Three things we learned on Sunday: D’Angelo Russell is growing up before our eyes

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LOS ANGELES — Here is what you missed in the NBA Sunday while trying to figure out what theater was playing “Hidden Fences”….

1) Lakers’ D’Angelo Russell maturing, evolving into leader Lakers need. Luke Walton sees it. D’Angelo Russell admits it. Anyone watching the second-year point guard play recently can see it — there is a little something different about him the last five games. It’s sort of there in the stats — 20.8 points per game, 39.7 percent shooting from three, 5.2 rebounds, 5 assists, and 1.4 turnovers per game in his last five — but it’s more more than that.

There is a maturity to Russell’s game that is growing, a confidence as the game slows down for him and his ability to be the floor general the Lakers have counted on comes to the fore.

“Just the way he’s been controlling the game and running his position has been really good…” Lakers’ coach Luke Walton said Sunday night after Russell had 17 points (on 7-of-10 shooting), 8 rebounds, 7 assists, and three steals leading a Laker win over the Magic.. “D’Angelo’s recommitted himself in the weight room. He’s been in there multiple times a week with his strength coach.”

Russell credits his improved play to his developing a real routine — like he’s seen veterans from Kobe Bryant to Lou Williams have.

“Luke kind of notified it to me, just said I should try (having a steady routine), and I did,” Russell said, adding this started four or five games ago. “I didn’t have a routine, I told you about that. The same routine after practice, after shootaround, just the same routine, the same schedule every day. It’s just been very successful for me, my aggression, just everything is more comfortable….

“I’m maturing,” Russell said. “Trying to make sure I treat the game right, come with that approach every day. It’s a habit, it’s a learning habit that we’re picking up.”

With his routine — and just getting steady run and responsibility this season, rather than being jerked around — you can tell his confidence is growing, and that the game has slowed down for Russell. He is seeing floor and making right play far more often than not. He’s figuring out what he can do well — he’s making clever pocket passes, he’s using his size as a point guard to post up smaller guys.

Make no mistake, Russell still has plenty to learn. He got stripped a couple of times late by D.J. Augustin when he tried to force things. Russell’s drives tend to be pretty straight-line and he needs to develop a larger variety of ways to score inside once he gets into the paint (a floater would help, for example). However, Russell is making strides of late this season — which in some ways is his first season being taught what to do, considering the “I’ll bench you, figure it out for yourself” coaching from Byron Scott last year.

The Lakers have seen rookie Brandon Ingram score a career-best 17 points in consecutive games (including vs. Orlando). Jordan Clarkson excites with his hustle and athleticism. They miss Larry Nance Jr. in the rotation. But if the Lakers are going to make a leap with this young core, it’s going to be led by Russell. He’s showing signs now he can do that.

2) James Harden is making his MVP case: Another triple-double, eighth-straight Rockets win. Russell Westbrook’s case for being MVP is obvious — he’s averaging a triple-double this season, and when he goes to the bench the Thunder offense looks like a D-League team. But James Harden is putting up crazy numbers as well — 28.2 points, 11.8 assists, and 8.2 rebounds a game — and his team is winning more games. That frames the MVP question:

The Rockets are on pace for 63 wins currently, if they win around 60 and Harden keeps up this pace, and the Thunder win fewer than 50 games, does Harden beat out Westbrook for the MVP?

It’s too early to answer that question, but Harden made his case Sunday night against a very good Toronto team. Harden had a triple double — 40 points (on 26 shots), 11 assists, and 10 rebounds. He shot 7-of-9 at the rim, and 4-of-9 from three. He was the best player on the floor and the Rockets look like the kind of team that could make the conference finals (a Spurs/Rockets second round series would be fun).

3) Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s three gives Pistons second-straight one point win. And they’ll take it. Detroit had stumbled, losing eight of 10 and falling out of the playoff picture in the East. Stan Van Gundy was grasping at anything that could spark his team, to turn the season back around.

A couple of one-point wins may have done it. First was the one in Charlotte on Thursday.

Sunday’s came via a Kentavious Caldwell-Pope three.

