Three things we learned Sunday: The Lakers are playing fast, having fun, winning

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It’s still early in the NBA season, there’s a lot of small sample size theater going on, but we are starting to get a sense of who teams are and what they are about. That was true Sunday, here are three things we learned while you were being touched inappropriately by a ghost

1) The Lakers are playing fast, having fun — and winning. The Lakers love basketball.

It sounds simplistic, but that mantra is at the core of what Luke Walton has done to turn a young team into one of the must-watches of League Pass so far this season. The Lakers are unburdened by expectations, have been freed from the shackles of Byron Scott, there is no Kobe Bryant to soak up half the shots — and the result is entertaining and occasionally beautiful basketball. And they are winning. The Lakers are playing at the fastest pace in the NBA this season, averaging 110 points a game, and after a victory over Phoenix Sunday night they are over .500 at 4-3.

There have been transformations. Nick Young, Lou Williams, and Julius Randle are thinking pass — Young led the team with 24 points Sunday and has looked like a mature, complete player. A year ago, Randle would have gone right at Tyson Chandler in a little 1-on-1 they were having, instead at a crucial moment he kicked it out to Jordan Clarkson for a big three. Not that Randle isn’t going to the rack and finishing, too.

Walton also brought the Warriors switching all picks defensive mentality, and it’s working fairly well (the Lakers are middle of the pack defensively), particularly late in games. There’s a lot of Warriors actions in the Lakers offense now (more on that to come later today) — and that’s a good thing, it means ball and player movement, not isolation and stagnation. There are still steps the Lakers need to take — D’Angelo Russell is shooting 35.6 percent, the team as a whole is turning the ball over too much, and Brandon Ingram is a work in progress — but you can see the growth curve for this team. And you should see them; the Lakers have become fun to watch.

2) Harrison Barnes has been impressive despite Dallas’ record, leads team to first win. Harrison Barnes in the preseason had Mavericks’ fans asking “what did we get ourselves into?” With reason. But once the games have mattered he showed he has figured out how to be a No. 1 option and he has impressed — Barnes dropped a career-high 34 on the Bucks Sunday, the second time five games he put up 30 (something he did once his entire time as a Warrior). Sunday it included a driving layup with :13 on the clock to force overtime against the Bucks, then was a force in OT (with smaller players switched onto him) to get the Mavs the win.

Barnes is a work in progress — it still looks like he is thinking a lot out there, he’s not fluid and instinctive with his moves. However, he is fundamentally solid and is scoring almost an equal amount off the catch and off the bounce. He gets in a good triple-threat position with the ball and makes the smart decision. When he drives he explodes. And right now, he is killing it in isolation and from the midrange. Check out his shot chart for the season.

Barnes shotchart

Barnes isn’t playing in a way that makes you think “I need to vote for this guy to be an All-Star” but he is playing well. He just needs some help around him.

3) Utah looked much better on offense with Gordon Hayward back. Early on Sunday, Gordon Hayward looked like a guy who had been out injured, a guy trying to shake off the rust of missing much of camp and the start of the season with a broken finger. Because he was.

But with the game on the line late against New York, the Jazz rolled out a lineup of George Hill, Rodney Hood, Hayward, Joe Johnson, and Rudy Gobert (when Gobert fouled out Derrick Favors came in) and it was smooth. Just flat-out better than what the Knicks could muster. Hayward gives them another shot creator besides Hill, plus Hayward can space the floor from three and gives a good defensive effort. Hayward finished with 28 points on the game to lead the Jazz, and it was nice he got to ease back into the NBA by playing against the Knicks.

That Utah went 3-3 without Hayward is a very good sign for their playoff chances, I expect this team to be a top-five seed when we head to the playoffs, If they can just stay healthy.

Bonus Thing We Learned: We found out what happens when Kristaps Porzingis and Rudy Gobert run into each other in the paint. Damn. First this:

Then this.

gobertblock

Block or charge: Alperen Sengun dunks on Zach Collins

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To borrow the catchphrase of the great Rex Chapman:

Block or charge?

The Rockets’ Alperen Sengun caught a body and threw one down on the Spurs’ Zach Collins but was called for the offensive foul.

NBA Twitter went nuts.

Rockets coach Stephen Silas challenged the call, but it was upheld (from my perspective, the replay officials are always looking to back the in-game officials if they at all can).

By the time Collins slid over and jumped, Sengun was already in the air — if anything that was a block. What the officials called was Sengun using his off-arm to create space.

I hate the call — that’s a dunk and an and-one. Not because it’s a great dunk — although it is that, too — but because Collins literally jumped into the path of an already airborne Sengun, Collins created all the contact. It’s on him. Under the spirit of the rules, Sengun’s off-arm is moot at that point — Collins illegally jumped in Sengun’s way and caused the collision.

Terrible call by the officials.

It was a good night for the Spurs, overall. San Antonio played its best defense in a while and Keldon Johnson — one of the few bright spots in a dark Spurs season — hit his first nine shots on his way to a 32-point night that sparked a 118-109 San Antonio win over Houston, snapping the Spurs 11-game losing streak.

