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) Isaiah Thomas scores 17 points in 19 minutes in return, is everything Cavaliers could have hoped in return. The consensus of scouts and executives around the league is that we probably saw peak Isaiah Thomas last season (when he was an All-NBA player who was fifth in MVP voting), that the hip injury that sidelined him for the first couple months of the season would take away some of the explosiveness and shifty lateral mobility that made him such a scoring threat. The question was how far off his peak would he be? Would the Cavaliers get 90 percent of Thomas? 80 percent?
One game is not going to answer that question, but the Thomas that took to the court with 4:32 left in the first quarter (to a standing ovation) Tuesday night looked good — he did not hesitate to pull up from three, he attacked the rim (even getting knocked down once), and in 19 minutes of play had 17 points on 6-of-12 shooting. Thomas’ debut was everything the Cavaliers could have hoped.
Cleveland went on to get the win 127-110, LeBron James led the way with 24 points and six Cavs players got into double figures.
Athletically, Thomas looked good and at least close to his old self. Time will tell, and the Cavaliers will bring him along cautiously (he is not playing in the back-to-back in Boston Wednesday). Tuesday night was promising — and the Cavaliers need that. First, because they need another playmaker who can spell LeBron for a stretch — he is tied with Andrew Wiggins for most minutes played in the league this season. Also, the Cavaliers have maybe the toughest schedule in the NBA in December — 12 opponents who are over .500 — and they need all the scoring they can get.
By the way, Damian Lillard returned in that game, too. He had missed five games with a tweaked hamstring and dropped 25 on 15 shots in the loss, hitting 6-of-9 from three. Lillard did his damage from three, only getting to the rim once and shooting more than usual from the midrange (a credit to the Cavaliers defense more than anything). It felt like a normal Blazers game: Lillard and C.J. McCollum against the world. That was not enough on Tuesday.
2) Kawhi Leonard’s comeback looks nearly complete — 25 points in 30 minutes vs. Knicks. Gregg Popovich and the Spurs have been easing Kawhi Leonard back from the quad injury that sidelined him to start the season, but the training wheels seem to be coming off.
Leonard set the tone from the start at Madison Square Garden Tuesday and finished the night with 25 points on 8-of-20 shooting (his efficiency is not yet up to where it was last season) in 30 minutes of play. His catch-and-shoot rhythm and touch are not back yet, but he was getting his shots and when the double-teams came his recognition and passing were on.
LaMarcus Aldridge continues to play like an All-Star, scoring 29 points and carving up the Knicks front line all night. Aldridge is getting to his spots on the floor (having Leonard back as a threat helps with those matchups and spacing), and when he does he’s almost unstoppable.
3) Manu Ginobili’s alley-oop pass goes in for three, referees miss it and things get weird. Manu Ginobili is so good at alley-oop passes he doesn’t need the finisher.
This is the play everyone is talking about from Tuesday night — Manu Ginobili tries to throw a lob entry pass to the fronted LaMarcus Aldridge, but instead throws it through the rim — but it bounces through the rim at a strange angle, the referees miss it and play just continues on.
When play stopped the Spurs protested (including Gregg Popovich, who admitted he didn’t see it when it happened, he was just going off what his assistant coaches said), the referees conferred, then decided it was a two, then eventually reviewed the tape and got the call right (this is why there should be instant replay). It was just a bizarre play. The pass/shot hit the back of the rim and came out at a strange angle, Michael Beasley grabbed it like it didn’t go in, and none of the three officials blinked.
Also out of this one, Gregg Popovich now fifth on coaching win list — passing George Karl — after Spurs beat Knicks.