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Three Things to Know: Kevin Durant goes off for 51 but Kawhi Leonard, Raptors get 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) Kevin Durant goes off for 51, but Kawhi Leonard has 37 of his own, Raptors get the win on a big stage. This game may well be an NBA Finals preview…

In the sense that two teams wearing these uniforms could meet in June.

Beyond that, don’t go drawing broad conclusions. It’s November. There was no Stephen Curry, no Draymond Green, no DeMarcus Cousins, and besides that, every team making a deep playoff run is very different in May and June than it is in November. Teams evolve.

That said… I’ll take six or seven games of this in June if it’s going to be as close and entertaining as this one was.

Kevin Durant looked like the best scorer on the planet dropping 51 including a baseline fade-away late in regulation to cap an 18-point comeback and force overtime.

But these are not your fold-under-pressure Raptors, they have Kawhi Leonard — he scored 37 on the night — and in overtime they had Danny Green hitting a key three and fast-rising Pascal Siakam who had 7 of his 26 points in the extra frame.

Toronto won, 131-128 in one of the most entertaining games of the season.

In the past, this was a Toronto team that was a regular season beast but seemed to find a way to lose on the biggest stages. It’s just November, but this win felt different. Led by Leonard and Green — who come from a Spurs organization that just expected to find ways to win — this team did not role over after KD forced overtime, after they blew a lead, these Raptors came out and found a way to win.

There are no statement games in November. If this is a Finals preview there are no conclusions to draw about the matchup.

However, if it’s the kind of win that makes the Raptors genuinely start to believe in themselves and what they can do against the best teams on the big stages (Thursday night on TNT), then it can change the trajectory for one team. And that can matter come June.

2) Kevin Durant gave the shirt off his back to Drake. I would tell you that Drake was courtside in Toronto for this showdown, but even if you didn’t watch the game you probably would have just assumed that anyway.

Drake and KD go way back — the rapper even has a “35 Snipe” tattoo on his left arm in honor of Durant (he has a “30 Gifted” tattoo for Curry, too). When KD went to the locker room at the half he had a special greeting for Drake.

That probably left Drake wondering of KD, “Do you love me? Are you riding?”

After the game, one where Durant dropped 51 on Drake’s hometown crew, Drake asked for Durant’s jersey, and he got it straight off the All-Star’s back.

It’s good to be Drake.

3) LeBron James scores 38, takes over late in Lakers win over Pacers. Thursday afternoon, Magic Johnson went on the radio and denied that LeBron James was ignoring Luke Walton’s play calling, saying the Lakers move the ball on offense and it’s not a one-man show like that. Magic also said the Lakers were working hard to keep LeBron’s minutes down.

Did he watch the end of the Lakers’ win over the Pacers that night? LeBron had 38 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists, and with the game on the line in the second half of the fourth quarter he absolutely took over(12 points in the fourth) and did what he wanted — and got his team the win. He also played 38 minutes on the night.

This is why the Lakers got LeBron — he is once again playing at an MVP level. He takes over games late. You want the ball in his hands and him making decisions when it matters.

The question has always been what other Lakers can perform at that level with him (and, what other star players can he help recruit to make this team a contender). While with think we have some answers — Josh Hart knows how to finish and fits very well — this is still a work in progress. A process, if you will. LeBron admitted after the game that when to defer to teammates and when to just take over is something he is struggling with this season. It’s not an easy balancing act for anyone. But this was always the plan, and it was always going to be a season of learning more than contending.

For now Lakers’ fans, savor watching LeBron be LeBron. Players like this don’t come around often.

Gregg Popovich: “The system has to change. I’ll do whatever I can do to help.”

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Gregg Popovich was always going to speak out on the protests and anguish in our nation right now — and those thoughts were never going to fit in 280 characters.

Popovich, coach of the Spurs and USA Basketball for the Tokyo Olympics, called up Dave Zirin of The Nation and laid the blame for a lot of what we are seeing on President Trump and the White House. Below is simply a taste:

“The thing that strikes me is that we all see this police violence and racism, and we’ve seen it all before, but nothing changes. That’s why these protests have been so explosive. But without leadership and an understanding of what the problem is, there will never be change. And white Americans have avoided reckoning with this problem forever, because it’s been our privilege to be able to avoid it. That also has to change…

“It’s so clear what needs to be done. We need a president to come out and say simply that ‘black lives matter.’ Just say those three words. But he won’t and he can’t. He can’t because it’s more important to him to mollify the small group of followers who validate his insanity. But it’s more than just Trump. The system has to change. I’ll do whatever I can do to help, because that’s what leaders do. But he can’t do anything to put us on a positive path, because he’s not a leader.”

