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Three Things to Know: LeBron James takes over and Denver has a front row seat

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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) It’s good to be the King: LeBron James owns final minutes, lifts Cavaliers past Nuggets. There’s not a lot more the Denver Nuggets could have done. Nicola Jokic went off for 36 points of 14 shots, plus had 13 rebounds and six assists. Gary Harris gave them a boost going 4-of-6 from three on his way to 18 points. The Nuggets played hard on both ends, something they have not done consistently enough all season.

The Cavaliers have LeBron James. Ballgame.

LeBron had 39 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds, but that doesn’t tell the story. He imposed his will on this game, and in the final two minutes of the game single-handedly outscored the Nuggets 9 to 6, securing the 113-108 win.

After the game, in his walk-off interview on ESPN, LeBron said is game is “Probably (at) an all-time high. Just because of my body, my mind, the way I go out and approach the game.”

It’s hard to argue. At age 33 in his 15th NBA season, LeBron is averaging 27 points per game on 54.5 percent shooting, with 9 rebounds and 8.4 assists per night, with a PER of 28.1. He’s playing at an MVP level (although his rough and disinterested at points January likely costs him the award to James Harden). Energized with a younger, more athletic roster around him — one that will add Kevin Love to the mix in the coming weeks, a big boost for this team — this is still the team to beat in the East. Toronto and Boston will have a shot, but they have to dethrone the King. And he is not just giving that crown away.

On the other side, with the loss, Denver fell out of the playoffs in the West by percentage points to the Clippers. In reality, the Nuggets, Clippers and Jazz are all in a virtual tie for the final playoff slot, just 1.5 games back of Oklahoma City and 2.5 back of stumbling Minnesota (without Jimmy Butler). The Jazz have the easiest schedule of all of them the rest of the way, but the Nuggets are close. Every game matters, and Denver needs to play more like from Jokic and others, and a couple more stops. But some nights, LeBron happens and there’s nothing you can do.

2) What an ending — Raptors beat Pistons in one of the most entertaining games of the year (and Toronto clinched a playoff berth). Detroit finally played a game with the desperation of a team that needs a lot of wins (and a little help) to climb back into the playoffs. They just picked the team with the best record in the East to do it against. And on a night DeMar DeRozan decided to make his case for All-NBA team consideration with 48 points on 28 shots, just going to work on Detroit in the midrange with a combination of footwork and confidence that looked like his boyhood idol Kobe Bryant.

The final couple minutes of this game were as entertaining as any all season. DeRozan — who had 9 points in the final two minutes of regulation — and Blake Griffin went back-and-forth to force overtime.

First, DeRozan hit one of those midrange shots that even good defense could not stop to make it 111-109.

Griffin answered with an and-1 bucket in the lane — he was too big and too strong for Toronto defenders all night. The Pistons were up 112-111 after Griffin’s free throw, but DeRozan then answered with the play of the game, an and-1 of his own.

Then Griffin responded with the power move and baby hook that forced OT.

Overtime went back-and-forth, but it was a DeRozan drive-and-dish to Fred Van Vleet that led to the game winner with 1.1 left.

The Raptors clinched a playoff berth with the win (and they likely will be the No. 1 seed), and this loss may have sealed the fate of the Pistons. It’s going to be an interesting off-season in Detroit.

3) Anthony Davis goes down with sprained ankle, X-rays are negative, and Pelicans win 10th straight anyway. Anthony Davis has inserted himself into the MVP conversation with his play since DeMarcus Cousins went down (he’s not in front of Harden, or shouldn’t be, but he’s on the ballot), leading the Pelicans to nine straight wins coming into Wednesday night against the Kings.

Then this happened, and all of New Orleans held its breath.

Davis did not return in the second half. The good news?

That said, X-rays don’t tell a lot on sprained ankles. How much it swells up overnight — and what they find on the MRI that will certainly be done Thursday — will tell us a lot more. Hopefully Davis is not out for long.

Even without him, the Pelicans were able to hold on and beat the tanking “playing their young players to develop them” Sacramento Kings 114-101. Nikola Mirotic had 26 points and 10 rebounds for New Orleans in the win. The Pelicans are currently the four seed in the West, but just 3.5 games ahead of the Denver/Utah/L.A. Clippers trio where two teams will be out of the playoffs. New Orleans has the Wizards, Jazz, Rockets, and Celtics as four of their next five games, they can’t afford to be without Davis for too long.

Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart will be Team USA captains in World Cup

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Team USA is just about ready to get underway for the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China. The United States beat Australia on Wednesday night in a tune-up game, 102-86.

Several big-name NBA players have dropped out of participating with the Team USA roster this summer, but it appears that things have solidified as we enter late August. To that end, we now have confirmation about who Team USA’s captains will be moving forward.

According to Kemba Walker, he and fellow Boston Celtics teammate Marcus Smart will be the captains for the international squad in this year’s World Cup.

