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Three Things to Know: Tyson Chandler was exactly what Lakers needed

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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) Tyson Chandler was exactly what Lakers needed. At least for a night. Magic Johnson’s hypocritical wake-up call meeting with Luke Walton came the day after a loss last week in Minnesota. It was a game where the Lakers defense was a mess that let the Timberwolves have clean looks from three, nor did they have an answer for Jimmy Butler (32 points) or Karl-Anthony Towns (25).

Wednesday night in Los Angeles the Timberwolves set a franchise record for threes (20-of-40) led by Derrick Rose (31 points, 7-of-9 from three) and Jimmy Butler (5-of-8 on his way to 24 points). This time, however, the Lakers were the team that made the plays down the stretch and came out on top, 114-110.

The difference? Tyson Chandler.

Karl-Anthony Towns had a rough night (5-of-16 shooting) and while there are multiple big-picture reasons for that — Tom Thibodeau does not draw up plays that highlight Towns’ immense gifts, nor does Towns just demand the ball and take over games — part of it was Chandler. Towns was 1-of-7 when Chandler was the primary defender, according to the NBA’s Second Spectrum tracking stats.

Chandler was playing so well Walton went to the veteran — in his first game as a Laker, having just driven six-hours from Phoenix to Los Angeles — to close the game. After a couple of Rose threes made it a one-point game in the final minute, Chandler got two of his five offensive rebounds in the next sequence for the Lakers, extending the play until Kyle Kuzma could draw a foul and pad the lead. That proved to be enough (although Rose got a clean look at a game-winning three and just could not knock it down).

For Minnesota, this loss continued to expose the team’s identity crisis — a year ago this team knew who it was, and while it was a bit old-school to pound teams inside and with two-pointers (a system exposed in the playoffs) it worked to give them an efficient offense. This season the Timberwolves have no idea who they are or what they want to do on that end, they try to run and shoot threes, they still don’t get Towns enough touches in places he can do damage, at least Rose has (capably) filled in the gaps. But it’s not enough. Jimmy Butler has thrived in the chaos created by his trade demand, but the team as a whole seems off-balance, especially when he asserts himself. It’s a hot mess.

Meanwhile, Lakers have won 3-of-4 since Magic’s sit down with Walton. Part of what came of that meeting was the crystallization that this flawed roster needed another defensive big man. The Lakers got one in Tyson Chandler — thanks to LeBron James‘ friend and former teammate James Jones, now the Suns’ GM, who bought out Chandler far earlier than he had to. We’ll see if the 36-year-old Chandler can sustain this, but for a night he was exactly what the Lakers needed. And unlike the Timberwolves, the Lakers seem to be settling into their identity.

2) Dunks. Dunks. And more Dunks. Wednesday night was the night of the huge dunk around the league.

The dunk of the night, and maybe the new early leader for Dunk of the Year, is Domantis Sabonis skying up and throwing it down all over Joel Enbiid.

Sixers fans will tell you that was an offensive foul because Sabonis uses his off-arm to clear Embiid out. Yes. So what? Doesn’t change the fact it was an amazing dunk (and Sixers fans really don’t want the refs calling every offensive foul on Embiid when he goes to the rim).

Sabonis was not alone with the massive throwdowns Wednesday, however. Donovan Mitchell was reminding us why he won the Slam Dunk Contest last year.

And again for Mitchell.

Then Orlando’s Aaron Gordon went Karl Malone with his big dunk.

3) Hassan Whiteside was just one block short of a triple-double. The San Antonio Spurs are the perfect matchup for Hassan Whiteside: They don’t play at a fast pace, they would rather grind it out; and they don’t space the floor with their bigs like some teams, preferring instead to go inside or shoot from the midrange.

Whiteside took advantage: 29 points, 20 rebounds (the Spurs were a shocking 6-of-30 from the midrange, creating plenty of rebound opportunities) and nine blocks.

Whiteside and his backers will use this to say “this is why Whiteside needs more minutes, Eric Spoelstra just doesn’t use him right.” However, until Whiteside can perform like he did Wednesday against a team that always pushes the pace and has bigs who launch threes (which is a growing number of teams) Spoelstra will continue to lean on Kelly Olynyk and Bam Adebayo. As he should.

