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Three Things to Know: Young, athletic Bucks make Cavaliers look step slow in loss

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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) Milwaukee is young, long, athletic, and for a night that made the Cavaliers look a step slow in loss. The Milwaukee Bucks had lost three in a row coming into Tuesday night because their already not-that-good defense had been abysmal. That didn’t really change Tuesday against Cleveland, the Cavs had an offensive rating of 118.9 for the game. That is a win most nights.

Not this time, not against a Milwaukee team who was just faster and more athletic than the Cavaliers all night.

Led by Giannis Antetokounmpo and his 27 points with 14 rebounds, the Bucks ran past the Celtics starting in the middle of the second quarter — on the night, Milwaukee had 24 fast break points to Cleveland’s three. The Bucks led by as many as 20 and seemed in control, until a 19-0 by the Cavaliers bench (with Jae Crowder as the lone starter) made it a game again. That meant LeBron James was back in and he had nine points in the final minutes of the game, he was an absolute force again on his way to 39 points on the night.

It was a back-and-forth ending, but a Tony Snell three (thanks to Eric Bledsoe pushing the pace) had the Bucks up two — more transition points the Bucks got in part due to Dwyane Wade not getting back fast enough to really contest. However, after a couple missed threes, it looked like the Cavaliers would have one more chance when LeBron stole the ball from Antetokounmpo — but the athleticism, speed, and long arms of the Greek Freak once again changed the game and sealed the win.

I did love that on their last chance, LeBron went playground inbounding the ball off the turned Antetokounmpo’s back so he could get it himself. It just wasn’t enough.

It’s one game in December, the Cavaliers have only lost two games in their last 20, and haven’t gotten Isaiah Thomas back yet (he’s got a G-League stint coming up first). Plus, there is no way I’d pick the Bucks over the Cavaliers in a seven-game series… but still, this was the kind of game that feels like it foreshadows things to come. The Cavaliers are older and slower than their rising challengers in the East, how many more years can they hold them off? And what does LeBron think about his future after games like this?

2) Kings beat Sixers, a reminder that when Joel Embiid sits the Sixers aren’t near the same team. When Joel Embiid is on the court this season, the Sixers have played like the equivalent of a 57 win team, but when he has sat they have played like a 23-win team. He means that much to them. So when Embiid sat out Tuesday night due to back tightness (the nearly 50 minutes he played against the Thunder had something to do with that), a game against the Kings went from what should have been an easy win to a real battle.

Philly still led by 16 in the third quarter and 10 at the start of the fourth, but couldn’t hold off the Kings, who got 10 points out of Buddy Hield in the fourth (and 24 for the night). Again it was turnovers that did in the Sixers when they blew the lead — Philly turned the ball over on 20.3 percent of their possessions in this game, one in five trips down the court. The Sixers lead the league in turnover percentage, and it’s not close. Simmons and Embiid’s replacement as a starter, Amir Johnson, were the big culprits. Mix the turnovers with inconsistent defense and a team that makes poor shot decisions down the stretch, and you get a loss. This time it was 101-95 to the Kings. The Sixers have now lost 7-of-8.

Also, with Embiid not patrolling the paint, the Sixers had no answer for Zach Randolph, and the old-school big man went off for 27.

3) The Wizards got an easy win because New Orleans had no answers for John Wall and Bradley Beal. When Washington is focused and brings its “A” game, they have one of the top backcourts in the NBA in Wall and Beal. That focus has been wildly inconsistent this season — if Washington wants to know why it’s not considered a threat to the top of the East it starts there — but those two brought it on Tuesday night.

And the Pelicans had no answers. Wall and Beal combined for 44 points and 14 assists, and that overwhelmed New Orleans (despite 63 points combined from Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins). Check out the Washington backcourt’s highlights from the 116-106 win.

Luka Doncic had more points, rebounds and assists than Warriors in first quarter

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Luka Doncic keeps doing amazing things.

But he really outdid himself in opening quarter of the Mavericks win over the Warriors last night. The box score after the first quarter:

  • Points: Doncic 22, Warriors 16
  • Rebounds: Doncic 5, Warriors 4
  • Assists: Doncic 5, Warriors 4

Outscoring Golden State? OK. Getting more assists? OK. Doing both? That’s just incredible. Doncic was in total control offensively.

The 6-foot-7 wing out-rebounding the Warriors is especially astounding. Though I suppose if 6-foot Allen Iverson out-rebounded an entire team for a quarter, it’s not that crazy Doncic did, too.

To be fair, this achievement deserves a little context. Warriors who played in the first quarter:

Three Things to Know: Kawhi Leonard, Paul George’s sloppy first game shows promise

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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) Kawhi Leonard, Paul George’s first game together is both sloppy and shows moments of real promise. This was what the Clippers had been waiting for since July, what they had paid a steep price to make a reality and change the course of a franchise.

Paul George and Kawhi Leonard shared an NBA court for the first time and it was…

Sloppy.

A bit awkward, like a blind first date. Credit Boston’s active defense for some of that — it’s not a fluke Boston has the seventh-best defense in the league this season and forced 23 turnovers on the night — but through the muck there were moments of real promise. Like the first play of the game, when the Celtics trapped Leonard off an Ivica Zubac pick, Leonard fed Zubac, who quickly found Leonard for a three.

