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Three Things We Learned Sunday: Damian Lillard trying to will Blazers into the playoffs

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Villanova is out. Duke is out. So how bad does your bracket look now? Time to focus on the NBA again for a few days, here’s what you missed on Sunday while you watched Lonzo Ball go off.

1) Damian Lillard flat-out goes off, drops 49 and gets Blazers key win over Heat. Miami is trying to make a playoff push without Dion Waiters, who has been key to the Heat’s second-half run. It means Goran Dragic is going to have to be at his peak nightly and help carry his team’s offense (especially is Erik Spoelstra continues to start Josh Richardson, Luke Babbitt, and Rodney McGruder). Dragic wasn’t that on Sunday (neither was Hassan Whiteside, who also has to step up).

Damian Lillard was ready to carry his team.

In a matchup of two teams fighting to make the playoffs in their respective conferences, the Blazers had the best player on the floor as Lillard went off for 49, drained nine three-pointers, and as a result the Blazers got the win.

With the win, Portland moves within one game of Denver for the final playoff spot in the West.

With the loss, Miami remains in a virtual tie with Detroit for the eighth seed in the East, half a game back of Milwaukee and a full game up on 10 seed and stumbling Chicago. Mark your calendars now, Miami travels to Detroit a week from Tuesday in what will be a critical game in that playoff chase.

2) Tony Parker returns, Spurs getting healthy, win again. The Spurs throttled the Kings on Sunday night, picking up an easy win. Which really isn’t news. Nor is the fact that Gregg Popovich decided to spark his team by starting Davis Bertans at the four, sliding LaMarcus Aldridge to center, and sending Dewayne Dedmon back to the bench.

What was interesting is that Tony Parker was back and had 16 points on 8-of-10 shooting.

The Spurs are going to need this Parker come the playoffs. He has had postseason struggles the past couple of seasons, but Popovich is going to need him after the first round this season is San Antonio is going to be a real threat to come out of the West.


3) Did Lakers start to find something with Jordan Clarkson/D’Angelo Russell backcourt? Maybe. If they start to defend.
Nick Young was out with the flu, so Lakers’ Luke Walton experimented with youth as his starting backcourt against Cleveland Sunday — Jordan Clarkson at the one, D’Angelo Russell at the two.

It worked. Sort of. Russell had a career-high 40 points and had one of this best games of the season.

Russell was knocking down shots, but also working as a playmaker, and playing off of Clarkson (who finished with 19 points).

“We were looking for each other,” Clarkson said. “I was trying to get in the paint, he was being aggressive knocking down shots. We compliment each other’s game when we’re doing that.”

“Jordan, he’s great, he’s very complimentary toward me on the court,” Russell said. “Whatever the coaching staff does I trust it. I run with it.”

This is not the first time Clarkson and Russell have been paired, but the matchup has been a disaster most of the season — outscored by 22 points per 100 possessions in 464 minutes. And that pairing was -14 on Sunday because they struggled defensively at times, particularly down the stretch against Kyrie Irving (to be fair, he makes a lot of defenders look bad).

The Lakers are experimenting for the rest of this season, and this experiment is not over.

“Individually, they’ve both make great growth throughout the season but for whatever reason the two of them on the court together, when we’ve tried it, it hasn’t statistically been very goo for us,” Luke Walton said. “But it was good to see that it worked well tonight. We’ll continue to try that lineup going forward and see if we can make that chemistry between the two of them a normal thing.”

Reports: Knicks trying to hire Raptors president Masai Ujiri, could fire coach David Fizdale

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Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry addressed the media after New York’s blowout loss to the Cavaliers yesterday.

On one hand, this was a nice show of accountability. Executives rarely face the public, too often leaving coaches and players to explain wider team problems. Mills and Perry built this mess. They should answer for it.

On the other hand, Mills is seemingly passing blame onto Knicks coach David Fizdale.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Even before a startling news conference in the wake of a blowout loss to Cleveland, New York Knicks president Steve Mills had started to lay the internal groundwork for the eventual dismissal of coach David Fizdale, league sources told ESPN.

Mills is selling owner James Dolan on a roster constructed to be highly competitive in the Eastern Conference, leaving Fizdale vulnerable to an ouster only weeks into the second season of a four-year contract that league sources say is worth $22 million.

Frank Isola of The Athletic:

What Mills didn’t say is that he and Dolan spoke at length during halftime of the blowout loss and, according to one source, Dolan told Mills he was “disappointed” with the team’s 2-8 start. The same source said that Dolan ordered his top basketball decision-makers to address the media after the game, which is highly unusual but interesting nonetheless.

Mills knows how to navigate Madison Square Garden politics. He both preceded and succeeded Phil Jackson running the front office. Fizdale might make for a good scapegoat.

But Mills also faces an external threat.

