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Three Takeaways from NBA Sunday: New starters, same problems in Memphis

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It was a quiet Sunday in the NBA, just four games — all with the start times spread out for our friends in Europe. If you decided to spend your day watching the NFL wild car chase — or were just fighting off people attacking you with Snickers bars — here are three things you need to know from a Sunday around the NBA.

1) Grizzlies move Zach Randolph to the bench, still can’t find a win. The Memphis Grizzlies don’t look like a bad team when you see they are 13-12 on the season, but that record overinflates how bad this team has been. Memphis is bottom 10 in both offense and defense, and it has the point differential of an 8-17 team according to Basketball-Reference.com. They recently suffered 20+-point blowouts by the Thunder, Spurs, and Hornets. It’s clear Memphis is not the same team — Marc Gasol has looked a step slow all season, and everyone around him (save for Mario Chalmers after the trade) has seemed to regress. This team needed a change.

Sunday coach Dave Joerger tried to find that jolt by sending Zach Randolph and the struggling Tony Allen to the bench and starting Matt Barnes and Courtney Lee — going small around Marc Gasol. It looked like the lineup might work, Memphis led most of the way and shot 58 percent through three quarters — until an 11-0 run by the Heat to close out the game gave the W to Miami. Despite that result expect to see that starting lineup again — it was +2 for the night and had a net rating of +8.7, and that’s despite the group being out for most of that 11-0 run late. The group shot 40 percent from three, and while the offense wasn’t great it defended well. The lineup deserves more time to see if it can work.

As for Miami, Dwyane Wade helped steal you a win, just take it and run.

2) Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are magnificent, that is all Thunder fans need know. We’ve covered this before, but the OKC dynamic duo were at it again Sunday. In a game where the Thunder had to go to overtime to beat the Jazz 104-98, Oklahoma City was +17 when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook shared the floor. The duo combined for 56 points, which is 53.9 percent of all the points OKC scored. Just a reminder that having two guys playing well enough both should get in the MVP discussion can erase a lot of mistakes.

3) Westbrook with the inbounds play of the year. We’ve all seen the rare “off the back of the defender” inbounds pass resulting in a layup before, but never anything quite like this — Westbrook goes off the defender for the quick turnaround jumper and nails it.

Zion Williamson’s first NBA basket a putback

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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.

Cavaliers: Ante Zizic out indefinitely with vestibular condition

Ante Zizic
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Kyrie Irving left the Celtics for the Nets after two seasons. The Cavaliers flipped Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder their first season in Cleveland.

The last player remaining with his team from that monumental-looking Cavs-Celtics trade, Ante Zizic might not be long for Cleveland, either.

In fact, it’s unclear whether he’ll play again for the Cavs.

Cavaliers release:

Center Ante Zizic, who has missed the team’s last five games after being diagnosed with a vestibular condition, will be OUT indefinitely. After experiencing symptoms of nausea and dizziness, it was determined by the Cavaliers medical team that Zizic requires a period of vestibular rehabilitation to evaluate those symptoms further. His return to basketball activities will be updated as appropriate.

“Indefinitely” always sounds scary. That’s especially so with an uncommon basketball medical update.

If the Cavaliers unload veterans like Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love before the trade deadline, Zizic could be in line for more playing time down the stretch. He could use a showcase entering unrestricted free agency this summer.

Hopefully, he’s healthy enough to be up for it.

Mavericks reportedly reach out to Joakim Noah to help at center

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Dallas’ starting center Dwight Powell is lost for the season due to a torn Achilles suffered Tuesday night.

The Mavs have other centers on the roster, Maxi Kleber and Boban Marjanovic, but they want more depth behind those guys. That has led to them touching base with Joakim Noah, reports Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

The Lakers worked Noah out before the season but decided to go with Dwight Howard.

Noah had a solid second half of last season with Memphis, coming off the bench and providing good defense and 7.1 points per game. He was moving well and fit in as a role player at giving them 16.5 minutes a night.

That’s all Dallas would need, someone to grab rebounds and do the dirty work inside that lets Kristaps Prozingis play his pick-and-pop game. We’ll see if Dallas goes this direction, or another one.