Three Things to Know: Cavaliers keep adding questions, Raptors answer theirs

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.

1) Cleveland adds more questions after loss to Portland, Toronto keeps answering its questions. Do I have questions about how Toronto transfers what it has done this season (especially on offense) to the postseason? Yes.

However, I have far more questions about Cleveland and Boston than I do the Toronto.

Which is why Toronto is the Eastern Conference favorite right now (well, not in the mind of bookmakers, but in the minds of a growing number of NBA observers). It looked like it again Thursday, when the Raptors beat the Pacers on the road in Indiana, while a couple of hours later the Cavaliers fell on the road to the Trail Blazers.

The Cavaliers had their moments in Portland — the highlight of which was a Dunk of the Year candidate from LeBron James on Jusuf Nurkic. Ouch.

However, the Cavaliers have lost 3-of-4 and 5-of-8, and they are clearly getting frustrated — see LeBron and coach Tyronn Lue in an argument on the bench as the team fell further behind.

That argument doesn’t mean much long term, those two are just letting off some steam. It’s what is causing the frustration that is the bigger issue — Cleveland lacks any defensive cohesion. No doubt the Cavaliers are banged up — they should get Kevin Love back next week, and others such as Tristan Thompson will follow — but since the roster shakeup at the trade deadline this team tries on defense but the players are not all on the same page. Building that takes time — a training camp, a season of playing together — and the Cavaliers simply don’t have that much time left.

Meanwhile, Toronto goes into Indiana against a Pacers team that has been hot and wins (Myles Turner suffered a high ankle sprain in this one for Indy, a concern because the pick-and-pop big had been playing well of late). That’s 10 in a row for Toronto — and they didn’t play their best game. Kyle Lowry was rather “meh” with 3-of-10 shooting, and it wasn’t a great night for Serge Ibaka.

Didn’t matter. Under pressure from a good team — the current three seed in the East — the Raptors defended well, kept the ball moving on offense, got a big night from DeMar DeRozan (24 points on 15 shots with a couple of threes) and Jonas Valanciunas had 16 points, 16 rebounds, and 6 blocks. Dwane Casey is making the adjustments needed every night to get the win.

I get the hesitation, having watched Lowry and DeRozan struggle in the postseason before, but this season feels different in Toronto. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers just keep adding more questions to the mix.

2) West playoff update: Blazers, Jazz, Nuggets, Spurs all win, while Pelicans and Clippers lose. There were some critical head-to-head matchups in the West last night that could have major playoff implications down the line. The Rockets were attacking and playing downhill, Doc Rivers was pissed at the officiating, and Houston beat the L.A. Clippers 101-96 at home. LaMarcus Aldridge was too much for the Pelicans to deal with and San Antonio beat New Orleans 98-93 — do not count the Spurs out. (You would think people would learn that lesson by now.) As noted above, Portland beat Cleveland. The Jazz had little trouble with Phoenix, but that one guy feisty at the end as Marquese Chriss and Jared Dudley cheap shoted Ricky Rubio and were ejected. Finally, Denver got a triple-double from Nikola Jokic as the Nuggets beat the fading Pistons 120-113.

What does all that mean for the standings? Portland looks like a playoff lock right now, 4.5 games up on the nine seed with 14 to play. OKC (idle Thursday) remains the four seed, but Minnesota climbs up to fifth while New Orleans slides to sixth. Utah and San Antonio are tied for the 7-8 seeds, the final two playoff spots, while the Clippers and Nuggets are in a virtual tie for the 9-10 spots, just one game back of the Jazz and Spurs.

Just 2.5 games separate OKC in fourth and the Clippers/Nuggets just out of the playoffs. Anything could happen still in that mix. Although with Utah having won eight in a row and having the easiest schedule remaining of any team in this chase, I like their odds of staying in.

3) RIP Tom Benson. No New Orleans Pelicans fan — or NFL Saints fan, for that matter — would consider Tom Benson an ideal owner. There were plenty of warts.

