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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.

LeBron James finishes Rajon Rondo alley-oop to close out half (VIDEO)

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One of the reasons LeBron James leads the league in assists — other than the fact he can do anything on the basketball court he wants — is that he was the Lakers’ only quality playmaker to start the season. He had to set guys up.

Until Rajon Rondo returned recently from injury.

Now Rondo is setting up everyone — including LeBron for this monster alley-oop just before the half Tuesday night.

LeBron can still finish with the best of them.

Just don’t ask him about doing the dunk contest.

 

New Orleans spoils Carmelo Anthony’s Portland debut in 115-104 Pelicans win

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Jrue Holiday had 22 points and 10 assists, Brandon Ingram added 21 points, and the New Orleans Pelicans spoiled Carmelo Anthony’s Portland debut with a 115-104 victory over the Trail Blazers on Tuesday night.

Anthony finished with 10 points while Portland leading scorer and four-time All-Star Damian Lillard missed his first game of the season with back spasms.

Starting at forward and playing across the street from where he led Syracuse to the 2003 NCAA championship over Kansas, Anthony scored the Blazers’ first points of the game on a 3-pointer from 26 feet out. However, he wound up missing 10 of 14 shots in what was the first game of his 17th NBA season.

Ingram looked spry in his return from right knee soreness that sidelined him four games, particularly on an authoritative, driving, one-handed dunk that got the crowd roaring in the opening quarter.

J.J. Redick hit 4 of 9 3-pointers and scored 14 points for New Orleans, which has won two straight and three of four. Kenrich Williams, who got the start at forward, filled the stat sheet with hustle plays, grabbing 14 rebounds to go with three steals and a blocked shot. He also scored eight points.

Holiday highlighted his night with a spinning dribble around Nassir Little for a driving dunk. In the second half, he scored on an unusual play in which he remained under his own basket, re-tying his shoes while his team advanced 4-on-5 into the offensive end. Holiday then came sprinting down court, took a handoff from Nicolo Melli near the 3-point line and exploded toward the rim for a layup.

C.J. McCollum led Portland with 22 points, while Hassan Whiteside added 14 points and 14 rebounds.

Anthony wasted no time getting his first shot off. His miss from 20 feet came within the opening 30 seconds and was Portland’s first shot of the game. Anthony also took Portland’s second shot, hitting his first of two made 3s.

But when Anthony tried to rise for a two-handed dunk in the first half, he was met with resistance by a member of the NBA’s rookie class when eighth overall draft pick Jaxson Hayes rejected the attempt.

Hayes closed out the half with his third block, swatting away a driving floater by Anfernee Simons to keep Portland’s lead at 54-53.

New Orleans seized momentum in the third quarter, going up by 13 on a sequence that began when Melli hit a 3 and then got the ball right back in a largely vacated Portland back court after Nickeil Alexander-Walker dove to swipe the ball away from McCollum. Melli went straight in for a dunk that made it 83-70.

Portland responded with three quick 3s — two by Kent Bazemore — during a 9-2 run that trimmed New Orleans’ lead to six before Alexander-Walker, who had hit 11 3s in his previous two games, ended the period by banking in a straightaway 3 to make it 88-79.

Watch Carmelo Anthony’s first bucket as a Trail Blazer

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That Carmelo Anthony started the first game he played for Portland speaks to why they signed him in the first place — this team is so shorthanded along the front line that the guy they just signed got thrown into the fire.

Anthony responded with a solid level of play. His first bucket was a wing three where both defenders went to CJ McCollum and left ‘Melo wide open.

Anthony played 12 minutes in the first half and had 7 points, 3 rebounds, 1 block, and three fouls. The team was looking to keep him at around 20 minutes for his first game back.

Portland led New Orleans 54-53 at the half.

How a single computer folder and dogged HR official exposed former Kings executive’s $13.4M embezzlement scheme

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Just how close did Jeff David come to getting away with embezzling $13.4 million from the Kings while working for them? He already secured a new job with the Heat and was in the process of moving from Sacramento to Miami.

Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN:

On this Monday, walking through the Davids’ new front door is a dizzying procession of cable guys, utility workers and movers. Amid all of this, Jeff receives a phone call from a former co-worker with the Kings. Her name is Stacy Wegzyn, and she works in HR. Jeff last remembers sitting in her office in Sacramento just months earlier, being told that the Kings were going to eliminate his position. After a few pleasantries, she gets down to business. She tells Jeff she’s been going through his old files, and in doing so she found one labeled “TurboTax” that references an entity called Sacramento Sports Partners.

“I was just curious what that is and if those are documents that should go to somebody else,” Wegzyn says.

It’s a seemingly innocuous inquiry from an HR lifer. But it’s one that will dictate the rest of Jeff David’s life. If he knows that — or senses it — he doesn’t let on.

“No, no, no,” Jeff responds. “That was a … man, this is taking me back. Maybe 2015?”

Wegzyn presses on. She asks Jeff whether the documents contain anything that anyone with the Kings needs to see. Jeff assures her they can trash them because the entity isn’t around anymore. A few minutes after he hangs up, his mother-in-law, Nancy, is standing at the front door when an FBI investigator appears, asking to speak to Jeff.

If you like the NBA or true crime – let alone both – I HIGHLY recommend reading Arnovitz’s full piece. It’s riveting!