Three things we learned Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis leaves Lakers fans wondering “what if?”

Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES — Notes from deep inside Staples Center on a Sunday night.

1) Kristaps Porzingis puts on show in Los Angles, beating Lakers while fans dream of what might have been. You can’t blame Jim Buss/Mitch Kupchak and the Lakers for drafting D’Angelo Russell with the No. 2 pick — he’s a gifted passer, shot the ball well in college, and after working him out they saw a potential star. He’s showing promise (at worst, he’s going to be a good point guard in the league for years.)

However, the most talked about player in the 2015 draft was Kristaps Porzingis. He was 7’3” with t a 7’6” wingspan, moved fluidly on the court, and had three point shooting range. However, even the scouts that thought he had the most upside in the draft (him or Karl-Anthony Towns) considered KP a major project that could take years to develop. If he developed at all. He was higher risk and higher reward than Russell (the point guard was going to be solid at worst, where Porzingis had a long line of Euro bigs who went bust in front of him), and most GMs play it safe in that spot rather than risk a potential job-ending bust. Porzingis fell to the Knicks with the fourth pick (one Phil Jackson tried to trade out of on draft night, but that’s another story).

No need to be patient for Knicks fans, Porzingis has already developed into the best player on the team.

Sunday night, Porzingis came to Staples Center and put on a show for Los Angeles fans — 26 points, 12 rebounds, and seven blocked shots, leading the Knicks to a 118-112 win over the Lakers. It was the blocks that may have been most impressive.

“I was just trying to protect the rim as always, and they didn’t really have a stretch four so I was able to be closer to the basket,” Porzingis said after the Knicks . “I told my teammates not to foul because I was going to go for the block close to the rim, and I was able to do that.”

Porzingis was scoring inside, hitting threes, showing off an impressive array of shots for a second-year player, and also displaying a great feel for the game. He also got help. In the first quarter, it was Carmelo Anthony passing out of double teams in ways that left the Lakers defense scrambling. In the fourth it was Brandon Jennings hitting threes and pushing the ball in transition (he had 15 in the quarter). Then there was the hot shooting of Derrick Rose, 12-15 for 25 points on the night, with his floater in full effect.

“I was just taking what the defense was giving me, and they were giving me the lane,” Rose said.

You couldn’t watch the game and not be wowed by what Porzingis can do. Lakers fans were. And you can’t blame them for daydreaming about what might have been.

2) Russell Westbrook’s triple-double streak ends at seven games. See, he sucks. Thunder get win anyway. It doesn’t always have to be the Russell Westbrook show for Oklahoma City… okay, yes it does, and he’s usually up to the task, but sometimes he gets help. Westbrook’s triple-double streak ended at seven games against the Celtics, but he still had 37 points, 12 rebounds and six assists. He had 13 in the fourth quarter when the Thunder outlasted the Celtics for the win. He was flat-out phenomenal again.

The difference in this game was angry Russ got some help — Thunder players not named Westbrook shot 15-for-22 in the second half. The Thunder outscored the Celtics 24-13 in the final eight minutes of the game. Despite that, Marcus Smart got a clean look at a three to tie it at the end of regulation, but missed. But the story wasn’t Boston and it’s at times disjointed offense on the night. It was Westbrook falling short of a record but getting the win he wanted more.

3) Minnesota falls again, this time to Golden State, now Thibodeau takes his team back to Chicago.
There is no shame in losing to Golden State, but it’s how the Timberwolves did it that will sting — they caught the Warriors on the fourth game in five nights, coming off a blowout loss, and looking fatigued. This would be a “schedule makers’ loss” for the Warriors.

Except Golden State went on a 25-4 run to open the fourth quarter and pull away enough to hold on for the win. Klay Thompson poured in 14 of his 30 in the quarter. Meanwhile, the Timberwolves shot 36.8 percent in the fourth, didn’t hit a shot outside the paint in the quarter, plus just didn’t defend well. Sure, the Warriors have another gear that the Timberwolves do not have (actually, a few of them), but this was a tired Warriors team at the end of a road trip that could have been beaten. Instead, it was the Warriors that showed heart.

We all thought Tom Thibodeau would whip the Minnesota defense into shape, they would defend like beasts, and we would see this team take a step forward this season. Clearly, there is some disconnect between Thibodeau and the players right now, and it’s up to the coach and GM to fix that.

But first, Thibodeau has to take his team back to Chicago. That should be interesting.

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: Zach LaVine not available for trade from Bulls

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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.