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Three Things to Know: Assertive LeBron James shows how far Lakers have come

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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) Assertive LeBron James shows how far Lakers have come. Back on Oct. 18, in the first game of the season, the Portland Trail Blazers comfortably handled a Laker team still stumbling around with new faces and a lack of identity. That night, Portland’s continuity and shooting were a stark contrast to a Lakers team with neither.

Nearly a month later, LeBron and the Lakers look dramatically better.

LeBron played by far his most aggressive and best game as a Laker Thursday night, dropping 44 on the Blazers — passing Wilt Chamberlain for fifth on the all-time scoring list in the process — along with 10 rebounds and nine assists, leading the Lakers to a 126-117 win at home.

Wednesday night LeBron reminded everyone that when he decides to take over there is nobody like him Anywhere. Especially when he is hitting threes from a Curryesque range, which he did from the game’s opening minutes. LeBron was 5-of-6 from three on the night.

One key to the Lakers’ turnaround is they are playing much better defense, and they did for stretches against Portland. This isn’t just about Tyson Chandler — although he helps — but over the past seven games, the Lakers have allowed an average of 104 points per 100 possessions, sixth best in the NBA. The Lakers are pressuring better and higher to stop penetration off the pick-and-roll, jumping in gaps and generating steals (9.6 per game in their last seven games), and getting blocks from their bigs at the rim. All of that is a dramatic change from the beginning of the season when the Lakers played matador defense and were letting teams walk to the rim at will.

The Laker offense has come a long way, too, and it isn’t all LeBron. The Lakers generated good chances by having Lonzo Ball as a screener, with Brandon Ingram getting isolated on a smaller defender (C.J. McCollum much of the time), and with JaVale McGee as a rim runner. The Lakers are still generating chances playing at pace, too, something that has become a key part of their identity.

There was one bit of bad news for Los Angeles out of this game: Rajon Rondo broke his hand and will be out weeks. The Lakers will miss him on the second unit.

2) Jimmy Butler plays his first game with Philadelphia and… it’s going to be a process. “The process” is over in Philly. The arrival of Jimmy Butler as a Sixers makes them a “win now” team.

Now just starts another process: Fitting Butler into the Sixers offense and schemes.

This process could take some time, too.

Orlando proved that point, went on a 21-0 run in the fourth quarter to erase a 16-point Philadelphia lead and ultimately spoiled Butler’s debut, 111-106.

Butler had moments but was not the aggressive player we know, he let the game come to him more, something to be expected with a player on a new team who has been through one practice. He did show off his midrange game and defense at points, but expect him to be more aggressive as he gets more comfortable.

The game showed that there will be a lot of adjustments needed from Philadelphia to make this work.

That starts with Simmons, who had to work off the ball more when Butler created looks. The problem is Simmons is not a shooter so the Magic didn’t have to respect him until he made a cut or got close to the rim, allowing them to pack the paint more and provide help. Simmons can make those cuts and finish, but coach Brett Brown would prefer Joel Embiid coming out of the dunker’s spot and so the spacing becomes an issue. Embiid also didn’t look quite in sync for stretches of the game, although he did rack up his first career triple-double with 19 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists.

Those assists came when the Sixers were moving the ball the way Brown wants — fast side-to-side ball reversal that gets guys like J.J. Redick clean looks (he had a team-high 22). The Sixers did more of that in the third quarter. However, the ball movement was inconsistent as the Sixers tried to fit Butler into the offense. Late in the game when it was close, Butler was not taking over as much as serving as a decoy on the weak side for the Simmons/Embiid two-man game we have seen before.

It’s just going to take time. It’s a process. A fully healthy Wilson Chandler will help, he had 14 points on 10 shots and the offense flowed much better with him out there rather than Mike Muscala.

The Sixers have other questions to answer: Should they stagger Simmons’ and Butler’s minutes so each has longer stretches as the primary ball handler? If so, where does that leave Markelle Fultz, who is coming off the bench now and had eight points on 4-of-6 shooting.

Jimmy Butler with the Sixers is not going to be a plug-and-play instant contender. The loss in Orlando made that clear. What matters now is how much better the Sixers look in a week. Then in a month.

3) Dwane Casey went back to Toronto and drew up a beautiful game-winner. Dwane Casey, the best coach in Raptors’ franchise history, got a warm welcome from the Toronto fans Wednesday. As he should. The man presided over the best years of basketball in Raptors history and won Coach of the Year last year.

Then, with the game on the line, he reminded those fans why he is so good — he drew up a beautiful game-winning play that got Reggie Bullock a clean look. The play had Blake Griffin coming off a double screen, one set by Bullock, and when his man Pascal Siakam slid over to help on the Pistons’ biggest threat, Bullock slid into a scoring position.

Well done for Casey and a quality win for the Pistons. One they needed.

Trailblazers’ Maurice Harkless fined $15,000 for throwing headband into stands

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Nobody wants your sweat.

I guess that’s the message the league was trying to send Portland’s Maurice Harkless, who was fined $15,000 by the league office for “throwing” his Ninja-style headband into the crowd near the end of Portland’s Friday night loss to Oklahoma City.

“Throwing” is a strong word for the light toss he made, not that the officials cared, Harkless was given a technical and ejected at the time for the move.

Harkless was fired up as he and Russell Westbrook had been jawing at each other before the ejection.

 

Spurs’ DeMar DeRozan ejected after throwing ball at referee Scott Foster in frustration

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Scott Foster and his officiating crew refereed Game 3 between the Clippers and Warriors Thursday night, and by the end players on both teams were frustrated enough with the tightly — but not consistently — called game they were ready to throw the ball at Foster.

