Three Things to Know: Rajon Rondo, Vince Carter have throwback nights

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. Here’s what you missed while trying to figure out how to pay your $2.8 billion electric bill.

1) Vintage version Rajon Rondo dishes out career-high 25 assists, leads Pelicans past Brooklyn.
When the Pelicans signed Rajon Rondo over the summer, even Pelicans fans rolled their eyes. The move was seen as something to appease DeMarcus Cousins, the singing of a declining player who can’t shoot and doesn’t defend like he once did on a team that needed more shooting and defense.

However, what Rondo has always had is a high hoops IQ and a gift for passing angles — things that have helped smooth out the Pelicans’ offense as it finds mismatches and moves the ball better of late.

Thursday night he did that to the tune of 25 assists — the most in a game since Jason Kidd did it in 1996. It was a career high for Rondo and a new Pelicans team record.

There are two parts to an assist — the pass, and then the guy catching the ball has to knock down the shot. The other Pelicans were doing that Wednesday night against Brooklyn, hitting 17-of-33 from three (52 percent) and hitting 53.3 percent of their shots overall. Anthony Davis scored 33 points plus grabbed 11 rebounds, Cousins had 27 points, and both Jrue Holiday and  E’Twuan Moore broke 20. The Pelicans starters turned this game into a rout, the kind of win the Pelicans needed.

Once healthy this season, Rondo also has hit his threes (35.7 percent on four attempts a game) and has helped quarterback the Pelicans defense (which is the end of the court holding this team back, but their D has looked better the last week or so). Rondo has been solid for them. On a team where the mandate is making the playoffs, the Pelicans are relatively comfortably in (3.5 games ahead of the nine-seed Clippers, and history suggests they will hold on to that slot). I’m not sure I’d call it a revival for Rondo, but he’s found a role that fits.

2) Vince Carter jumps in hot tub time machine, outscores LeBron James, and Kings upset Cavaliers. LeBron James can’t be frustrated with the officials for this one.

Quietly the last few weeks, the Cavaliers defense has regressed to the disaster it was early in the season — in the last 10 games Cleveland is giving up 111.7 points per 100, 29th in the NBA (only ahead of a Jazz team without Rudy Gobert). The latest evidence of that was Vince Carter going off, scoring 24 points — the first time he has scored more than LeBron in a game in a decade.

As a team, the Pelicans shot 40 percent from three, finished well at the rim, and were simply efficient in the halfcourt when the Cavaliers defense was set. Also, it was the Sacramento bench that won the game, completely dominating the Cleveland bench — Carter had 24, Willie Cauley-Stein 17, and Bogdan Bogdanovic 16 all coming off the pine (or, cushy folding chairs in the NBA case).

Cleveland showed on Christmas Day that thanks to LeBron and his MVP level of play, it can hang with Golden State and the best in the NBA. Then games like this one in Sacramento — and the recent run of poor defensive performances — remind everyone that this Cleveland team has some systemic issues that teams are going to pick at in the playoffs. It’s going to be an issue.

3) Thunder win sixth straight, beat Toronto with Russell Westbrook, Paul George combining to score 63. Oklahoma City is a hot team, and while Toronto was as well it was on the second night of a back-to-back and it showed — they looked flat. This is the kind of game where the Raptors flush the video and move on, seeing it as a one-off of a bad game against a good team. It happens.

For Oklahoma City, their confidence is growing. Carmelo Anthony said after the game the Thunder are at their best when Russell Westbrook is not deferring but looking for his own first and creating off it. That’s the Westbrook we have seen more of lately, and he had 30 points and 13 assists on Wednesday night. He and Paul George were too much for the Thunder.

The Thunder were better than their record showed to start the season — they had a positive net rating despite the losing record, they just kept falling short in close games — and they’re not as good as this recent run has suggested. They’re good, probably they win around 50 games and end up the four seed in the West (maybe fifth if the Timberwolves keep winning despite their defense). That makes for a rough road in the playoffs, and the questions about whether George and Anthony stay past this season are still out there (with those playoff results impacting the decisions), but right now the Thunder are finding their groove. They are finding their identity. It just took a little while.

