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Three Things to Know: Clippers depth, versatility too much for Lakers on opening night

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LOS ANGELES — 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) Deep bench gives Doc Rivers options Frank Vogel just doesn’t have, and it shows in Clippers’ win. Less than four minutes into the season opener Tuesday night, the Clippers had already been down 11 points, and were having trouble generating good looks and knocking them down. The Lakers fans who made up half the crowd at the Clippers’ home opener were full-throated.

Coach Doc Rivers turned to players he trusts, reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams and his pick-and-roll partner Montrezl Harrell.

“Let’s get settled down and play some ball,” Williams said of his goal entering the game. “They made some shots and everything was overhyped because of the atmosphere and everything, but it was just an eight-point lead. So we just wanted to get a different lineup in, settle everyone down.”

Harrell got a couple of buckets rolling to the rim, the Clippers got a couple of stops, and the complexion of the game started to change. Eventually, the Clippers would go on to beat the Lakers 112-102 in the season opener, a game where the Clippers were in control most of the way from the second quarter on.

In control because the Clippers had depth and versatility Rivers could trust — the Clippers won the bench scoring battle 60-19. Rivers had multiple ball handlers and shot creators he could turn to. He had Williams and Harrell to settle things down and get some buckets in the first and fourth quarters (the latter after the Lakers made a 15-0 run to tie the game). He had JaMychal Green to come in off the bench and hit four threes. He had Moe Harkless who could come in and play good defense plus score 10 points. He had Patrick Beverley‘s toughness to lean on.

He had the versatility of Kawhi Leonard’s game. Leonard would hit seven shots in a row in the second quarter, and by the end had 30 points on 10-of-19 shooting.

Leonard, Williams, and Harrell were running actions where Williams would do a dribble hand-off to Leonard, who would then come around a screen by Harrell, and all of them could find a little space. It worked, and it could be so much better yet.

“I was frustrated tonight offensively,” Doc Rivers said after the game. “Because I saw so many things we didn’t see, yet. They shouldn’t have seen them but… you saw so many things with Lou and Kawhi and Trezl that they just didn’t see yet. So it will be great to grow together.”

All that, and the Clippers still don’t have Paul George back until next month.

The Lakers don’t have those options. 

Los Angeles tried to post up LeBron James and Anthony Davis a lot to take advantage of their size, plus run some of LeBron/Davis pick-and-roll (but not enough). As the game wore on, the Clippers started to defend those actions better — switching but having the big man (usually Harrell) stay back and dare LeBron to shoot or blow past the defender. He did neither well, and he seemed to want to force-feed Davis, which led to five LeBron turnovers. Plus, if Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee were on the floor, the Lakers had no spacing to attack inside. The Clippers clogged the paint, and LeBron and Davis combined to shoot 15-of-40 on the night. Outside of Danny Green, no Laker could make the Clippers pay for how they chose to defend.

Laker coach Frank Vogel didn’t have another playmaking option that worked. (Rajon Rondo didn’t play in the opener, but teams are going to dare him to shoot jumpers, too.) LeBron is the guy with the ball in his hands for the Lakers, the primary and by far best shot creator on this team, and there aren’t other reliable options. Against most teams that may work, but against an aggressive and strong Clippers defense the Laker offense stalled out.

It’s just one game of 82, the start of a marathon of a season. The Lakers and Clippers are going to be different teams come the start of the playoffs next April. This game will be long forgotten. But it showed how the depth and versatility of the Clippers are going to make them hard to beat this season. And how the star-heavy Lakers are not built the same way.

2) Raptors’ championship rings are ginormous, but Pascal Siakam wears it well in Toronto win. Championship rings are supposed to be oversized and gaudy — the team just won a title, celebrate that and show it off. However, the Raptors took that to an almost comical degree with their design. The ring ceremony and banner raising in Toronto Tuesday struck the right notes and was emotional. But I couldn’t stop staring at the rings. They looked like brass knuckles as much as rings.

Oh, by the way, they played a game north of the border, too, and the theme of depth and versatility played out there as well.

Pascal Siakam just inked a four-year, $130 million max contract extension that had plenty of fans asking if he was worth that much. He looked every bit of it on opening night, both scoring 34 points and finding ways to impact the game when he didn’t have the ball. Exactly like one should expect a max player to do.

However, it was that Raptors’ depth that got them a win on the night. Siakam fouled out late in the fourth quarter, then it was Fred Van Vleet — who also had 34 points — that guided the Raptors to a critical win. He looked like the Van Vleet from the NBA finals, seemingly hitting every shot and making every right decision.

Toronto also got 22 from Kyle Lowry and 13 from Serge Ibaka.