San Antonio’s DeMar DeRozan couldn’t resist the urge.

Near the end of the Nuggets’ road win over the Spurs — which sends the series back to Denver tied 2-2 — DeRozan was given a charge call from Foster, then threw the ball in his direction out of frustration. When the notoriously short-fused Foster realized what happened, he ejected DeRozan. The league will back Foster on this, it can’t have players throwing balls at officials or making other grand gestures to show them up.

But DeRozan’s sentiment is easy to understand.

The Athletic did a survey asked about a quarter of NBA players a series of questions, including, “Who is the worst ref?” Foster came in second with 20.7 percent of the vote (Tony Brothers won the “honor,” and he is working the playoffs as well).

Expect Foster to keep working deep into the playoffs, he has officiated 18 Finals games in his career.

Joel Embiid returns, puts up 31 and 16 to lead 76ers past Nets, give Philly 3-1 lead

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NEW YORK — Joel Embiid scored and rebounded. He blocked shots and even threw the most important pass of the game.

The only thing he didn’t do is lose his cool after his hard foul triggered a scuffle.

After having to sit out the last game, there was no way Embiid was going to risk an ejection and miss his chance to help the Philadelphia 76ers seize control of the series.

Embiid had 31 points and 16 rebounds, and passed to Mike Scott for the go-ahead 3-pointer with 18 seconds left as the 76ers beat the Brooklyn Nets 112-108 on Saturday to take a 3-1 series lead.

Embiid also had a flagrant foul that led to a scuffle and two ejections during an eventful return to the lineup after missing Game 3 with a sore left knee.

“I know these guys are going to go at me because they want me to retaliate, so I’ve got to be mature when I’m on the court and just stay cool and not react,” Embiid said.

“Today I could have reacted but I felt like my team needed me more than they needed Jared Dudley, so I’ve just got to stay cool and mature and do my job.”

Tobias Harris had 24 points, eight rebounds and six assists for the 76ers. They can advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals for the second straight season with a victory at home Tuesday night.

They got a big boost from the return of Embiid, who scored eight straight points in the fourth quarter after the Nets led by seven. He helped the 76ers overcome the loss of Jimmy Butler, who was ejected in the third quarter after Embiid’s hard foul on Jarrett Allen.

Even that ended up working out for the 76ers. Scott took what probably would have been Butler’s position on the floor in the final seconds and turned Embiid’s seventh assist into the go-ahead basket.

Embiid also had six blocked shots.

“Just look at the magnitude of what the numbers say, the influence that the numbers say that he must have had on the game,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “To have 31 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, six blocked shots and you win, well it’s hard to sort of say it any better than that. He was dominant.”

Caris LeVert scored 25 points after being inserted into the Nets’ starting lineup. D’Angelo Russell and Allen each added 21.

Dudley also was inserted into the starting lineup for the Nets and had been agitating the 76ers with his defense and his talking, but was gone midway through the third quarter as one of the central figures in the scuffle that spilled into the stands.

Embiid swung his arm forcefully while fouling Allen, and Dudley quickly moved in and bumped Embiid. Butler then ran in and pushed Dudley to start the shoving. Dudley, Simmons and referee Ed Malloy all got knocked into the seats, and after a lengthy video review, Butler and Dudley were given technical fouls and ejected, and Embiid’s foul was ruled a flagrant 1.

Dudley said he was trying to send a message. The Nets have been upset over an elbow Embiid hit Allen with in Game 2 that they felt should have been an ejection, and were further angered after when Embiid laughed as he apologized in his press conference.

“When you have a guy giving flagrant fouls, I mean Joel Embiid is second in the league in flagrant fouls,” Dudley said. “So for that elbow he had before just to have a flagrant 1, no fine, no nothing, laughing in the media, if you think that a team that I play on is going to have (to accept) that, that’s another thing coming, especially on this young team.”

Embiid would later make the biggest mark with his offense. The 76ers were trying to get the ball to him trailing by one after Joe Harris’ layup, but Embiid couldn’t control the pass under the rim. But he regained the ball and found Scott in the corner for a 3 and a 110-108 lead.

Allen then turned the ball over after three Sixers surrounded him and Harris closed out the scoring with two free throws. Nets coach Kenny Atkinson was angry afterward, feeling Allen was wrapped up by Harris as he tried to roll to the basket.

Dudley and Simmons jawed at each other after Dudley gave him a long stare with his arms up after hitting a 3-pointer during a 9-0 run that gave Brooklyn a 63-53 lead shortly before halftime. The Nets led 63-57 at the break.

Blake Griffin active for Pistons-Bucks Game 3

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DETROIT – Blake Griffin got technical fouls in Games 1 and 2.

He’ll have a chance to contribute much more in Game 3.

Despite a report he was likely to miss the entire first-round series with knee pain, the Pistons activated Griffin for Game 3 against the Bucks tonight.

Detroit has gotten walloped in the first two games with Griffin inactive. Now comes a glimmer of hope.

Griffin is the Pistons’ best and most important player. Their entire offense was built around him. His unique ball-handling and passing ability for a big allows him to create for himself and others. If he actually plays, it could transform Detroit back into the team it was in the regular season.

But those Pistons also lost all four regular-season games against Milwaukee. They still must face the NBA’s top team throughout the season. Detroit got outscored by 15 points per 48 minutes with Griffin on the court against the Bucks.

Griffin also looked quite hobbled late in the regular season. The extent to which he was helping the Pistons at that point was questionable. He can do only so much as a decoy, especially one a step slow defensively.

But, at minimum, Griffin could shake up a series that was running firmly in Milwaukee’s favor.