However, there would be no NBA team in New Orleans right now without him.

Benson passed away Thursday from the flu at the age of 90. He had been hospitalized for a month as the flu evolved into pneumonia.

His biggest NBA legacy is that there is still a team in New Orleans. If you recall, back in 2011, George Shinn (you might remember him as the guy who almost completely poisoned the Charlotte market for the NBA) walked away from the then New Orleans Hornets and sold the team to the league. There was a line of potential new owners ready to move the franchise to another city. Benson, who had owned the NFL’s Saints since 1985, stepped up and took control of the team. He eventually had it renamed the Pelicans, something local and more meaningful to the region (and allowing the Hornet name to go back to Charlotte, where it has local significance).

Our thoughts are with his family and friends.

Benson’s wife Gayle now has control of both sports franchises and the rest of his business empire (car dealerships and a bank, mostly). That line of succession is disputed by family members cut out right now, but so far the courts have sided with Gayle. What this means long term for the Pelicans is unclear, but don’t expect major changes short term.

Watch Donovan Mitchell drop 43, upstage LeBron return as Cavs top Lakers

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CLEVELAND (AP) — As a kid growing up in New York, Donovan Mitchell idolized LeBron James. On Tuesday night, he upstaged him.

Mitchell scored a season-high 43 points and Jarrett Allen returned from injury to add 24, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 116-102 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in James’ only visit home this season.

With Anthony Davis missing the final three quarters because of illness, the Cavs improved to an NBA-leading 11-1 on their floor, their best start at home since 2015-16, when James led them to a championship.

Mitchell, who has Cleveland fans dreaming of another title run, took over in the second half and scored 29 points with the kind of performance James had routinely during his 11 seasons for the Cavs.

“You always want to spoil the homecoming,” Mitchell said with a smile.

With Cleveland leading by 12 in the fourth, Mitchell buried a 3-pointer from the left wing to finish the Lakers. After dropping the shot, the All-Star guard strutted around the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse floor nodding his head as James helplessly watched.

“He’s Mitchell,” James said. “He’s a special kid.”

Darius Garland added 21 points and 11 assists for Cleveland.

James finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds, losing for just the third time in 20 games against the Cavs.

Dennis Schroder and Russell Westbrook added 16 points apiece as Los Angeles had its four-game winning streak stopped.

Davis went out after eight minutes with flu-like symptoms. The eight-time All-Star had scored 99 points in his previous two games and had been playing as well as he has in several seasons after being plagued by injuries.

Davis didn’t attempt a field goal and scored just one point before leaving.

“It got progressively worse as the day went on,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “His temperature was 101 and some change. A-D wanted to try to play, but he felt too weak. He’s drained and dehydrated.

“That’s a huge loss, obviously, with the way he’s been playing lately.”

Without Davis clogging the middle, Allen, who missed the last five games with a bruised back, made his first 10 shots and helped the Cavs take a 57-49 halftime lead.

“Next man up,” James said when asked how he reacted to losing Davis. “That’s a tall task – literally and figuratively.”

The Cavs welcomed James back with a video tribute during an early timeout. After a montage of clips, including some from 2016, James waved to the crowd and then blew kisses to show his appreciation.

The warm scene was in contrast to what happened almost exactly 12 years ago, when he came back with the Miami Heat and was met with boos and worse on a night James has said he’ll never forget.

James said he was caught off guard by the tribute.

“It’s always love coming back here,” he said. “The memories I have here will never be forgotten.”

 

Ben Simmons targeting Friday vs. Hawks to return from calf strain

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Ben Simmons has missed the Nets’ last three games with knee pain tied to a left calf strain, and he will be out Wednesday, too, when Brooklyn takes on Charlotte.

However, he plans to return on Friday (Dec. 9) against the Hawks.