Isola:

According to several people familiar with the Knicks thinking, Dolan is plotting to take another run at Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri.

This isn’t the first time the Knicks have been linked to Ujiri. Running the Nuggets, Ujiri famously outmaneuvered Dolan with the Carmelo Anthony trade. Then, with Toronto, Ujiri fleeced the Knicks with the Andrea Bargnani trade. Dolan was so shook, he later vetoed a trade for Kyle Lowry in fear of getting worked again by Ujiri.

That’s the type of executive a team should covet.

Dolan has spent big – just often on the wrong people. Phil Jackson, who had no executive experience, is the prime example.

Ujiri has proven he can assemble a championship team. He can manage an organization, completely. He’s worth a huge offer.

Would Ujiri leave the Raptors? The Wizards reportedly pursued him last summer and came up empty. Dolan’s deep pockets and New York prestige could give Ujiri things to consider.

In the meantime, the Knicks must manage their current mess. That might mean ousting Fizdale. The coach has made negligible clear positive impact. It’d be hard for any coach to do much with this roster, but Fizdale also hasn’t given much reason to save his job.

If New York fires Fizdale, though, that could be just the start of a wider shakeup.

Giannis Antetokounmpo tears jersey, kicks hole in sign after air-balling FT (video)

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Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s adventures at the free-throw line continued with another air ball yesterday.

He went Luka Doncic/Marcus Smart afterward.

Not only did he rip his jersey – using his teeth! – (see video above), he kicked a hole in a sign on the way to the locker room in Oklahoma City.

Gabe Ikard of The Franchise:

Eric Nehm of The Athletic:

Antetokounmpo took out his frustrations on the Thunder. In the second half, he scored 24 points on 9-of-11 shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds.

He finished with 35 points and 16 rebounds in the Bucks’ 121-119 win.

Knicks management ‘not happy with where we are right now’ after blowout loss to Cavs

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It was ugly.

The Cleveland Cavaliers showed up to Madison Square Garden Sunday with a roster in transition — young players such as Collin Sexton learning on the job next to veterans such as Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson who have trade rumors swirling around them — but they play hard and smart for first-year NBA coach John Beilein.

That effort blew the doors off the Knicks, who trailed by 30 and ultimately lost to the Cavaliers 108-87.

The Knicks have lollygagged to a 2-8 start to the season and after the embarrassment at the hands of Cleveland on Sunday there was a lot of soul searching in the Knicks organization. Enough that president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry made a surprise appearance to speak to the media afterward.

Here’s Mills’ quote, via Ian Begley of SNY.tv.

“Obviously, Scott and I are not happy with where we are right now. We think the team’s not performing to the level that we anticipated or we expected to perform at and that’s something that we think we have to collectively do a better job of delivering the product on the floor that we said we would do at the start of this season.

“We still believe in our coaching staff, we believe in the plan that Scott and I put together and the players that we’ve assembled. But we also have to acknowledge that we haven’t played at the level we expected to play at. We’ve sort of seen glimpses of how we can play as a team, when everything comes together. But we’ve got to find a way to play complete games at the level that we expect our team to play at and that’s a responsibility that we take collectively. But I also think it’s important for us to communicate to our fans that we’re not happy where we are right now and we’re committed to making this better.”

Knicks coach David Fizdale walked up to the podium postgame and took full responsibility for his team’s early play this season.

When a team struggles it is usually the coach who becomes the scapegoat — and Fizdale deserves blame. Not all of it, but certainly some. Sunday the Knicks faced a struggling backcourt defensively in Cleveland, so they attacked it with.. a lot of Julius Randle post-ups. However, Marcus Morris didn’t want to blame the gameplan, saying, “At the end of the day, f*** the X’s and O’s. We have to come out and we have to be better.”

Nothing is imminent, but owner James Dolan is not famous for his patience (except with Isaiah Thomas). Fizdale or someone else in the front office could be in trouble if the losses keep piling up. Again, from Begley.

Multiple SNY sources familiar with the matter said as recently as Thursday that there was no indication that any major coaching or management change was imminent. But those sources stated that nothing had been ruled out with regard an in-season front office or coaching change.

New York’s front office — and it’s fans — should know it is in a rebuilding process (and that it is okay to do that in New York). Sunday there was a lot of talk about staying the course and the process and “pounding the rock.” But when a team is getting outworked the process issues seem secondary.

The Knicks entered this season with outsized expectations — welcome to New York — for an ill-fitting roster where the focus should be player development. No matter what was being sold to Dolan and the fans by management, this is not a playoff roster. Even in the East.

That said, the Knicks shouldn’t be getting blown out like this at home, either. They didn’t land the biggest names on the board last summer, but they did spend on players such as Randle and Morris, and young players like RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson provide hope for the future. This team should be better than it is. Instead, the reality is they are tied for dead last in the league in net rating (-10.2, the same as the Memphis Grizzlies).

