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Nikola Vucevic is one of the East’s best centers — and will get paid like one next July

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LOS ANGELES — When Nikola Vucevic’s son grows up — he and his wife are expecting their first child next month — this is the video he’s going to show the boy over and over:

Dad posting up LeBron James, using a spin move to blow by him and dunking while the all-time great is helpless to stop him.

It’s a fitting image of how Vucevic’s season has gone.

Vucevic dropped 31 points on the Lakers Sunday then turned around on a back-to-back and had 30 points Monday against the Warriors. Those games continue a run that has him looking like one of the two best centers in the East (Joel Embiid claims the other spot) and playing like an All-Star and Most Improved Player candidate— 20.8 points and 11.3 rebounds a game, shooting 39 percent from three, with a PER of 26.9.

If you prefer your stats advanced: Vucevic is fifth in the basketball-reference.com’s “value over replacement player” (VORP) stat, nestled between Anthony Davis and Kyrie Irving on the list, ahead of Kevin Durant and James Harden.

Vucevic has been that good this season.

Vucevic credits new Orlando coach Steve Clifford for putting him in better situations this season, which sparked his improved numbers. Last season Vucevic took 56 percent of his shots either at the rim or on short mid-rangers off post-ups or runners (usually within 8 feet of the rim), this season that is up to 65 percent (stats via Cleaning the Glass). While that has come at the expense of fewer three-pointers, the ones he is getting now are cleaner looks and his percentage from beyond the arc has jumped from 31.4 percent a year ago to 39 percent this season.

“The way we play now, it helps me playing inside-out, it gets me going and makes me more comfortable,” Vucevic said. “Last year I felt I was a little too much on the perimeter, space the floor, which is fine, but at the same time [this season’s style] makes it much more difficult for the other team and gives them a different look. It works great for me because I get some easy ones in the paint and am able to step out.

“The way coach wants me, wants us, to play fits my skill set.”

That skill set is also going to get him paid next summer as a free agent, whether by Orlando or someone else. There are a lot of playoff/contending teams intrigued by the idea of adding Vucevic via trade this season, especially with his very reasonable $12.8 million contract (and the fact Orlando has rookie Mo Bamba behind him). However, sources tell me Orlando is not going to be taking those calls unless they drop way out of the playoff picture by the deadline (the Magic are currently the eight seed in the East).

“He’s probably a little overlooked, he’s a very, very good player,” Lakers’ coach Luke Walton said. “Coaches, players that have to play against him, when you watch tape he can score all over the floor on you. He’s a nightmare to match up with when you’re scheming against him whether you’re switching or you’re in a drop because of that ability.”

Teams will come calling next July with big contracts just because of he’s such a matchup nightmare and how it opens up an offense. For example, on Orlando’s first possession of the game Sunday against the Lakers, Aaron Gordon curled off a Vucevic off-ball screen, received a pass about the free throw line and attacked the rim down the lane, going in for a thunderous dunk. Why? Because JaVale McGee couldn’t afford to leave Vucevic unguarded 18 feet from the rim, so he was out higher than he wanted to be and was a step slow on the rotation. Vucevic created those kinds of problems all game.

“That’s the advantage of having Vuc out there,” Clifford said. “Normally, if you don’t have a range shooting center, they’re going to have somebody in the paint there. He’s so involved, especially at that point in the game, there’s a lot of room to drive the ball.”

The Lakers struggled against the problems a lot of teams have had against Vucevic and the Magic this season. Los Angeles prefers to have its bigs drop off a pick-and-roll and protect the rim (the same strategy a number of teams use, such as Milwaukee and Utah). Do that against Vucevic and he pops out and drains a three. Keep your big out higher to stay with Vucevic and the lane opens up for drives. Switch that pick and Vucevic will head down to the block with that smaller player show off his variety of post moves — just ask LeBron.