With Zion Williamson out (at least 20 games, but more likely close to 30, think Christmas return), the Pelicans became a little less watchable. Just know this: they are still good. The Pelicans moved the ball well, got 22 points out of Brandon Ingram, 16 out of J.J. Redick, and some surprisingly good big man play from rookie Nicolo Melli. The Pelicans also tied a franchise record with 19 made threes. All that on a team where coach Alvin Gentry is clearly still trying to figure out his rotations.

3) The NBA’s China problem isn’t going away. As you walked up to Staples Center for the season opener between the Lakers and Clippers, two things jumped out at you. First, security was at a level usually reserved for the All-Star Game or NBA Finals (TNT’s outdoor stage by the arena tied into that).

Second, people approached you giving away “Stand with Hong Kong” T-shirts for free. When asked about it, I was told the goal was to hand out 13,000 of these for free. (Photo via Dave McMenamin on Twitter.)

I certainly saw some shirts worn inside Staples Center (as well as some of the Clippers giveaway shirts), but mostly this is Los Angeles so nobody wants to cover up the $400 T-shirt they conspicuously wore to the game. Still, people were taking them.

There was a group giving away shirts outside the arena in Toronto Tuesday night, too, although on the broadcast it appeared most fans seemed to go with the giveaway shirt on a banner raising night.

Nobody in China saw any of this because Chinese state media chose not to broadcast the opening night games. Plenty of people in America heard another discussion of it because Shaq, Charles Barkley and the Inside the NBA crew on TNT discussed it pregame.

With actual NBA games starting, league officials are hoping the situation with China will calm down. It likely will, for now. But it’s going to be simmering along on the back burner and at some point something will crank up the heat and it will boil over once again.

Nuggets: Mason Plumlee out at least 2-4 weeks

Mason Plumlee
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Mason Plumlee got hurt in the first half, underwent x-rays he said were negative then returned in the second half to help the Nuggets beat the Timberwolves on Monday.

But he and Denver will suffer a much bigger loss.

Nuggets release:

Denver Nuggets center Mason Plumlee has been diagnosed with a right cuboid injury and his status will be reevaluated in approximately two to four weeks.

The injury occurred during the Nuggets game at Minnesota on Monday, January 20th.

Obviously, this raises questions about whether Plumlee should have returned against Minnesota.

This is another key setback for Denver, which already has Paul Millsap, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris sidelined.

The Nuggets (30-13) are locked in a high-stakes battle with the Clippers (31-13) and Jazz (30-13) for the Nos. 2-4 seeds in the Western Conference. The No. 2 seed would get home-court advantage in the second round and avoid the Lakers until the conference finals. The No. 3 seed would avoid the Lakers until the conference finals. The No. 4 seed would do neither.

Nikola Jokic is now Denver’s only healthy center. Expect Jerami Grant to play the position more often. He’s versatile enough to do it, and he can be effective there in certain matchups. But the Nuggets lose selectivity in when to deploy Grant at center, a lineup they were already reluctant to use.

Denver has played just 24 minutes all season with Grant on, Jokic and Plumlee off. (The Nuggets are a not-encouraging -11 in that time).

The trade deadline is just over two weeks away. Malik Beasley and Juan Hernangomez already looked like prime trade candidates. Could this push Denver toward moving one of those youngsters for immediate help? The Nuggets shouldn’t overreact to losing a backup center who should return well in advance of the playoffs. But they also don’t want to overburden Jokic/slip in the standings over the next month.

The All-Star break begins in three weeks. If Plumlee is still sidelined, that’ll at least give him longer to recover without missing games. But with the trade deadline looming, Denver has bigger decisions to make before then.

Report: Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald buys share of Phoenix Suns

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Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald sat in on the Phoenix Suns’ basketball-executive interviews last year.

Now, he’ll have a more formal role within the organization.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers bought a share of the Bucks in 2018.

The NBA reportedly mandates that all new minority owners buy at least a 1% share. Forbes’ last estimate valued the Suns at $1.5 billion. That’d put Fitzgerald’s minimum buy-in at $15 million.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he got in cheaper, though. Widely panned Suns owner Robert Sarver can boost his image by aligning himself with the well-liked football player. Having a local sports hero involved can also help with things like getting taxpayers to fund arena upgrades.

Three things to expect in Zion Williamson’s debut

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Finally.

At Summer League in Las Vegas, the Thomas and Mack was full but fans got just nine minutes of Zion Williamson, one half of basketball, before he was shut down following a knee-to-knee collision with another player. Zion was done for the summer as the Pelicans were overly cautious.

Preseason saw Williamson get into four games and start to look like the force of nature that he was at Duke, the franchise-changing player who was the runaway consensus No. 1 pick, and he averaged 23.3 points per game on 68.8 percent shooting. Then Williamson tore his right lateral meniscus, needed surgery, and ultimately was out far longer than the original 6-8 week projections as the Pelicans were overly cautious.

Wednesday night, Williamson finally makes his NBA debut, lacing up his Nikes against San Antonio at home in New Orleans.

What should we expect in Zion’s debut (with him likely on a minutes limit)? Here are three things to watch for.

