Three Things to Know: Did Durant foul LeBron? Probably, but that’s not why Cavs lost.

Associated Press
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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) Did Kevin Durant foul LeBron James on a late drive? Twice? Probably, but that’s not why Cleveland lost. First things first: This was no NBA Finals preview on Christmas Day when Cleveland traveled to Golden State. Not because these two teams will not meet again in the Finals — I would put the odds at a little better than 50/50 they do — but because both will be different teams come June. The Cavaliers will have Isaiah Thomas starting at the point, and Stephen Curry will be opposite him, that alone changes a lot of dynamics and we’re not even getting into trades, players’ shifting roles, and more.

What we did get on Christmas Day was a great show — a 99-92 Warriors win that ended in controversy that consumed Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy on the broadcast, not to mention NBA Twitter.

Did Kevin Durant foul LeBron James on his drives to the rim late? On this play he did if you ask me.

Shockingly, LeBron said he was fouled after the game, Kevin Durant said no.

I have a long-running belief about controversial calls at the end of games: If a team puts itself in that position, it has to live with referee mistakes. Don’t want that play to matter? Then be better before and take it out of the officials’ hands. Cleveland’s bench cost them this game shooting a collective 6-of-26 and getting outplayed all afternoon (the bench has been improved this season, not this day). The Cavaliers starting backcourt (Jose Calderon and J.R. Smith) were a combined 1-of-9 from the floor. The Cavs lack of depth and the fact they have guys on this roster who can be exploited in a playoff series was evident. Frankly, Cleveland lost because right now the Warriors are the better team. LeBron almost changed that, because he’s LeBron, but it wasn’t enough.

There were interesting takeaways from this game, especially looking ahead to a potential NBA Finals rematch (for a fourth straight year). First, Jae Crowder did a respectable job guarding Durant for much of the game. Yes, KD had 25 points on 19 shots, but he’s one of the great scorers the game has ever seen, he’s going to get his. This was manageable for Cleveland. Crowder made him work for his buckets. Crowder has been a disappointment to start the season, but in recent weeks has looked healthier and rounded into form (not so coincidentally when the Cavs went on a winning streak). Having Crowder on Durant opens up a lot of other defensive options for the Cavs.

Also interesting was Steve Kerr going small from the opening tip, starting rookie Jordan Bell opposite Kevin Love and sitting Zaza Pachulia. We will see more variations of this as things heat up for Golden State.

If this is the NBA Finals matchup again, we are going to have an entertaining series. One with controversy.

2) Thunder make a statement in beating Rockets, but the bigger question is what has happened to Houston’s defense? How long have we been saying “once Oklahoma City gets it together…”

Looks like they have. Five straight wins now, the latest came over the Rockets on Christmas Day, 112-107 against Houston. Russell Westbrook had 31 points and 11 assists, and it felt like a coming out party as the big three (Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony) combined for 75 points. As a team, OKC shot 54.4 percent overall and 44.4 percent from three. Andre Roberson was crucial down the stretch making big plays. The Thunder earned this win with their play late.

Houston has lost three in a row, and while Chris Paul being out certainly has set the offense back a little, that’s not the problem — it’s the defense. In those three losses, the Rockets have allowed a league-worst 119.6 points per 100 possession. What has fueled the Rockets rise to look like a legit threat to the Warriors is not just an elite offense — on pace to be the best in NBA history in points scored per possession — but the fact the defense was top 10 in the league (currently eighth). They have done a good job on the glass, not fouling, and putting weaker defenders (Ryan Anderson, James Harden) in positions to mitigate the damage. But the last three games the Rockets have been a mess defensively, and that’s what they have to clean up to turn this thing around.

3) Sixers show they are all about Joel Embiid, get win over Knicks. This was a quality win for a Sixers team that had been stumbling. Going into Madison Square Garden on Christmas and beating the Knicks is no simple task, and this showed the team can win (even when Ben Simmons is just okay, 8 points on 8 shots).

What this game really showed is now much Philadelphia relies on Joel Embiid. When Embiid was on the court Christmas Day, Philadelphia outscored New York 90-65. They won 105-98 in a close game. Embiid was a force at both ends: he defended well and protected the paint with three blocks, hit a couple of threes, and was the one Sixer consistently attacking and getting to the free throw line. Embiid finished the game with 25 points and 16 rebounds.

Philly shoots itself in the foot with turnovers every game (they lead the league in turnovers by a wide margin) and did it again late on Christmas, with three straight turnovers at one point when they should have put the game away. They let the Knicks hang around.

All that played out Monday, too. The game also was close because of a big night from Enes Kanter, who was a beast inside with 31 points and 22 rebounds — 11 offensive.

The Knicks are currently the eighth seed in the East (tied with Miami for that spot), but they need to now start winning on the road to keep it. New York has had 21 home games and is 15-6 there, but just 12 road games where they are 2-10. Stan Van Gundy conspiracies aside,  this is a team that needs to start winning on the road, or they will be home for the playoffs. Again.

Hawks trade Harkless, second-round pick to Thunder for Vit Krejci

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The Atlanta Hawks just saved some money, getting under the luxury tax line. The Oklahoma City Thunder picked up a second-round pick for their trouble of taking on a contract.

The Hawks have traded Moe Harkless and a second-round pick to the Thunder for Vit Krejci the teams announced (Shams Charania of The Athletic was first).