Watch Embiid score 47, lift 76ers past Jokic, Nuggets 126-119

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joel Embiid won the battle of MVP candidates with 47 points and 18 rebounds as the Philadelphia 76ers extended their winning streak to seven games with a 126-119 win over Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets on Saturday.

Jokic and Embiid have finished first and second in voting for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award over the last two seasons. Both are among the top candidates for MVP as this season hits the halfway mark, although Embiid was not named among the All-Star starters from the Eastern Conference.

“I’m used to it and it’s not the first time,” Embiid said. “I think it’s more of a motivation to go out there and try to win the whole thing. That’s the only way that I’ll get that respect.”

Jokic gave Embiid a nod for his play.

“He’s really talented,” Jokic told the Denver Post of Embiid. “Really shifty.”

James Harden had 17 points and 13 assists, and Tobias Harris scored all 14 of his points in the second half after being shut down by Denver’s defense in the first half.

“We were able to figure some things out and get some stops,” Harris said. “Guys stepping up and making shots was huge for us to cut the deficit in the fourth quarter to try and make something happen.”

Jokic had 24 points, eight rebounds and nine assists for Denver, which has lost three of its last four games. Jamal Murray chipped in 22 points and Michael Porter added 20.

“We turned it over and they just turned up the pressure on us,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “They got to the basket way too easy with their attack mentality. And we just got way too careless with the basketball.”

Embiid has scored 40 or more points nine times this season and 35 times in his career. In addition to the All-Star snub, Embiid was also given a $25,000 fine by the NBA on Friday for an on-court demonstration after-basket celebration during Wednesday night’s win over Brooklyn.

“Let’s keep offending Joel by fining him and not putting him among the All-Star starters,” Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers said sarcastically.

The Nuggets began the day with the second-best team field goal percentage at 50.7% and tops in 3-point percentage at 39.5%. In the first half, they overwhelmed Philadelphia’s perimeter defense, shooting 65.9% (29 for 44) from the floor and 10 of 17 (58.8%) from beyond the 3-point line. The hot shooting helped the Nuggets to a 73-58 lead at halftime.

Embiid started to take over toward the end of the third quarter, putting together a 16-point quarter on 5-of-6 shooting that keyed a 14-0 run that allowed the Sixers to close within 99-98 early in the fourth.

In the final quarter, Philadelphia wore down a Nuggets team playing the final game of a three-game, week-long trip. P.J. Tucker– who had switched defenively to Jokic and slowed him down in the second half- followed a Harden missed 3-pointer with a tip-in with over a minute left to stretch the lead to five. Embiid then hit a 3-pointer to restore an eight-point lead.

“I’ve always like to think I am a closer and I am,” Embiid said. “Taking the last shot or taking a last second shot with the clock ticking is fun for me. I love getting into those types of possession where you have to make the plays. That’s where you find out who is who and who is made up for those kinds of moments.”

Report: Myles Turner agrees to two-year, $60 million extension with Pacers

Indiana Pacers v Milwaukee Bucks
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Take Myles Turner off the trade market.

After months of negotiations, the Pacers and Turner have agreed to a contract extension, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

This has since been confirmed by other sources.

Turner — back playing his natural center spot this season with Domantas Sabonis in Sacramento — is having the best season of his career, averaging 17.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks a game. He has been one of the keys to a surprisingly good Pacers team this season.

That $60 million contract extension number can be a little misleading. Turner was already making $18 million this season, but because the Pacers are $24.4 million under the salary cap, they can do a re-negotiation and extension with the big man, giving him a $17.1 million bump right now (to a total of $35.1 million for this season) and extend off of that for two years, the first at $20.2 million and the second at $19.9 million, according to Shams Charania.

There had been a lot of trade interest in Turner, going back to last summer, most prominently with the Los Angeles Lakers in a swap that would have sent Buddy Hield and Turner to the West Coast for Russell Westbrook and two first-round picks. That draft pick compensation kept the deal from getting done (the Pacers wanted two unprotected first-rounders).

