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.

NBA adds Maurice Podoloff Trophy for team with best record

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — There’s now another trophy for NBA teams to chase.

The league announced Tuesday that the team with the best regular season record will now receive The Maurice Podoloff Trophy, named for the first commissioner of the NBA.

And that name strongly suggests that another trophy tweak is coming – since until last season, the league’s MVP trophy was named for Podoloff. Denver’s Nikola Jokic received the Podoloff Trophy when he won his first MVP award in 2021; when he won MVP again last season, he also received a crystal ball amid a leaguewide redesign of many trophies.

The new Podoloff Trophy has a crystal ball cut into 82 panels – a nod to the 82-game regular season – and sits atop a pedestal that combines the structures of the Eastern Conference posts and Western Conference rings.

The league also unveiled several more redesigned trophies Tuesday. The Joe Dumars Trophy for sportsmanship, The Red Auerbach Trophy for coach of the year, The Twyman-Stokes Trophy for the league’s best teammate and the NBA Executive of the Year Trophy all have new looks. Each features an embedment inside a 15-inch crystal net structure.

“Winning the first NBA Sportsmanship Award and being the trophy’s namesake are among the greatest honors of my career,” said Dumars, who is now an NBA Executive Vice President and the league’s head of basketball operations. “The reimagined trophies represent the enduring legacy of past recipients and are a fitting way to honor those who will continue to raise the standard of excellence in our game.”

Last season, the league changed the look of the NBA’s championship trophy, The Larry O’Brien, with the golden ball atop it now tilting in a different direction than the previous version and with a rounded base instead of the square one that the trophy had for decades.

It also made design changes for many other awards, including the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP trophy along with the Eastern Conference and Western Conference championship trophies – naming them for Bob Cousy and Oscar Robertson, respectively. The league also added two new prizes last season, the Larry Bird Trophy for East finals MVP and the Magic Johnson Trophy for West finals MVP.

All the trophies handed out at All-Star weekend, including the Kobe Bryant MVP award, were also redesigned last season. The league also began issuing divisional championship trophies, naming them for Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton (Atlantic Division), Wayne Embry (Central), Earl Lloyd (Southeast), Willis Reed (Southwest), Sam Jones (Northwest) and Chuck Cooper (Pacific).

Three things to know: Can someone explain the Miami Heat?

Miami Heat v Atlanta Hawks
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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Can someone explain the Miami Heat?

Friday night, Jimmy Butler returned to the Heat lineup and was a force down the stretch, Bam Adebayo played like an All-NBA big man and the Heat picked up a don’t-forget-about-us win over the best team in basketball, the Boston Celtics.

Two nights later, with Butler still in the lineup, the Heat fell to a Grizzlies team without Ja Morant or three other starters. The listless loss felt like a low point in the season.

Until Tuesday. That’s when Jimmy Butler got a scheduled rest day and the Heat fell apart in the second half and lost 116-96 to a struggling Pistons team without Cade Cunningham. The Heat defense, one of their strengths on the season, was a mess on Tuesday as they could not contain the ball. More importantly, as has happened too often this season, the Heat simply got outworked.

Typically around 20 games into the season, you have a sense of a team and what it can be. Not the Heat. They are 11-14 and sit 11th in the East, outside even the play-in. They tease with flashes that remind you they came within a made Butler 3 of going to the Finals a season ago, but on more nights they come nowhere near that potential.

Offensively, this team is bottom 10 in the league, and it showed against Detroit. The only true shot creators on the roster are Butler and Tyler Herro — if one of them isn’t on the floor Miami barely scores a point per possession. Against Detroit, if it wasn’t a Herro/Adebayo action, the play seemed to go nowhere.

Last season, when the team was shorthanded for a night, the reserves stepped up the energy — Max Strus, Gabe Vincent, Caleb Martin stepped up and made plays. This season, when the stars are out that same energy is not there.