Detroit had almost won in regulation then in the first overtime in Portland, but C.J. McCollum was hitting shots to extend the game.

In the second OT, there were 11.6 seconds left and the Pistons trailed 124-122. On the inbounds play Caldwell-Pope came off a little screen to go down by the baseline, waited for a second, and while Allen Crabbe ball watched KCP made a sharp cut to the arc, Andre Drummond set enough of a pick to slow Crabbe a little more, and Caldwell-Pope got off a clean three. Ballgame.

Drummond had 26 points and 13 rebounds in the win. With the victory the Pistons are now 1.5 games out of the playoffs in the East. This is the kind of win that can help reignite a struggling team. (Portland remains tied with the Kings for the eight seed in the West, with New Orleans, Denver, and now even the Los Angeles Lakers within two games.) We will see if a couple of dramatic wins can resuscitate the Pistons’ playoff hopes.

BONUS thing we liked Sunday: Chris Paul in full point god mode against Heat. That man is just not fair. There was this move.

And this.

And with that the Clippers have won four in a row.

Three things to Know: Knicks win another in clutch, beat Celtics in OT

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Three Things To Know 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) Knicks win another in clutch, beat Celtics in OT behind 37 from Randle

It will surprise Knicks fans, but New York has been a good clutch team in the tightest of games this season: In games within three points in the final three minutes, they are 11-9 with a +7.8 net rating.

The Knicks didn’t look like a clutch team — but did what Knicks fans expected — when they blew a 13-point lead by scoring just four points over the final 5:20 of the fourth quarter. Combine that with Jayson Tatum scoring 11 in the frame, and the Celtics came back to tie the game and force OT.

However, in the OT, the Knicks had RJ Barrett knocking down big shots.

And, with the game on the line, they had Jalen Brunson with the block.

With that, the Knicks went into Boston and pulled out the 120-117 OT win over the East-leading Celtics. Julius Randle had 27 points and nine rebounds (and hit the free throws that put the Knicks up for good in OT), Brunson scored 29, and Barrett added 19.

There are promising signs for Knicks fans:

Brunson and Randle just out-dueled Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

The Knicks have now racked up back-to-back wins against the Cavaliers and Celtics.

New York will need more wins like this because they will be battling the Heat, and maybe the Pacers, for that No. 6 seed and avoiding the play-in the rest of the season. But don’t sleep on a couple of quality wins.

2) Luka Doncic leaves game with ankle sprain; Mavericks win anyway

Name the team that could least afford to lose its superstar.

The Mavericks — with their heliocentric offense built around Luka Doncic — have to be at the top of the list.

Dallas could be without Doncic for a few games after he sprained his ankle just minutes into Thursday night’s contest against the Suns. Doncic drove on Cameron Johnson but when he couldn’t get to the rim he stopped, spun, tried to step back, stepped on the foot of Mikal Bridges and rolled his left ankle.

Doncic left the game and he did not return. Dallas can’t afford to be without Doncic for long, it gets outscored by 5.3 points per 100 possessions this season when he sits. He is an All-Star starter and in the MVP mix. He averages 33.8 points, 9.1 rebounds and 8.6 assists a game.

Just to prove that last paragraph wrong, the Jazz went out and beat the Suns 99-95 without Doncic behind a season-high 36 points from Spencer Dinwiddie, plus Dorian Finney-Smith chipped in 18 points and 12 rebounds.

3) LeBron, Antetokounmpo captains as All-Star starters named

Last season, Team LeBron won the All-Star Game partly because LeBron James had Giannis Antetokounmpo on his team.

Not this year. It will be Team LeBron vs. Team Giannis, they received the most fan votes in their conferences and will be the captains for the Feb. 19 All-Star Game in Salt Lake City. This is the sixth time LeBron is a captain, and his teams are 5-0.

In a new twist, James and Antetokounmpo will choose their teams right on the court before the game — true playground style. The captains will draft from a pool of starters announced Thursday — selected by a vote of fans, media, and current players — and then the backups from a list of reserves selected by the coaches (which will be announced next week).

