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Three Things to Know: LeBron James’ triple-double earns Lakers first significant win

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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) LeBron James’ triple-double earns Lakers’ first significant win. The Lakers picked up their first win of the season in Phoenix on Wednesday, but that felt more like a “we better beat this struggling young team” relief than a giant step forward.

Thursday night against Denver was more like the way the Lakers are going to win games this season: LeBron James was brilliant as both a facilitator and aggressive scorer when needed; the ball movement found capable finishers such as Kyle Kuzma (22 points); and while the Lakers are not a great defensive team they have players who can make defensive plays at times (Lonzo Ball on Jamal Murray at times, for example). It was enough. Los Angeles came back from eight points down midway through the fourth and got its first significant win of the season while handing Denver its first loss, 121-114.

It all started with LeBron, who did anything and everything asked of him on the night with 28 points (on 17 shots), 11 rebounds, and 11 assists. It’s his first triple-double as a Laker.

There was more to it than that for Los Angeles. Lance Stephenson was a fourth-quarter spark off the bench with a couple of threes and a key look-ahead pass to LeBron for a dunk (Stephenson has played surprisingly well for L.A. this season). The Lakers once again forced the pace — 105 possessions in this game, and 24 percent of Lakers possessions started in transition (they scored at an impressive 112 points per 100 possession pace on those, via Cleaning the Glass). The Lakers may have found their best five-man lineup is Ball, Josh Hart, LeBron, Kuzma, and JaVale McGee (+11.6 per 100 possessions so far this season).

This was not peak Nuggets. Their offense was not the incredibly efficient machine it is typically, and they do miss Will Barton. Nikola Jokic had good bottom-line stats — 24 points and 11 rebounds — but in a sign of how the Nuggets’ offense didn’t flow he had three assists to six turnovers. Jamal Murray went right at Lonzo Ball early (this is one of the NBA’s more fun beefs, and will be for a decade), but Lonzo was the one getting five steals and making some key plays late. And, Denver struggled to find an answer for LeBron.

The Lakers are counting on a lot more teams struggling to do that as they move through the schedule.

2) Did Boston find its offense in a second-half comeback? It’s become a topic of conversation around the NBA: What happened to the Boston Celtics’ offense? Not that it was a force of nature last season (18th in the NBA, basically middle of the pack) but it was timely behind Kyrie Irving (until he had to sit due to injury), it involved good player and ball movement, and combined with an elite defense it got the Celtics the two seed and then to the conference finals.

This season, the Celtics were the second-worst offense in the NBA coming into Thursday night’s game (just ahead of the team they were playing, the Thunder). The problems were everywhere, but they started with the fact the Celtics just could not knock down shots — they were generating a lot of open looks but hitting them at the lowest rate in the NBA. Boston was not driving the lane or getting to the rim and drawing fouls (and Irving was a big part of that problem). Gordon Hayward has not been his vintage self and players are still adjusting to new roles. We could go on and on, but you get the idea — the Celtics offense was broken and without flow.

That continued in the first half Thursday in Oklahoma City, where they put up just 34 points and went 0-of-11 from three.

Then came the second half.

Boston put up a 40-point third quarter, sparked by Al Horford knocking down three shots from beyond the arc in only 41 seconds.

Suddenly the Celtics seemed like they could not miss — Marcus Morris had 19 second-half points on six shots. The Celtics exploded for a 142 offensive rating in the second half, erased a 16-point deficit, and picked up the 101-95 win. Irving explained the transformation this way to NBC Sports Boston.

“Stop overthinking about how we’re supposed to be playing,… It’s a hard thing to hold onto of being a certain way for a certain amount of time in your career and then when you come into a situation like this where you’re playing with a lot of good players sometimes you can dim down how special you are or over think how you’re supposed to be playing. So I think for us we just all wanted to come out and just really have fun.”

Will this carry over to the Celtics’ next game Saturday versus the Pistons? By the way, about Detroit…

3) Detroit is the season’s surprise team, improving to 4-0. The Pistons have had a soft schedule to start the season — Brooklyn, Chicago, and on Thursday night Cleveland (Philadelphia is the one impressive win) — but they have executed well, Blake Griffin has been a 33.8 points a game beast, Reggie Jackson is knocking down threes (40 percent so far this season), Andre Drummond is dunking and grabbing rebounds (17.5 a game) and the Pistons just keep winning behind a top-10 offense.

Thursday night Drummond became the latest center to thrive against the Cavaliers, scoring 26 points and grabbing 22 boards, his second 20-20 game of the season. Griffin had 26 and 10. That said, this win may have been less about “damn the Pistons look good” and more “wow, the Cavaliers are terrible.” For example, nice spin move here by Griffin but look at the Cavs’ defense.

Saturday night the Pistons face the (possibly) rejuvenated Celtics. That should be a better test. The Pistons, however, have beaten the teams in front of them on the schedule, and plenty of good teams stumble in these kinds of stretches. That the Pistons are winning speaks to them looking like a playoff team early in this season.

LeBron James, Doc Rivers, others around NBA react to, participate in protests

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The NBA family spoke out loudly and quickly in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officer.

Protests have erupted nationwide following Floyd’s death, and the NBA family is commenting on — and in the case of some players, participating in — those protests. That includes the biggest name in the sport today, LeBron James.

Pistons’ coach Dwane Casey made a powerful statement recently, and on Sunday Doc Rivers released this statement through the Clippers.

A number of players have been involved in the protest, including Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie of the Timberwolves, who were with former NBA player Stephen Jackson — a childhood friend of Floyd’s — during a protest in Minnesota.

