Five Takeaways from NBA Sunday: Jimmy Butler does his best Jordan impression

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The holidays are over, you’re almost recovered from New Year’s Eve and ready to start hitting the gym (that should last three weeks, admit it) — and it’s time to get back into the flow of the NBA as we run up toward the All-Star break. Here is what you need to know from around the league Sunday:

1) Jimmy Butler did his best MJ impression Sunday. Butler’s first reaction when the breaking of a Michael Jordan record came up was the one Chicago fans want to hear: “Don’t compare me to him. That’s exactly what I said. I don’t want to be compared to him.”

Jimmy Butler is no Michael Jordan, but for one half Sunday he did a good imitation of the legend. Butler started slow then had to leave the game to get stitches after an elbow from Toronto’s DeMarre Carroll. When he came back in the second half, he couldn’t miss on his way to 40 second half points. Toronto helped out; Butler was able to drive to the hoop to cleanly or get open looks, he shredded Toronto’s pick-and-roll coverage. Once he started feeling it he did not miss, check out his second half shot chart.

Jimmy Butler shot chart

Butler was scoring, but he was doing it in the flow of the offense, he was sharing the rock off the pick, too. He helped spark a comeback in the fourth quarter — Toronto led by 15 in the third, but the Bulls ended up with the 115-113 victory on the road. For Toronto, it felt like the playoffs two years ago when Joe Johnson destroyed them. I thought Carroll was brought in to defend strong/hot wing players, but he didn’t seem to have the regular assignment (and Butler scored on him, too). And Toronto’s rim protection needs to improve as well.

2) The Phoenix Suns are a mess. The Los Angeles Lakers are tied for the worst defense in the NBA this season (via NBA.com), and the Phoenix Suns put up just 22 points on them in the first half Sunday, shooting 0-of-10 from three. The Suns shot 21 percent in the first half. For the game, the Suns shot 30.2 percent on uncontested looks (and more than half their shots were uncontested). It was ugly Sunday.

A lot of things around the Suns are ugly right now. Coach Jeff Hornacek has run out some, shall we say, interesting lineups all season trying to find combinations that work. It happened Sunday going very big with Alex Len and Tyson Chandler playing together. But nothing worked, on either end of the floor. Turns out the problem wasn’t the assistant coaches. Now, this team is spiraling down, having been outscored by 11.4 points per 100 possessions their last 10 games.

Phoenix owner Robert Sarver said on Sunday the blame for the Suns starts at the top. It certainly does. His impatience with the rebuilding process, the lack of consistency within the organization are at the heart of Phoenix’s issues. And by the way, it’s not the millennials that are the problem, the Warriors seem to be doing okay with them. It’s the older guys, and not just the ones on the roster.

On the other side, that three wins in a row for the Lakers.

3) Lakers’ fan nails half-court shot to win $95,000.
Nobody around the Lakers could miss on Sunday, and that includes the fan taking the half-court shot for big cash. I wouldn’t call his form pretty, but results are what matter.


4) Kenneth Faried back on the court just one day after scary neck injury.
This was good to see. One day after a neck injury that had him being taken off the court on a stretcher, Faried was back on the court and starting for Denver against Portland. He played nearly 28 minutes and had 13 points in the Nuggets’ loss, but what mattered was that he was back out there.

5) Knicks’ Arron Afflalo drops 38 on Hawks. He was 14-of-17 shooting overall and 7-of-8 from three. This was all about Afflalo getting open within the triangle offense then hitting his jumpers (only three of his shots were within eight feet of the rim, he hit two). This was the smoothest the Knicks offense may have looked this season, with fantastic ball movement, and Afflalo benefited (10 of his 17 shots were uncontested, according to NBA.com’s player tracking). That’s a quality win for New York and the kind they need more of if it plans to climb back into the playoff race in the East (the Knicks are currently three games out of the final playoff slot in the East).

Gordon Hayward does not plan to leave bubble for birth of son

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When Boston first went to the NBA restart bubble in Orlando, Gordon Hayward was upfront: He was leaving the bubble for the birth of his fourth child.

Hayward ended up leaving the bubble for another reason — he severely sprained his ankle and was out for more than a month. During his rehab, Hayward left the bubble and spent time at home, returning a couple of weeks ago. Saturday he played his first game back for Boston, helping it to a win against the Heat.

Hayward’s wife, Robyn, has yet to have their son, but now Hayward does not plan to leave the bubble for the event, something first reported by Rachel Nichols of ESPN during Saturday’s game.

Hayward confirmed this after the game. So did Robyn in a social media post, adding the reports she was in labor already were not true.

I don’t envy the Hayward family having to make this choice. As a parent, I can’t imagine having missed the births of any of my children, but, like everything else in 2020, this is far from a typical decision at a typical time. The Haywards are making the best of it they can. They deserve support no matter what they choose.