Here are this year’s starters (two backcourt, three frontcourt players from each conference):

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Stephen Curry
Luka Doncic
LeBron James
Nikola Jokic
Zion Williamson

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Kyrie Irving
Donovan Mitchell
Kevin Durant
Giannis Antetokounmpo
Jayson Tatum

Joel Embiid was the odd man out of a tight race for the final frontcourt spot in the East (because the fans voted him fourth, the media and players each had him third, but the fans count for 50% of the weighted vote). This will be the first start for Williamson (if he’s healthy enough to play) and Mitchell.

Luka Doncic leaves game with sprained ankle, X-rays negative

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Mavericks fans everywhere were holding their breath.

Just more than three minutes into a showdown with the Suns Thursday, Luka Doncic drove on Cameron Johnson but didn’t get around him, so Doncic stopped, spun, tried to step back, and stepped on the foot of Mikal Bridges‘ and rolled his left ankle.

After a Torey Craig 3-pointer, Doncic left the game and hobbled back to the Mavericks locker room to be checked out. While X-rays were negative Doncic is out for the remainder of the game.

It will be tomorrow before the Mavericks can get a feel for how long Doncic might be out. They can’t afford for him to be out long, Dallas has been outscored by 5.3 points per 100 possessions this season when Doncic is off the court. He has been playing through ankle soreness for a few weeks but has missed only a couple of games.

Doncic, who was just voted an All-Star starter, is in the MVP mix this season averaging 33.8 points, 9.1 rebounds and 8.6 assists a game. The Mavericks are 8.7 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court.

LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo captains as All-Star starters named

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LeBron James is just 157 points shy of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA all-time scoring record, which he should break early next month. But before breaking that iconic record, he tied Abdul-Jabbar for another NBA milestone.

LeBron was the leading fan vote-getter and is an NBA All-Star Game for the 19th time, tying Abdul-Jabbar for the most All-Star appearances in league history.

James and Giannis Antetokounmpo received the most fan votes in their conferences and will be the captains of the teams for the Feb. 19 All-Star Game in Salt Lake City. This is Antetokounmpo’s third time as captain, it is LeBron’s sixth — and his teams are 5-0 in his previous captaincies.

In a new twist, James and Antetokounmpo will pick their teams playground style right on the court before the game. They will choose from a pool of starters announced Thursday — selected by a vote of fans, media, and current players — and then the backups from a list of reserves selected by the coaches (which will be announced next week). Here are this year’s starters (two backcourt, three frontcourt players from each conference):

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Stephen Curry
Luka Doncic
LeBron James
Nikola Jokic
Zion Williamson

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Kyrie Irving
Donovan Mitchell
Kevin Durant
Giannis Antetokounmpo
Jayson Tatum

This is the first start for Zion Williamson and Donovan Mitchell.

The vote also squeezed Joel Embiid out of a crowded frontcourt in the East. Here is the voting breakdown, where each player’s score is weighted based on 50 percent for the fan vote, 25 percent for player vote, and 25 percent for the media vote.

Eastern Conference Frontcourt

Player (Team) Fan Rank Player Rank Media Rank Weighted Score
1. *#Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee)      1      1      2      1.25
2. *Kevin Durant (Brooklyn)      2      2      4      2.5
3. *Jayson Tatum (Boston)      3      4      1      2.75
4. Joel Embiid (Philadephia)      4      3      3      3.75
5. Jimmy Butler (Miami)      5      7      5      5.5
6. Pascal Siakam (Toronto)      6     6      5      5.75
7. Paolo Banchero (Orlando)      8      8      5      7.25
8. Bam Adebayo (Miami)      11      5      5      8.0
9. Julius Randle (New York)      9      10      5      8.25
10. Kyle Kuzma (Washington)      7      16      5      9.25

 