The Celtics’ Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to help lead a peaceful protest that started at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park. He was joined by the Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon.

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Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a brilliant op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times that talked about where the rage of the riots comes from in the black community.

“Yes, protests often are used as an excuse for some to take advantage, just as when fans celebrating a hometown sports team championship burn cars and destroy storefronts. I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.

“So, maybe the black community’s main concern right now isn’t whether protesters are standing three or six feet apart or whether a few desperate souls steal some T-shirts or even set a police station on fire, but whether their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers will be murdered by cops or wannabe cops just for going on a walk, a jog, a drive. Or whether being black means sheltering at home for the rest of their lives because the racism virus infecting the country is more deadly than COVID-19.”

And all this is just the tip of the iceberg of involvement of the NBA family, just like the protests are the tip of the iceberg of the frustration felt in black communities around the nation.

Jonas Valanciunas on return: “It’s kind of like coming back from the summer”

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Memphis is in when the NBA returns, and in whatever form it returns. The Grizzlies had earned the eighth seed in the West behind the standout play of rookie Ja Morant, and if the NBA goes with a play-in format for the final playoff seeds (as expected), there will be teams gunning for that slot.

Memphis’ veteran big man Jonas Valanciunas will be ready, he told Michael Wallace at the team’s official website. Valanciunas spent time in Memphis and Miami during the lockdown, checking in with family back in Lithuania, but is back in the gym getting up shots. He described the return process this way.

“It’s kind of like coming back from the summer. We’ve had two-and-a-half months off. But then again, I play with the (Lithuania) National Team every summer, so it’s not like you always have so much time off every summer. So it’s sort of like coming back and getting ready for training camp again, to get back in shape and into game rhythm. It’s unusual, with guys wearing masks and stuff, but it is sort of like getting yourself ready for training camp right now.

A lot of players feel the same way, that this was sort of like an offseason (just one where they couldn’t get in the gym and work on a specific skill or weakness). Now things are ramping up again. This is why players want a handful of games before the playoffs (or play-in tournament) start, to get their legs under them.

Memphis will have strong teams, and more veteran units, coming for their playoff spot in the form of Portland and New Orleans. Valanciunas says the Grizzlies will be ready.

We’re really motivated. We don’t need to find extra motivation. We’re young. We want to establish our names and build as a unit.

It’s going to be a unique format when the NBA returns, in what has been a season turned upside down. That, however, can be a bonding experience for this young Grizzlies team, something that makes them better faster.

Some NBA players reportedly expect families can’t come to Orlando until September

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Nothing is set in stone until the owners vote on Thursday, but the NBA’s return likely will have teams reporting to the “bubble” (or campus, or whatever term of art the league ends up using) in Orlando in mid-July. Games would start July 31 and run into late September and maybe even October.

For players, that’s a long time to be stuck in a hotel without seeing family or loved ones, so families joining the players has long been part of the plan. Except, now comes a note from Tim Reynolds at the AP that some players think their families may not be able to join them until deep into the postseason.

The smaller the bubble, the easier it is to maintain with extensive testing, which is why not all 30 teams are expected to be invited and the size of team traveling parties will be smaller. It has been expected that families wouldn’t be invited to join players at least until after the first round of the playoffs (when a lot of players left).

However, if games start July 31 and the league plans to play a couple of weeks of regular-season games, followed by a play-in tournament for the final playoff spot, then it will be September by the time the NBA gets to a final eight teams. Which will have players separated from their families for a couple of months.

It’s easy to understand the players’ frustrations with that. No matter what direction Adam Silver goes with this restart, there are going to be some unhappy teams and players.

 

Sixers head into playoffs with healthy Ben Simmons but new, untested starting five

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Philadelphia heads into the NBA’s restart — in whatever format it takes — as a team that, on the surface, benefits some from the break.

Ben Simmons was expected to return from his back issues in time for the playoffs, but it was going to be close, and he wouldn’t be fully rested and ready. Now, the All-Star is healthy and not the only player trying to shake off the rust from a long break. That’s 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 8.2 assists a game, and some strong defense back in the lineup.

But that lineup has never really fit together this season in Philadelphia, which is why heading into the restart playoffs the Sixers will have a new one.

Philly is expected to roll out a starting five of Simmons, Shake Milton, Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson, and Tobias Harris, reports The Athletic’s Derek Bodner. That lineup has played zero minutes together this season (Milton hit his groove with the team late and by that point Embiid and Simmons were battling injuries). Learning chemistry on the fly in what will be, at best, a shortened and condensed regular season before the playoffs start, is a tough way to go.

It’s also the right move, Milton brings the shooting and floor spacing this roster needs. Philly had envisioned Al Horford as a floor-spacing four (who could spell Embiid at the five), but it hasn’t worked out. When Simmons, Embiid and Horford have been on the court this season, the team has scored less than a point per possession (defensively, they also gave up less than a point per possession, the Sixers basically played their opponents even in those minutes). It hasn’t meshed.

When Milton, Simmons, and Embiid have played together this season — in limited minutes and different situations than the one proposed — the offense has been only slightly better and the defense has been a mess. That’s likely not the case with Richardson and Harris on the court, but nobody knows exactly how this will work. It looks good on paper, but we’ve thought that all season about the 76ers.

Which makes Philadephia one of the most interesting teams to watch when games restart. All season long this team has not lived up to expectations (for which coach Brett Brown’s seat is very hot, even if blame for the roster issues should go higher up the ladder). Now comes a real test. If the 76ers suddenly get it together they become a real threat to the Bucks in the East (if the league keeps an East/West format). Or, this could be the latest Sixers lineup to fall short.

Either way, they become must-watch television.