Three Things to Know: Cavaliers, Thunder both lose again, face serious questions

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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) Cavaliers, Thunder continue to stumble the out of the gate, both face deadlines to get it right. 
The only reason we are not talking more about how the Oklahoma City Thunder are struggling early and look like LeBron James’ 2010-11 Miami Heat — “you take a turn on offense, then I’ll take a turn,”  guys playing next to each other but not with each other — is the Cleveland Cavaliers have stolen the spotlight with their terrible defense and ugly start.

It happened again Thursday night, but this time on the big TNT national games. The Thunder struggled late and lost to the Nuggets, but it was overshadowed by another Cavaliers loss.

Cleveland’s trend this year has been to show up and play much better against any team they perceive as a threat — notice they have wins against Boston, Washington, and twice against Milwaukee — but not against lesser squads. Houston is the kind of game the Cavaliers show up for, and they did, battling back from 18 down in the first half to make it a game late. But three things led the Rockets to a win. First was James Harden dropping a triple-double of 35 points (on 21 shots), 13 assists, and 11 rebounds.

The other two keys were free throws and offensive rebounds. The Rockets attacked the Cavaliers defense all night and got to the line 36 times (led by Harden’s 14), and that was 22 times more than the jump-shooting Cavs. The other key was offensive rebounds, the Rockets got the ball and a second chance or putback on 41.5 percent of their missed shots, and that’s too many opportunities for a good offense. Clint Capela had 6 offensive boards on the night, plus 11 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter.

Even when they care right now, it’s a matter of Cleveland’s offense trying to cover up for a bad defense — the Rockets jacked up 46 threes and had an offensive rating of 119.6 (points per 100 possessions) in this game, which raised Cleveland’s league-worst defensive rating to 113 for the season. LeBron is right, the Cavs need Isaiah Thomas back, but he’s not getting them stops. The Cavs have to figure the defensive end out, because right now they look very vulnerable.

Oklahoma City built a quick 11-point lead in Denver on the back of Carmelo Anthony’s 10 first-quarter points, but the Nuggets took control of the game with a 12-1 run in the fourth quarter against the Thunder bench and held on for the win. When the pressure was on in the fourth, the Thunder shot 38 percent as a team to Denver’s 53 percent. Russell Westbrook was 1-of-6 in the fourth quarter, while Paul George got just one shot in the frame. Westbrook was 6-of-22 on the night, he struggled, but when it mattered he was taking difficult shots like it was last season, and George was nonexistent in the offense.

The Thunder make the fewest passes per game of any team in the league and run the most isolation. At the end of games, that makes them predictable. As noted by Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver, OKC now has just three assisted field goals in the final five minutes of a game within five points all season. Meanwhile their defense struggles in the clutch as well.

OKC’s challenge is this is a one-year shot with this roster. Paul George could leave as a free agent next summer, but even if he stays and Anthony opts in (as expected) it would leave the small-market Thunder with a massive tax bill (they are already paying more than $25 million this season, next season they would be a repeater). We’re talking a tax bill that would make the Knicks or Lakers freak out. OKC owner Clay Bennett says they will pay it and is all in, but nobody around the league believes he will pay the ridiculous amount that woudl be due. This is a one-year shot in OKC, and they have to figure things out sooner rather than later.

2) Rookie De'Aaron Fox drains game-winner, lifts Kings past Sixers. The Kings are not good, but go into their arena and not take them seriously and teams will pay the price. Sacramento’s young core plays hard. Philadelphia should have learned that lesson having watched Oklahoma City earlier in the week, but they did not and history repeated itself.

Philly had the lead in the fourth, but the Kings kept it close thanks to 11 fourth-quarter points from rookie forward Justin Jackson. Then Sacramento closed the game on a 7-0 run, capped off by this pull-up jumper by Fox.

One other note, the Kings defended the final shot by the Sixers well, Ben Simmons may need to take that one on the drive in the future, but his kick-out would normally get a bucket.

