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Three Things to Know: Isaiah Thomas ejection caps another ugly Cavaliers 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) Isaiah Thomas ejected for Andrew Wiggins caps off ugly night for Cleveland, while Timberwolves keep on streaking. Make no mistake, Minnesota earned this win. Over the past 10 games, Minnesota has outscored opponents by a best-in-the-league 11 points per 100 possessions — more importantly, the bad defense that had marred their season has been fifth best in the NBA during that stretch. Jimmy Butler is leading and the Timberwolves are not just going to break a playoff drought that stretches back to 2004, they are going to be dangerous in the postseason.

On the other side of that coin, Cleveland has been a hot mess of late. Monday night, Minnesota routed Cleveland 127-99, highlighting just how far off their game the Cavaliers are right now.

Fortunately for Cleveland, the sporting world Monday was focused on Georgia vs. Alabama, and if they saw any highlight from the Cavs/Timberwolves it was Isaiah Thomas getting ejected for clotheslining Andrew Wiggins (it wasn’t intentional, but it was basically a karate chop to the neck and that warrants an ejection every time).

Cleveland was a mess all around Monday — LeBron James had a season-low 10 points (the fewest points he’s had in a game since 2007) and sat for good midway through the third quarter. This one felt over early: Minnesota raced out to a 20-4 lead to open the game, and in the first quarter the Cavaliers shot 8-of-23 (34.8 percent), while the Timberwolves knocked down 59.1 percent of their looks. The blowout continued, with the Cavaliers going down by 41 at one point.

LeBron, coach Tyronn Lue, and others have shrugged off the Cavaliers struggles this season (there was the impressive 18-of-19 win streak and not much else) but it gets harder and harder to do that. There’s a reason other teams in the East think the Cavaliers are vulnerable. The offense was off on Monday night, but those nights happen — games where Thomas, Kevin Love, and J.R. Smith combined to go 0-of-18 in the first quarter are not the norm. Cleveland’s offense is fine. However, the Cavaliers defense is 26th in the NBA over its last 10 games allowing 111.9 points per 100 possessions and that is not a fluke — they allow 109 points per 100 for the season (29th in the NBA). Teams shoot a high percentage at the rim, the Cavaliers don’t run teams off the three-point line, and the Cavaliers allow the second-most transition opportunities in the NBA (16.4 percent of opponent possessions start in transition, and teams score a very good 124 points per 100 on those). (Stats courtesy Cleaning The Glass.)

This feels like the annual mid-season malaise that has struck the Cavaliers the past few years, that they will turn it around and start to play better eventually (the Cavs next two games are at Toronto and Indiana, two teams playing well right now). However, the underlying issues with the Cavaliers are legit. I’m still not convinced any team in the East (as currently constructed) can beat the Cavaliers in a seven-game series, but it seems plausible. Which is a big change from where things have been in the East in recent years.

2) Kyle Lowry goes down hard and appears to injure back, DeMar DeRozan leads Raptors to win anyway. DeMar DeRozan has gotten all the highlights and a lot of acclaim this season, but Kyle Lowry has been more than impressive in his own right leading a changed Raptors offense.

But he took an ugly spill Monday night and had to be carried off the court by teammates.

We don’t yet know the severity of the injury.

With Lowry gone DeRozan stepped up and carried the team in the fourth quarter, with 9 points on 4-of-6 shooting, and the game went to overtime in Brooklyn. In the extra period, DeRozan had 5 of the Raptors 7 points, and Toronto got the 114-113 win on the road. The Raptors get a rare national television game next, Thursday night against the Cavaliers (Toronto gets screwed on nationally televised games because their Canadian fan base doesn’t count in U.S. television ratings, so take this chance to watch them).

3) Steve Kerr speaks for a lot of us on LaVar Ball. To be honest, we’ve run a lot more LaVar Ball stories than I prefer the last few days. The reason is simple: You care. I may have a distaste for a father of a player — one currently on the other side of the globe — ripping his son’s coach, the simple fact is that story has generated more traffic than any other for us in recent days (and I’d bet ESPN, which put the mic in front of LaVar, had a similar impact — plus it helped feed the network’s talking head cycle for a day). If you don’t want to see more LaVar, stop reading what he says. Make him irrelevant — which is how the Lakers feel about his opinions.

