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

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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.

Here’s a first look at Kawhi Leonard, DeMar DeRozan in new jerseys, via NBA 2K

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Kawhi Leonard is a member of the Toronto Raptors now. There’s no way of getting around it. Even with rumors swirling about whether or not he will be happy in Canada, the truth is that we have already seen some embrace of Leonard in the six.

Likewise, DeMar DeRozan is a member of the San Antonio Spurs whether he likes it or not. Now, each have been seen for the first time in their new jerseys.

The only catch? It’s via a video game.

2K Games decided to tweet out new rendered images of both players in their respective jerseys. To be honest, I don’t think they look all that bad.

Via Twitter:

It’s going to feel a bit like a real life franchise mode of NBA 2K19 when we see these guys on the court in their new kits next season. But eventually we will get used to it, much in the way we will no doubt get used to LeBron James in a Los Angeles Lakers jersey or Tony Parker in a Charlotte Hornets jersey.

We’re going to have the matchup between the Raptors and the Spurs circled on our calendar next year. That is, if Leonard ends up playing in it. There still might be some doubts in that department.

Another LeBron James mural vandalized in Los Angeles

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Most of Los Angeles — and the vast majority of Lakers fans — are fired up that LeBron James is coming to Los Angeles. They see a return to glory for the franchise (well, once they get the rest of the roster right… sorry Lance Stephenson).

However, there is a segment — particularly the die-hard Kobe fans — who are having trouble assimilating to the new reality.

So when an artist did a LeBron James mural near Venice in Los Angeles recently — a really well-done tribute — it was quickly vandalized. Then eventually covered up.

This week another artist did another impressive LeBron/Lakers mural — this one with LeBron looking up at the Lakers’ legends — and once again, it was vandalized.

I’m not shocked by any of this, but it is depressing. If you’re vandalizing art, you are a cowardly buffoon.

There’s no way to really know the motivation behind the second attack, although the smart money is on it being the same as the first one — a few people think they are protecting the Lakers’ brand by not welcoming the best player on the planet to a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in five years. It’s incredibly flawed logic, but frankly flawed logic has become trendy in recent years, it can get you elected to all kinds of offices.

Credit real Lakers fans who showed up to help fix this.

AP Source: Thunder trading Dakari Johnson to Orlando

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The Oklahoma City Thunder are trading reserve center Dakari Johnson to the Orlando Magic.

A person with knowledge of the details confirmed the move to The Associated Press on Friday. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the situation publicly.

Yahoo Sports, which first reported the deal, said Oklahoma City will get guard Rodney Purvis in the deal. Purvis averaged 6.0 points and 1.7 rebounds in 16 appearances for the Magic last season. The Orlando Sentinel said the Thunder also sent cash to the Magic.

Johnson played 31 games last season for the Thunder with six starts. He averaged 1.8 points and 1.1 rebounds per game. The 7-footer averaged 23.3 points and 10.3 rebounds in 10 games for the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G-League affiliate, last season.

Center Alex Len reportedly reaches contract deal with Atlanta

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Five years ago, the Phoenix Suns had just drafted Alex Len at No. 5 overall and thought he would be the big man in the middle the team would build around. It didn’t work out that way, he never averaged double figures in either scoring or rebounding for a season. While Len has said he thought he was not used correctly, and there has been plenty of change and inconsistency in Phoenix, he never grabbed hold of the top job, either.

When the Suns drafted Deandre Ayton No. 1 last June, there was no chance they were bringing back Len next season. The unrestricted free agent is headed to Atlanta instead, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Free-agent center Alex Len has agreed to a two-year, $8.5 million deal with the Atlanta Hawks, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Len received interest from several teams in recent days before finalizing an agreement with the Hawks on Saturday.

Len is not going to space the floor, 73 percent of his shots came at the rim last season, but he’s become an efficient finisher there. He is good as a roll man, will work off the ball, and can post guys up on offense. He’s also strong on the offensive glass and gets points via putbacks. His game is not that of a modern NBA center, but he’s become efficient at what he does.

Len is going to have to earn his minutes in the ATL, rebuilding team or not there is some quality along the front line. John Collins, who made the All-Rookie team last season and was one of the standouts of Summer League, will start up front, possibly at the four with Dewayne Dedmon at the five. The just-drafted Omari Spellman showed potential at Summer League and could be the backup four, which means Len gets the backup center minutes.

Len is getting his new chance on a team that can give him some run, we’ll see if a change of scenery is what he needed.