“When he’s in the game, it’s hard for [the other team to go small] because he’s good at posting and our guys are good at finding him…” Clifford said. “Every team that’s downsized when he’s on the floor, we’re good. We struggled when he wasn’t out there.”

“I just wanted to keep being aggressive when they try to switch matchups against me,” Vucevic said. “We’re calling plays to get me involved in the offense, to get me the ball in spots, and I’m just trying to be aggressive.”

Vucevic spent last summer at home in Orlando, spending time with his wife and preparing for his new son, not playing internationally for Montenegro.

“I think one of the things [that has him playing well], to be honest with you, if you ask him, he didn’t play for his national team this summer,” Clifford said. “I know he’d tell you he feels fresher, so I think that’s a big part of it.”

Players rarely talk poorly of their national teams and the toll, and Vucevic didn’t fully buy what Clifford was selling.

“It’s just different because when you play for the national team you get into game shape in July, the end of July into August, ready to play a transition game, so you come into the season having played for a month or two,” Vucevic said. “So it’s a little different, but I’m still 28 so it’s not too big.”

What is big is the impact he is having on the Orlando Magic and the NBA this season.

“You never know a guy until you coach him. I never liked to coach against him,” Clifford said. “He brings inside/outside decision making and he’s a far better defender than anyone has given him credit for. He’s playing at a very high level and playing an all-around game.”

The other thing that’s big? That contract he is going to get next summer after stepping up his game.

Toughest player to defend in NBA? Jonathan Isaac votes for James Harden

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Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac is turning heads this season. He has turned into the defensive backbone of the Magic, a long, switchable player who can protect the rim and make plays out on the perimeter.

In the past week, coach Steve Clifford asked Isaac to match up with Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, and LeBron James. So who was the toughest to guard? (Via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.)

Harden dropped 54 on Orlando to lead Houston to the win. It was his second game in a row with 50+ points and hitting 10 threes.

Nobody should be arguing with Isaac here. For one thing, he’s the guy who had to guard them all this week, his opinion is informed. Harden has six points while Isaac was matched up on him Friday night, but the Rockets scored 14 others. Harden did most of his damage when Evan Fournierwas on him, scoring 18. (Via NBA.com matchup data.)

One could make the case that Antetokounmpo and LeBron contribute more on the defensive end and that makes them more valuable (a debate that will come up again at end-of-season awards time), but as a pure scorer there is nobody like Harden. Ever. He has ridiculous shooting range and the best stepback in the league, he’s physically strong and finishes through contact on drives, and he has turned drawing fouls into an art form. Defending James Harden is next to impossible (and incredibly frustrating for those tasked with it).

Houston has built its entire offense around Harden, and they are contenders because of it.

 

Kevin Knox with an high-flying putback dunk… into his own basket (VIDEO)

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Give the Knicks credit, they have won two games in a row for the first time this season after knocking off the Kings. The return of Elfrid Payton at point guard — meaning they don’t have to play rookie R.J. Barrett out of position in that role — has given New York some floor balance and they look much better.

But there are still moments.

Such as this one from Kevin Knox, with the putback dunk — into his own net.

Mike Breen wanted to credit Buddy Hield there, and to be fair, Hield did come flying in and force the action. But that was Knox. (Hield got the bucket in the official scorebook).

Well, at least Knox is contributing something here.

Watch James Harden drop 54 to lead Houston past Orlando

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — James Harden found his 3-point shooting touch — again.

Harden scored 54 points, matching the team record of 10 3-pointers he set in Houston’s last game in the Rockets’ 130-107 victory over the Orlando Magic on Friday night.

“I just want to win,” Harden said simply. “Whatever it takes.”

Harden scored 50 or more for the fifth time this season and the fourth time in his last seven games. The rest of the NBA has combined for only five such games this season.

Harden was 10 of 15 from long range and 19 of 31 overall from the field. He also had a seven assists, five rebounds and two steals in 36 minutes, receiving a loud ovation from the Orlando crowd when he headed to the bench in the final minutes.