 

Report: CJ McCollum has been playing through fractured lower back

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CJ McCollum hit two critical free throws late Tuesday to put Portland up three late on Dallas and secure the win.

But he had a rough night overall, shooting 2-of-14 overall. His shooting numbers are down across the board through this restart, not terrible but down from the level the world has seen from one of the games most feared scorers.

Now we know why: A fractured lower back. Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest broke the news.

Sources told NBC Sports Northwest prior to the game that McCollum has been playing with a L3 vertebral transverse process fracture (non-displaced) since last Thursday. In layman’s terms, he has a fracture in his lower back. He has played three games since the injury.

While this injury is not as bad as “a fractured back” sounds, it has slowed other players who had it, including Utah’s Mike Conley.

Portland has had success despite a slowed McCollum, in part because Gary Trent Jr. has stepped up and taken on a larger role on both ends of the court (including drawing a charge on Kristaps Porzingis that sealed the Blazers win over the Mavericks).

That win put Portland in as the eighth seed in the West, a spot they can hold with a win against Brooklyn on Thursday. That would put them in a play-in series — where if they won the reward would be LeBron James and the Lakers. To reach that point and threaten Los Angeles, Portland is going to need a lot out of McCollum. The question is how much does he have to give with this injury?

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.

 

Damian Lillard scores 61 points, win vaults Portland to eight seed

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The Portland Trail Blazers control their own postseason destiny — and they can thank Damian Lillard for that.

Lillard got all the respect he wanted when he tied his career-high of 61 points Tuesday, and the Portland Trail Blazers needed every one of them to beat the Dallas Mavericks 134-131.

Lillard was 9-of-17 from three, plus got to the line 18 times and hit every free throw.

Portland’s win combined with Memphis’ loss to Boston puts the Trail Blazers into the eighth seed in the West — win on Thursday against Brooklyn and Portland is the eighth seed. That is a massive advantage heading into the two-game play-in series, the eighth seed just needs to win one of those two games to advance to the playoffs (and a first-round date with LeBron James). The ninth-seeded team needs to sweep the two games to advance.

Memphis can maintain the nine seed with a win Thursday. Should the Grizzlies lose again (to the Bucks, who have nothing to play for) it opens the door for the Suns or the Spurs to get the nine seed. Or maybe higher.

Portland is not safe just because of the win Tuesday: If it loses to Brooklyn on Thursday and two of Memphis, Phoenix, and San Antonio win, the Trail Blazers will be watching the first round of the playoffs on television like the rest of us. The race in the West is that tight.

It’s hard to imagine Portland losing a critical game, however, with the way Lillard is playing. He said he wants some respect on his f ****** name – and he’s more than earned it.

Watch Devin Booker score 35, keep Phoenix perfect 7-0 and in play-in hunt

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Devin Booker scored 35 points and the Phoenix Suns protected their playoff hopes by beating the Philadelphia 76ers 130-117 on Tuesday to remain undefeated in the NBA restart.

Booker became the Suns’ career leader with his 91st 30-point game, breaking a tie with Walter Davis.

Mikal Bridges added 24 points and Ricky Rubio had 16 points with 10 assists for the Suns, who began the day only one game behind eighth-place Memphis in the Western Conference playoff race.

Phoenix is 7-0 as the only undefeated team in the restart and an unlikely factor in the tight race for a spot in this weekend’s play-in for the final playoff spot.

Phoenix pulled away late after leading only 105-102 following back-to-back baskets by Alec Burks, who led the 76ers with 23 points.

A dunk by Cameron Johnson capped a 10-3 run that stretched the lead to 115-105.

The Suns continued their high-scoring play in the bubble after averaging 120 points in the first six games.

Philadelphia, No. 6 in the East and already assured of a playoff spot, is attempting to prepare for the postseason after losing Ben Simmons to a knee injury.

Shake Milton was Philadelphia’s only healthy starter against the Suns. The 76ers also were without Joel Embiid (left ankle), Tobias Harris (sore right ankle) and Al Horford (sore left knee). Josh Richardson was rested.