Via NBC Sports Boston:

“We have a bunch of guys who don’t mind being the underdogs,” Walker told reporters. “We are hungry, and we are going to go out there to try and win a gold medal…I take pride in being a leader and guys looking to me and I’m here to set the tempo and bring my experience and energy.”

This is a point of pride for Celtics fans, and Walker and Smart appear to be two excellent choices as captains of this young Team USA roster.

It’s not going to be easy for Team USA to win the World Cup. Leadership and camaraderie has often been the deciding factor in the USA’s performance in international play. The team rallied around a strong locker room after their poor performance in the 2004 Olympics, coming together to win the gold in the 2008 Beijing games.

Walker and Smart should provide leadership and calmness for a team that will have many challengers who view them as vulnerable.

Minnesota’s Gersson Rosas says Andrew Wiggins must be “main contributor” to T-wolves

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Last season in Minnesota — with Jimmy Butler torpedoing the team and ending the Tom Thibodeau era — was pretty much the figurative definition of a train wreck.

Out of that wreckage, the Timberwolves think they found some positives. Ryan Sunders was thrown into the fire as a young coach but bonded with Karl-Anthony Towns. Robert Covington sparked the defense before his injury. Josh Okogie emerged as a player. This summer the team drafted a player with a lot of potential in Jarrett Culver.

Minnesota also brought in the aggressive Gersson Rosas out of Houston to take over as team president and start reshaping the franchise into one that can live up to the promise of Towns’ potential. For that to start to happen, meaning a return to the playoffs, Rosas pointed to a couple of things needing to go right this season. First and foremost, they need more — and more consistency — out of Andrew Wiggins. Via Timberwolves writer/podcaster Dane Moore.

Most Timberwolves fans, and the rest of the league, have moved on from Wiggins, who has four years, $122 million left on his max contract. While he averaged 18.1 points per game last season, he doesn’t get those buckets efficiently nor consistently, and the result is an average/slightly below-average wing whose contract is an anchor on the franchise. We’ve learned no contract is untradable in the NBA, but this is as close to that line as it gets — the sweeteners Minnesota would have to throw in right now make a deal are prohibitive.

The only thing Minnesota can hope for is that in year six Wiggins takes some steps forward he did not take in the last five. Maybe continuity helps, but we’re all going to need to see it before we believe it.

The other thing Rosas said Minnesota needs: More consistent defense from Towns.

Saunders seemed to connect with Towns and got him to defend, and Covington played MIC linebacker calling out coverages and getting guys in position before his injury. Rosas said Covington would be good to go at the start of the season, if so that gives the Timberwolves real hope that the defense will improve.

Whether all of that will be enough to get them into the playoffs in a deep West is another question, but at least Minnesota seems to be moving in the right direction now.

President Donald Trump awarding Medal of Freedom to NBA star Bob Cousy

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WASHINGTON (AP) President Donald Trump is set to present basketball legend Bob Cousy (KOO’-zee) with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The award is being handed out Thursday. It celebrates individuals with a wide range of achievements and is the nation’s highest civilian honor.

The 91-year-old Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame member played for the Boston Celtics from 1950 to 1963. He won six league championships and the 1957 MVP title.

Cousy is also known for speaking out against racism. He was an ardent supporter of black teammates who faced discrimination during the civil rights movement.

Cousy will be the second person to receive the award this year from Trump. Golfer Tiger Woods received the honor in May.

Report: Shelly Sterling, members of Clippers organization heard Donald Sterling audio in advance and didn’t act

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In 2014, published audio of a racist rant by then-Clippers owner Donald Sterling rocked the country.

It shouldn’t have. Sterling’s racism and sexism were well-established by then. But few cared. The audio poured gasoline on the fire and moved people to act. I wish it didn’t require that. But it did.

What if the audio didn’t become public through TMZ? Apparently, there might have been opportunity for another outcome.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

The fact is Shelly and several people in the Clippers organization heard the recording and decided not to act on it or weren’t appalled enough to act on it. Maybe they didn’t understand how big a splash this tape could make.

It’s unclear when Shelly Sterling (Donald’s wife) and other members of the Clippers organization heard the audio. Maybe it was while TMZ was doing due diligence. If so, it was probably too late to change the course of history.

But perhaps it was when V. Stiviano – Donald’s girlfriend who made the original recording and was being sued by Shelly – was still the only one in possession of it. Stiviano was clearly upset with how things were going financially between her and the Sterlings. For the right price, maybe the audio would have gone away before becoming public.

I’m glad it didn’t happen that way. The world is better off knowing exactly who Donald Sterling is.

Yet, this leads to an incredible “what if?” What if the people who heard the audio in advance understood the magnitude, acted in Sterling’s best interest and paid to have the audio kept secret? Would Sterling still own the Clippers today?