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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.

Trail Blazers reportedly tried recently to get Trevor Ariza to join them in bubble

Trail Blazers forward Trevor Ariza
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Trevor Ariza opted-out of playing for Portland in the NBA’s restart so he could spend time with his son. Due to a custody case, he had a limited window to visit and he chose family over basketball.

However, as his custody window shifted and Portland started to look at a deeper playoff run — and maybe a matchup with the Lakers in the first round — some Trail Blazers players tried to get Ariza to come to the bubble after all. If Zion Williamson and others could leave the bubble for family emergencies, why couldn’t Ariza be let in, the players asked?

That plan didn’t work out, reports Chris Hayes of Yahoo Sports.

But because his visitation period had been amended with a conclusion date now near the start of August, there was some optimism among the players that Ariza might be allowed into the bubble to further strengthen their chances of a deep playoff run. If the Trail Blazers were to snag the final playoff spot, they would face LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round and a pesky Ariza would have been useful guarding James.

The possibility was explored, but sources said the Trail Blazers had to have previously applied for a hardship waiver or a late-arrival form for Ariza to be considered for entry into the bubble. Even if those steps were taken, the league would have likely denied the request because Ariza chose to opt out, wasn’t included on the restart roster, and didn’t arrive with his team on July 9.

The league put together strict rules about who could and couldn’t be inside the bubble — rules agreed to by the players’ union. Those rules are working at keeping the virus out. The league was not going to bend the rules for Portland now.

Ariza chose time with his son and wanted it bad enough to give up between $1.1 million and $1.8 million in salary (depending on how far the Trail Blazers got). Nobody should knock that choice; it was his to make, and picking family is never the wrong option.

Ariza is under contract for $12.8 million with Portland next season, but only $1.8 million of that salary guaranteed next season. If Portland wants to reduce payroll, they can buy Ariza out and make him a free agent at age 35. There would be suitors, Ariza has proven to be a helpful glue guy on good teams.

That glue just can’t help Portland this season.

No positive COVID-19 tests from 343 players in NBA bubble last week

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As has happened the past few weeks, Wednesday the NBA and NBPA announced that there were no positive tests among the 343 players tested for COVID-19 in the past week at the league’s restart campus in Orlando.

The NBA has had no positive tests from players inside the bubble.

The NBA’s plan for a restart began with testing players in their home markets before they arrived in Orlando (a number of players tested positive, and were quarantined/treated in those markets). Once teams arrived in Orlando, players were quarantined and tested again. The goal was to keep the virus outside of the bubble.

That has worked through one week of games.

The league did send a memo to teams reminding them players and staff need to wear a mask while on the NBA campus (when they were not practicing or playing games). The goal is to contain any outbreak, should the virus get into the bubble. That outbreak has yet to happen.

At least so far. There are about two months of games remaining on the NBA campus, family members will arrive next month, and there are still other ways the virus could penetrate the bubble. The league isn’t celebrating victory yet.

But so far, so good.

NBA Power Rankings: Toronto looks like best team in bubble so far

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Things in the bubble are getting interesting — young teams are taking it seriously, while some playoff-bound teams see it more as an extended exhibition season. That is leading to upsets and movement in our power rankings.

EDITORS NOTE: We are not including the eight teams not invited to the restart in the rankings the rest of this season.

Lakers small icon 1. Lakers (51-15, 2-1 in bubble, Last week No. 2). Of course, LeBron James has been good in the bubble restart — 19.3 points and seven assists a game — but Anthony Davis has been the early bubble MVP. He was a beast and feasted against Utah Monday, scoring 42 points with 16 rebounds despite being matched up against reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert for much of the night. Davis led the Lakers to the win sealed them as the No. 1 seed in the West.

Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (48-18, 2-0, LW 4). The win over the Lakers was a reminder — Toronto is a contender (but I still have to rank the top-seeded Lakers higher, I’d take them in a series). The Raptors have been the best defensive team in the bubble with sharp rotations and smart schemes (just ask LeBron and AD). On the other end of the court they can get scoring from a variety of players: Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet (he dropped 36 on the Heat), among others. Do not sleep on the Raptors. Possible second-round preview against the Celtics on Friday.

Bucks small icon 3. Bucks (54-14, 1-3 in bubble, LW 1). The Bucks are treating the bubble games like the preseason, a slow warmup to when things matter. It hasn’t been all bad, Gianni Antetokounmpo has looked every bit the MVP when called upon, and the Bucks’ defense is locked in — they held James Harden to 5-of-14 shooting and 24 points, while the Rockets as a team shot 39.6%. But Mike Budenholzer sat Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton for the second half against the Nets (a loss), and they aren’t taking the won/loss record seriously. They are easing into the games that matter, something their record over the first 65 allows them to do.

Clippers small icon 4. Clippers (45-22, 1-2, LW 3). Both of the Clippers’ losses in the bubble have been close ones (Lakers opening night, the Suns on Devin Booker’s game-winner), and they have been shorthanded without Montrezl Harrell (they just got Lou Williams back on Tuesday). Paul George and Kawhi Leonard have played well, and the L.A. defense has been strong, but these Clippers feel like the ones we watched for most of the season, just waiting for them to get healthy and find some chemistry together. We’re still waiting for the switch to flip with this team.

Rockets small icon 5. Rockets (42-25, 2-1, LW 6). Milwaukee’s defensive strategy is “protect the paint at all costs, we’ll give up some threes” played into Houston’s hands and the Rockets launched 61 from beyond the arc. However, it was a stretch of good defense in crunch time of that game that turned heads — the Rockets have not been a great defensive team in the bubble (18th in net rating), but they’ve been good enough when it mattered. Danuel House and Ben McLemore have stepped up with Eric Gordon still out.

Thunder small icon 6. Thunder (41-25, 1-1, LW 7). OKC has played good defense in the bubble, and having Andre Roberson back in the rotation certainly helps with that (and is just a good story after he missed 900+ days due to injury). Despite the OT loss to Denver, the Thunder remain one of the best clutch teams in the league, which makes them a very dangerous first-round playoff opponent. Dennis Schroder is out of the bubble for the birth of his child but is expected to return.

Heat small icon 7. Heat (43-25, 2-1, LW 8). Knocking off Boston while Jimmy Butler had the day off was a message game — Miami is going to be a very tough out come the playoffs. The Heat have been a top-10 offense and defense so far in the bubble (small sample size, but a good sign). Bam Adebayo has more than just the best name in the league, he has become a real problem for opponents, dropping 22 on Denver and then having 21 points and 12 boards against Boston. He’s playing at an All-NBA level.

Celtics small icon 8. Celtics (44-23, 1-2, LW 5). Despite a very off night from Jayson Tatum against the Bucks (he bounced back with 34 against Portland) and a minutes limit on Kemba Walker, the Boston offense has been good inside the bubble. The Celtics are 2-1 because they can’t get stops — a 117.9 defensive rating through three games. If the Celtics want to make noise in the playoffs, that is the side of the ball Brad Stevens and crew need to turn around.

Pacers small icon 9. Pacers (42-26, 3-0 LW 15). T.J. Warren is your didn’t-see-that-coming MVP of the bubble so far, scoring 119 points through three games and lifting the Pacers to that undefeated record in Orlando. Pair him with Victor Oladipo (who is playing… and collecting those checks) and Malcolm Brogdon and the Pacers have a formidable offense. Indy seems locked into the five seed and a likely first-round matchup with Miami. How will the Heat slow down Warren?

Nuggets small icon 10. Nuggets (44-22, 1-1, LW 9). Denver has not been able to get everyone healthy, in the bubble and on the court together during the restart. Even as Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton and the rest come back, it will take time to get them into game shape. Fortunately Denver has Bol Bol, who is an impressive playmaker on top of everything else.