You want to read more game-related stuff? Click on that. Read that. The simple fact at every NBA (and sports) site is trade rumors/roster speculation/GM talk drives far, far, far more traffic than game breakdowns.

Steve Kerr — the Warriors’ coach who has defended his good friend Luke Walton — got into all of that in a rant that sums up how I feel pretty well.

Here are Kerr’s full comments, hat tip to NBC Sports Bay Area:

“This is the world we live in now. I was thinking about ESPN. They laid off, I don’t know, 100 people. How many people did they lay off over the last year? More? Well over 100. Many of whom were really talented journalists covering the NBA. This is not an ESPN judgment, it’s a societal thing more than anything.

“Where we’re going is were going away from covering the game and getting close to sensationalized news. It’s not even news really, it’s just complete nonsense. But if you package that irrational nonsense with glitter and ribbon, people are going to watch. I’ve talked to people in the media this year. I say ‘Why do you guys have to cover that guy?’ They say they don’t want to, nobody wants to, but our bosses tell us we have to because of the ratings, because of the readership. Somewhere, I guess this is in Lithuania, LaVar Ball is laughing at all of us. People are eating out of his hands for no apparent reason, other than he’s become like the Kardashian of the NBA, and I guess that sells and that’s what’s true in politics, in entertainment and now in sports. It doesn’t matter if there is any substance involved with an issue. It’s just, can we make it really interesting, for no apparent reason. There’s nothing interesting about that story.

“Do you know how many parents of my players are sitting at home going ‘Why isn’t he playing my kid?’ And yet, we’re sticking a microphone in his face because it apparently gets ratings. I don’t know how cares, but people care. They must care, or ESPN wouldn’t be spending whatever they’re spending to send reporters to Lithuania when they are laying off people who are writing really substantial (stories), people like Ethan Strauss and Marc Stein are getting laid off. Again, this is not a condemnation of ESPN. It’ not. It’s a societal issue. It’s been going on for many, many years. And it’s invading the sports world now.”

Lakers headed to second straight Summer League title game

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Josh Hart scored 37 points and grabbed nine rebounds to lead the Los Angeles Lakers to a 112-109 double-overtime victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday in the semifinals of the NBA Summer League.

Los Angeles advanced to the championship game for a second straight year after winning the 2017 title behind game MVP Kyle Kuzma and league MVP Lonzo Ball.

The Lakers will play Portland, which knocked off Memphis in the other semi-final.

Xavier Rathan-Mayes made the play of the game when he snatched a loose ball and fed Jeff Ayres with a pretty touch pass under the basket with 45 seconds left in the second overtime. Rathan-Mayes followed Ayres’ lay-in with a slashing lay-up to put the Lakers up 110-106 with 22 seconds left.

Cleveland’s Billy Preston missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Svi Mykhailiuk scored 31 points for the Lakers (6-0), while Ayres added 20.

Collin Sexton led the Cavaliers with 27 points, while Jamel Artis and John Holland each scored 17.

Trailing 105-102 in the first overtime after Sexton made a short jumper, Rathan-Mayes buried a 3-pointer to tie the score. Hart made it 106-105 by hitting the second of two free throws with 5.7 seconds remaining. Sexton did the same at the other end, splitting two free throws and tying it at 106 with 3.3 seconds left.

The Cavaliers (5-2) erased an early 11-point deficit and tied the score at 95, when Vladimir Brodziansky buried a 3-pointer with 2:00 left in regulation.

After Mykhailiuk made one of two free throws to give the Lakers a 96-95 lead with a little more than a minute left, Hart grabbed a defensive rebound and at the other end dished to Mykhailiuk, who hit a running jumper just above the free throw line to push the lead to 98-95.

But Sexton answered with a 3-pointer to tie the score with 26 seconds left. Hart missed a 3-pointer with 3.0 seconds left, and Sexton missed one from long range at the buzzer.