Popovich’s voice carries a lot of weight, both as a leader of men, and as a former Air Force officer who underwent intelligence training and specialized in Soviet studies. He has never been shy when speaking about his feelings on President Donald Trump (read his entire quote at The Nation, he focuses on the president), but in this case, he speaks for many Americans of all walks of life, and of all ethnicities, who see a leader who stokes divisions rather than seeking to unify and heal.

Many NBA players have spoken out in the wake of George Floyd’s death and a number of them have led or participated in protests around the nation. What Popovich said speaks to a lot of what those players are feeling and saying themselves.

NBA coaches and teams have stepped up with statements, as have team owners — including Michael Jordan — saying this cannot be about just words, there needs to be action toward change. What that action will look like in three months, or six, or a year, is an excellent question. But this time, around the NBA (and maybe around the nation), there seems to be a real sense they do not want this message and momentum to fade.

 

Jerami Grant: Not leaning toward taking $9,346,153 player option with Nuggets

Nuggets forward Jerami Grant
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The Nuggets have their starting point guard (Jamal Murray), shooting guard (Gary Harris), small forward (Will Barton) and center (Nikola Jokic) locked up a combined 11 more seasons.

The big question comes at power forward.

Paul Millsap will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Michael Porter Jr. has shown promise. And Jerami Grant holds a $9,346,153 player option for next season.

Jerami Grant on “Posted Up with Chris Haynes,” via Quenton S. Albertie of Nugg Love:

I’m definitely not leaning towards picking up the player option.

Grant appeared bound for a raise. He’s a good finisher who active seeks opportunities at the basket and has improved his 3-point shooting. His versatile defense is valuable in any system. And he has the track record of hard work that should make teams comfortable investing in the 26-year-old.

But the NBA’s coronavirus-caused revenue decline presents a major variable. We’ll have to see where the salary cap lands. If the wrong teams have space, Grant could be stuck with just the mid-level exception, which – depending on the cap – could be less than $9,346,153.

In any cap environment, Denver has optionality. Millsap is still solid, though at 35, it’s unclear how many more good years he has left. Porter is exciting, though he’s still raw, and health remains a concern. Another impending unrestricted free agent, Mason Plumlee plays in plenty of two-center lineups with Jokic.

The Nuggets – who just traded a first-rounder for him – surely want to keep Grant. But they have other options, which gives them leverage.

Grant’s leverage comes with declining his player option and exploring unrestricted free agency. He’s setting that stage now.

Report: One last push for NBA to return with all 30 teams

Thunder owner Clay Bennett
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The NBA has 30 teams.

Some teams don’t want that forgotten as the league heads toward resuming with just 22 teams.

Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe of ESPN:

Near the end of the NBA’s Board of Governors call on Friday, Oklahoma City Thunder owner Clay Bennett delivered an impassioned soliloquy on why the league and owners needed to consider the competitive and financial plights of smaller market teams that could be left out of the season’s summer resumption in Orlando — and the potential symbolic power of all 30 teams gathering there to play as one united association.

As the NBA moves toward a plan of inviting 22 teams re-start a truncated season in late July, sources told ESPN, Bennett spoke of exhausting ways to accommodate non-playoff teams still wanting to play. He wondered: was there a way to safely bring all 30 teams?

The inequities facing smaller markets had to shape the league’s thinking, Bennett suggested. Nine months without games – March to December — could have an impact on developing players, cultivating sponsorships and selling tickets in markets where franchises struggle to gain a hold.

For those teams left out of the playoffs, there has already been dialogue on the possibility of mandatory summer training camps and regional fall leagues of four-to-five teams that could bridge the lengthy gap between seasons, sources told ESPN. Those are ideas many teams consider vital, and there’s an expectation that the NBA will raise possible scenarios such as these with the Players Association, sources said.

The financial elements of the plan are significant for the league too — with the 22-team format worth several hundred million dollars more in revenue than 16-team straight-to-playoffs plan would, sources said.

The irony: Bennett moved the Thunder to small-market Oklahoma City from larger-market Seattle.