We have yet to see evidence of the culture change Mills and Perry have said they wanted to bring. Changing coaches early in the season (or making another front-office change) would re-enforce the belief among players and agents around the league there is a lack of stability in New York — and that instability starts at the very top of the organization. Also, Fizdale and everyone in the front office has multiple years left on their contracts — Dolan would have to eat a lot of money to let someone go.

Thursday night Kristaps Porzingis returns to Madison Square Garden, wearing the colors of the Dallas Mavericks, for a nationally televised game. If that is another embarrassment, like the game Sunday, all bets are off on the Knicks being patient and not making changes.

Three Things to Know: Raptors show Lakers how roster depth is needed to win a ring

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Raptors show Lakers how roster depth is required to win a ring. To win an NBA title takes a couple of things coming together perfectly. First, you need stars playing at an elite level — Toronto had that last season with Kawhi Leonard dominating the playoffs, plus All-Stars such as Kyle Lowry stepping up. Secondly, it requires some role players to perform at a championship level, such as Fred VanVleet taking over the fourth quarter of a Finals closeout game.

The Lakers have championship aspirations this season. No doubt they have the stars — LeBron James is playing at an MVP level this season and Anthony Davis is beasting.

Do they have the role players? That’s the question. So far this season the Laker bench has been surprisingly good, led by Dwight Howard, but Sunday night they saw what the next level will take.

Toronto showed the Lakers what championship depth looks like. Lowry (fractured thumb) and Serge Ibaka (sprained ankle) were in street clothes Sunday night. Toronto’s remaining star Pascal Siakam did his part putting up 24 points — 18 of them when Kyle Kuzma was guarding him, he torched the young Laker (via NBA.com matchup data). But he was equal opportunity, scoring on everyone.

However, it was VanVleet’s 23 points, Chris Boucher’s 15 plus defensive blocks, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson having his best night as a Raptor that sparked Toronto’s 113-104 win. That victory snapped the Lakers’ seven-game win streak.

Boucher, in particular, was a beast in the fourth quarter.

Anthony Davis admitted after the game he’s still playing through some shoulder pain, something he has battled for a couple of weeks since he jammed it on a missed dunk attempt. He’s not going to want to sit, but this is what the much-discussed load management really is — rest the bumps and bruises everyone has during an NBA season so it doesn’t become something bigger. Davis knows his body — and he had 27 in this game — but it’s something to watch.

The Lakers’ defense, which has been impressive all season, was off against Toronto — they got burned on backdoor cuts and other sets they have stopped previously. That happens. And there are nights Hollis-Jefferson is hitting fadeaways from the post and you just tip your cap and move along.

This was just one November game and should not be weighted too heavily for or against the Lakers.

But it was also a reminder of what depth on a championship team looks like.

2) Another game, another Nikola Jokic game-winner. Nikola Jokic is clutch.

We can debate how much his conditioning (or lack thereof) has led to a slow start to the season by his standards. What matters is he has not taken the step forward Denver needs if they are going to contend this season and not exit in the second round again.

But the Nuggets are 7-2 now because the last two games Jokic has drained a game-winner. The first came against the Sixers capping a 19-point comeback.

Sunday’s came against Minnesota after the Timberwolves had come from 16 down in the fourth to force overtime.

Go ahead and talk about how Denver is not sharp this season and has a bottom-10 offense, they are still 7-2 and atop the Western Conference. They will be a tough out when Jokic is hitting shots like that.

3) Miami suspends Dion Waiters 10 games for “conduct detrimental to the team.” Miami had to do something. Dion Waiters has been a distraction and a disruption this season in a franchise that tolerates neither.

The latest incident was him taking too-many THC-infused edibles before a team flight to Los Angeles, waking up in a panic attack, and paramedics needing to be called to the plane when it landed. Maybe a teammate gave Waiters the “gummy” (and he’s no snitch), but he still took it. He was the distraction.

Miami couldn’t suspend Waiters for the THC incident — that is covered by the league’s CBA and there is a protocol — but considering Waiters had already called out team management on social media and had other clashes with the coaching staff, they had grounds to go another route.

Waiters has been suspended 10 games for “conduct detrimental to the team.”

“We are very disappointed in Dion’s actions this season that include the very scary situation on Thursday night, and grateful that the outcome wasn’t worse,” the Heat said in a statement released with the suspension announcement. “There have been a number of instances this season in which Dion has engaged in conduct detrimental to the team. … We are proud of how our players have started the season. We expect all of our players, including Dion, to conduct themselves in accordance with the highest standards, and to show professionalism and respect for their teammates, the team, the fans and the NBA community.”

Miami has been open to trading Waiters, but with all this — and two seasons, $24.8 million still on his contract — there have not been any takers. Expect Miami to keep Waiters available as we get closer to the trade deadline.