3) The NBA’s kind of town, Chicago is — for the 2020 All-Star Game. On Friday it will become official when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announce it, but we already know it’s happening:

The 2020 NBA All-Star Game is coming to Chicago.

It was nearly 30 years ago in 1988 when the All-Star Game last came to Chicago — that was the year Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins had one of the (if not THE) greatest All-Star Dunk contest ever. Then in Sunday’s showcase game, Jordan dropped 40 points, led the East to the win, and was named MVP.

The NBA took in a lot of applications for the 2020 and 2021 All-Star Games, from Indiana through the Golden State  (who will be in a new building by then). The 2021 location has yet to be decided. By the way, the 2018 All-Star Game will be in Los Angeles, then in 2019 the game heads to Charlotte.

Blake Griffin agrees to join Boston Celtics on one-year deal

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Blake Griffin has agreed to join the Boston Celtics on a one-year contract which will be fully guaranteed. The Celtics were desperate for frontcourt depth following injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Robert Williams, as Luke Kornet was even getting some run with the starting group at training camp.

You do have to wonder just how much the 33-year-old Griffin has left in the tank though. Last season with the Brooklyn Nets, Griffin only managed to play 17.1 minutes per game and his 3-point percentage dropped like a stone to 26%. He was also a major liability on defense, and the Celtics surely know that after Jaylen Brown drove by him with ease time and time again during the postseason.

Griffin was still an effective playmaker and that may make him a good fit with the second unit alongside the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White and Grant Williams with all of these capable of handling the ball. Injuries and Father Time have zapped Griffin’s athleticism, but if anyone can squeeze the last bit of value out of him, I’d bet on Brad Stevens.

Highlights from Japan Game: Hachimura and Wiseman put on show, plus Suga and Curry

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The NBA preseason is officially here — and it started in Japan. The Golden State Warriors faced the Washington Wizards in front of a sold-out crowd at the Saitama Super Arena in Tokyo. In case you didn’t wake up at 6 am Eastern to watch a meaningless preseason NBA game (and if you did, we’re worried about you), here are a few highlights and notes from the night.

• The Wizards were there because they have the biggest Japanese star in the NBA, Rui Hachimura, and he was given a chance to shine. The crowd erupted when he did anything.

• The leading scorer on the night was the Warriors James Wiseman with 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting, plus nine boards.

• Dunk of the game goes to Kyle Kuzma.

Stephen Curry was doing Stephen Curry things.

• Stephen Curry also met Suga of BTS and gave him some game-worn kicks. This will win Twitter for the day.

• Oh, by the way, the Warriors won 96-87. As for the level of basketball, it looked like the first preseason game after a flight halfway around the world. The teams combined to shoot 11-of-47 in the first quarter (23.4%) and both were under 40% for the game.

Klay Thompson is sitting out both Warriors games in Japan.

TRIVIA TIME: Can you name the other two players currently in the NBA born in Japan?

Cam Thomas (Yokosuka) and Yuta Watanabe (Yokohama), both of the Brooklyn Nets (Watanabe is on a training camp deal and is not expected to make the roster). Both were raised much of their lives and went to high school and college in the United States.

Thunder rookie Holmgren trying to focus on learning NBA during rehab

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Thunder rookie Chet Holmgren is experiencing the rehab process for the first time.

The No. 2 pick in the 2022 NBA draft suffered a right foot injury during a pro-am game in August while defending as LeBron James drove to the basket on a fast break. He had surgery, and the Thunder declared him out for the season.

“I’ve never had a serious injury in my life, so I didn’t really know, I had nothing to base it off of and compare to,” Holmgren said Thursday. “So when it happened, I had to get it looked at and see how serious it was. I didn’t imagine anything like this.”

Holmgren, a versatile 7-footer who had great moments during summer league, is dealing with being sidelined as the Thunder start training camp this week.