“I feel like we lost against just him tonight,” Magic guard Evan Fournier said. “He’s the MVP for a reason. We talked about in pregame that he’ll take shots, and we’ll just live with the results. He did not miss tonight, period.”

Harden set the Houston record for 3-pointers with 10 in 18 attempts Wednesday night in a 55-point game in a victory at Cleveland.

“When he’s shooting over the top like that, I don’t know what you can do,” Orlando coach Steve Clifford said.

Russell Westbrook added 23 points for Houston. The Rockets were 22 of 39 from 3-point range, setting a record for the most 3-pointers by any Magic opponent in franchise history.

“We just shot the ball extremely well,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “When James is like that, it’s hard for anybody to really beat us … no matter what kind of defense you’re going to throw, we’ve got guys.”

The Rockets pulled away in the second quarter, with Harden scoring 18 points, including Houston’s last 11 for a 59-49 lead.

Fournier led Orlando with 27 points. Aaron Gordon added 21. The Magic have lost three straight after winning four in a row.

Paul George, Kawhi Leonard combine for 88 points in Clippers win

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — It’s hard to stop Paul George. It’s hard to stop Kawhi Leonard. It’s really hard to stop both at the same time.

George and Leonard showed what the Los Angeles Clippers had in mind when they teamed up the superstar duo Friday night. George scored 46 points, Kawhi Leonard had 42 and the Clippers held on to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 124-117 for their fourth consecutive victory.

“It’s special, two guys offensively,” George said. “The thing about it is, we’re dishing, finding each other, feeding each other. And then when we have moments to be aggressive, we’re looking to get aggressive, attack, look for our shots. It’s great when both guys can get it going”

Leonard and George became the first set of teammates in Clippers’ history to each score 40 points. It was the 21st time in NBA history it has happened. The last time it was done, it also involved George. He and Russell Westbrook did it for Oklahoma City last season.

Leonard and George’s previous high this season came Dec. 1, when they combined for 65 points against Washington.

“It’s great that we can have somebody else out there to help scoring the ball, making the game easier for myself,” Leonard said. “We’re still trying to build our chemistry out there.”

Karl-Anthony Towns had 39 points and 12 rebounds for Minnesota, which lost its seventh in a row. Towns had 14 points, including a 4-point play, in a 22-6 fourth-quarter run that trimmed a 21-point Los Angeles lead to five.

Andrew Wiggins added 34 points for the Timberwolves. His basket with 1:04 left cut the Clippers’ lead to 119-115. Minnesota didn’t get closer than four the rest of the way.

“Disappointed from the loss, but we fought back,” Wiggins said. “We were down big. Dug ourselves a hole. We fought back though. We went out swinging.”

Leonard and George set the tone early, combining to score the first 23 points for a Clippers team playing without Lou Williams, who sat out with a calf injury. In his absence, George and Leonard accounted for 54 of Los Angeles’ 65 first-half points. They became the first duo to each score 35 or more points through the first three quarters of a game in the past 20 seasons, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

Leonard made a career-high 19 free throws. He was 19 for 19 from the line.

“That was great,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “We knew without Lou tonight, every play was basically for those two guys. And they came up big.”

The Timberwolves took a 51-50 lead in the second quarter with a 15-2 run, capped by a Towns 3-pointer. Leonard responded with seven consecutive points to give the Clippers the lead for good.

George started the third quarter with a 7-0 run of his own. He scored 16 in the third, when Los Angeles took control by outscoring Minnesota 37-23.

“Forty-six and forty-two, they make it very tough on you,” Minnesota coach Ryan Saunders said.

Leonard’s 31 first-half points set a career high for points in a half. He tied a career high for points in a first quarter with 16.

“We got into our spots early, made shots,” Leonard said. “Paul carried us in that second half.”

Montrezl Harrell scored 18 points for the Clippers. Jeff Teague scored 22 for the Timberwolves.