Injuries are part of the issue — Kyle Lowry is their iron man, having played in every game (a sentence I never thought I would type). Herro has missed eight games, Butler 10, and reserves such as Duncan Robinson and Vincent have spent time on the shelf. Victor Oladipo made his debut on Tuesday. Eric Spoelstra constantly has to juggle his rotation, nothing feels settled.

But this team isn’t playing every night with the fire we have come to expect from the Heat. Last season (and traditionally every year), even when the stars had to sit the Heat were a tough out because of the intensity and execution with which they played. Not this season. That Heat culture has not shown through the same way.

It’s also too early to write this team off (and they could make a move at the deadline to boost the rotation). Despite the slow start they are just 2.5 games back of the Hawks and the No. 4 seed, there is time to make a run, but games like the loss to the Pistons Tuesday make one wonder if this version of the Heat has that in them.

2) Donovan Mitchell drops 43, outshines LeBron in Cleveland

There’s a little extra shine on the game any time LeBron James returns to Cleveland. The spotlight is a little brighter.

Donovan Mitchell stole that spotlight on Tuesday.

Mitchell dropped a season-high 43 points and continued to look like one of the best moves of the offseason, sparking the Cavaliers to a 116-102 win over the Lakers.

The big concern from Los Angeles’ end was Anthony Davis left the game in the first quarter due to “flu-like symptoms” and did not return. His status for the team against the Raptors Wednesday night is unknown.

Jarrett Allen returned from injury for the Cavaliers and with Davis out he ate, scoring 24. But it was the Mitchell show in the second half, when he scored 29.

3) Progress toward new CBA reportedly slowed down

It’s long been the conventional wisdom that the owners and players are both making too much money to risk killing the goose that lays the golden eggs — they would find common ground on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Things were going too well for them to risk any labor trouble (and how that would play publicly).

But that may underestimate billionaires’ greed — an internal fight among owners might screw it up.

New CBA talks have reportedly slowed largely because some owners are pushing for an “Upper Spending Limit” — a hard cap by any other name. Marc Stein was among the first to report on this months ago and added yesterday in his newsletter things have gotten serious enough that the sides may need to extend the Dec. 15 opt-out date for the CBA to give them more time to negotiate.

Here’s the issue in a nutshell:

• Some owners want to rein in the spending of other newer, richer owners. Since the punitive luxury tax isn’t doing the job, those owners want a hard cap (possibly to replace, or at least alter, the current tax system).

• There are a minority of owners are willing to shrug off the tax. For example, Steve Ballmer’s Clippers are poised to pay $191.9 million in payroll this season, plus $144.7 million in luxury tax, for a rough total of $336.6 million in salary and tax. The Warriors are likely closer to $360 million this season in salary and tax, and the Nets will be in the same ballpark. For comparison, the Clippers will pay more in tax alone than 11 teams will spend on total payroll, (20 NBA teams will pay around $150 million in payroll or less).

• There is zero chance the players union will approve a CBA with anything resembling a hard cap. The owners know this.

• The owners’ squabbles are part of a larger fight going on across the sporting world, not just domestically but internationally. To use soccer as an example during the World Cup, the oil-rich country of Qatar owns French powerhouse Paris Saint-Germain FC and has paid for a front line of Messi, Neymar, and Kylian Mbappe. They crush domestic competition most seasons because they can outspend them. The Saudi Arabia sovereign wealth fund has bought Newcastle United in the English Premier League and their spending — not just on players but staff and facilities — has turned Newcastle into a Champions League looking team in a year. And the list goes on and on in soccer.

• Earlier this year, the NBA approved a rule change that would allow a sovereign wealth fund — the arms of these oil-rich countries, or other nations — to buy up to 20% of an NBA team. That has not happened yet, but the door is open.

• As wealthier owners — including hedge fund managers and the like — jump into the NBA, some of the older owners feel squeezed by this new group’s willingness to spend. That older group is pushing back to rein in those new owners who (they feel) disrupt the system with their spending.