Blazers small icon 11. Trail Blazers (31-38, 2-1, LW 13). Jusuf Nurkic is back and his passing and screen setting has helped spark the Portland offense to be one of the best in the bubble — but he hasn’t helped the Blazer defense much. That’s a concern, but the Blazers are now within 1.5 games of Memphis and thinking about passing them for the eighth seed (and their fans are already jumping the gun, looking ahead to the Lakers). Portland is going to need a lot from Carmelo Anthony and Gary Trent Jr. to make a run to the postseason.

Sixers small icon 12. 76ers (40-27, 1-1, LW 11). Philadelphia’s defense has been terrible through the first two games in the bubble — including giving up 53 points to T.J. Warren — although that has been covered up somewhat by strong play from Joel Embiid and a Shake Milton game-winner against the Spurs. There’s a soft stretch of the schedule ahead where Philadelphia can find its rhythm. It needs to, right now the 76ers aren’t scaring anybody in the first round.

Mavericks small icon 13. Mavericks (41-29, 1-2, LW 10). Luka Doncic became the youngest player in NBA history to record a 30-20-10 triple-double (besting some guy named Oscar Robertson by a year and a half). Thanks to that the Mavericks finally pulled out a close-game win, having lost their first two bubble games to Houston and Phoenix in close ones. The Mavericks seem on track to get the Clippers in the first round, a tough matchup, but if Denver sneaks up to the two seed the Doncic will make the Mavs an upset favorite.

Jazz small icon 14. Jazz (42-25, 1-2, LW 12). Utah has struggled to score through the first three games of the restart, and that has been particularly true when their bench units are on the court (this is where not having Bojan Bogdanovic as a secondary playmaker hurts). Jordan Clarkson has put up points off the bench (although consistency is not his middle name), but after that the depth falls off. As it was during the season, Utah’s defense has been good but not great.

Spurs small icon 15. Spurs (29-37, 2-1, LW 19). The Spurs four-guard starting lineup — Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, DeMar DeRozan, and Lonnie Walker IV — have the Spurs playing fast and winning games (including beating Memphis is a critical game if San Antonio is going to keep its playoff streak alive). Rudy Gay and Patty Mills are playing well off the bench, and for the first time in a couple of years the Spurs are a very entertaining team to watch.

Magic small icon 16. Magic (32-36, 2-1, LW 16). The loss of Jonathan Isaac is just brutal, a cornerstone of this franchise’s rebuild and he is likely out for all of next season as well. Orlando’s offense has been one of the best in the league at the restart (although soft defenses on the schedule helped with that) and it has them up to the seven seed in the East, where they will be able to avoid the Bucks in the first round (not that facing Toronto is much easier).

Suns small icon 17. Suns (29-39, 3-0, LW 20). The bubble Suns are undefeated and Devin Booker has the shot of the restart so far with his game-winning turnaround over Paul George to beat the Clippers. The biggest surprise in the bubble: How well Cam Johnson has played. He has taken a leap forward in Orlando (even with the rough game against the Clippers) and it’s a big boost for Phoenix.

Pelicans small icon 18. Pelicans (29-38, 1-2, LW 14). After dropping their first two games — and knowing they probably needed to win out to make the postseason — the Pelicans took Zion Williamson out of bubble wrap and found a way to beat the Grizzlies and keep their playoff hopes alive. The Pelicans have been good defensively but struggled on offense in the bubble, Williamson helps the offense but is still a defensive liability, that’s the end of the court he needs to improve upon. New Orleans’ schedule softens up from here.

Grizzlies small icon 19. Grizzlies (32-36, 0-3, LW 17). Losing Jaren Jackson Jr. for the rest of this season makes the Grizzlies much more vulnerable — they are not going to be able to fill his minutes with play nearly as good. Memphis has had a rough 0-3 start in the bubble, but all three losses are by single digits. They need to find some wins to keep the eighth seed but it won’t be easy with Utah, Oklahoma City, and Toronto the next three on the schedule.