Get past that, and he has a point: Ideally, all 30 teams would finish their seasons. That’s how the season was originally designed. It’d be nice if it could be completed that way.

But it’s also important not to become consumed by that goal in the face of other – sometimes competing – concerns.

The more teams playing, the higher the risk of coronavirus spreading. It’s that simple. In the NBA’s setup, maybe there’s negligible safety difference between 16 teams and 22 teams and 30 teams. That’s worth exploring. But increasing the number of teams increases the risk.

Of course, increasing number of teams also increases revenue. Just as 22 teams will draw more money than 16 teams, 30 teams would draw more money than 22 teams (if safe). That can’t be ignored.

It’s not as if this is a huge departure from normal, though. At this point in the season, many teams begin several months without meaningful games. Fix the tanking issue in normal times. Especially now, it seems absurd to recall teams just for games the organization prefers to lose.

This also isn’t simply a market-size issue. The Knicks, Warriors and Bulls are among the teams outside the top 22. Sure, there’s room for consideration for teams that aren’t resuming. But it’s not as if they’re just small-market teams left to wallow.

Plus, an extended period without basketball is an all-too-convenient concern all of a sudden. Where was that rallying cry while owners held lockouts? Owners canceled games to serve their greater objectives then. It’s a reasonable consideration now, too.

Mandatory summer training camps won’t help eliminated teams sell sponsorships and tickets. Those camps might not even have much value in team building. With contracts generally shorter now, so many players are heading into free agency. For impending free agents on finished teams, protecting their health is most important – not practicing with a team they won’t necessarily stay with.

There are no perfect answers here. NBA commissioner Adam Silver must decide on the least-bad option. It’s perfectly fine if that doesn’t include all 30 teams.

How many teams will make 2020 NBA Playoffs?

Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan vs. Kings
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The NBA could resume with 16, 20, 22 or 30 teams. The league is weighing playing more regular-season games, jumping straight to the playoffs, holding a play-in tournament and even drawing for a group stage. The most important thing is finding the proper format for this unprecedented season interrupted by coronavirus.

But that still leaves a question: How will playoff inclusion be determined?

Importantly, that affects which teams participate in the lottery. The whole point is to give every non-playoff team and only non-playoff teams a shot at the top picks in the draft.

A few notable streaks are also on the line:

San Antonio and Sacramento are in that tightly grouped 9th-12th range in the Western Conference (with the Pelicans and Trail Blazers). Phoenix has the league’s 21st-best record.

The postseason could simply include just the normal 16 teams. But the alternative formats open other possibilities.

It appears most likely 22 teams will resume, though it could be 20. Either scenario could include a play-in tournament – with an unspecified number of teams. Maybe four, maybe six, maybe some other number. Though the name – “play-in” – suggests those teams wouldn’t be considered playoff teams unless advancing, that’s not an official designation. The first NCAA Tournament games each year are commonly called play-ins. But teams that lose those games are considered to have made the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA has formally called that round “Opening Round,” “First Round” or “First Four.” The NBA could do something similar.

Though momentum has appeared to stall for a group phase, that format posed the most uncertainty about which teams would be deemed in the playoffs. Would all 20 participating teams? Just eight teams would advance to a tournament (the equivalent of the second round of a normal playoffs). Would only those eight be considered playoff teams? Would the league designate the third- and fourth-place finisher in each group as playoff teams after the fact to reach 16 postseason teams? It’d be weird to “make the playoffs” only after getting eliminated.

But the NBA has had plenty of variance on this throughout its history.

We’ve grown accustomed to 16 teams making the playoffs, the system in place since 1984. But in 1984, there were just 23 teams. So, nearly 70% of the league made the playoffs.

The league has since expanded to 30 teams. So, just 53% of teams make the playoffs now.

Only two periods have seen a lower proportion of the league make the playoffs. From 1971-1974, just 47% of teams (8/17) reached the postseason. From 1981-1983, just 52% of teams (12/23) reached the postseason.

It wouldn’t be ahistorical for the NBA to include more than 16 teams in this year’s playoffs.

Here’s a history of the percentage of teams that have made the playoffs each year (blue). The orange lines represent how that would compare to various scenarios this season – 8, 16, 20 and 22 postseason teams:

Obviously, eight playoff teams would be a major outlier. But having 20 or even 22 playoff teams wouldn’t.

Like with many issues right now, the NBA had latitude and must just decide where to draw the line.