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.
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.