NBA refutes viral Reddit post claiming conspiracy to pad Jaren Jackson Jr.’s stats

Memphis Grizzlies v Golden State Warriors
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Jaren Jackson Jr. has been a defensive monster since coming back from foot surgery, something obvious by the eye test but backed up by impressive stats: 3.1 blocks and a steal a game, opposing players are shooting 44% on shots he contests and when he is on the court the Grizzlies have. 106.8 defensive rating (which would be best in the league by more than three points). He is the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year right now.

That led to a conspiracy theory post on Reddit about how the Memphis scorekeeper is padding Jackson’s stats, calling his numbers fraudulent. The post went viral — we all love to think we’re in on something nobody else knows — and has gotten to the point some Las Vegas sportsbooks have taken down Defensive Player of the Year betting.

The conspiracy theory does not hold water. At all.

The NBA pushed back on that theory by reminding people that all NBA stats are audited in real-time by someone watching the video in Secaucus (rebound or blocked shots being changed during a game is not uncommon because of this).

“In order to ensure the integrity of our game statistics, auditors, independent of the statisticians on-site, review all plays and stats decisions in real-time during NBA games,” NBA spokesman Tim Frank told NBC Sports. “If changes are necessary, they are made at that time or following a postgame review. All of the plays questioned in the post on Memphis games were scored consistently within the rules set forth by the NBA statisticians manual.”

Reddit has now labeled the post “Misleading.”

Another Reddit user compiled videos of the alleged stat padding incidents called out in the post, but watching them proves the NBA’s point that these were correctly assigned. For example, Jackson gets credit for steals on tipped balls, which is how steals are calculated. The video showed that many fans don’t understand the rules and definitions of what constitutes a steal or a block.

On a more fundamental level than that, the NBA now has gambling and fantasy sports partners — if there was stat padding, those entities would be on it and the first to call out the league. The league’s statistics are big business — you can bet on the number of blocks or rebounds that Jackson or other players will get — and those gambling and fantasy entities also watch the games closely.

But we’ll be talking about this conspiracy theory again when NBA awards season pops up, because people want to believe, even in the face of evidence proving they are wrong. Not that we needed basketball to teach us that lesson.

 

Report: Nuggets might consider Bones Hyland trade for defensive help

Denver Nuggets v Milwaukee Bucks
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A year ago, it felt like the Nuggets had found their long-term backup point guard in rookie Bones Hyland, a guy who could be part of the rotation when Jamal Murray returned. Except, in his second season, Hyland hasn’t taken a step forward — although his play has been better and more aggressive in recent weeks — and free agent Bruce Brown has shown he can play some backup one (even if he is more of a combo guard).

That has the Nuggets considering trading Hyland if they can get defensive help, reports Jake Fischer at Yahoo Sports.

After his name was discussed in trade conversations around last June’s NBA Draft, Denver begun gauging the trade value of second-year guard Bones Hyland, sources said…. While Hyland has two years remaining on his rookie deal, in anticipation of Brown’s next payday [Note: He is expected to opt out and test the market], plus Hyland’s upcoming second contract, has the tax-conscious Nuggets considering their options in the backcourt. Occasional clashes between Hyland and head coach Michael Malone’s old-school mentality have also been a factor in Denver’s trade dialogue, sources said.

In exchange for Hyland, the Nuggets have expressed an interest in defensive-minded frontcourt players, sources said, and will search for a player plus a first-round pick.

Brown has played his way to a bigger contract than the $6.8 million player option he has for next season, but the Nuggets are already big spenders and not looking to go deep into the tax (Nikola Jokic’s extension kicks in next season at about $46.9 million a year to start, and both Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. will make north of $33 million next season). It is possible the Nuggets let Brown walk and keep Hyland, still on his rookie contract and set to make $2.3 million next season, partly for financial reasons. Hyland is averaging 12.4 points per game and shooting 38.5% from 3, but he struggles defensively (which is where the clashes with Malone come in).

Denver has a chance to win the West this season and defense is what will decide if that happens — if the Nuggets can land another wing/forward defender, they may jump at it and worry about the backup one spot next summer. However, finding that player in a high-priced seller’s market may prove the biggest challenge — several teams are looking for that same kind of defensive help.