the rest of the season, Stephen A. Smith of ESPN reports.

LeBron James NBA all-time scoring record tracker

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has held the NBA all-time scoring record at 38,387 points since he retired in 1989. It is one of the most iconic records in sports and one thought by many that would never be broken, but LeBron James is on the verge of breaking that scoring record and doing it at age 38. How many more points does LeBron need to take over the scoring record? When is it projected to happen? Let’s break down the latest numbers (this will be updated after every Lakers game until the record is set).

How many points does LeBron James need to set the scoring record?
36

Abdul-Jabbar career points: 38,387
LeBron career points: 38,352

Lakers’ upcoming schedule:

Feb. 7 vs. Thunder
Feb. 9 vs. Bucks
Feb. 11 at Warriors
Feb. 13 at Trail Blazers

When is LeBron projected to break the all-time scoring record:

LeBron is averaging 30 points per game this season, at that pace he would set the record on Feb. 9 at home against the Milwaukee Bucks, although a hot game on Feb. 7 against the Thunder could make that game a possibility.

How long has Kareem held the scoring record?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar set the all-time scoring record — too less fanfare than is happening with LeBron (although Wilt Chamberlain was unhappy with all the attention KAJ was receiving) — on April 5, 1984, when he scored his 31,420th point, breaking the record which had been held by Chamberlain. This was the height of the Showtime Lakers era and the team made the Finals that season but lost in seven games to Larry Bird and the Celtics. The Lakers would win the NBA title three of the next four years and Kareem would keep adding to that point total and his legacy until he retired after the 1989 season.

News and notes on LeBron’s quest for the record:

• LeBron tuned out the Lakers’ Kyrie Irving trade speculationat least until after the game — and dropped 27 points on the New Orleans Pelicans Saturday night, shooting 10-of-22 overall but 1-of-7 beyond the arc. It wasn’t enough as the Pelicans snapped their 10-game losing streak, 131-126, behind 35 points from former Laker Brandon Ingram. This was a tough loss for a Lakers team trying to climb up in the West standings, but it puts LeBron within striking distance of the record next game.

• LeBron scored 26 points and added seven rebounds and seven assists on Thursday night. He also gave the Lakers their first lead of the game on a 3-pointer with 2:35 left, and the Lakers held on to beat the Pacers 112-111. LeBron shot 11-of-19 from the floor and 2-of-5 from 3 for the game.

• LeBron had his first triple-double of the season — and became the first player ever with one in his 20th season — scoring 28 points with 10 rebounds and 11 assists — to help lead the Lakers past the Knicks in overtime on Tuesday night. With those 11 assits LeBron moved past both Mark Jackson and Steve Nash to be fourth on the NBA’s all-time assists list.

• LeBron James did suit up to play Tuesday night against the Knicks (in Madison Square Garden on national television, that shouldn’t have been a surprise). Anthony Davis was cleared to play as well.

• After sitting out against the Nets on Monday, LeBron is officially questionable to play Tuesday in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks and will be a game-time decision. Lakers coach Darvin Ham said LeBron has “really significant soreness” in his left foot (after playing 44 minutes against Boston). LeBron and the medical staff will speak after LeBron starts to warm up Tuesday to determine if LeBron can play in Madison Square Garden, a game he hates to miss because he loves playing in that venue.

• The Lakers have officially listed LeBron (and Anthony Davis) as out for the game Monday night in Brooklyn. That is the first game of a back-to-back for the Lakers, and they have rested LeBron in half of those for most of the season. This will push back the date he breaks the record, making it likely it happens at Crypto.com Arena.

• LeBron scored 41 points — and felt he should have had a couple more — in the Lakers’ overtime loss to the Celtics Saturday on national television.

• Sixers Doc Rivers on what impresses him in LeBron’s run to this record: “LeBron has done it so differently to me [thank Kareem]. Because LeBron is not a natural scorer. LeBron is a playmaker. He got criticized early in his career for making the right decisions. And the fact that he’s now about to break the scoring record, it really points out his greatness.”

• LeBron scored 20 points in the Lakers’ win over the Spurs, a game in which Anthony Davis returned from injury and Rui Hachimura made his debut as a Laker after being traded from the Wizards.

• What has Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said about LeBron passing his record? There has been a bit of frostiness between the two men, but Abdul-Jabbar was gracious in comments to Marc Stein back in 2021 about the possibility of his record falling: “I’m excited to see it happen. I don’t see records as personal accomplishments, but more as human achievements. If one person can do something that’s never been done, that means we all have a shot at doing it. It’s a source of hope and inspiration. Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile back in 1954. Since then, not only have 1,400 runners beaten that time, but the new record is 17 seconds less. We all win when a record is broken and if LeBron breaks mine, I will be right there to cheer him on.”