The Lakers went on an 18-2 run to take a 28-17 lead led by Mykhailiuk, who was 4-for-4 from long-range in the first quarter. Los Angeles shot 50 percent (9 of 18) in the opening period and was 5 for 9 (55 percent) from beyond the 3-point line.

Hart took over in the second quarter, scoring 10 of his 14 first-half points to help the Lakers take a 50-47 lead at halftime.

USA Basketball to host World Cup qualifier vs. Uruguay on Sept. 14 in Las Vegas

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (AP) — USA Basketball’s quest to qualify for next year’s FIBA World Cup will resume Sept. 14 in Las Vegas, where the Americans will face Uruguay.

That will be the first U.S. game in the second qualifying round for next year’s world championships in China.

Like the first round, the U.S. will continue being coached by Jeff Van Gundy and will have a roster made up primarily of G League players. The Americans went 5-1 in the first round.

The U.S. and Uruguay are among 12 teams from the Americas zone vying for seven World Cup spots. The others are Argentina, Panama, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, Chile, Canada, the Dominican Republic and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The United States is a heavy favorite to qualify, then will send NBA players to China for the World Championships (there is a workout for some of those players coming up in Las Vegas in a week).

Second-round qualifying ends in late February. The World Cup begins in August 2019.

Mavericks sign second-round pick Jalen Brunson to first-rounder style contract

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Dallas is excited about the potential of Jalen Brunson.

The point guard who led Villanova to a national championship last April fell to the 33rd pick in the draft last June, high in the second round, and Dallas traded up a spot to get him from Atlanta. The Mavericks were ecstatic, and to the surprise of nobody they have reached terms on a contract with him.

What is a bit of a surprise is the Mavericks gave him a first-rounder style contract — four years with some guaranteed money for the first three of them — reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

At Summer League in Las Vegas Brunson showed the qualities that Dallas liked in him — he’s a high IQ player with polish, and he’s a pass-first floor general — but his weaknesses were also exposed. He has to shoot better (23 percent in Summer League) and his defense needs to improve.

Both of those can happen, Summer League is more of a chance for teams to benchmark players than make decisions about them. Brunson reportedly has a great work ethic, he can figure the NBA game out.

Dallas is betting that he will.

Kemba Walker: “As far as seeing me in New York, I doubt it”

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Kemba Walker is an All-Star level point guard who is heading into a contract season — he is a free agent in 2019. Walker is also a New York native, born in the Bronx he attended Rice High School in Harlem.

Combine all that with the fact both the Knicks and Nets will have enough cap space for a max (or more than one max) contract next summer, and you’ve got yourself a rumor.

One Walker shot down talking to Michael Scotto of The Athletic.

“As far as seeing me in New York, I doubt it,” Walker replied. “I’m a Hornet, and I’m planning on being a Hornet for a long time, so, yeah, I’m not sure about that (New York).”

Walker has said many times he wants to stay in Charlotte (providing they pay the market rate and are trying to compete).

That said, this is the NBA, so never say never.

A lot of NBA teams have been poised, waiting to see if new Hornets’ GM Mitch Kupchak — with the approval of Michael Jordan — decided to go full rebuild and trade Walker this summer. He has not, talking only about keeping this squad together. The Hornets are a solid team with Walker and Nicolas Batum leading the way, one that could make the playoffs in the East if things break right for new coach James Borrego. However, they will not be anywhere near contenders and if things don’t fall their way they may well miss the playoffs next season. Again. The Hornets also are not a bad team, meaning they are not going to get a high pick (without some lottery luck). They are stuck in the NBA’s middle ground, a place most GMs want to avoid.

Trading Walker could jump-start the rebuild in Charlotte, but the Hornets don’t seem to be going that direction. Yet. This summer they signed Tony Parker, Malik Monk looked good in Summer League, and they got Dwight Howard out of the locker room. They say they are a team poised to make a playoff push.

If that push falls apart early in Charlotte, watch and see if their plans change. And what that could mean for Walker. And the Knicks.

However, as of now, Walker wants to remain a Hornet, and they want to keep him. Which crowds New York out of the picture.