Nets small icon 20. Nets (32-35, 2-1, LW 21). Caris LeVert has looked good as the focal point of the offense in the bubble — he had 34 points against Washington — although this is not going to be his role next season when Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant are on the court. With the win over Washington the Nets are all but a mathematical lock to make the playoffs (likely as the eighth seed).

Kings small icon 21. Kings (28-39, 0-3, LW 18). The playoff drought that goes back to 2006 is not ending in the bubble, not after the Kings coughed up all momentum losing their first two games at the restart. Buddy Hield has looked off — out of shape in the eyes of some scouts — and has shot 32.6% overall and 27.6% from three in Orlando. His contract extension kicks in next season.

Wizards small icon 22. Wizards (24-43, 0-3, LW 22). The 0-3 Wizards could be on their way to an 0-8 bubble record, but the goal here was to get run for guys like Rui Hachimura and Thomas Bryant. Both have played well but struggled once defenses started to focus more on them.

President Donald Trump: ‘I think it’s disgraceful’ NBA players kneel during anthem

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Everyone knew it was coming. As the vast majority of NBA players and coaches have kneeled during the national anthem in protest of police brutality and support of the Black Lives Matters movement, there would be politicians/talking heads who saw the opportunity to blast the league and score points with their base. They couldn’t pass it up.

Enter President Donald Trump.

In a phone call into Fox and Friends on Wednesday morning, the president ripped the NBA and its players for taking a knee during the anthem. It came with other over-the-top claims that Trump throws out like bread crumbs to pigeons.

“When I see people kneeling during the playing and disrespecting our flag and national anthem, what I do personally is turn off the game. I think it’s disgraceful. We work with [the NBA], we worked with them very hard trying to get open. I was pushing for them to get open. Then I see everybody kneeling during the anthem. That’s not acceptable to me. When I see them kneeling during the game, I just turn off the game. I have no interest in the game. Let me tell you this, plenty of other people out there, too…

“The ratings for the basketball are way down, as you know. I hear some others are way down, including baseball. We have to stand up for our flag, stand up for our country. A lot of people agree with me. If I’m wrong, I’m going to lose an election. That’s okay with me. I will always stand for our flag.”

Ratings for the NBA games from the restart are way up — TNT drew double its usual regular-season audience for the opening night games, and ratings have been up about 14% across the board for the games from Orlando.

As for the reaction to Trump’s comments around the league?

“I mean, so what? Really, I don’t even care,” was Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers comment. “We know that justice is on our side, right?”

Kneeling for the anthem is just a part of the social justice message from the league. The league has written “Black Lives Matter” on the court, players could choose to wear a number of social justice messages on the nameplate on the back of their jerseys, and players have spoken about causes in countless television and other media interviews.

More than talk, players have put their money behind causes, such as LeBron James pushing to register Black and other people of color to vote, and push back on voter suppression efforts.

Trump wasn’t done being wrong or over the top, mentioning himself in the same breath as Abraham Lincoln.

“Nobody has done better for our Black community than me. Nobody. With the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln; it’s true. Criminal justice reform, opportunity zones, best employment numbers in history. Again, nobody has done for the black community – by far. I’ll give the one exception: Abraham Lincoln.”

Everyone around the league expected this at some point. The reaction around the league has been a shrug, knowing the president is playing election-year politics the only way he knows how.

The Pelicans’ J.J. Redick summed up most people’s thoughts a week ago in an interview with Yahoo Sports, reacting to a different Tweet from the president.

“First of all, I don’t think anybody in the NBA cares if President Trump watches basketball. I couldn’t care less. As far as his base, I think regardless of the specificity of tweeting about the NBA, every tweet of his is meant to divide, every tweet is meant to incite, every tweet is meant to embolden his base.”