LeBron James, Dion Waiters’ son engage in a little trash talk

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“Yeah, right.”

That was Dion Waiters Jr.’s response to pretty much everything LeBron James during the Lakers’ practice on Saturday before Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.

LeBron was getting up some corner threes and told Waiters Jr. he would make 100 straight.

“Yeah, right.”

When LeBron missed one, “I missed that on purpose.” 

“Yeah, right.”

“I missed that on purpose, so you’d think I’m human,” LeBron joked.

Got to love Dion Waiters Jr. — he’s got some of his dad’s spunk.

Families have been allowed in the bubble for teams for a couple of weeks, although LeBron’s sons are not there, with LeBron saying it’s not a great place for kids (he’s right, for anyone over about 7 or 8, there would be little to do).

Aggressive, attacking Boston drives right into heart of Miami defense, wins Game 3

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On Boston’s first possession of the game, Marcus Smart drove right to the rim and got an and-1 on a reverse layup.

Next possession, Jaylen Brown got a bucket cutting for a layup, with the assist from Smart. Next possession, Brown drove the lane and banked in a floater. The next Boston bucket was a Jayson Tatum driving layup.

The first nine Boston points came with them attacking the heart of the Miami defense (going at Duncan Robinson in particular), and that continued all game with the Celtics getting 60 points in the paint.

“Boston came out with great force. You have to give them credit for that,” Heat coach Eric Spoelstra said after the game.

Throw in 31 quality minutes from Gordon Hayward in his return from a sprained ankle — providing more quality wing play and good decision making — and Boston raced out to a comfortable lead then hung on at the end for a 117-106 win in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Heat lead the series 2-1, with Game 4 not until Wednesday night (a little delay to allow the West to catch up).

After a sloppy Game 2 loss where the Celtics became passive in the face of Miami’s zone defense in the second half, followed by a postgame meltdown and meeting of the minds, the guys at the heart of the Celtics young core stepped up their game on Saturday night.

Particularly Brown, who had 26 points on 11-of-17 shooting and was getting to the rim all game. He also was playing smothering defense.

Smart — an All-Defensive Team player — had his best game of the series, blanketing Goran Dragic, who had been the Heat’s best scorer and shot creator through two games. Without Dragic breaking down the Celtics’ defense and getting points in the paint, Miami has to live by the three and the Celtics defenders did a better job staying home.

“Marcus’ ball pressure on Dragic was important,” Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens said postgame. “It’s something we need to continue to look at. Marcus did a great job on a guy who is playing better than I’ve ever seen him.”

Boston also got more minutes from Gordon Hayward than expected, minutes Stevens called a “stabilizing force” for the team.

“I’m extremely tired right now. My ankle is pretty sore,” Hayward said postgame, adding with the extra days off he should be good to go for Game 4.

Hayward’s presence also allowed Boston to play small ball without Daniel Theis or any true center on the floor, the Celtics switched everything defensively, and Miami didn’t take advantage. Look for Eric Spoelstra to turn to more Bam Adebayo against that small lineup next game.

“They got us on our heels. They were out there hooping and having fun. I guess that was the difference in the game,” Bam Adebayo said postgame.

Miami didn’t shoot the ball well Saturday night, hitting just 27.3% from three. Jae Crowder, who had been hot, was 2-of-8 from deep, while Tyler Herro was 4-of-12. Adebayo had 27 points and 16 boards to lead the Heat.

Boston had four players with more than 20 points: Brown (26), Tatum (25), Kemba Walker (21), and Smart (20).

Boston will need another game like that — and they will need to close better, Miami made it interesting late — to even the series on Wednesday.

Miami said postgame they saw what happened in this game as a challenge to them. Game 4 is going to be intense.

Ja Morant points out one person who didn’t vote him Rookie of the Year

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Ja Morant was not the unanimous Rookie of the Year — 99 out of 100 media members voted for him, one voted for Zion Williamson.

When the media votes became public Saturday, Morant got to see who the one voter who voted for someone else was: Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Crowley stood up for his vote, and everything was good between them (at least on social media).

While the votes come from media members, the NBA goes out of its way to put together voters who see things differently, something ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne talked about is an excellent thread on Twitter, although she was speaking about the case for LeBron James over Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP.

To be clear, I was one of the Morant voters, and I will readily admit that Zion is the better player (at least right now). I consider the impact on winning heavily when voting, which led me to Morant because he played 59 games before the bubble and had his team in a playoff position, while Zion played only 19 and did not (only games before the NBA restart in Orlando were to be considered, per NBA rules). I also expect and respect the fact that not everyone will see it that way, or even define what matters most in winning the award the same way. Diversity of thought and views is a good thing, it leads to better outcomes. Crowley should vote what he sees and believes, and that should be respected.

Unanimous or not, Morant will go down as the 2019-20 Rookie of the Year. The voting will be a footnote at most.