Simmons was adjusting to a new role in Brooklyn. In Philadelphia he was a point-forward with the ball in his hands playing off Joel Embiid (at least at first), but in Brooklyn the ball needed to be in the hands of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the halfcourt. Simmons is playing more small-ball five, and is asked to be aggressive and attack when he gets the ball — not shoot jumpers — and to push the rock in transition. It took a while for Simmons to settle into that space, but he seemed to in games against Philadelphia (11 points, 11 assists), Toronto (14 points, six assists) and Indiana (20 points). Then the injuries hit.

Brooklyn sits at 13-12, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense for the season. While there are doubts about the ceiling for this team, it has a talent level that should be better than this record, it’s just been beset by injuries, controversy causing Kyrie Irving to miss time, and a coaching change. The Nets have yet to hit their stride.

But they could have a clean injury report on Friday night, and maybe that can be the start of this team getting on a run.

Suns, Hawks reportedly show interest in Kuzma trade, Wizards see him as cornerstone

Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyle Kuzma was the kind of quality, two-way role player the Lakers needed around LeBron James and Anthony Davis to win the 2020 NBA title (the type of player the Lakers wish they had now).

In Washington, his role has been elevated — he’s a 20-point-a-game scorer (20.6 points per game this season, to be precise) who is a key part of generating offense, not just playing off the stars of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis. As he told Shams Charania of The Athletic:

“As soon as I got traded, I was ready to be more,” Kuzma told The Athletic.

It’s been enough to draw the interest of a couple of teams looking for a trade, Charania adds. The Wizards are not necessarily interested in moving on, however.

Several teams, such as the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have expressed trade interest in Kuzma, according to league sources. By the same token, the Wizards have shown interest in Hawks forward John Collins, and the sides seriously discussed a potential deal last offseason, league sources added…

However, the Wizards’ front office, led by general manager Tommy Sheppard, has made clear that it views Kuzma as a cornerstone moving forward as the franchise has seen him thrive since the mega-trade in the 2021 offseason. The Westbrook trade provided future flexibility and assets for the Wizards, who have been known to be aggressive and active in research across the league.

Kuzma has a $13 million player option for next season that he will unquestionably opt out of, making him a free agent in search of a healthy raise (north of $20 million a year, although expect something more in the ballpark of the four-year, $104 million Jalen Brunson contract). If the Wizards are willing to pay they likely can keep him (they have his Bird rights). But if Washington isn’t sure it wants to pay market value, or if management sees a shifting path for future seasons, it should consider trading Kuzma at the deadline.

If he becomes available, far more teams than the Hawks and Suns would be interested, quality two-way forwards are in demand around the league. Kuzma would have some leverage over where he gets sent because he can leave as a free agent (teams would offer up less if they believed Kuzma would only be a rental for this season).

Magic send Jonathan Isaac to G-League for practice, rehabilitation

2022-2023 Orlando Magic Media Day
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There was a time when it was thought Jonathan Isaac might be the Magic’s next big star.

However, he has not stepped on an NBA court since he was in the bubble (Feb. 8, 2020), then he tore his ACL in August of that year (which came on the heels of missing much of that season with an injury to the same knee). Last March he had a setback and another procedure, and at this point he has missed two full seasons plus the start of this one.

Isaac is still working toward recovery and the Magic have assigned him to the Lakeland Magic of the G-League to get in some practice.

Because NBA teams barely practice during the season — the schedule of games nearly every other day plus travel and recovery doesn’t permit more than film sessions and walk-throughs — these kinds of baseball-style minor league rehab assignments are more and more common.

The story from the Magic’s official website notes this will be the first time Isaac will play 5-on-5 with other players during his rehab, which is a significant step forward.

There is no timeline for his return, but the Magic have him under contract this season for $17.4 million and two more fully guaranteed years at the same price. There is no reason for the franchise to walk away, even if some around the league question if his knees will ever let him back on an NBA court again.

The Magic have found their next star in Paolo Banchero and have built a promising young core, something Isaac — an elite defender before his injuries — should fit in well with. If he can get healthy and back on the court.