1) Dunks. A lot of dunks.

Zion Williamson is an incredibly gifted athlete but right now his game is not filled with subtlety and craft — the manchild attacks the rim and finishes. With authority.

Look at Williamson’s shot chart from the preseason: He took just four shots outside the paint.

This is not a knock on Williamson’s game — the dunk is the most efficient shot on the court, f you can get it, take it. Williamson has skills — a crossover he uses in transition, an inside-out dribble, and more — that he uses to get to the rim, and he wants to finish every play the same way.

Which is exactly what the Pelicans need.

New Orleans has good shot creators — Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram — and they have shooters such as J.J. Redick. What New Orleans could use is a threat that goes to the rim and forces defenses to collapse a little, opening up space (Derrick Favors has provided some of that). The Pelicans could use a player who can draw fouls and attacks the rim. That’s Zion. He should fit in beautifully on offense.

One scout I talked to (and he wasn’t the only person to make this comparison) said Williamson’s early career could resemble Blake Griffin’s in this sense: When he entered the league, Griffin was a high-flying dunking sensation who got his points at the rim, but eventually he developed an outside shot and a passing game that made him a much more rounded, All-NBA level player. Williamson has work to do on his other skills, but the man is going to dunk the ball in his debut.

2) The start of a playoff push in New Orleans.

Williamson’s injury was not the only one that hit the Pelicans: Derrick Favors, E’Twaun Moore, Jrue Holiday, and Lonzo Ball have all missed significant chunks of time. Combine all of that with a newly formed roster, and the Pelicans got off to a dreadful start.

However, the rest of the bottom half of the West was equally dreadful. The result is that while New Orleans is just 17-27, Williamson’s return finds the Pelicans only 3.5 games out of the final playoff spot in the West. What’s more, the Pelicans have hit a groove going 11-5 in their last 16 with Ingram playing at an All-Star level to lead the offense and Favors providing a defensive anchor. Ball is starting to find a comfort zone in Alvin Gentry’s offense, which is allowing Holiday to work more at his natural two-guard spot.

Now enter Williamson and the Pelicans are thinking playoff push — they have pulled back on trade talks to see how things shake out over the next couple of weeks.

One other thing in its favor: New Orleans has the easiest remaining schedule of any team in the Western Conference (only Atlanta is easier overall). Only one team New Orleans faces in its final 15 has a winning record — that’s a schedule set up for a closing kick.

With Zion back in the fold, the Pelicans are going to make a run at it.

3) How well do Zion and Brandon Ingram mesh?

This is the $168 million question for the Pelicans.

(It’s less expectation than a question, one that could be a five-year $202 million question if Ingram can play his way onto an All-NBA team this season, which may not be likely but certainly is possible.)

Ingram has played his way into that size max contract this summer and if the Pelicans don’t give it to him another team will (the most another team could offer is four-years, $125 million). David Griffin has talked about keeping Ingram, the team is expected to back up the Brinks truck for him, but that doesn’t change the question:

Can Ingram and Zion coexist on the court?

Before the season — and still in a lot of minds — there are doubts about how well the games of the slashing, attacking Ingram and Williamson would fit together. Could this be another version of the Ben Simmons/Joel Embiid concerns in Philly, where two elite players want to operate in the same space and it clogs things up?

Ingram has developed a reliable jump shot this season — 39.9 percent from three on 6.2 attempts per game — and that has opened up his game. It also means he should fit better next to Williamson. However, the Pelicans likely want to see how all this works before they pay Ingram all that money this summer.

Williamson and Ingram may become the cornerstones of an outstanding New Orleans team in the future, but the questions about fit will linger until the players answer them. Those are not questions that are going to be answered in Williamson’s debut, but it’s something to watch.

Officer suspended for shooting video of ex-NBA player Delonte West

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OXON HILL, Md. (AP) — A Maryland police officer has been suspended for shooting a video that shows former NBA player Delonte West as he was being questioned while shirtless and handcuffed, a police department said.

One of two videos circulating on social media shows a thin, shirtless man with tattoos sitting on a curb with his hands cuffed behind his back. Police say that man is West and that an officer shot the video.

Prince George’s County Police said they learned on Tuesday that an officer shot video of West sitting on the curb and that it was circulating on social media. An investigation followed and the suspension was announced on Tuesday.

The other video shows a man being beaten in the middle of a road.

Police said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that they responded to a call about a fight near the MGM National Harbor casino, located just across the border from Washington. When officers arrived, they saw a man bleeding from the face and “made the decision to handcuff” West.

Police said they learned that West and the second man knew each other and that they had argued earlier that morning. The men refused medical treatment and refused to press charges, police said.

The 36-year-old West played for the Boston Celtics, Seattle SuperSonics, Cleveland Cavaliers and Dallas Mavericks. He spoke in 2015 about having bipolar disorder.