“Definitely something that I really had to put my mind to and spend some time to think on,” he said. “And kind of come to some conclusions on things and really settle my mind so I could kind of stop focusing on what happened and focus in on what’s going to happen, what I’ve got to do to get where I need to be.”

Even without practicing, he has already left an impression on his teammates.

“He’s a great guy,” guard Lu Dort said. “I can already feel a connection with me and the rest of the team. He’s a pretty vocal guy, too. He talks a lot, and that’s good for the team.”

Holmgren said his only workout limitation is that he can’t put weight on the injured foot. So, that forces him to focus on other aspects of the game. Coach Mark Daigneault said Holmgren has been working hard on film study.

“It just comes down to putting my mental energy towards it, learning how to really be a professional in areas off the court,” Holmgren said. “I’ve dedicated so much time to really hustling at my craft on the court. Now, this event is making me step back and kind of rework how how I do things. And one of those ways is to become professional with watching film and speaking with coaches, trying to learn, watching what’s happening and really being engaged, in trying to get better with different avenues.”

Holmgren has spoken with Joel Embiid about his injury. Embiid, the reigning NBA scoring champion, was the No. 3 pick in 2014 before missing his first two seasons with foot issues.

Holmgren hopes he can recover as well as Embiid.

“What I’m trying to do right now is just kind of soak up all the knowledge of how things are done around here, how they’re going to be done going forward,” Holmgren said. “So when I’m ready to get get back in there, I can just kind of seamlessly plug myself in.”

Holmgren is expected to be ready for the start of next season. He said he’s trying to keep his thoughts positive.

“It all comes down to keeping a level head because there’s so many ups and downs,” he said. “Unfortunately, this is a down. But I’ve got to keep my head level and focus on getting better. And no matter what the circumstances are, that’s the goal.”

Daigneault believes Holmgren’s mindset will net positive results.

“We’d like him to be out here,” Daigneault said. “But since he’s not, we’re certainly going to make a lot of investments, and the thing that makes me the most optimistic about that is the approach that he takes.”

Houston acquires 2025 2nd-round pick in eight-player trade with Thunder

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ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski described this as a “cap-centric deal” since it helped the Thunder get around $10 million below the luxury tax, while Houston added a 2nd-round pick by taking on $1 million in cap space.

The Rockets acquired Derrick Favors, Ty Jerome, Moe Harkless, Theo Maledon and a protected 2025 2nd-round pick from the Hawks and sent David Nwaba, Sterling Brown, Trey Burke and Marquese Chriss to Oklahoma City.

The 2nd-rounder from Atlanta is protected 31-40, and it will become the second best 2026 2nd-round pick between the Mavericks, Thunder, and 76ers if it doesn’t convey in 2025.

A tweet from Jackson Gatlin of Locked On Rockets indicates that Houston will also receive $6.3 million in cash from the Thunder.

Previous reports indicated that Derrick Favors was unlikely to remain with the Thunder this season, while Ty Jerome wasn’t participating in training camp as his representatives worked with the team to find an exit strategy for him. Kelly Iko of The Athletic reported that Houston plans to waive Jerome. Harkless was traded for the third time this summer. He was dealt from Sacramento to Atlanta in July as part of the Kevin Huerter deal, and then was shipped to OKC for Vit Krejci earlier this week. Hopefully he’ll be able to settle in with Houston this season.

As he enters his seventh season, this will be the sixth team that Nwaba has suited up for. The journeyman has had a few solid seasons, including averaging 9.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.0 steals for Houston during the 2020-21 season. Among the players in the deal, he’s the most likely candidate to carve out a role on his new team next season.

Brown, Burke, and Chriss were already traded once this summer as part of the deal that said Christian Wood to Dallas. Now, they’ll be depth pieces in Oklahoma City if the team decides to keep them around.

Daily Thunder’s beat writer Brandon Rahbar pointed out that the trade wouldn’t have been possible without the Disabled Player Exception that the Thunder received because of Chet Holmgren’s injury.