Three things to know: Watch Jamal Murray drain game-winning 3 to beat Blazers

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Three Things 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) Watch Jamal Murray drain game-winning 3 to beat Blazers

This game felt like a 2019 playoff time capsule, with Damian Lillard and Jamal Murray trading blows in a dramatic game.

Lillard landed more of them, he finished with 40 points — and his final three were vintage Dame Time.

But Murray had the final word.

The final minutes of this game were insane.

It was a needed win for a Denver team that some nights look like they can compete with the best in the league, then turn around 48 hours later and mail in a loss to a tanking team. Nikola Jokic scored 33 against Portland (with 10 boards and nine assists) — he is again putting up numbers that will have him in the MVP conversation (even if it’s a longshot he wins it). However, the Nuggets’ bottom-five defense makes them inconsistent night to night.

Portland revamped their roster to get younger and more athletic around Lillard this past offseason, but one of the results of that is the inconsistency of youth. The Blazers don’t bring the same level of execution every night. If they don’t learn that lesson, they may be different in makeup but the results will be the same as many Portland teams of the last decade — an early playoff exit.

2) Brittney Griner is home on U.S.soil

After spending 10 months in Russian jails — including being convicted and sent to a penal colony — on trumped-up drug charges that made her a political pawn in a massive geo-political battle, Brittney Griner is finally home on U.S. soil, her plane landed in Texas overnight.

The Biden administration worked out a prisoner exchange with Russia that brings Griner home to be with her wife, family and friends — that is something to be celebrated.

Of course, there was some pushback online/in the media from people who care only about trying to score political points for their selfish ends. Fortunately, we had the family of Paul Whelan — a Michigan corporate security executive who has been behind bars in Russia since December 2018 on trumped-up espionage charges — who praised the president for bringing Griner home and making “the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.”

An American citizen is home. She happens to be a WNBA star and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, but those things are not what matters most, and are secondary to her family who are just happy to hug her and tell her they love her again. We all hope that day comes soon for American political prisoners held around the globe (including Whelan), but we should celebrate the big victory of Griner being back on U.S. soil.

3) Spurs snap 11-game losing streak behind 32 from Johnson

Keldon Johnson — one of the few bright spots in a dark Spurs season — hit his first nine shots on his way to a 32-point night that sparked a 118-109 San Antonio win over Houston, snapping the Spurs’ 11-game losing streak.

“This has been the first game in a while where we were clicking defensively,” Johnson told the Associated Press after the game. “You can tell when we get stops, get out and run and be able to get out front. If we can keep that mindset of defense first, get stops and we let the offense take care of itself, we’ll be in great shape.”

All of that is interesting, but the real debate of the night: Was this an offensive foul by Alperen Sengun, or a block by Zach Collins?

Sengun was in the air when Collins came over, but he also used his off hand to create space for the dunk. This is a bang-bang call and the challenge of the block/charge call — I think that’s a block by Collins, but that’s not how the referee or many others have seen it. How would you have called it?

Knicks’ Obi Toppin out at least 2-3 weeks with knee fracture

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Obi Toppin is a fan favorite and Knicks faithful were hoping to see more of him as the season progresses.

However, they are not going to see any of him for at least the next 2-3 weeks due to a fractured knee, the team announced.

Toppin suffered the injury in New York’s win Wednesday over Atlanta, the same game that saw Dejounte Murray sprain his ankle leading him to be out for a few weeks.

Toppin — the reigning All-Star Weekend Slam Dunk contest champion — is averaging 7.7 points in 25 games off the bench. With him out, coach Tom Thibodeau suggested he could lean more on RJ Barrett, asking him to play up at the four.

Report: Bulls’ Zach LaVine not available via trade

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Front offices of potential contenders from Los Angeles to Philadelphia have their eyes on the Chicago Bulls — will the struggling Bulls pivot to chase Victor Wembanyama and the top of the lottery, making them sellers at the trade deadline? Teams have interest in Chicago’s three stars: Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic.

Except just-extended LaVine isn’t currently available, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said Wednesday on his network’s pregame show discussing the Knicks.

“The Knicks will be watching Chicago. Is Zach LaVine a player who before the deadline possibly can become available? He certainly isn’t now.”

Chicago is not yet ready to pivot to tanking, so none of its stars are truly available. That said, the Bulls don’t look like a playoff team, they miss Lonzo Ball, and even if things do come together where do they stand in the East hierarchy? If the Bulls do become sellers, they aren’t going to tear this team down to the studs, it would likely be trading just one star. Possibly a second if the offer was strong enough.

LaVine — who signed a five-year, $215 million extension this past summer — is the least likely to be available, league sources have told NBC Sports. The expectation is that Vucevic would be the Bull first made available if the Bulls decide to start seriously listening to offers. And that remains an “if.”

That said, front offices around the league have their eyes trained on Chicago.