• This dispute among the owners has suddenly put the dreaded idea of a lockout back on the table. It’s not likely, but it’s possible. This is not a player thing, this is all Adam Silver and the owners, and they need to get their house in order, not risk the league’s standing over their internal issues.

TOP HIGHLIGHT OF THE NIGHT: Kenny shoves Shaq into the Christmas Tree. That is never not funny.

Watch Donovan Mitchell drop 43, upstage LeBron’s return as Cavaliers top Lakers

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CLEVELAND — As a kid growing up in New York, Donovan Mitchell idolized LeBron James. On Tuesday night, he upstaged him.

Mitchell scored a season-high 43 points and Jarrett Allen returned from injury to add 24, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 116-102 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in James’ only visit home this season.

With Anthony Davis missing the final three quarters because of illness, the Cavs improved to an NBA-leading 11-1 on their floor, their best start at home since 2015-16, when James led them to a championship.

Mitchell, who has Cleveland fans dreaming of another title run, took over in the second half and scored 29 points with the kind of performance James had routinely during his 11 seasons for the Cavs.

“You always want to spoil the homecoming,” Mitchell said with a smile.

With Cleveland leading by 12 in the fourth, Mitchell buried a 3-pointer from the left wing to finish the Lakers. After dropping the shot, the All-Star guard strutted around the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse floor nodding his head as James helplessly watched.

“He’s Mitchell,” James said. “He’s a special kid.”

Darius Garland added 21 points and 11 assists for Cleveland.

James finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds, losing for just the third time in 20 games against the Cavs.

Dennis Schroder and Russell Westbrook added 16 points apiece as Los Angeles had its four-game winning streak stopped.

Davis went out after eight minutes with flu-like symptoms. The eight-time All-Star had scored 99 points in his previous two games and had been playing as well as he has in several seasons after being plagued by injuries.

Davis didn’t attempt a field goal and scored just one point before leaving.

“It got progressively worse as the day went on,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “His temperature was 101 and some change. A-D wanted to try to play, but he felt too weak. He’s drained and dehydrated.

“That’s a huge loss, obviously, with the way he’s been playing lately.”

Without Davis clogging the middle, Allen, who missed the last five games with a bruised back, made his first 10 shots and helped the Cavs take a 57-49 halftime lead.

“Next man up,” James said when asked how he reacted to losing Davis. “That’s a tall task – literally and figuratively.”

The Cavs welcomed James back with a video tribute during an early timeout. After a montage of clips, including some from 2016, James waved to the crowd and then blew kisses to show his appreciation.

The warm scene was in contrast to what happened almost exactly 12 years ago, when he came back with the Miami Heat and was met with boos and worse on a night James has said he’ll never forget.

James said he was caught off guard by the tribute.

“It’s always love coming back here,” he said. “The memories I have here will never be forgotten.”

Ben Simmons targeting Friday vs. Hawks to return from calf strain

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Ben Simmons has missed the Nets’ last three games with knee pain tied to a left calf strain, and he will be out Wednesday, too, when Brooklyn takes on Charlotte.

However, he plans to return on Friday (Dec. 9) against the Hawks.

Simmons was adjusting to a new role in Brooklyn. In Philadelphia he was a point-forward with the ball in his hands playing off Joel Embiid (at least at first), but in Brooklyn the ball needed to be in the hands of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the halfcourt. Simmons is playing more small-ball five, and is asked to be aggressive and attack when he gets the ball — not shoot jumpers — and to push the rock in transition. It took a while for Simmons to settle into that space, but he seemed to in games against Philadelphia (11 points, 11 assists), Toronto (14 points, six assists) and Indiana (20 points). Then the injuries hit.

Brooklyn sits at 13-12, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense for the season. While there are doubts about the ceiling for this team, it has a talent level that should be better than this record, it’s just been beset by injuries, controversy causing Kyrie Irving to miss time, and a coaching change. The Nets have yet to hit their stride.

But they could have a clean injury report on Friday night, and maybe that can be the start of this team getting on a run.