Moments later, when the Celtics trapped Leonard, and he found George for three.

For much of the game, things were not as smooth with those two on the court together — as should be expected. George missed the first 11 games of the season following double shoulder surgery this offseason. Once he returned, Leonard was out three games with a bruised knee. The pair had literally one practice together, and in the full-contact scrimmage to end that day they were on opposing sides.

This marriage going to take time. The Clippers didn’t even explore a Leonard/George pick-and-roll in this game, but you know that’s coming. As Doc Rivers put it postgame:

“We were kind of trying not to get in each other’s way at times, you could feel that…

“We need a lot of work, you can see that… part of that was we were trying to get the ball to guys instead of trying to score.”

With the game on the line in overtime against one of the NBA’s better and hotter teams in Boston, two things that make the Clippers so dangerous were evident.

One is the defense — George and Leonard each made big defensive plays late, including Leonard blocking Marcus Smart’s attempt at a game-winner.

All game long the Clippers length and defense gave Boston — which came into the game with the league’s fourth-best offense — trouble.

Second is Leonard and George have a good team around them — Patrick Beverley was the best Clipper on the floor Wednesday night and the team gave him the game ball afterward. He was intense on defense (as always), had 14 points and 16 boards, and with the Celtics making the choice to trap and double on offense guys were open, and it was Beverley who made Boston pay with the overtime dagger to seal a 107-104 win.

The Clippers, for all their star power, look a lot like Beverley. This is a scrappy, hard-working team with guys who play their roles and bring intensity. Even their stars are that way — George and Leonard are not anointed No. 1 picks where everyone saw their stardom coming, they are lunch pail guys who had talent but came out of smaller colleges and had to work hard to get where they are. Nothing was handed to them, they had to grind it out.

This is why pairing Leonard and George was always going to take a little time to make work. They were always going to have to figure it out.

But when they do…. you can already see why the rest of the league should be worried.

2) Another night, another ridiculous Luka Doncic triple-double. This feels like a nightly thing, and I’m fast running out of ways to praise Luka Doncic, his play, and to remind everyone that he’s just 20 years old and in his second NBA season.

Age doesn’t matter, he’s been so good he’s injected himself into the way-too-early MVP conversation. His latest feat Friday night was a 35-point, 11 assists, 10 rebound triple-double against the hapless Warriors — this time he did it in just 25 minutes on the court.

Doncic scored more points in the first quarter than the Warriors (22-16) and also had more rebounds and assists than the Warriors team. The last guy to do that to any NBA team was Allen Iverson.

Doncic is now averaging a triple-double over his last 10 games: 31.9 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 10.5 assists in that stretch. Here’s the list of other NBA players to average a 30+ point triple-double for 10 games or more: Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Oscar Robertson. That’s it.

Doncic is special, has willed the Mavericks to a 9-5 record, and has them looking like a playoff team in the West. Lifting up your team to the next level is what MVPs do, and so far in Dallas it’s what Doncic has done.

3) Do you believe in miracles… YES! Ben Simmons hits his first NBA three. That headline may overstate the excitement around Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons on Wednesday. But not by that much. Sixers fans — and coach Brett Brown — has had to wait three seasons, 193 games, and 18 attempts from three clank off the rim, if they hit anything at all. (Those numbers include his playoff stats.) It finally happened:

Ben Simmons has made his first NBA three.

We’ve all seen the videos of Simmons knocking down threes in an empty gym, but that’s the NBA equivalent of dunking on an 8-foot rim at the local elementary school. Not the same thing.

This was Simmons’ first attempt at a three all season — that’s the real concern. To create floor spacing Philly wants and needs, Simmons needs to be much more willing to uncork this shot — he’s got to take a bunch and make enough of them before teams respect him from deep.

This is at least a start. And it feels like a miracle.

There’s a mural in L.A. of Alex Caruso dunking over Harden, Leonard, Doncic

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It’s hard to overstate how popular Alex Caruso is in Los Angeles. Seriously. This isn’t just cult status popular, when he enters the game off the bench Staples Center explodes in cheers like LeBron James just fed Anthony Davis for an alley-oop.

Now Caruso has his own mural in Los Angeles.

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This is legit, it’s on the side of SportieLA, a clothing/apparel store on Melrose Ave. in the trendy heart of Los Angeles. Artist Gustavo Zermeño Jr. has done murals in the past for LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and other Los Angeles sports icons such as Vin Scully.

This one plays off a huge Caruso dunk from earlier this month when Dallas’ Maxi Kleber was the victim.

It’s good to be Alex Caruso in Los Angeles right now.

Kawhi Leonard just destroyed Boston’s Daniel Theis on dunk

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Daniel Theis‘ play as a rim protector is one of the reasons Boston has a top-10 defense this season. He has anchored the Celtics’ defense in the paint.

Kawhi Leonard is a two-time Finals MVP, and if he wants to go to the rim nobody is stopping him. Theis found out the hard way.

After the game, Leonard was asked about the dunk and he responded in about the most Kawhi way possible.

This was the first game Leonard and Paul George played together and they combined for 42 points, and they both made key play down the stretch of a 107-104 overtime win.