This saves Atlanta a little over $3 million, which moves them from above the luxury tax line to $1.3 million below it. While the almighty dollar was the primary motivation in the ATL, the Hawks also pick up a development project. Krejci showed a little promise in his rookie season, appearing in 30 games and averaging 6.2 points plus 3.4 rebounds a night, before having his knee scoped in April.

Krejci was on the bubble of making the team in Oklahoma City, now the Thunder pick up a second-round pick for a guy they might have waived anyway.

Harkless, 29, is on an expiring $4.6 million contract, which fits nicely into the Disabled Player Exception the Thunder were granted for Chet Holmgren’s season-ending foot injury.

The Thunder are expected to waive Harkless and buy him out, making him a free agent. However, they could keep him and see if another trade could net them another second-round pick.

Lonzo Ball says ‘I can’t run’ or jump; Bulls’ Donovan has to plan for extended absence

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
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Officially, Lonzo Ball will be out 4-6 weeks after getting his knee scoped this week.

However, this is his second surgery on his left knee this year — he had meniscus surgery in January, after which he was never able to return to the court — and there are concerns Ball could miss significant time again. And coach Billy Donovan has no choice but to plan for an extended absence.

Ball did a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday and it’s hard to come away from what he said overly optimistic. Rob Schaefer reported on the call for NBC Sports Chicago:

“Literally, I really can’t run. I can’t run or jump. There’s a range from, like, 30 to 60 degrees when my knee is bent that I have, like, no force and I can’t, like, catch myself. Until I can do those things I can’t play,” Ball said. “I did rehab, it was getting better, but it was not to a point where I could get out there and run full speed or jump. So surgery is the next step.”

The symptoms are something Ball said he has never dealt with and have left doctors, in his words, “a little surprised.”

It’s never good when doctors are surprised. Ball said the doctors don’t see anything on the MRI, but there is clearly something wrong, so they are going in and looking to find the issue and fix it.

Ball has been diligent in his recovery work from the start, the problem was pain in his knee. Something was still not right after the first surgery. Whatever it is.

The 4-6 week timeline would have Ball back in early November, but you know they will be overly cautious with him after the past year. Coach Billy Donovan was honest — he has to plan for a season without Ball.

The Bulls need Ball in a deep and challenging East. He brings defense, pushes the pace in transition, and takes care of the rock. Chicago has other players who can do those things individually — Alex Caruso can defend, Coby White pushes in transition, Goran Dragic takes care of the ball — but the Bulls lack one player who can do all those things. At least they lack one until Ball returns.

Whenever that may be.

Deandre Ayton says he hasn’t spoken to coach Williams since Game 7

Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans - Game Four
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In a Game 7 against the Mavericks last May, Suns coach Monty Williams benched center Deandre Ayton, who ended up playing just 17 minutes in an ugly, blowout loss for Phoenix. When asked about it after the game Williams said, “It’s internal.”

Ayton and Williams have not spoken since then, according to Ayton.

Yikes. Remember that includes a summer where the Suns would not offer Ayton a max contract extension so he went out and got one from the Pacers, then the Suns instantly matched it. Ayton did not sound thrilled to be back in Phoenix on Media Day, and he was rather matter-of-fact about dealing with his coach.

It’s what every fan wants to hear — “this is just my job.”

Reporters asked Williams about this and he played it off, saying he hasn’t spoken with a lot of players yet.

It’s just day one of training camp, but there are a lot of red flags around the Suns: owner Robert Sarver being suspended and selling the team, Jae Crowder not in camp waiting to be traded, and now not a lot of communication between the team’s star center and its coach.

Maybe it all amounts to nothing. Maybe the Suns get on the court, Chris Paul looks rejuvenated, Devin Booker looks like Devin Booker, and none of this matters. But what had looked like a stable situation not that long ago now has a lot of red flags flying heading into the season, and that has to concern Suns fans.

 

Report: Lakers would have traded both first-round picks for Irving, Mitchell

Utah Jazz v Brooklyn Nets
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“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it,” Lakers GM Rob Pelinka said at media day, pulling back the curtain a little on his thinking of trading two first-round picks. “So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

That tracks with the consistent messaging out of Los Angeles all summer: The Lakers would only trade the only two first-round picks they fully control for the rest of this decade (2027 and 2029) for a deal that made them a contender.

That meant landing Kyrie Irving or Donovan Mitchell, ESPN’s Dave McMenamin said on The Hoop Collective Podcast.

“I’ve been told that had the Lakers been able to acquire, Kyrie Irving, or the Lakers been able to acquire Donovan Mitchell, either of those players, the Lakers were willing and able to move both those [first-round] picks to do it.”

The problem for the Lakers is the market price for elite talent has moved beyond two first-round picks. The Jazz got three unprotected first-round picks (2025, 2027 and 2029) plus the rights to two pick swaps (2026 and 2028) in the Mitchell trade, not to mention three players: Lauri Markkanen (who they will try to trade for another pick), Collin Sexton, and Ochair Agbaji. The price for Kyrie Irving would have been at least as high, if the Nets really wanted to trade him.

The Lakers traded all of their young players and most of their picks to land Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook, except for the ones they let walk away (Alex Caruso). Before he was judicious in making trades like he was this offseason, Pelinka made deals that backed him into this corner.

The Lakers likely could use both picks to acquire Buddy Hield and Myles Turner out of Indiana (sending Westbrook back), but that doesn’t make Los Angeles a contender (a playoff team, but not a title threat) and it messes with the plan to have around $30 million in cap space next summer to chase a big name.

The Lakers you see in training camp are the Lakers you get. At least for now.