Eastern Conference Guards

Player (Team) Fan Rank Player Rank Media Rank Weighted Score
1. *Kyrie Irving (Boston)      1      1      4      1.75
2. *Donovan Mitchell (Cleveland)      2      2      1      1.75
3. Jaylen Brown (Boston)      3      3      2      2.75
4. James Harden (Philadelphia)      4     5      5      4.5
5. Tyrese Haliburton (Indiana)      8      6      3      6.25
6. DeMar DeRozan (Chicago)      6      4      10      6.5
7. Trae Young (Atlanta)      12      5      6      7.0
8. LaMelo Ball (Charlotte)      7      9      10     8.25
9. Darius Garland (Cleveland)      10      7      6      8.25
10. Jalen Brunson (Milwaukee)      12      8      9      10.25

 *–Voted to start
#–Team captain

Western Conference Frontcourt

Player (Team) Fan Rank Player Rank Media Rank Weighted Score
1. *# LeBron James (Los Angeles)      1      2      2      1.5
2. *Nikola Jokic (Denver)      2      1     1      1.5
3. *Zion Williamson (New Orleans)      4      3      4      3.75
4. Anthony Davis (Los Angeles)      3      7      6      4.25
5. Lauri Markkanen (Utah)      7      4      5      5.75
6. Domantas Sabonis (Sacramento)      9      5      3      6.5
7. Paul George (L.A. Clippers)      6      6      9      6.75
8. Andrew Wiggins (Golden State)      5      19      9     9.5
9. Draymond Green (Golden State)      14      9      9      9.75
10. Kawhi Leonard (L.A. Clippers)      11      14      7      10.75

Western Conference Guards

Player (Team) Fan Rank Player Rank Media Rank Weighted Score
1. *Stephen Curry (Golden State)      1     2      2      1.5
2. *Luka Doncic (Dallas)      2      1      1      1.5
3. Ja Morant (Memphis)      3      3      3      3
4. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Oklahoma City)      4      4      4      4
5. Damian Lillard (Portland)      7      5      5      6.0
6. De'Aaron Fox (Sacramento)      8      5      5      6.5
7. Devin Booker (Phoenix)      10      7      5      8
8. Russell Westbrook (Los Angeles)      6      18      5      8.75
9. Anthony Edwards (Minnesota)      13      8      5      9.75
10. Klay Thompson (Golden State)      5      25      5      10

 *–Voted to start
#–Team captain

Curry, frustrated with Poole, gets ejected for throwing mouthpiece into crowd

Memphis Grizzlies v Golden State Warriors
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Stephen Curry has been ejected three times in his NBA career, and each time the incident was mouthpiece related.

The latest came Wednesday night. With 1:25 remaining in the fourth quarter of a tight game with the Grizzlies, Klay Thompson missed a floater, Donte DiVincenzo tipped the rebound out and kept it alive, Thomspon grabbed it and passed it to Poole out top to reset the offense, with Curry calling for the ball a few feet away from him. Instead, Poole jacked up a three like the shot clock was going to expire. The shot missed and Curry, out of frustration, threw his mouthpiece in the stands. That got him an automatic ejection.

“He knows he can’t make that mistake,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said postgame, via the Associated Press.

Poole had fun with Curry postgame, throwing his mouthpiece in the hallway.

“I did see that,” Curry said, via NBC Sports Bay Area. “It’s like one of those ‘too soon’ jokes. I was still hot. I was still hot.”

After the game, some fans tried to argue that, by NBA rules, Curry did not have to be ejected. The NBA rulebook specifically states that any “player who throws or kicks the ball directly into the stands with force” will be ejected, as will a player who throws “the ball or any object at an official.” The argument goes Curry didn’t throw his mouthpiece at an official. However, the rulebook also says a technical can be “assessed to any player on the court or anyone seated on the bench for conduct which, in the opinion of an official, is detrimental to the game,” and the league has said consistently in recent years that throwing a mouthpiece or anything into the crowd is detrimental to the game, penalized with a technical and automatic ejection. Maybe there should be more leeway with the enforcement of said rule, but Curry knew better.

The Warriors went on to get the win over their rivals from Memphis, the old guard held the new guard off again. But the next time these teams meet, the Warriors will need Curry on the court until the end of the game.